Monday, November 1, 2010

Thai Idiom: Playing a Fiddle to a Water Buffalo (สีซอให้ควายฟัง)

My reader, Sam, has suggested that I start a series on Thai idioms, and immediately I:
  • Thought that was a brilliant idea.
  • Was a bit miffed by the fact that it was he who thought of it and not I around whom the universe should revolve if it hasn't already.

  • Thanks, Sam. To you I dedicate this first post in the series.

    Our first Thai idiom has been around for as long as I remember. You know how many idioms have fallen out of use, right? Well, not this one. This is a timeless classic which is still actively used among modern Thai speakers in all generations. See-so* hai** kwai** fang*** (สีซอให้ควายฟัง) or, literally, to play a Thai fiddle*** to a water buffalo, is one of those idioms that are self-explanatory among the Thai. Never mind who the audience is. Never mind that the idiom refers to "so" (ซอ), an ancient string instrument which only a handful of people know how to play. Never mind that it also refers to -- cough -- a water buffalo, an animal that most Thais -- even rice farmers -- don't have much to do with these days.

    You say it; the Thai immediately understand it.

    Not so for non-Thais. In order to appreciate this idiom, you need to know first that a water buffalo represents stupidity in the Thai culture. Only then would you come to see that playing the Thai fiddle (so) to a water buffalo is very much similar to the English idiom, "to cast pearls before swine," i.e. to offer something of value to someone whose lack of understanding prevents them from being able to appreciate it.

    The only difference, which is quite subtle, is that "playing a fiddle to a water buffalo" has a narrower application. While the "pearls" in "to cast pearls before swine" could refer to both tangible and abstract things, the "playing of a fiddle" according to this Thai idiom is connected to something that is verbally expressed or audible, e.g. an explanation, a speech, a lecture, a sermon.

    Example: Tom finally came to realize that explaining the importance of social media to a company that doesn't even care to establish its own website is like playing a fiddle to a water buffalo.

    If you're wondering how a water buffalo has come to be associated with dumbness in our culture, consider the fact that we're kind of confused about how a pig has come to represent negative things from bad behavior to filth or even bigotry in other cultures, perhaps including yours, too. You see, pigs are cute and delicious to us.

    Different things mean, uh, different things to peoples of different cultures (see my past article on this).

    *Written in accordance with the Thai-to-English transliteration rules. I could also write "saw" to make it easier for English speakers, but I passive-aggressively decided not to do so. Either way, it rhymes with "awe."

    **Rhymes with "my;" just a bit shorter.

    ***Rhymes with "lung."

    ***Okay, so a "so/saw" isn't exactly like a fiddle or a violin. You have to sit down in order to play it properly, and the instrument stands perpendicular to the floor as you play it as opposed to being mounted on your shoulder.