snake snake fish fish

Snake Snake Fish Fish

Cloé Fortier-King, 134 YinD

“I see saints bowing in the mountains hundreds of miles away to the wonder of sounds that break into light from your most common words.” – Hafiz

In the beginning, wonder was the last thing on my mind. My early efforts to learn Thai were not light – they were shaky first attempts and shadowy fears of failure. Yet, after moving to site and beginning to come out of survival mode, I became acquainted with the elation of understanding a language beyond the utmost superficiality. The Thai language, like any other, makes use of idioms, plays on words and turns of phrase that baffle the untrained ear. It’s a rather rare occasion that I can pick up on these, but one marked by celebration. These are the words and phrases that mean more than the sum of their parts; they are linguistic lenses into Thai history and culture.

This column is a home for these “aha moments” relating to language and Peace Corps service. It’s also a space for my art. I have zero artistic training but endless love for creating. My hope is that this time in Thailand will provide ample inspiration and opportunity for trying new mediums and techniques. I look forward to sharing here and hope you will humor my *sketchy* attempts to document an experience that defies description.

The first turn of phrase – and inspiration for the title of this column – is “snake snake fish fish,” or งู ๆ ปลา ๆ (nguu nguu bplaa bplaa) in Thai. I’ve heard it spoken in both Thai and English. The first time I remember hearing nguu nguu bplaa bplaa I fully misheard it as “blah blah blah”, which actually makes some sense in the context of the idiom’s meaning. 

Picture this: you are a fisherman in a rice paddy. You need to be able to tell the difference between a harmless, edible eel and a lethal snake – it makes the difference between dinner and death. An inability to differentiate between the two is a sign of uncertainty and lack of mastery or practice. Therefore, “snake snake fish fish” essentially means to do something unskillfully and with a high chance of error. From what I understand, the phrase could be used to describe the level of expertise of any skill, but it is often used to describe language capability. Such as, my coworker saying she “can speak English snake snake fish fish” and me replying that I “puut paa-saa Thai dai nguu nguu bplaa bplaa”.

If, like me, you find yourself saying you speak Thai “nit noi” (a little bit) or “baang” (some) at least 10 times a day, give this phrase a try! It is sure to elicit a smile from your Thai counterparts, not to mention how fun it is to say. Happy language learning to my fellow current volunteers and stay tuned for next week’s illustrated idiom.

Read Cloé’s previous articles and contributions.

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