February 11, 2014

Heart Talk by Connie Inglis

Have you ever done a word study on "love" or "heart" to help expand your writing? I'm sure you have if you've written about any kind of personal relationships. Today I'd like to share a book with you, one which I'm thinking none of you have ever heard of.

When our family moved to Thailand to work with minority language groups, my husband and I were introduced to a book by Christopher G. Moore called, Heart Talk. This book is like no other on the study of the word, *jai 'heart' in the Thai language. It is a fascinating read for anyone doing any kind of cross-cultural writing because it provides insight not only into "love" emotions but into most of the emotions expressed by Thai people.

In this book there are over 700  jai words/phrases that the Thai people know and use constantly. Whether it's talking about positive emotions or negative emotions, good character traits or bad character traits, right choices or wrong choices, the word or phrase usually includes jai. It is no wonder the author calls it, "the central metaphor in the Thai language."

Let me share a few of these "heart" words to help you understand how differently the Thai view life. There are some words that cross over culturally such as jai-yai 'heart big' in referring to a generous person, or jai-sing 'heart lion' in referring to a courageous person. However, there are many that are surprising and sometimes even opposite of how westerners think. For example, jai-nooy 'heart small' doesn't mean a stingy person. It is referring to someone who is highly sensitive emotionally, who is easily hurt or offended by others. Kin-jai 'eat heart' is a verb meaning, "to impress" in a good way; Or, jai-phra 'heart monk' referring to a person who is extremely compassionate and forgiving; Or naam-jai 'water heart' referring to someone who takes into account another person's feelings. This last one could be translated to mean empathy or sympathy in English but in Thai there are two totally different jai words for those feelings. Are you getting the picture?

But I must mention one of the most used jai words: kreeng-jai 'awe heart'--a word that is almost untranslatable into English. Moore calls it, "the heart of hearts of the Thai culture and class system.":

"The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions--a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear--which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in powerful position such as a high-ranking police officer."

It takes the author 1 1/2 pages to define this type of patron/client cultural system and even then he confesses that it goes so much deeper. Our western culture find this a difficult concept to grasp. Often we are more jai dii phii khaw 'good heart, ghost enters'. Anyone care to guess what that means?

I focus on this book today as a challenge, to all of us. In a world that is becoming smaller every day, where we interact with other cultures on a daily basis, a book like this can help us see the world through different eyes and then help us write about love, about emotions, about relationships in a whole new way. And maybe it will help us show Jesus' love in a whole new way too.

*Unfortunately, due to computer incompatibility, I could not mark tone on the Thai words.


  1. Connie,
    This is a very interesting post - when we say love we think one way - usually. To find all these different emotions for the same word, "love", pushes us further into understanding people.
    Janis www.janiscox.com

  2. Thank you for this insight into the Thai culture. I taught a Thai girl and this helps me understand her a little better. And you're right about the world getting smaller - it's good to know how other cultures think because we are interacting with them more on a daily basis. Thanks for sharing this, Connie!

    Pam Mytroen


  3. Me encantan las fotografías, son geniales. Ha estado un regalo el visitar tu bloc, te invito visitar el mio y si te gusta espero que te hagas seguidora.

  4. This must have been a challenging language to learn, Connie, but I get the impression that love, relationships, and respect are very strong in their culture.

    In the late 70s, I had the honour of teaching a few students from Laos as Thai was called then. They were part of an immigration group known as "the boat people." They were bright and diligent students who wanted very much to learn English, so they could get jobs. Some of them stayed in the community for several decades. Lovely people.

  5. I must admit this teaching fills me with sadness for our own western culture. The Thai have hundreds of words describing the qualities of love. Those in our north who have multiple words to describe the qualities of snow, something critical to their culture.

    Here in the west, our expressive words seem to describe things, purchases, acquisitions, and self.

    Kinda shows me where we put our priorities. Food for thought, Connie. Good post!

  6. This was interesting. three of my daughters have been to thailand at various times and they all loved it. One girl has been learning Thai and she mentioned this to me

  7. Thanks for all your great comments and fun to see other people's connections with Thai people.

  8. I want to look for that book now, Connie! I'm so glad you shared it with us.

    Your piece gives me glimpses into the word love in such a new dimension. I have oft lamented that we have such a meagre vocabulary for the biggest word in the universe.

    I liked your opening sentence... asking if we've ever done a word study on love and heart as a way to expand our writing. I think I'll take you up on your challenge.

    Thanks Connie!

  9. Wow:
    I know we under estimate and abuse the word "love" in the west, but now sadly realize how how underfunded we are in its breadth of meaning.


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