March 12, 2007

Interlingual taboos

One of the lesser fruits of Mary Haas's work on Thai, which she undertook for national security reasons during the second world war, was an excellent (though subtle) joke about the Thai word for chili pepper. In order to understand the story, you may need to learn just a bit of phonetic lingo, and a few characters in the International Phonetic Alphabet -- but trust me, the joke is worth the trouble. As an extra benefit, you'll also learn about a new kind of linguistic taboo. Actually, you probably already know what this is, but not what it's called: an interlingual word taboo.

Mary Haas explains the concept with an example("Interlingual Word Taboos", American Anthropologist, 53(3) 338-344, 1951):

Some years ago, a Creek Indian informant in Oklahoma stated that the Indians tended to avoid the use of certain words of their own language when white people were around. It turned out that the avoided words were those which bear some phonetic similarity to the "four-letter" words of English. These words were avoided even though it is doubtful that a white person not knowing Creek would, when overhearing Creek utterances delivered at a normal rate of speed for that language, be likely to catch these words and attach any special significance to them [...]

Among the words pointed out as being avoided are the following: fákki "soil, earth, clay," apíswa "mean, flesh," and apíssi· "fat (adj.)." [...] [C]composite words containing the words quoted above may also be avoided, and in such cases the accent has generally shifted to another ayllable, e.g. fakkitalá·swa "clay," fakkinú·la "brick,", and apisnihá· "meat fat."

All you need for the Creek part of the story is the use of acute accent to mark the "key syllable" or word accent, and half-high dots to mark long vowels -- this is not standard IPA usage, actually, but it's simple enough. Haas gives the phonological background for the Thai part of the paper in a footnote on p. 339:

The Thai consonants are: voiced stops b, d, -g; voiceless unaspirated stops p, t, c (palatal stop), k, ʔ; voiceless aspirated stops ph, th, ch, kh; voiceless spirants f, s, h; voiced semivowels j [y], w; voiced nasals m, n, ŋ; voiced liquids l, r. The vowels are front unrounded i, e, ɛ [æ]; central unrounded y, ə, a; back rounded u, o, ɔ. All nine of these voewls may occur doubled (phonetically lengthened), e.g. ii, ee, ɛɛ, etc., and the heterophonous vowel clusters ia, ya, and ua also occur. There are five tones: middle (unmarked), low (`), falling (ˆ), high (´), and rising (ˇ). The final stops b, d, and g are briefly voiced but unreleased; they therefore resemble the English final stops p, t, and k.

OK, got that? The crucial parts, so far: voiceless aspirated stops (roughly like english p, t, k) are written ph, th, kh; high tone is marked with an acute accent ´, and rising tone with a caron ˇ; and Thai syllable-final b, d, g sound like English p, t, k. That's all you need to get the next bit of background:

A few years later it became apparent that Thai students studying in this country also tend to avoid certain words of their own language which bear a phonetic resemblance to English obscene words. Here again they avoid the words only when English speakers are about, but the reason for the avoidance appears to stem from their own uncertainty about the propriety of using the words because of their knowledge of English. The tradition of avoidance in a continuous one. Thai students already residing in this country teach each succeeding group of newly arrived students about the taboo [...]

These secondarily tabooed words of Thai include the following: fàg "sheath, (bean-)pod," fág (1) "to hatch," (2) "a kind of pumpkin or squash," phríg "(chili) pepper," and khán "to crush, squeeze out". In connection with the last word, it is to noted that there are other words having the same sequence of sounds except for the tone, e.g. khan (1) "to itch," (2) classifier for vehicles and other objects, and khǎn () "to be funny," (2) "to crow," (3) "water-bowl," but it is only the word having the high tone that bears, to the Thai ear, a strong resemblance to the English tabooed word. The reason for this is two-fold: (1) English words with final stop consonants are borrowed into Thai with a high tone, e.g. kɛ́b "(gun-) cap,", kɔ́k "(ater-) tap," and (2) the high tone on a syllable lacking a final stop is accompanied by glottal stricture when spoken in isolation or when occurring in phrase-final position. The Thai ear equates the final stop of the English word with the glottal stricture of the Thai word; hence the English word, as pronounced in English, sounds like the Thai word khán, whereas khan and khǎn do not.

A little more phonetic background -- remember that in IPA a velar nasal (like the sound at the end of English "hung") is written with a right-tailed n ŋ, and that y is used to symbolize a high central unrounded vowel, roughly like Californian 'u' in dude. And now we get to the joke:

The word phríg "(chili) pepper" (also used as an abbreviation for phrígthaj "ground pepper, esp. black pepper") caused one group of students to be faced with a dilemma, since, when eating out, it was necessary to use this word frequently. In order to observe their self-imposed taboo and at the same time provide themselves with a substitute term, this group adopted the device of translating the obscene connotation of the word (if interpreted as English) into the elegant Thai term of the same meaning, namely lyŋ "the lingam" (derived from the Sanskrit term).

I said that you may already be familiar with the concept of interlingual word taboos, or at least with the effects of the concept. One example is the anglicization of final -ch in German names. In standard German pronunciation, 'ch' after a back vowel would be a voiceless velar fricative [x], which doesn't exist in English (except as a borrowed phoneme for some speakers in words like loch and Bach). Most German names with syllable-final -ch are anglicized with a final [k]: Brach, Weinreich, Bruchner. However, the former mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, pronounced his name to rhyme with scotch.

A historical example that you may not know involves a nautical term for certain kinds of sails found near the bow of boats, or for associated masts, spars and rigging. Several northwest European languages share a term whose origin (according to the OED) is to be found in Old Norse fok "action of driving", from the root of fiúka "to drive": French foc "jib"; Dutch fok (MDu. fokke) "foremast"; German fock(e), Swedish fock, Danish fok "foresail". English originally had its own reflex of this word, as these citations attest:

1465 Mann. & Househ. Exp. (Roxb.) 200 Item, my mastyr paid for a ffukke maste, iiij.s. iiij.d.
1535 STEWART Cron. Scot. (1858) I. 20 Tha salit fast..befoir the wynd With fuksaill, topsaill, manesall, musall, and blynd.
Ibid. 100 It is..Sax houris saling bayth with fuk and blind.
1568 Satir. Poems Reform. xlvi. 30 Plum weill the grund quhat evir ʒe doo, Haill on the fukscheit and the blind.
1598 W. PHILLIPS tr. Linschoten I. 165 The chiefe Boteson hath..gouernement ouer the Fouke mast, and the fore sayles.
1500-20 DUNBAR Poems xiv. 74 So mony fillok with fuck sailis Within this land was nevir hard nor sene.
a1529 SKELTON Col. Cloute 399 Set up theyr fucke sayles To catch wynde.

However, at some point in the middle of the 16th century, this word vanished from the language. Perhaps it vanished due to a developing taboo, or perhaps it vanished because sailors found it confusing to distinguish between this word as a nautical term of art and the growing use of a homophonous emphatic particle. If the term had been in common use in 1600, it's hard to believe that the Elizabethans could have resisted the temptation to use it in puns. (Though perhaps some reader will find an example.)

A bit more about Thai interlingual taboos from Haas:

Other instances of avoidance also occur in Thai. These are particularly interesting in that they are far less likely to be misinterpreted as obscenities by speakers of English than are the words quoted above. Thai has no phoneme š (English sh), the nearest equivalent sound being the phoneme ch, an aspirated palatal stop. Another sound bearing a certain resemblance to English š, from the Thai pointof view, is c, an unaspirated palatal stop. In pronouncing English words the normal substitution for English š is Thai ch, but avoidance taboos, of the type mentioned above, extend also to Thai words beginning in c. As a consequence of this, the following words also often come into the tabooed category: chíd "to be close, near" and cìd "heart, mind" (< Pali-Sankrit citta). The latter word occasionally occurs as component of given names in Thai, and at least one man whose name was sǒmcìd, literaly "suiting the heart" (a very pleasing name in Thai), was so embarrased by this fact that he avoided the use of his Thai name wherever possible while residing in this country and adopted an English nickname instead. [...]

The examples of avoided words quoted in the immediately preceding paragraphs range all the way from words whose phonetic resemblance to English tabooed words is very close to others whose resemblance is so slight as to escape detection by the average speaker of English. Therefore the careful avoidance of these words in the presence of speakers of English arises from an exceptionally acute anxiety about the proprieties and niceties of speech. This anxiety is very well reflected in the Thai language itself, for one of its most prominent characteristics is the existence of a very large number of synonymous sets of words differentiated ony by the varying degrees of vulgarity and politeness associated with their use.

And some of her remarks about interlingual taboos in ESL:

The problem of tabooed words also exists in reverse. That is, certain perfectly harmless English words may bear a phonetic resemblance to tabooed or obscene words in other languages. A striking example of this is found in the Nootka Indian language of Vancouver Island. The English word such bears so close a resemblance to Nootka sač "vāgīna ūmens" that teachers entrusted with the training of young Indians find it virtually impossible to persuade their girl students to utter the English word under any circumstances.

Other examples occur in Thai. The English word yet closely resembles the Thai word jéd "to have intercourse" (vulgar and impolite). The resemblance is heightened by the fact that the Thai word has a high tone. [...] Most of the [Thai tabooed] words are at least considered printable in certain situations, for example, in dictionaries, or in textbooks designed to instruct students concerning words which must be avoided in the presence of royalty. The word under consideration here, however, is an exception -- it has not been found listed in any Thai dictionary, nor in a textbook. Even so, the word is not one which would be avoided among intmates (i.e., persons of the same sex- and age-group). Nevertheless, the English word yet is very often a source of embarrassment to the Thai, particularly girls studying English in school, since the Thai word is definitely one of several which would be avoided in the classroom.

[Philip Resnik writes:

You might be interested in another example that seems to fit. A traditional song connected with the Jewish holiday of Tu B'shevat -- the new year for trees, roughly like Arbor Day -- is "Atse Zetim Omdim", which means "Olive Trees are Standing". I was told recently (by a director of a Jewish Studies program, hence presumably a reliable source), that the original version of the song was "Atse Shittim Omdim", where "shittim" is the plural for "shitta", the acacia tree. Apparently when Jews immigrated to the U.S., the similarity of "shittim" to another word in English was considered something best avoided. So "acacia" got, um... shittim-canned? :-)


[Brad Skaggs writes:

Your post made me laugh and remember back to my five years living in Thailand before graduating from high school.  In my school's cafeteria, I remember the joy I felt the first time I found out that the soup of the day was Fuck soup.

My father worked for an American oil company there.  He was present when one of his new American co-workers introduced himself to his Thai colleagues.  "Hello, my name is Ron Keyes."  Laughter filled in the room.  This is when my father learned that Ron's name meant "hot shit" (ร้อน - raawn, hot; ขี้ - khee, shit).

Fortunately, it never snows in Thailand, so as long as you avoid artificial snow, you never have to make the mistake of confusing the words for "snow" (of which there is only one, alas, in Thai) and "genitals of a female horse"; หิมะ - he (low) ma(high) versus หีม้า - hee (rising) maa(high).


[Martyn Cornell writes:

There is at least one interlingual taboo that seems to have had an impact on English: the aristocratic title count, brought over by the Normans, who used the Old French conte, was dropped because of its similarity to "the c-word". The Old English equivalent title for someone in charge of a county, earl (from the Norse jarl), is used instead. However, the female title never changed, so that an earl's wife is still a countess, from the female version oif count, rather than an earless ... (whether countess is used because because earless looks like ear-less ...)

Geoffrey Hughes' Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English (pub Blackwell, 1991), says: "it is a likely speculation that the Norman French title "Count" was abandoned in England in favor of the Germanic "Earl" ...precisely because of the uncomfortable phonetic proximity to cunt, which in Middle English could be spelt counte." A similar thing happened, of course, to coney (pronounced cunny), for which "rabbit" became the only acceptable word ...


[Chandan Narayan writes:

The slang term for penis (especially for little kids) in my variety of Tamil is "malka" (Ta. malak- "black pepper; cf. mulligatawney < Ta. malag-tanni "pepper water"). Interestingly, the term for black pepper was extended to the chili pepper (from the new world), whose shape contributed to the slang term--gives a whole new meaning to malagatawney!


[Several readers have written to remind me that nam prik is now discussed in English-language contexts all over the internet, not to speak of tens of thousands of Thai restaurant menus around the Anglosphere. I guess that times have changed since the 1940s, when Haas observed the taboo avoidance behavior of Thai students at Michigan and Berkeley.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 12, 2007 06:38 AM