Understanding Thai Compound Words

Written By: Hugh Leong

Lots of Thai words can be broken down into their constituent parts. For learners of Thai, that would mean that if we know the individual parts that make up these longer “words” then we have a head start on figuring out what they mean.

Although long Thai words can be looked at as single items they can also be looked at as descriptions of what the item or concept is. This also happens in English. For example, the word “thermometer” is a nice long English word but we can break it down into “therm” meaning “heat”, and “meter” meaning “to measure”. So a “thermometer” is “a thing that measures heat”.

Lots of long Thai words are built in a similar fashion.

Here are some examples I came up with by randomly leafing through a Thai/English dictionary looking for long words.

You’ll see that for someone who has never seen a word before, the Thai is sometimes easier to decipher than the English is. In the first example below a student could only guess at the meaning of the English word “audition”, especially if it wasn’t heard in context. But it wouldn’t be difficult to know what the Thai word meant if you knew what made up the different parts.

To audition: ทดสอบการแสดง /tót-sòp-gaan-sà-daeng/
– to test: ทดสอบ /tót-sòp/
– to perform/to show: แสดง /sà-daeng/
– performance (show/play): การแสดง /gaan-sà-daeng/

“Audition” in Thai is a “test of one’s ability to perform (in a show or play)”. Another Thai word for “audition” is ออดิชั่น /or-dì-chân/ – a loan word from English.

If you know the English word “tyranny” then you can make out the meaning of the word “tyrannize”. It is similar in Thai.

To tyrannize: ปกครองแบบกดขี่ /bpòk-krong-bàep-gòt-kèe/
– to rule/govern: ปกครอง /bpòk-krong/
– type/style: แบบ /bàep/
– to oppress: กดขี่ /gòt-kèe/


So in Thai the word “to tyrannize” is broken down into “to govern oppressively”. Another Thai word for “tyrannize” is บีบรัด /bèep-rát/ – “to squeeze and tie up”.

Here is one where the English word can almost be figured out, but you would still have to guess from the context in which it was used. The Thai word is quite clear.

Soundtrack: ดนตรีประกอบภาพยนตร์ /don-dtree-bprà-gòp-pâap-pá-yon/
– music: ดนตรี /don-dtree/
– attach: ประกอบ /bprà-gòp/
– picture: ภาพ /pâap/
– machine: ยนตร์ /yon/
– movie/film: ภาพยนตร์ /pâap-pá-yon/

So in Thai a “soundtrack” is “music attached to a movie”. Another Thai word for “soundtrack” is เสียงในฟิล์ม /sǐang-nai-feem/ – “sound inside a film”, the last word borrowed from English of course.

I am not sure that knowing the meaning of “civil” could tell you what the English words “civil war” means. (A war of civilizations maybe?) It’s easier to guess the meaning of the Thai word though.

Civil war: สงครามกลางเมือง /sǒng-kraam-glaang-meuang/
– war: สงคราม /sǒng-kraam/
– center/middle: กลาง /glaang/
– country (also city, town): เมือง /meuang/

In Thai, “war in the middle of a country” is a “civil war”.

No way one could figure out the meaning of “to elaborate” if you had never heard it before. The Thai word is quite simple.

To elaborate: อธิบายเพิ่มเติม /à-tí-baai-pêrm-dterm/
– to explain: อธิบาย /à-tí-baai/
– to add to, augment: เพิ่ม /pêrm/
– add on: ติม /dterm/
– extra, additional: เพิ่มเติม /pêrm-dterm/

“To elaborate” in Thai is “to explain by adding some more (information)”. อธิบายเพิ่มเติม can also mean “to footnote” as in a report or article. Another Thai word for “to elaborate” is ประดิดประดอย /bprà-di bprà-doi/ – “invent and embellish”

Here’s a word that is a whole sentence in itself. But it is quite easy to understand once we break it down.

To decomtaminate: ขจัดพิษออกจาก /kà-jàt-pít-òk-jàak/
– remove, get rid of: ขจัด /kà-jàt/
– toxin, poison: พิษ /pít/
– expel: ออก /òk/
– from: จาก /jàak/

“Decontaminate”, “to remove or expel toxin from”. Another word for “to decontaminate” is ขจัดสิ่งปนเปื้อน /kà-jàt sìng-bpon-bpêuan/ – “to remove the dirty thing”.

So is Thai a simple, unsophisticated language? Of course not.

Many of Thai’s big words are built using lots of little ones. Because of the way Thai vocabulary is structured, learning new Thai vocabulary is less of a guessing game than it is a puzzle to be solved.

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