Emphasis means a lot when speaking. Emphasis conveys a whole range of expression and emotion, similar to the way italics can convey urgency or a bold text can express something being stressed.
When speaking in English, we can convey urgency or stress something by the tone of our voice. This is a familiar concept to us all. However, because Thai is a tonal language we don’t really have the luxury of using tone to express different feelings.
But there is hope! In Thai, there are a few ways that you can emphasize or de-emphasize what you’re trying to say by using a grammatical concept simple enough in design — doubling your adjectives and adverbs by a process called “reduplication.”
Let’s start with the most simple example:
สวย /sǔai/ (beautiful)
We all know this word. (Men, if you are smart you will use this word to describe your wives/girlfriends all the time.) But what happens if you want to be overly complimentary to your significant other and want to say that she is “very beautiful?”
In English, we would emphasize the word very, but in Thai what we want to do is actually repeat the adjective (in this case):
สวยสวย /sǔai sǔai/ (very beautiful!)
That’s all you have to do! You can, of course, also use the word มาก /mâak/ (much, many, very) to achieve a similar result:
สวยมาก /sǔai mâak/ (very beautiful!)
Either will work but, as I have come to find, it seems to be a bit more natural-sounded and poetic (quite frankly) to use reduplication. (That’s a fancy way of saying “use the same word twice”.)
You may also hear people use มากมาก /mâak mâak/ as the reduplicated word, such as:
สวยมากมาก /sǔai mâak mâak/
I don’t hear this so much when coupled with สวย, but I do hear it used with expressions like เผ็ดมากมาก /pèt mâak mâak/ (very spicy!).
Bear in mind, however, that reduplicating the word doesn’t mean it makes it “bigger.” One thread on ThailandQA.com also explains that reduplication can make something smallish (เล็กเล็ก /lék lék/). I think the important point here is that reduplication provides emphasis in all directions; essentially, it emphasizes whatever word you are using twice. Hope that made sense.
When push comes to shove and you aren’t sure you can always take the “mâak mâak” approach; I don’t think anyone will have trouble understanding what you are trying to say. But, since we’re all trying to actually learn the language rather than just squeeze by, I suggest you try to not rest on your laurels.
If any of you have some favorite reduplicated expressions, please comment and let us know which ones you like the most.