Monday, June 02, 2008

Astrology Useful After All

I’ll be honest: my “efforts” to learn Thai died several months ago, right after I cobbled together enough monosyllables to remote-control a taxi driver.

Once I was able to meow and squawk commands from the back seat to make the guy slam wildly on the brakes, or lurch wildly from side to side, I was all set. Add to that my well-worn repertoire of four or five choice phrases to dazzle shopkeepers and waiters with, and I guess I unconsciously figured that I had pretty much all the Thai I needed for daily life. My brain stopped caring.

Lately I’m trying to slowly shift back into learning mode and pick up some of the basics I’ve been doing without. Sadly, I don’t even know some of the most essential words like “eat” or “see” or “walk”. And I certainly haven’t the slightest idea what the days of the week, or months of the year, are. The months always seemed especially daunting because they’re quite long, for Thai words. “November” is “Pruetsachikayon”. That’s just madness.

My wife, desirous of figuring out the opening dates of certain motion pictures while watching their Thai previews, asked me politely if I’d mind learning the months. After the echoes of my cruel laughter died away, I began to wonder if it might somehow be possible. Long words in Thai usually mean they’re borrowings from Sanskrit, and I’ve had success in the past coming to grips with Thai words I know are Sanskrit, like Thai “guru” and “maharaja”, which are derived from the Sanskrit terms “guru” and “maharaja”, meaning “guru” and “maharaja”. Well, those are stupid examples, but you get the idea.

By the way, the poster above is for Som Tam, an entire Thai kickboxing movie based around a racist stereotype (not that I really mind). The enormous shirtless white guy hulks out whenever those kids feed him papaya salad, because everybody knows those foreigners can’t handle spicy food. I guess it’s kind of like Popeye, if Popeye were Asian, and if instead of spinach he drank beer and couldn’t process the alcohol and hulked out after a few sips and solved mysteries in his enhanced state. Actually, that’s not any more or less silly than most superhero movies anyway. Never mind.

Anyway, I just looked up what the Thai words for the 12 months mean. What I discovered threw me for a hell of a loop. It’s nuts. We’re through the looking glass here, people. The names of the 12 months in Thai are THE 12 EUROPEAN ZODIAC SIGNS. The same exact things. Leo the lion and all. Was that goofy Battlestar Galactica mythology right? Were our ancestors from the distant space-planets of Virgon, Caprica and Sagittaron? Er... no, but check out the following list, mostly from wikipedia, with Thai month names followed by the old Indian root:

Makarakhom / makara “sea-monster” = Capricorn

Kumphaphan / kumbha “pitcher, water-pot” = Aquarius

Minakhom / mīna “(a specific kind of) fish” = Pisces

Mesayon / meṣa “ram” = Aries

Pruetsaphakhom / vṛṣabha “bull” = Taurus

Mithunayon / mithuna “a pair” = Gemini

Karakadakhom / karka “crab” = Cancer

Singhakhom / siṃha “lion” = Leo

Kanyayon / kanyā “girl” = Virgo

Tulakhom / tulā “balance” = Libra

Pruetsachikayon / vṛścika “scorpion” = Scorpio

Thanwakhom / dhanu “bow, arc” = Sagittarius

And it’s not a new thing. While it’s true that the Thais really only switched over to the Western calendar in 1889, those Thai month names are a thousand years old or more. This seemed even weirder than the time I deduced that “hello” in Thai is more or less the same word as “swastika”. I’m still not quite sure I understand how the whole months thing went down, but I’ll try to explain.

Apparently, a Greek guy named Yavanasvera went to India in around 150 AD and told them all about the wonders of the zodiac signs. For some reason this really caught on with the Hindu bigwigs and so, in addition to whatever system they already had in ancient India, astrologers started referring to certain months as, more or less, “Lion-Time” and “Scorpion-Time” and so on. I’m guessing that Joe Ricepaddy didn’t have much use for these obscure astrological terms, since I think most Asians went by the lunar calendar anyway, but they definitely entered into the Thai language at a relatively early date.

Just a guess but at least one of those pairs of names, “Karka” = “Cancer”, share the same Indo-European root word. Even more improbably, the Thai word for horoscope seems to actually start with “hora-” as well, which is pretty messed up. From a very interesting article which goes into great depth about the Thai calendar: “In fact, the Thai word for ‘astrology’ [ho:rasa:t] is derived from a Sanskrit borrowing at this time derived from Greek [hora] ‘proper time’, cognate [through Latin and French] to English ‘hour’.”

As if that weren’t enough excitement for one day, apparently a similar transmission from the ancient Near East happened with the Indian/Thai seven days of the week, which turn out to be named after EXACTLY the same things as the classic European ones:

Surya / Aditya (Sun)
Chandra (Moon)
Angakara (Mars)
Budha (Mercury)
Brihaspati (Jupiter)
Shukra (Venus)
Shani (Saturn)

In English only three of those match our current names, because some of the Roman gods/planets got switched with Germanic ones (Thor for Jupiter, etc.), but if you took a Romance language in school you should recognize that Tuesday = Mars-day, Wednesday = Mercury-day, etc. I guess I just always assumed that in Asia they had their own names for stuff like this, and I suppose they did, before the planet-day-naming fad swept the world.

This system apparently spread as far as China and Japan, where, if you’ll look at the handy chart some devoted wikipedian has crafted, they used to call Thursday and Friday Wood Planet Day and Metal Planet Day, after their names for Jupiter and Venus. So this means that by around a thousand years ago, from Greenland and Ireland all the way over to China and Japan and Mongolia and pretty much everywhere else, most of humanity unanimously agreed that we should call Sunday Sun-day, Monday Moon-day, and so on down the line for all seven days, with very few regional variations. W, as they say, TF?

This might all not seem like a big deal to you, but I’m in shock. I can’t believe that I flew to the other side of the planet, to a proud and strange Asian kingdom with thousands upon thousands of its own beliefs, rituals and unique cultural aspects completely alien to me, and the people here call August “Lion-Month”, after good old Leo the Lion.

I’m not sure I’ll remember all the Thai names of the months and days after today, but whatever happens I sure as hell have some good mnemonic devices to start with.

P.S. Apparently you can tell whether or not a month has 30 days by its last syllable of its name in Thai (-khom indicates 31, -yon 30). February has a unique last syllable all its own to remind us that it’s gimpy. I don’t know if that was a feature of the ancient names or a more modern addition. It’s a really cool idea to encode that calendrical information in the actual names of the months, but damn it I already know which months have 30 days, and the different endings make the Thai months a lot harder to remember than if they all just ended with the same suffix. Still, nice idea.


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