In the spirit of controversial and thought provoking posts, I hope that the discussions spurred from this post will act as memory pegs for everyone and by the end of it, nobody will use the Thai word กว่า 'gwà' interchangeably with the '-er' (big, biggER ... biggest) in English.
BLACK AND WHITE, ☯ YIN AND YANG , NEGATIVE POSITIVE, ลง LONG AND ขึ้น KHɄ̂N
When I first wrote my Cracking Thai Fundamentals programme back over 20 years ago, it was a very different place when it came to political correctness and so I coined this concept 'Black and White' words, as colour and emotion could be tightly coupled together and by-pass 'too much' cerebral thinking when it came to delivery of a language. I've kept it in the latest publication of the book, though I'm noticing a little more push-back these days. For those who have done CTF over the years - this should bring back memories.
Sometimes when we learn a language, we need to put our political hats to the side momentarily lest they sabotage our attempts to get into the minds of the native speakers that speak the language we're learning.In this more politically correct day, I've used the Yin and Yang symbol - let's say Yin = Black = Negative (for the sake of this thought experiment only - anyone who wants to get political ... please go and hijack another post), and Yang = White = Positive. I might slip between words during this exercises / post - put your ire on pause and channel it into making this point stick.
Here's an exercise adapted from the original CTF programme ...
Now especially if you're a native English speaker, look at the following words.
As you read through them - within a fraction of a second - just immediate gut feeling only without trying to get too political, visualise Yin (Dark - Negative) or Yang (Light - Positive) as you read through each one. Is Yin or Yang stronger for a given word?
Chances are that subconsciously your mind was able to sort the semantics into one of these categories - and maybe some just didn't fit. Maybe words like 'Discipline' are Yin for you (as it is restricting and controlling), where for others it might be 'Yang' (as it means order and harmony) - or even both.
COMPARING THINGS IN THAI
One big mistake I hear a lot of learners of Thai make is substituting กว่า gwàa for the '-er' suffix in English -
Tall → Taller
Small → Smaller
Pretty → Prettier
Ugly → Uglier
Heavy → Heavier
Of course there are cases in English where it's appropriate to at -er (Pretty → Prettier), but then cases where it's appropriate to use 'more' - (Beautiful → More Beautiful).
To understand why it's wrong, lets look at the origin of กว่า gwàa - if you speak Chinese, Japanese, Korean or even Vietnamese (and know Chữ Nôm), then link the word กว่า gwàa in Thai to the 過 (过) character. You can see in the Chinese character - it is something 'walking' or 'moving' past something.
That's what กว่า gwàa means - to 'pass' - in this sense 'comparatively'.
กว่า GWÀA CAN ONLY BE USED IN COMPARISONS
When your Thai teacher tells you that กว่า is like '-er' in English, it's only in cases when things are being compared to each other.
E.g. (Between Caitlyn and Bruce), Bruce is prettier.
Note that the first part of the sentence might be inferred - it doesn't have to be openly stated, but the use of กว่า assumes that you're comparing something to something else.
Getting back to the original meaning, this could mean:
'Bruce's prettiness exceeds Caitlyn's'
INTRODUCING ขึ้น KHɄ̂N AND ลง LONG
If you ask a Thai what ขึ้น khʉ̂n and ลง long mean, the natural knee-jerk response might be 'up' and 'down' or 'go up' and 'go down'.
While this is true for the physical going up and down of things, in order to really appreciate the words, understand them as this:
Aside from 'up and down',
ขึ้น khʉ̂n : something 'Yang / Positive / White' getting whiter and whiter
ลง long: something 'Yin / Negative / Black' getting blacker and blacker.
This is where my analogy gets controversial, but bear with me.
There are things that are culturally, innately 'black' or 'white', 'yin' or 'yang' -
สวย suǎy Pretty / Beautiful
Beautiful is 'white', so to say 'Prettier' as in 'You have gotten prettier' or 'beautifulER - if that was a word :
That thing which was already 'white' has become even more 'white'.
Likewise, a 'Yin' concept - say -
แย่ yɛ̂ɛ terrible
It would sound natural to say
Even more terrible (terribler - if that was a word)
YOU CAN'T MAKE A WHITE WORD MORE BLACK WITH LONG
So if you start with a 'white' concept - e.g. 'beautiful', then you couldn't say:
As my old commodore 64 used to always say - "Syntax Error" -
How can you make something 'white' even more 'black'
If you wanted to say 'less beautiful', you'd say:
suǎy nɔ́ɔi long
The important thing to note here is that the 'long ลง' isn't modifying the 'beautiful' - it's modifying the 'น้อย nɔ́ɔi' which means 'few' which is the 'black' concept - so here
Would mean a 'depleted state' of whatever it was modifying.
THIS RULE ISN'T SET IN STONE
Please understand that this rule isn't set in stone - I have developed these thought exercises and examples however to communicate the concept, as the 'paradigm' that :
big - bigger - biggest
in Thai works under is very different when compared to English - there is no one-to-one tool that can be used.
DON'T TRUST WHAT I SAY
You'll notice words like 'White' in the ขึ้น khʉ̂n side - this is probably very cultural. You notice I've put 'ugly' in the ลง long side - some would argue that a given word should be in the other category - or both. That's the beautiful thing about language.
I'm sure there will be people who disagree with things I've said here - and even examples I've used. Fantastic - I trust it will make good discussion fodder which in the scheme of things will help this important point stick.
If you liked this, you'd love Cracking Thai Fundamentals. Get a copy here: