If I were to ask you: what is the future tense word in Thai? Most of you would probably respond instantaneously-“จะ /jà/, of course!”
And if I ask you: how about the most common past tense word? There are a few but you’d probably invariably select แล้ว /láeo/ as your first choice. Then let me ask you: then what does the sentence “จะไปแล้ว” /jà bpai láeo/ mean? How do ‘future’ and ‘past’ tense occur in the same sentence?
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The Thai language appears to warp spacetime, making the past and the future collide, resulting in a big black hole in your brain. No wonder you never understand it.
In the vast majority of Indo-European languages such as English, French or German, everything that you do has a temporal reference: you did something; you have done something; you will do something, etc. You can even refer to an alternative past that didn’t exist (I would have gone to Chiang Mai if I hadn’t had to work on Sunday). This concept of tense is so fundamental to Indo-European languages that it’s ingrained into the speakers’ perceived reality and is something many of you probably think you cannot do without. “How can I ever say anything at all if I can’t say when I do it?”
However, Thai is a tenseless language and it doesn’t really deal with time in the same way that languages with grammaticalised tenses do.
At this point you may ask: “So what about all these translations such as ‘will’ for จะ /jà/, or ‘to have (done) already’ for แล้ว /láeo/? Is my teacher/school/book wrong?” No, they’re not wrong. That’s just one way to ease your learning difficulty by analogising Thai into concepts that you’re already familiar with in your native tongue. But if you do not want to end up with something called ‘interlanguage’ and speak broken Thai for eternity, you may want to approach Thai time in a Thai way.
That is why in this post I’m offering you an alternative approach to some of the most common time markers in Thai. My approach may seem a bit different but I’m sure it will all come together.
แล้ว /láeo/ VS ยัง /yang/ – fulfilled VS unfulfilled
I decided to pair these two up instead of แล้ว /láeo/ VS จะ /jà/ because their functions really complement each other beyond just a past-future pairing. You’ll see why.
แล้ว /láeo/ is a fulfilled particle. It is dubbed so because it shows that the action is already done, or at least it has been set in motion, hence the conditions are fulfilled. It is often translated as ‘already’ or ‘now’:
เค้า ไป เกาหลี หนึ่ง อาทิตย์ แล้ว
káo bpai gaolǐi nùeng aatít láeo
She already went to Korea a week ago.
Her ‘going to Korea’ has already happened and now she’s in Korea.
จะ ถึง แล้ว
jà tǔeng láeo
I’m nearly there.
I’m arriving now – the ‘arriving’ part is set in motion and is bound to happen any time soon.
หนู จะ สอบ พรุ่งนี้ แล้ว
nǔu jà sòrp prûngníi láeo
I’ve got an exam tomorrow.
She hasn’t taken her exam yet but the exam has been scheduled (or as in my word- ‘set in motion’), and แล้ว /láeo/ in this case is used to express the imminence of that event.
On the other hand, ยัง /yang/ is the absolute opposite of แล้ว /láeo/: it is an unfulfilled particle. It shows that the action is still ongoing, or it has not even started yet. The action feels somewhat pending and incomplete. It is often translated as “still” or “yet”:
yang mâi rúu weelaa nát loei
I don’t know the appointment time yet.
At the moment of speaking he doesn’t know what time the appointment will be. The ‘knowing’ part is therefore unfulfilled.
เล็กเค้ายังอายุแค่ 15 เอง
Lek káo yang aayú kâe sìphâa eeng
Lek is still only 15.
The implication of this phrase is that Lek’s still not old enough for whatever purpose that requires him to be older.
On a different note, when you use the ‘Have you…?’ question (แล้ว)รึยัง? /(láeo) rúe yang?/, you now know that you literally say: แล้ว + หรือ + ยัง /láeo/ + /rǔe/ + /yang/: ‘fulfilled or unfulfilled’!
ได้ /dâi…/ – achievement particle
Although they’re written the same, this ได้ /dâi…/ does NOT have the same function as /…dâi/ ‘can, able to’. /dâi/ is dubbed an achievement particle and is always put in front of the verb. The deeper meaning is something like “I got (the chance) to …” or “I succeeded in (doing something)”. It’s often used to describe past events (but not always).
mâi dâi gin kâao mûeacháao
I didn’t eat this morning.
This means the speaker didn’t get the chance to have anything for breakfast. If you drop ได้ /dâi…/ from this sentence: ไม่กินข้าวเมื่อเช้า /mâi gin kâao mûeacháao/, it means that the speaker made a conscious decision not to have breakfast, not because he didn’t have the chance to do so.
duean nâa jà dâi bpai fáràngsèet
I get to go to France next month.
This demonstrates how ได้ /dâi…/ doesn’t necessarily talk about the past, because in this case the event will take place in the future! The speaker of this sentence feels that his ‘going to France’ is an achievement and he’s looking forward to it.
มา / …maa/ – perfect particle
Now this particle is probably the only Thai time marker that actually has a tense in a traditional sense. มา /…maa/ describes events that started in the past and lead up to the present moment, or as it is popularly known, the “present perfect tense”:
gin kâao maa rúe yang?
Have you eaten?
In many situations, กินข้าวรึยัง? /gin kâao rúe yang?/ would perhaps suffice. However, since กินข้าวรึยัง? /gin kâao rúe yang?/ has no temporal reference, it can also mean something like “Are you ready to eat?” or “Do you want to eat now?”. มา / …maa/ is there to eliminate this ambiguity.
Essentially, this word is the same มา /maa/ as in ‘to come’, but when it’s used as a time marker it follows the main verb:
รอมา 5 ชั่วโมงแล้ว
ror maa hâa chûamoong láeo
I have been waiting for 5 hours now.
/ror maa/ roughly translates as ‘have been waiting’. Although this guy has been in constant anticipation for 5 hours, he may have been doing other things while waiting. Whereas,
มารอ 5 ชั่วโมงแล้ว
maa ror hâa chûamoong láeo
I came here to wait 5 hours ago.
/maa/ in this case is NOT a time marker and literally means “to come”, so /maa ror/ in this case just means “come to wait”. Whoever this poor soul is, he hasn’t left the spot for 5 hours now. Frightening thought…
The deep sense of this time-marking มา /…maa/ is explored thoroughly in Stuart Jay Raj’s Thinking in Meanings – Cracking Thai Fundamentals Part 2 in which he explains that the famous Thai greeting ไปไหนมา? /bpai nǎi maa?/ doesn’t literally mean ‘to come’ but rather in a metaphorical sense: “Where have you been to arrive at this point (in time)?”
จะ /jà/ – intention particle
/jà/ is widely understood as ‘will’ or ‘the future tense word’, and it often refers to the future. But more fundamentally, /jà/ is an intention particle, expressing the intention of a person to do something e.g. เค้าจะสอน /káo jà sǒrn/ can be translated as “She will teach”, “She’s going to teach” or “She intends to teach”.
jà norn dtorn sìi tûm
I will go to bed at 10 p.m., I intend to go to bed at 10 p.m.
por jà òrk jàak bâan, fǒn gôr dtòk
As I was leaving home, it started to rain.
In this case, จะ /jà/ does not refer to the future. It shows that the speaker intended to leave home, but it started to rain before she could do so. So it’s really not valid to keep calling จะ /jà/ a future tense marker. It’s not.
chán jà mâi jer káo ìik loei
I never want to see him again.
In this sentence, the speaker has made a conscious decision not to see him again. It is by choice. If you remove จะ /jà/ from this sentence, it takes on a whole new meaning: ฉันไม่เจอเค้าอีกเลย /chán mâi jer káo ìik loei/ means that the speaker has not seen him for some time (perhaps even though she wanted to).
One interesting fact about จะ /jà/: it also appears in a lot of words such as อาจ(จะ) /àat (jà)/ ‘perhaps’, คง(จะ) /kong (jà)/ ‘possibly’, น่า(จะ) /nâa (jà)/ ‘likely, should’, เกือบ(จะ) /gùeap (jà)/ ‘almost’, ควร(จะ) /kuan (jà)/ ‘should, ought to’, etc. Unpredictability, conditionality and subjectivity seem to be the theme for the word จะ /jà/ here. Note that จะ /jà/ in all these cases can almost always be dropped.
กำลัง /gamlang/ VS อยู่ /yùu/ – ongoing action VS ongoing state
กำลังอยู่ /gamlang…yùu/ pattern is more or less an equivalent of ‘to be …ing’ in English. One difference from the English counterpart is that this pattern strictly refers only to an ongoing present and not to a future plan such as “I’m going to New York next week”. You can use both of these words together for any ‘to be…ing’ structure most of the time, but the two words have slightly different functions. I’ll start with กำลัง /gamlang/:
กำลัง /gamlang/ literally means ‘power, labour, energy’. When it is used as a time marker, it focuses on the ongoing ACTION (the action is being carried out at the time of the event):
pǒm gamlang gin kâao
I’m eating; currently what I’m doing is eating.
This sentence illustrates the movement of the speaker having his meal. The focus is on the action.
aagàat gamlang dii
The weather is just about right.
I believe this needs an explanation. While it is true that in this sentence there cannot be any literal ‘action’ going on because nobody controls weather, ‘กำลัง /gamlang/’ in this case shows that the weather itself is keeping its balance; it’s not too cold or too hot, as if some effort is being made to make it so. Therefore the event seems “active”.
อยู่ /yùu/ on the other hand literally means ‘state of being, to be in a state of’ (The word อยู่ /yùu/ itself means to live or to be alive as well.) When it is used as a time marker, it focuses on the ongoing STATE (that the current state exists at the time of the event):
pǒm gin kâao yùu
I’m eating; the current state that I’m in is eating.
This sentence illustrates the ongoing state of the speaker having his meal. Although the meaning is almost identical to the similar sentence we’ve seen previously, the focus of this sentence is actually on the state. Imagine you’re enjoying a meal and someone calls you on the phone, interrupting your blissful ‘state of eating’. This sentence would better suit the situation than ผมกำลังกินข้าว /pǒm gamlang gin kâao/, although both sentences would be grammatically accurate. The difference is insignificant.
pǒm gamlang gin kâao yùu
I’m eating; currently what I’m doing is eating and the current state that I’m in is eating.
The translation of the sentence above is probably somewhat repetitive to you, but it is a good description of how กำลัง /gamlang/ and อยู่ /yùu/ work together. If you use them both, it simply shows that both the action and the state of that action’s result are ongoing. They more or less have the same referent: eating.
แม่มีเงินอยู่ 10 บาท
mâe mii ngern yùu sìp bàat
Mum has 10 Baht.
This sentence is interesting. Verbs like ‘to have’, ‘to be’ or ‘to know’ are called static verbs–verbs that describe a state (rather than an action like ‘to go’ or ‘to eat’). Possessing something is not an action–you don’t ACT out your possession over it. In this sentence, the mother has 10 Baht. It is a state of having money, not an action.
Therefore, you cannot use กำลัง /gamlang/ instead of อยู่ /yùu/ in this case:
*แม่กำลังมีเงิน 10 บาท
*mâe gamlang mii ngern sìp bàat
Mum has 10 Baht; currently what she’s doing is having 10 Baht.
As you can see from this erroneous example above, although the difference between กำลัง /gamlang/ and อยู่ /yùu/ is minute and they can coexist most of the time, in some cases the interchangeability ceases and you’re forced to choose only one.
But most of the time you can use them both or either one. No need to overthink this.
เคย /koei/ – experience particle
เคย /koei/ is used to describe past experience. This past experience can be a one-off thing that you’ve ‘ever’ done, or it can be something you used to do habitually. Just like มา /maa/, /koei/ is another true tense marker because it only describes events of the past. Experience can only be a thing of the past, right?
chán koei bpai gaolĭi
I’ve been to Korea.
The speaker has been to Korea; she has the experience of travelling there. In this case /koei/ refers to the speaker’s one-off experience that she has ‘EVER’ been to Korea (unless she adds “twice”, “three times”, etc.)
chán koei yùu gaolĭi
I used to live in Korea.
The speaker in this sentence has an experience in Korea too, but in her case she has the experience of living there. Notice how /koei/ translates to different tenses in English depending on the context of the event. In this case, it is not a one-off experience. She used to live there for an extended period of time. It was constant.
pǒm koei súe kǒrng tîi ráan nán bòi
I used to buy stuff from that shop all the time.
The /koei/ in this case doesn’t describe a one-off experience, nor a continual state of being, but the habituality of the speaker.
If you speak any Romance language, the last 2 usages are an equivalent of the “imperfect tense” like the Italian “Io parlavo”, Spanish “Yo hablaba”, or Portuguese “Eu falava”.
It’s about time – putting the building blocks of time together
We have learnt what these 8 time markers actually mean and how to use them individually, now it’s time for more complex stuff. By combining these time markers you can create a multitude of expressions of time. Imagine that these time markers are like building blocks. Each individual word has its own primary attribute, and when you put them together they create compound references of time.
However, I am not going to spoon-feed you. As a believer in active learning, I am going to present you with sentences containing multiple time markers. You’re going to read each sentence, consult translation for the words you don’t know, going over the meaning of the particles in part one if necessary. Guess what the sentence might mean in terms of temporal reference, then you can read my explanation. It’s important you try to do it yourself, as long-term knowledge sticks better if you rattle your brain trying to come up with your own answer first. You may forget what you remember, but you will never forget what you understand.
Ready? Scroll carefully or you might accidentally see the answer!
káo gamlang bpai láeo
เค้า /káo/ – he/she, ไป /bpai/ – to go
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Answer: “He’s on the way now.”
/gamlang/ and /láeo/ create the meaning of ‘an ongoing action that has already been set in motion’. He has fulfilled the requirement for ‘going’ by perhaps actually having already left the place, or packing up and getting ready to leave. Either way something is being done in order to go to the destination, but that something is still in process so you won’t be seeing him at point B just yet because he’s still actively working on getting there.
pôr yang norn yùu
พ่อ /pôr/ – father, นอน /norn/ – to sleep
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Answer: “Dad’s still sleeping.”
/yang/ and /yùu/ create the meaning of ‘an ongoing state that is still unfinished or pending’. The father’s state of ‘sleeping’ is not complete because he hasn’t woken up yet. The sleeping state /norn yùu/ will be complete once the father wakes up or is woken up by someone.
túkkon gamlang jà bpai
ทุกคน /túkkon/ – everyone
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Answer: “Everyone’s about to leave.”
/gamlang/ and /jà/ create a meaning of ‘an ongoing action intended to happen’, i.e. “to be about to”. Everyone is still not ready to leave yet, but they are now planning to do so. This is different from #1 กำลังแล้ว /gamlang…láeo/ because in #1 the subject is already ‘in the process’ of doing the action, whilst in #3 the subject is only planning to do the action in the near future.
lûukkáa yang mâi dâi jàai ngern
ลูกค้า /lûukkáa/ – customer, จ่ายเงิน /jàai ngern/ – to pay (money)
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Answer: The customer still hasn’t paid yet.
/yang/ and /mâi dâi/ create the meaning of ‘an action that has not been achieved yet and is incomplete’. You can just say ลูกค้ายังไม่จ่ายเงิน /lûukkáa yang mâi jàai ngern/ without the word /dâi/ as well, but keeping the word /dâi/ there makes it seem less deliberate and may imply that the customer ‘hasn’t got around to doing it yet, not because he’s not going to’.
pǒm jà glàp bâan láeo
ผม /pǒm/ – I (male), กลับบ้าน /glàp bâan/ – to go home
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Answer: I’m going home right now.
/jà/ and /láeo/, going back to the initial question I posed in part 1, create the meaning of ‘an action intended to be set in motion any time soon’. In this example, the speaker hasn’t started going home yet, but he is so close to doing that, perhaps in a matter of minutes or even seconds. This structure shows how imminent the action is.
chán jà yang mâi súe rót
ชั้น /chán/ – I (mostly female), ซื้อ /súe/ – to buy, รถ /rót/ – car
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Answer: I won’t buy a car just yet.
/jà/ and /yang mâi/ create the meaning of ‘an action that is intentionally prevented from being fulfilled’. You can just say ชั้นยังไม่ซื้อรถ /chán yang mâi súe rót/ without the word /jà/ as well, but keeping the word /jà/ there makes it clear that the speaker has made a conscious decision NOT to buy a car. That conscious decision or intention is implied just by the word /jà/.
nákrian koei dâi rian bòt níi láeo
นักเรียน /nákrian/ – student, เรียน /rian/ – to study, บท /bòt/ – lesson, นี้ /níi/ – this
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Answer: The students have already studied this lesson.
Here comes a combination of 3 particles! /koei/, /dâi/ and /láeo/ create the meaning of ‘an experience that the subject has achieved and has already completed’. The students, in this case, have been taught this lesson and have completed it in its entirety. The past experience has been completely achieved.
John dâi bpen hǔanâa maa sǎam duean láeo
เป็น /bpen/ – to be, หัวหน้า /hǔanâa/ – boss, สาม /sǎam/ – three, เดือน /duean/ – month
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Answer: John has been the boss for 3 months already.
/dâi/, /maa/ and /láeo/ create a meaning of ‘an achievement that has been continuing from the past up until the present and has completed a certain milestone’. John has been promoted in the past (which is an achievement). That achievement has been in effect up until now (past progressive), and he has just completed a period of 3 months as the boss.
How did you do? Don’t fret if your answers are not quite the same as mine. The accuracy in deeper meaning comes from getting a lot of input from native speakers and repeated use. I hope you take away something from my posts and use it to improve your understanding of Thai. Remember, the most important thing is stop comparing Thai time to your native language and try to construct your understanding from the ground up. Good luck and happy learning!
This article was originally written by Arthit Juyaso.