If growing up within the realm of a single language, few realize consonants can display as many variations as vowels. Those of us who move back and forth among different families of languages understand that, but this is of little help when it is time to get a cup of "gafeh ron."
"G" and "K," "B" and "P," and "D" and "T," are three pairs of closely related consonants. Sometimes, the letters within one of these pairs are interchanged, as happens in the Thai rendering of the word "coffee." In some languages, one letter of the pair is missing, like in Arabic, which lacks the "P." In other languages, in between sounds are added to these pairs. This characterizes Thai, where in-between-consonants are the nightmare of those attempting to learn the language.
A humble person, my goals are often stated in more human terms. Instead of "learning the language," I try to "order a coffee in Thai." I love coffee, as the many entries I have dedicated to the topic prove.
To my horror, coffee in Thai is spelled using the first letter of their elegant alphabet. This letter is usually transliterated as "g" (like in "go"), but it often sounds like a consonant in between a "g" and a "k." Thus, "coffee" in Thailand sounds something in between "gafeh" and "kafeh." At least, it is pronounced using the plain tone in both syllables. This plain rendering characterizes foreign words adopted by Thai speakers.
Then, "hot" in Thai is "ron," pronounced in a rising tone. "R" is another complicated sound in Thai. In Bangkok, it sounds like a Hebrew "r" (tongue on the palate), but outside Bangkok, it is usually pronounced like an "l." Other times it is simply skipped. For example, the masculine politeness particle is written "krap;" however, it is invariably pronounced "kap." In the word "ron," the combination of an "r" with a rising tone transforms the task of pronouncing the word into a Herculean one. I had always failed.
"Gafeh ron," I would carefully say to the vendor at a coffee stall serving hot coffee after the mandatory greetings. Invariably, I would get a blank stare in response, or an embarrassment giggle. To the traveler this may seem odd. After all, they just serve the delicious elixir. What else could I order there? It would be easy to blame Thai denizens on being unhelpful. Yet, think about the opposite case: a Thai in your hometown entering a coffee shop and asking for "gafeh." Would he be served? Would a waiter serve a coffee despite not being sure what the mispronounced request was?
"Gafeh ron," I repeated, clearly pointing at the relevant preparation equipment next to the vendor.
"Gafeh rOn," I was corrected and served a steaming cup with a smile.