G is the first letter of the Thai alphabet, the alphabet with 44 consonants and 28, or is it 32? vowels. When children in Thailand learn the alphabet, and their phonics, the G (ก) is represented by a chicken, which is gai in Thai. The second letter is K (ข), or kai, meaning egg. So in Thailand, it can’t really be argued which came first, it was obviously the chicken. The third(ซ), fourth(ค), fifth(ฅ)and sixth(ฆ) letters of this ancient alphabet are also Ks, different characters, such as the one for kuat (bottle), kwai (buffalo), kon (person) and for the K in ra-kang (bell). A couple of these characters have become obsolete and are no longer used, being replaced by one of the other remaining Ks still on the charts.
There are many words that begin with the letter G and Thais have no problem enunciating them, so long as the G shows up at the beginning of the word. If the G comes at the end of the word, it comes out as a K. So when Thais say the word dog, it often comes out as dawk, and sometimes as duck.
To confuse things Thais can pronounce the final G sound if it’s accompanied by an N, as in ng. ng (ง) is a separate sound and character in the Thai alphabet (number 7 from the list). It can be found at the beginning or the end of a word and it produces the same sound in either position, neither being a strong hard or soft G sound that we’re familiar with. The Thai ng is supposed to sound like the ng in the English word singing. Gung is the Thai word for shrimp and it pretty much sounds like it’s spelled, with a semblance of a g sound at the end. No gunk here. To me, the ng is not really a distinct letter, but rather an expression of a tiny, suppressed gasp with the back of the throat closed off. Personally, I have a tough time enunciating the ng when it’s at the beginning of a word; it feels as if I’m gagging.
One afternoon in the beginning of October a couple of folks from the office were driving me down to the bus station in Ranong. It was a hot, hazy day. Fires had been burning out of control in nearby Indonesia and parts of Southern Thailand and Malaysia had been suffering through heavy skies, poor visibility and oppressive air quality depending on which way the air was flowing. Ranong is far enough north on the peninsula that we weren’t being as badly impacted as the provinces to the south. But even so, this was a bad day, the air was gauzy, the visibility was off, breathing was labored and the heat was being trapped, making the mountain valley feel like a sauna.
Bingo was driving and chattering away with Dtarn and Bank in the back seat. I was riding shotgun and not listening. I had stopped actively listening to this chatter many months beforehand. When I first got to my village back in March I could pick out a few words and I’d like to think I could understand about 10% of what was being said, but really it wasn’t half that. The less I listened, the less I understood. But suddenly my ears pricked up when I heard a familiar word. Bingo kept repeating it and pointing out the front window of the pick up. Faulk. Faulk. I had to mentally shake my head clear and concentrate, trying to understand the word and more importantly the context. Faulk. Faulk.
My first thought, ok actually my second thought, went to a seasonal vegetable here in Thailand that I learned about from my host family many months earlier. It’s a monstrous light green gourd with the unfortunate name of fug, with that final G coming out as a K.
A couple weeks before when I was with Bingo and Dtarn we had passed a pick up truck on its way to the market loaded down with the gourds. These vegetables are easily 2 feet long, and 8-10 inches in diameter. They’re white on the inside and when simmered in a broth the flesh becomes translucent. They are a favorite addition to soups. When passing the truck Bingo pointed and repeated, fək, fək, fək. Dtarn snickered in the back seat, she knew what he was saying—in both languages.
So while we were headed down the mountain that hazy day, with Bingo repeating, faulk, fək, faulk. I looked around for the vegetable. He pointed out the front window and up to the gray-white sky. Then it dawned on me. Fog. He was pointing to the smoky sky and calling it fog. I tried my best to slowly enunciate the word for him, meticulously stressing the final G sound, fe-awww-ge. Over and over I repeated fo-g, fo-g. And each time it came back to me as a variation of faulk. I switched to dog, knowing this was a more common word. Dog. Dog. Dog. And again, it came back to me as daulk, duk, dək. Foolishly I tried log, with the same results.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was really smuck that was clouding the horizon.