August 2, 2008

Should we fork or spoon? Musings on ช้อนส้อม

So here's something straight from my dinner table: when is a spoon not a spoon? When it's a fork, apparently.

On a couple of recent occasions now, I've been getting things ready at dinner time and found I'd forgotten to bring eating utensils with me to the table. Thai meals generally call for a fork and a spoon. So if my wife happened to be standing near the silverware, I would ask her to grab me ช้อนส้อม. Both times she brought me only a fork. And both times she's said, "You only asked for a fork."

Turns out, to her, ช้อนส้อม means 'fork'. If we break it down, ช้อน = spoon and ส้อม = fork.

There are a number of fixed phrases in Thai where adjoining two nouns creates a new coordinate noun, without the need to use the conjunction and. You see it phrases like:
  • พ่อแม่ 'parents' (literally 'dad + mom')
  • พี่น้อง 'siblings' (literally 'older sibling + younger sibling')
  • สามีภรรยา 'husband and wife' (literally 'husband + wife')
  • ปู่ย่าตายาย 'grandparents' (literally 'paternal grandfather + paternal grandmother + maternal grandfather + maternal grandmother')
  • เสื้อผ้า 'clothes' (literally 'shirt + cloth') 
  • วัวควาย 'livestock' (literally 'cow + buffalo')
So I always thought ช้อนส้อม worked the same way. But not so with my wife. I must be sure to ask for fork and spoon (mandatory conjunction, in thise case กับ = 'and'). She has been surprised that I don't know this, either.

And that's fine, of course. There's lots I don't know. But looking on the internet, there's no shortage of evidence that ช้อนส้อม is used to mean both fork and spoon. And ชุดช้อนส้อม can mean a fork-spoon pair, or the entire cutlery set (sometimes including a knife, sometimes multiple forks or spoons).

There's textual evidence, too. Clauses like ถ้าหากว่าช้อนส้อมคู่ไหนเริ่มเก่า "If any fork and spoon pair begins to get old..."

None of this is to say that I doubt my wife's knowledge of her own native language. I just don't really know if her usage is widespread or not. She's Bangkok born and raised.

If we analyze how ช้อนส้อม can mean just 'fork', we could say that fork is part of the class of things called ช้อน, where we have ช้อนชา 'teaspoon', ช้อนโต๊ะ 'tablespoon', ช้อนกลาง 'serving spoon', and ช้อนส้อม 'fork'.

Which raises the most important question of all: what on earth are we going to call sporks when they finally arrive in Thailand? Maybe ส้อมช้อน? I don't think ช้อม or ส้อน will go over well. (Note to self: invest in sporks.. those things are gonna be huge here some day.)

Readers, please makes this query of the nearest Thai person: If I ask you to bring me ช้อนส้อม, are you going to bring me a fork, a spoon, or both?


  1. That's Khmer as well as in Thai, there are lots of those compounds listing two elements belonging to a semantic group which, in the compound together, end up referring to some combination of the two ("mother/father" = "parents," etc.)...

    And my first thought when you said she only brought you one of the two items was, "well, that technique seems productive but you can't just make up your own compounds freely, because if you create one that doesn't exist, you won't be understood..."

    But then you added that you did indeed find the fork/spoon compound on the I would be inclined to chalk it up to dialectal variation, in your wife's case. Though I wish I were in Thailand right now so I could do my own "research" on it with random people, haha!

  2. Hello there! I stumbled upon your blog through the google reader suggestion list this morning. =) To me "ช้อนส้อม" means both forks and spoons but it also represents eating utensils for who ever that does the asking. If I was having a dinner with my grandparents in Thailand and they asked me to bring "ช้อนส้อม" to the table, I would bring both forks and spoons, but if I'm having dinner with non-Thai my friends in the U.S. and my mom asks me to bring "ช้อนส้อม" for them, I would just give them forks and maybe knives because I know they won't be using the spoons.

    Just like you said, พ่อแม่ means parents, พี่น้อง means siblings, I think "ช้อนส้อม" is just a general term for eating utensils. =)

  3. Sunray, that fits with my understanding of the term. Thanks for your input! Much like วัวควาย means 'livestock' (but can be broader than literally just cows and buffalo), and ปู่ย่าตายาย can mean 'ancestors', referring to multiple generations, instead of just the one generation.

    Frank, I'm sure it's dialectical variation, too. But what dialect, I wonder. How narrow/broad is this usage?

    I asked my 13-year-old niece (who was raised by my in-laws), and she gave the same response as my wife.
    Maybe it's an ecolect.

    We'll see... tomorrow I'll have the chance to ask Thais from a variety of backgrounds.

  4. I just asked my Bangkok-born and raised friend about this, and he said that ช้อนส้อม means the fork and spoon set.

    And on an unrelated note, this post reminded me that I am always surprised when someone in Thailand asks for salt in a restaurant and they get exactly what they asked for - salt! I was always taught in the US that asking for salt or pepper produces salt AND pepper. Doesn't make any sense linguistically, but still...

  5. I am surprised to hear for the first time in my life that some people regard ช้อนส้อม as ส้อม only.

  6. She possibly didn't hear you clearly, and on bringing the wrong utensil, said it means fork, to save face ;-)

  7. Rikker, I asked my Thai teacher about this yesterday.

    She seemed to think that, along with your wife, it should probably be ช้อนกับส้อม.

    However, she didn't think either that leaving out the กับ was that bad or uncommon. She didn't understand, why in your example, though there would be any misunderstanding as to what it meant and added that if ever you only wanted just the one utensil then you'd just ask for that.

  8. Anonymous, I can safely rule that possibility out. For one, the concept is entirely irrelevant in my relationship with my wife. Second, we've discussed it in some detail, and I've let her know the responses I've gotten to this post. She has been interested to hear how others' thoughts differ from hers on the topic.

    Withnail, I'm just going to boil it down to one of my wife's linguistic quirks. Everybody has theirs. It doesn't really surprise me that it's not widespread. Everyone has their own ideolect.

    But this has all definitely been food for thought. Food I can eat with my mental fork and spoon.

  9. Hi, I'm Thai. Not knowing much English, but I will try to explain.
    ช้อน verb = to lift thing up by way of sliding the tool underneath then lift up. ช้อนปลา verb = to catch fish with anything like seive or even digger, this is very old time an occupation alongside of "ทำนา". so ช้อนปลา not to mean fishspoon. ช้อนหุ้น verb = to buy from stockmarket when it value goes very low.Northern Thai "จ๊อน", Northeastern "ซ้อน".
    ช้อน noun = many thing use for this purpose especially in catching fish. (before) Thai did not use much of spoon during meal. ช้อนกินข้าว (ช้อน + กินข้าว)was the first noun for spoon for food. Newer word for "ช้อนกินข้าว" is "ช้อนอาหาร".Then there are "ช้อนโต๊ะ", "ช้อนกลาง","ช้อนชา"to specify the size.When you say "ช้อน" alone, this could be a verb in first sense. People add a syllable to mean to noun, mostly become "ช้อนส้อม", for they not specify its size, and at the moment they mean "spoon".Which is not correct.
    ส้อม noun, sometimes spelled ซ่อม = fork and thing like fork. Use to pick thing by pierce through. A snipe = "นกปากซ่อม" (bird + mouth + fork).ส้อม never found to be verb. ซ่อม verb = to fix."สอบซ่อม" = re-exam after some subjects due to fail. "สอบซ้อม" (just a little voice different) = test before real examination.
    Today most Thai listeners when are not aware to hear, "ช้อน..ส้อม" = spoon and fork. "ช้อนส้อม" = may be just one thing, the fork. To specify dinner utensils say "มีด..ช้อน..ส้อม", pause between is also important.