LINGUIST List 2.777

Tue 12 Nov 1991

Qs: A Phonological Query

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  1. David Gil, Query: SE Asian Languages

Message 1: Query: SE Asian Languages

Date: Fri, 08 Nov 91 22:13:02 IST
From: David Gil <RHLE813HAIFAUVM.bitnet>
Subject: Query: SE Asian Languages
Following are two queries about mainland South-East Asian Languages:
(1) A phonological query. From a casual inspection of grammar books
written in Thailand, Vietnam, and China, and describing their respective
native languages, I get the impression that indigenous grammatical
traditions analyze the syllable into onset plus rhyme, but seem not
to make any finer distinctions, eg. into segments. (a) Is this
impression well founded? (If it is, can anybody direct me to
relevant references?) (b) Whatever the answer to the previous
question, is anybody familiar with any proposals within current
phonological frameworks to distinguish between languages "with
segments" (eg. English) and languages "with only onsets and rhymes"
(eg. Thai)?
The following anecdotal evidence may perhaps support such a typological
distinction. Person in the street asks me what my name is; I answer
"David"; person repeats my name. What do I hear the person say?
In most languages, what I hear is reasonably close to the original,
eg. /Defid/ in Egypt, /Debid/ in the Philippines, and so forth.
However, in mainland South East Asia, what I hear is often totally
unrecognizable by me as being phonetically related to "David";
perhaps the only constant feature is the number of syllables.
Or another example: Egyptian: "Where are you from?"; me: "Israel";
Egyptian: "Australia?" -- reasonably close phonetically. But
Thai: "Where are you from?"; me: "Israel"; Thai: "France?" --
miles away! Needless to say, we are both equally "to blame";
my interlocutor by fitting my utterance into his/her phonological
categories, myself by fitting my interlocutor's utterance back into
my own phonological categories. What these interactions seem to
suggest, minimally, is that South East Asian phonologies are
radically different from those of most other languages.
(2) A phonological/historical/cultural query. As a frequent
traveller to South and South East Asia, I am continually astounded
and perplexed by massive differences in the relative ease or
difficulty of communicating with the local populations. As a rule,
as soon as you get off the beaten track, people don't speak a word
of English, and you need 10-20 words in the local language in order
to survive. Now my experience has been that after a week or two
at a given place in, say, India or Indonesia, I have been able to
communicate basic needs in the local language; conversely, even
after weeks and months in Thailand, or among Chinese-speaking
people in various countries, I still find it difficult and
occasionally impossible to get a cup of tea from a stall that is
offering nothing but tea. Other South East Asian languages such
as Burmese, Lao, and Vietnamese, also seem difficult to communicate
in, but somewhat less so than Thai and Chinese. Thus, the
phenomenon appears to characterize the mainland South East Asian
sprachbund plus China. In an informal poll of travellers and
expatriates that I conducted, about half the people knew exactly
what I was talking about and had similar experiences themselves,
while the other half did not.
So my query is: (a) Does anybody else on the LINGUIST network
have similar experiences to report? (I'd be particularly
interested in comments from Asians, with a possibly mirror-image
perspective on these issues.) (b) Can anybody think of an
Following are three rather speculative explanations, none totally
(A) A phonological explanation. The peoples with whom communication
is most difficult speak languages with radically different syllable
structures; specifically--see the first query above--languages
"without segments". Some counterevidence: in spite of their very
close relationship and phonological structures, I have found it
significantly easier to communicate in Lao than in Thai.
(B) A historical explanation. The peoples with whom communication
is most difficult are those that haven't been colonized, or those
who have had the least contact with foreigners. Some counterevidence:
(i) Bangkok: now teeming with tourists and business people, yet
even in the tourist zone, communication is difficult. (ii) Malaysia.
An illustrative anecdote: last year I was at a conference in Kuala
Lumpur and had to take a taxi every morning to the university.
Invariably, I was unable to communicate my destination to the
Chinese taxi drivers and had to give up in despair; on the other
hand, I had no problems whatsoever with the Indians and Malays.
(iii) Indonesia: many of the more remote places never saw a Dutchman
and hardly ever see any white men even now; yet with a smattering
of Bahasa Indonesia there is little problem getting by.
(C) A cultural explanation. The peoples with whom communication is
most difficult wish to discourage foreigners from learning their
languge and communicating with them. Their motivation for doing
this is to "keep their culture to themselves" and protect it from
western contamination. Or, as one expat put it to me, "xenophobia".
Comments, short or long, solicited.
David Gil
Department of English
University of Haifa
Haifa, 31999, Israel
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