common sense and language learning

September 10, 2006

Having reached the conclusion that knowing enough Thai to be able to explain to the cop why I had forgotten to renew my road tax, resist the light-hearted advances of the female immigration officers, persuade the National Park official to let me take pictures of moths, discuss the dismal state of the economy in general and the ginger harvest in particular with local villagers, analyse yet another feeble performance by the English football team with the football mad motor mechanic, read articles about corruption in high places and colourful crimes in low, and deal with the inevitable daily domestic panics that take place in the ‘Land of Smiles’; having, as I was saying, gone as far as I was probably going to get in Thai and thinking that I probably did not need the elevated form of the language for talking to royalty or monks, I decided to devote some of my underworked brain cells to attempting to learn the languages of the Thai hill tribes, starting with Lisu. Lisu, in case anyone is interested, is in the central subgroup of the Loloish group of the Burmese-Lolo subfamily of the Tibeto-Burman family.
The problem with these languages is that there are no courses in them. The few books that exist (the best known being the Lonely Planet phrasebook) don’t contain lessons or come with tapes. Trying to work from a transcription is a nightmare- something written as ‘nixmax’ actually sounds like ‘neema’; goodness what bbaix or ggaoxddeit’ are supposed to sound like. Another problem with Lonely Planet is that at least half the words in it are unknown to the Thai Lisu people I have spoken to. Since the vast majority of the hilltribes are unable to read the written forms of the languages that were devised by missionaries, I decided to go back to the old informant method and ask friends to record key sentences from which I try and unravel the grammar and learn the vocabulary.
There are only three real problems with these languages -the grammar, the vocabulary and the pronunciation, otherwise it’s plain sailing. Before setting off I discovered a reference in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal (no less). On p.98 he apparently writes (I found the reference, haven’t seen the book) that Lisu has a free word order but no morphological case marking for Subject or Object. “A sentence Noun-Verb-Noun might therefore mean either ‘N1 did V to N2’ or ‘N2 did V to N1’. In theory, such a language ought to be unintelligible! But in fact the speakers survive, by relying on context, the use of alternative grammatical constructions and a modicum of common sense.” I’m not sure where Crystal got this interesting information from but, sadly, it is wrong. Lisu speakers take great delight in telling me that their word order is different from Thai: in Thai the normal order is Subject Verb Object, whereas in Lisu it’s Subject Object Verb. When I tested them by changing the order, I was sharply rebuked. In any human affairs I think it is unwise to assume that common sense will have any significant part to play. The learned professor is no doubt on firmer ground when talking about the English apostrophe than the more exotic languages. This, in fact, was the easy bit- as none of these languages have inflexions for tense, case, number, gender and so on, most of the grammar comes from the use of particles and trying to discover which particle is used when is as difficult for me as trying to work out the number of brain cells that might be engaged on the task. Particles also do nasty things to the words they relate to, which turns out to be nearly as complicated as inflexions and merely reinforces my view that languages have retained their complexities in order to make non-speakers feel stupid. It didn’t seem to me to matter what order I learned the grammar in, the most important thing for me being the length of the construction. There’s an awful lot you can do in these languages with sentences of one or two words.
Pronunciation presents a few problems, too. There are the inevitable tones- 6 for Lisu, 7 for Lahu (as opposed to 5 including the neutral tone for Thai). My favourite Lisu tone is number 6, which is “a short, low tone, said with a creaky sound or cut off with a glottal stop.” Just like I sound before breakfast, in fact. To make some of the vowel sounds you have to whistle at the same time; one of the consonants sounded to me exactly like ‘b’ but, I was told was actually a combination of ‘pbwyi’.
The vocabulary, I soon discovered, was a real test for my failing hippocampus. Some Lisu words, curiously, often long words, took no trouble at all to remember. Like eedolaepu, for ‘wing’ or wakhataelao for ‘early’. Normally, however, I realised that you have to have a peg to hang a new word on to. Sometimes I could relate one to a word I had already learned- the words for ‘to study’, ‘book’, ‘pen’, ‘write’, ‘school’ and ‘student’ all have the same root, which at least is easier than in English. With other words I have to invent mnemonics- the word for ‘monkey’, for example sounds like the writer Camus; naughty is like ‘Chaucer’ (reading the naughty bits in Chaucer was the high point of the Eng lit classes when I was at school). Realising I would be no good with the drip feed method of learning vocabulary, I deliberately listened to as many words as I could take- some stuck of their own accord, some I made an effort to learn, others are swimming around in my half-consciousness. There are definite limits to peripheral learning and unless I really hammered some words into my skull (reciting them over and over again as I was on my daily cycle rides) I would never remember them.
Like any other language, Lisu abounds in traps for the unwary foreigner. The words for ‘road’ and husband’, for example, sound almost the same. If you pronounce the word for ‘good’ without a guttural rasping noise it sounds very coarse. So I once asked a lady if her husband was good in bed (only more coarsely) when I meant to ask her if the road was good. Still, she understood what I meant. At least I assume she did from her answer- ‘if you go too fast you get bounced up and down’. On occasions, these ‘trap words’ seem quite malevolent- in Thai, for example, why are ‘near and ‘far’ distinguished only by their tone? In Lisu the same thing happens for ‘buy’ and ‘sell’.
Yet another puzzle is that some words appear not to exist in one language or other. For example, every time I ask a Lahu speaker the word for ‘pretty’, they tell me it’s the same as for ‘good’. Obviously not men of the world, the Lahu. In Lisu, there is no all-purpose greeting word. Instead, people ask where you’re going, if you’ve eaten or launch straight into whatever business they have with you. One of the more puzzling is that my Akha friends assure me there is no Akha word for ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’ even though one exists in the dictionary I found. The first person I asked consulted a friend. Neither knew. The next not only called up her friends but also tracked down her old mother and pestered her with the enquiry, all to no avail. Without going so far as to subscribe to the lexical gap theory, I think it is significant that in some languages you have to explain a concept rather than use a ready-made word for it. The converse is also true- Thai, for example, has a single word for ‘to drive the wrong way up a four-lane highway in order to avoid making a U-turn’: yonson.
I often have good natured arguments with my Lisu informants as to which is easier, Lisu or English. A while ago, to clinch the matter, I asked ‘OK, how do you call that bird that’s singing on the fence?’ ‘Pikoulae’, was the reply. ‘What is it in English’? ‘Chestnut-fronted shrike-babbler’, I said. Pretty conclusive, eh?

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