If you’ve ever studied the Lao language, then you have most assuredly found an enemy in classifiers. If you have never studied Lao, you may be interested to know that classifiers are in no way important to communicating clearly, and I refuse to believe otherwise because it would mean I have to start using them. They’re basically just a way to differentiate between different objects, which you’d think would already be accomplished by using the correct word to identify what the object is. Are you annoyed/confused? Good.
Recently, I made a visit to our regular market to buy some food so I could watch Lauren cook it. When I went to order the eggs, I was greeted by one of Lao’s token grandmas who always lean between thinking I’m cute and an idiot. I told her I wanted 6 eggs. She just stared at me and chewed harder on her beetle nut. “I want 6 eggs pleeeeeeease?” More chewing. Desperate for my dinner, I told her I wanted 6 eggs but included a classifier at the end with a cocked head to mirror her confusion. Well that did it. “Ohhhh you want 6 eggs (plus the correct classifier, which I hadn’t used)”. What else could I have wanted? The following conversation ensued:
Her: “You used the wrong classifier”
Me: “Oh. I always forget” and always remember to try not to remember to use them.
Her: Slowly says the classifier.
Me: Slowly say the classifier wrong.
Her: “Do you speak Lao?”
Me: “Yes!!! I just asked you for 6 eggs like 10 times!”
Her: “Well you said it wrong. You should practice.”
Me: “Yes ma’am.”
Her: “If you don’t practice every day, you will not get better.”
Me: “I’m practicing now.”
Her: “Do you have time?”
Me: “Now? I’m kind of hungry.”
Her: “Come with me.”
The next thing I know, I am being paraded through the market and shown every fruit and vegetable that I’ve studied in the last year and a half. By that time, both patrons and merchants alike are telling me what stuff is, stuff I learned in my 3rd week of Lao classes. Annoyed with their pitiful opinions of my language skills, I started saying the words before they could. Soon, I was just pointing to everything I saw and saying its name, getting more excited with each perfectly pronounced tone, dancing in a circle around the aisles like the star that I truly am! When I finished, I gave them a look that said, “See? Told you I spoke Lao.” Yeah, well then they started laughing.
Again, if you’ve ever studied Lao, you know that there are 6 tones, which are a foe far greater than any classifier. If you haven’t studied Lao, tones are the worst, but sort of hugely important to make any sense at all. In my pronunciation of Lao’s most exotic produce, I called “potatoes” “gum”, mistook “lettuce” for the word “smart”, and also said something crass about the mushrooms (the most provocative fungi). And I mean what the heck, man? Is Lao really that hard? Am I so bad after a year and a half of living here that I can’t buy food without the help of 15 people (which has happened on multiple occasions)?!
Yes. Sadly, so sadly, my Lao will never be where I want it. But more importantly, it will never be where my Lao Grandma, or my next-door neighbor, or my language tutor, or my students want it. However, not once during my procession through the store was there a frustrated face. There was joy, and maybe a smug smile or two after I failed at turning the market into a scene from The Sound of Music: Southeast Asia. Their laughter was out of encouragement, not embarrassment (unless there are a set of tones that distinguish kinds of laughter…there might be). And their desire for me to speak Lao was nothing more than a desire for me to succeed at buying eggs the next time I go to the market.
When I finally made my escape, the woman grabbed my arm and said, “You must practice with me every day!” Unsure of whether to be flattered or terrified, I responded with, “I don’t buy eggs that often.”
Her: “If you ever study Lao, you know there are many classifiers. It’s very difficult.”
Me: I think I know how to start my blog! “Yes, I never use them.”
Her: (smiling) “I know.”
Me: “I’m sorry. Foreigners are dumb.” (when in doubt, bash foreigners, especially if you happen to be one)
Me: They can take away my language but they can’t take away my wit!
Her: “Go eat your eggs. EGGS. Say EGGS one more time.”
Me: “EGGGGGGS. EGGGGGGS” (walking away)
Simultaneously: “EGGGGGS. EGGGGGGS.”
As I made my exit, I heard her mumble to her friend, “Foreigners are so crazy.” About 40 feet away now, I gave her one more chuckle with a final and dramatic “EGGGGGGGGS” and a Breakfast Club victory fist in salute of the classifier. May it live on, tripping up foreigners who are so often worthy of being bashed. And may you, ever the lucky native English speaker (or not), remind me that cactus and cacti will poke out the right eye, but if it’s the wrong eye, it might be your right eye; threw sounds like through, but though sounds like toe, went doesn’t share any letters with go; English is hard, but Lao isn’t soft, and don’t even get me started on trough. At least we didn’t invent the haiku.