Colloquial case study: “You’re funny-looking!”

Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at 11:32 pm 4 comments

A native Thai speaker and I recently collaborated on translating one of my favorite childish come-backs:

Oh, you think you’re funny?
Well you’re not funny, you’re just funny-looking!

I want to explore this phrase is because I’ve seen Thai people laugh genuinely at the English version, so there must be some common chord that it strikes, and commonality is what we are all about here.

This is my translation of the same statement to Thai, keeping the “spirit” identical:


First, let’s review some spoken Thai techniques:

  • เหรอ is pronounced อ๋อ
  • ไอ้ is pronounced ไอ
  • แก can be swapped with any other second-person pronoun, such as เธอ
  • You can optionally append a final particle such as นั่นแหละ

One Joke, Two Languages

What is the common ground that makes both versions humorous? The answer is that both languages have two meanings for “funny”:

  1. Makes you laugh (น่าขำ)
  2. Abnormal (ผิดปกติ)

Both versions begin with misdirection: the words imply that a compliment is on its way (“you make me laugh”), but they rapidly devolve into an insult (“you look abnormal”). In both versions, the true meaning of the statement isn’t clear until the final two syllables, and both version pivot around the dual-meaning of “funny/ตลก.”

Now let’s compare the translations.

  1. The first line is practically identical in both versions
  2. The Thai version begins with ไอ้, a word for nonhuman things—no doubt starting the process of putting the victim in his place
  3. While the English version denies the victim’s funny-ness, the Thai version only points out that the victim’s face is just so much funnier.
  4. The Thai version uses หน้า instead of “looks.” In my opinion, Thai speakers use the word หน้า synecdochically to mean “looks,” although some may disagree and say that they really are describing the victim’s physical face.
  5. My sources tell me that the Thai version sounds much more aggressive. While the English version is so juvenile that I doubt it would incite anything but laughter, the Thai version is to be used with caution.

Lessons Learned

We can learn several lessons about real-world spoken Thai from this example:

  • Most importantly, Thai speakers can use very different wording to point out something comparatively greater (“bigger,” “faster,” etc.). An Anglophone learning Thai would never instinctively say “แต่ที่ (ajective) กว่าคือ…” But it makes sense, and in fact English has a very similar phrase. Ask yourself which of these statements sounds better:
    • “His presentation was interesting, but his clothing was more interesting.”
    • “His presentation was interesting, but what was more interesting was his clothing.”
  • Thai speakers often prefix nonhuman objects with the particle ไอ้. I hear this very often either in reference to computer components.
  • The word หน้า is a foundational word for good conversational Thai.

To be Funny-Looking

Finally, for clarity, here is an example of the duality of looking “funny,” or ดูตลก. In the film “Fargo,” a Minnesotan working girl describes gangster Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) as funny-looking to the police. She seems to feel that “funny-looking” sums him up accurately:

Here is the man she describes in the scene:

Entry filed under: Nailing Thai. Tags: , .

Profanity and Hilarity: Crossing the Line New Category: Obscene

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rikker  |  Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 4:52 am

    This was a funny (or is that funny looking?) post. It had me thinking of all the possible nuanced ways to convey this idea.

    How about this:

    แกนึกว่าแกตลกเหรอ (same setup)
    หน้าแกตลกกว่าอีก (your FACE is funnier)


  • 2. Jason  |  Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, Rikker. Of course, there are a million ways to say both the English and Thai versions; and probably every person you ask will have his own preferred comic timing and word choice.

    I did have fun working on this post, but as I said, there are real lessons to take away from here. I think the only way to speak Thai well is to slowly compile a body of expressions when you hear native Thai speakers say them.

    Hey, you posted a comment at 5:00 AM! Are you a night owl or just not in Thailand these days?

  • 3. rikker  |  Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    I’m in Thailand, I’m just up at odd hours with the baby.

    By the way, I like seeing you branch out with this longer post with more analysis. Of course, your short posts are great because they’re bite-sized and easy to comment on. When I started my blog I kept meaning to post frequent, brief posts about this word or that that I found interesting, but somehow everything I wrote got all long. Then you showed up on the scene to balance me out. What can I say, I’m longwinded (case in point).

  • 4. Jason  |  Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Yes, my original motivation was the constant feeling of parallelism or isomorphism between Thai and English phrases. I think there are plenty of similarities between the languages that, with proper exposure, will help speakers of one language learn the other better.

    Another reason I shy away from lengthy analysis is because I really have no idea what I’m talking about. I came to Thailand to write computer software, I just randomly had a knack for the language; but I have zero formal training. So I don’t want to spread misinformation.

    Still, if I just keep making notes about things I notice, perhaps one day this will become a formidable reference.


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