by Barry Evans
CHIANG RAI – Once when the world was young — 1978 to be more precise — I headed out alone from the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, fancying myself an anthropologist on the verge of discovering new peoples in the mythical “Golden Triangle” region. So much for the hubris of youth.
Turned out I was walking into a well-established tourist trap where even the romantic name “Golden Triangle” (the region in which Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet) had been bestowed by the US State Department in reference to what had been a thriving opium industry.
I did spend a few happy days in the highlands with Akha people, many of whom (following the linguistic conceit of a surprising number of Star Trek aliens) spoke excellent English. The hill-tribe Akha are comparative newcomers to the region. Originally from the Yunnan region of southern China, they migrated south into mainland Southeast Asia (aka Indochina) over a century ago. About 100,000 of them live in the Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces of northern Thailand today.
The Akha are often mentioned in popular books on linguistics for their curious use of adjectives, specifically how “very” takes different forms depending on what they’re referring to. Very deep, for instance, is “kha” deep. Very big is “lo” big. In the same vein, and lacking an actual word for “very,” the Akha say “tio” clean, “dù blue and “d” white for very clean, very blue and very white.
Which isn’t quite as exotic as it may sound at first blush, when you consider the many variants of “very” in English. We routinely and automatically add playful little baroque emphases to many of our most common adjectives. We typically don’t say, “The hitchhiker was very wet,” we say, “He was soaking wet.” After the long hike, I wasn’t “very tired,” I was “dog-tired.”
Similarly: bone dry, drop-dead gorgeous, brim full, pug ugly, goddam awful, piping hot, scot-free, feather light, dead quiet, pencil thin, pitch black, snow (lily, pearly) white, brand new, dirt cheap, sky high, freezing cold, crystal clear, fighting fit … I’m sure you can come up with some of your own.
These examples are all the easy one-word add-ons, excluding such full-blooded metaphors we characteristically employ. When’s the last time you said, “She’s very sharp”? Didn’t you really say, “She’s sharp as a tack”?
Note that these embellishments don’t really add to the meaning: “very ugly” and “pug ugly” mean pretty much the same thing, the latter being slightly stronger perhaps. It’s just that we all love language — it’s our primary social medium, so we do more than express “just the facts, ma’am” when we want to add emphasis. We’re not just language speakers, we’re language players.
Barry Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) hopes you didn’t find the above deadly dull.