Is it Kun, Pêe, Aa-jaann, or Pôo yài Moo?…
There used to be a time in the west when calling a person by their first name was something you didn’t do until you had known them for a considerable length of time, and then only when you had become very close. Nowadays, the new generation is often on a first name basis literally from the time they meet. That may be true in a lot of places, but in Thailand there is a wrinkle to this rule.
Although Thais are always on a first name basis because they eschew the use of last names, they almost never use the person’s first name or nickname on its own. They almost always add some kind of honorific or relationship title. And if we leave this honorific off then it’s possible that we are forcing a familiarity with our Thai acquaintances that we have not yet earned.
The most common of these honorifics is คุณ /kun/ (Sir or Madam) which is usually OK to use with most people except it just might be a little formal to use with people really close to you.
The term คุณ /kun/ was originally a royal title bestowed to show respect. Later it took on the use it has today. คุณ /kun/ can also mean “you”. Thus, you get the ubiquitous “hey you.”, so very jarring to the English speaking listener’s ear. But due to the mistranslation, the one who calls out “hey you” just might think he is merely saying, “hello sir”.
Another meaning for คุณ /kun/ is Mr./Ms. For years I was referred to as “Mr. Hugh” (mostly because in Thai they would have been using “Kun Hugh”). Later, when I became a little older and got my masters degree I graduated to อาจารย์ /aa-jaan/ (teacher) Hugh. Now that I am retired, and everyone (is there a conspiracy here?) refers to me as ลุง /lung/ (elder uncle) Hugh. As long as they haven’t started with ตา /dtaa/ (grandpa) Hugh, I’m OK with that.
Many honorifics used with our names either describe a certain status we have achieved or a relationship between us and the speaker. Age relationships are quite important in Thailand and will usually determine what type of honorific or relationship title is used. One trick my wife uses when meeting someone new is to say, “by the way, what year did you graduate?” The answer will usually tell her, without having to ask the person’s age, whether she is older or younger than the person she has just met, and thus, what honorific to use.
In Thailand, words westerners use only with family members quite often indicate age relationships. Since these relationships are significant, using the correct one is essential. It is also quite important to use the correct honorific with someone who has achieved his or her title through education or promotion.
In Chiang Mai (where I live), the term used for an older woman is แม่ /mâem (mother). In other parts of Thailand it could be น้า /náa/ (younger aunt) or ป้า /bpâab/ (older aunt). My wife likes Chiang Mai’s คุณ แม่ /kun mâe/. She much prefers it over one that we are beginning to hear more and more lately, คุณ ยาย /kun yaai/ (grandmother). The use of kun before another honorific – as in คุณ แม่ /kun mâe/ or คุณ ลุง /kun lung/ – essentially doubles the honor bestowed upon the listener.
The only time you might hear someone using a person’s name alone is when speaking to a young child, or sometimes to a servant, or when young people speak with someone their own age. But even servants are due their honorifics. An older servant might be referred to as ป้า /bpâa/ (auntie). A younger one might be referred to as น้อง /nóng/ (younger sister). Our children were instructed to call their nanny พี่ /pêe/ (older sister).
Jarring to my ears is when an expat speaks to, or refers to, a Thai using the first name only. For example, “hello Wichai” and “where is Mali going?”
Suggestion. Listen to what Thais are saying. Start paying attention to how often you hear Thais referring to each other using first names only. You’ll notice that it’s not very often. Then watch how often you are referred to by your first name alone. You’ll find it’s only from Thais who’ve lived in the west for quite some time.
In Thailand it’s more proper to say, “hello Kun Wichai” and “where is Pêe Mali going?”
So next time you are talking to a friend or even referring to them when talking with someone else, try using an appropriate honorific. Something like Kun Somchai, or Aa-jaan Somchai, or Pêe Somchai, or Lung Somchai. Your listeners will know that you have graduated to not only a better understanding of the Thai language but a closer understanding of Thais and their relationships.
Common Thai honorifics
The following are common honorifics heard daily in Thailand. You can use any of these followed by a first name or nickname. Oh! Just one last wrinkle. The term “kun” is fine when used with someone else’s name but is not used when referring to yourself. I can refer to myself as Lung Hugh, or Aa-jaan Hugh, or Pêe Hugh, but I cannot call myself Kun Hugh.
The honorific is followed by the person’s name or nickname. A few examples are: Kun Catherine, Pêe Lek, Aa-jaan Jackson, and Pôo yài Moo.
Mr/Miss/Ms/Mrs/: คุณ /kun/
Mother: แม่ /mâe/
Father: พ่อ /pôr/
Younger Sibling: น้อง /nóng/
Older Sibling: พี่ /pêe/
Elder Uncle: ลุง /lung/
Younger Aunt: น้า /náa/
Older Aunt: ป้า /bpâa/
Grandmother: ยาย /yaai/
Grandfather: ตา /dtaa/
Medical Doctor: หมอ /mŏr/
Teacher: อาจารย์ /aa-jaan/
Professor: ศาสตราจารย์ /sàat-dtraa-jaan/
Village Chief: ผู้ใหญ่ /pôo yài/
Mayor: นายก /naa-yók/
Governor: ผู้ว่า /pôo wâa/
Boss: นาย /naai/
When in doubt (except with really close friends, or those a lot younger than you, or who are related to you), คุณ /kun/ is always a polite way out.