HouseTalk: Kinship Terms for Thai Housekeepers and more

Kinship Terms for Thai Housekeepers and more

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Kinship terms for Thai housekeepers, nannies, drivers, and more…

In the last post, What Do You Call Your Thai Housekeeper?, we learned about alternative names for maids in Thailand. During the research, Sarawan (The Parent Vine – no longer online) and I engaged in a discussion about the different terms used for not only housekeepers but drivers, cooks, and nannies.

Sarawan, whose mother is Thai, is raising an Australian-American-Thai baby in Bangkok. And because she grew up with an extended Thai family, Sarawan is familiar with who gets named what in the modern Thai world.

But being American raised, Sarawan continues to come across nuances important for understanding Thai relationships. And when Sarawan pointed out a peculiarity (below), we both set out to discover more.

I asked my mother how she would refer to household staff at my grandmother’s house and she confirmed what Rikker and Kaewmala said about สาวใช้ /săao-chái/ and คนใช้ /kon-chái/. She said she would call them เด็กที่บ้าน /dèk-têe-bâan/ – child of the house, but then sternly told me not to try that myself – this is reserved for older people (say, over 50) when referring to younger staff (say, under 30).

I asked if it was patronizing to call them เด็ก /dèk/. After thinking about it, she told me that it was just neutral, like saying “the people at our house”, but older people get referred to specifically by title.

Here are a few she mentioned:

คนเลี้ยงเด็ก /kon-líang-dèk/ is an alternative to พี่เลี้ยง /pêe-líang/ (nanny).

A cook is แม่ครัว /mâe-krua/ (mother of the kitchen) or พ่อครัว /pôr-krua/ (father of the kitchen).

A driver is คนขับรถ /kon-kàp-rót/ (person who drives the car).

When addressing someone in person, I always used to fall back on using kinship terms like พี่ /pêe/ (older person), น้า /náa/ (aunt) and ลุง /lung/ (uncle) etc., to refer to maids, taxi drivers, etc.

It was recently explained me that we always use kinship terms from the mother’s family (I had never thought about it before). So in our apartment building, my daughter refers to her พี่เลี้ยง /pêe-líang/ as พี่จ๊ะ /pêe-já/, to older maids in the building as ป้า /bpâa/, and one who’s quite a bit older, as ยาย ทูม /yaai toom/ Grandmother Toom (Toom is her name). Or rather – since my daughter is not really talking yet – this is how the various maids and housekeepers have decided amongst themselves that she should refer to them.

The handymen and guards in the building are all called ลุง /lung/ (Older Uncle) since they’re mostly older than me (or at least they want to flatter me by claiming to be).

As someone with a more farang mindset, I always preferred addressing people like this myself, because it is familiar yet adds respect. I remember the shock I felt when I hired my current maid (now nanny), and started to call her พี่ /pêe/, and then realized that she probably WASN’T my พี่ /pêe/. I really didn’t know where to go from there. I now use คุณ /khun/, even though I know that most Thais wouldn’t necessarily do the same. It feels formal and wrong to me though, and I miss having a more casual but correct way to address her. But I think I just have to flounder through this awkward stage until I am granny-aged and can basically call anyone whatever I want.

Anyhow, I find it fascinating how kinship terms soften the social stratification, while at the same time preserving distinctions. And I find it fascinating that it’s the mother’s family terminology that is used, not the father’s.

Why Thais use the mother’s terminology in the household…

In the English language, terms for grandfather, grandmother, uncle and aunt are interchangeable on both sides of the family. But most (not all) Thai kinship terms denote what side of the family the person is on (mother or father), as well as age (older or younger).

The mother’s side of the family:


Mother แม่ /mâe/
Grandmother ยาย /yaai/
Grandfather ตา /dtaa/
Uncle (mother’s elder brother) ลุง /lung/
Uncle (mother’s younger brother) น้า /náa/
Aunt (mother’s older sister) ป้า /bpâa/
Aunt (mother’s younger sister) น้า /náa/

The father’s side of the family:

Father พ่อ /pôr/
Grandmother ย่า /yâa/
Grandfather ปู่ /bpòo/
Uncle (father’s older brother) ลุง /lung/
Uncle (father’s younger brother) อา /aa/
Aunt (father’s older sister) ป้า /bpâa/
Aunt (father’s younger sister) อา /aa/

When Sarawan brought up the curious use of the mother’s terminology when naming servants, I asked Skype teacher Khun Narisa to please explain it to me.

Khun Narisa took the opportunity to teach me an old Thai saying:

คนไทย แต่ง เข้า, คนจีน แต่ง ออก
kon-tai dtàeng kâo, kon jeen dtàeng òok
Thai people marry, entre. Chinese people marry, exit.

Note: แต่ง /dtàeng/ is the shortened version of แต่งงาน /dtàeng ngaan/, to get married.

And to understand the cloudy (to me) point being made, Khun Narisa enlarged on the subject by sharing several more sentences with the same meaning:

Thai people marry, entre: When Thai people get married they want the son-in-law to move in.
คนไทย แต่ง เข้า – คนไทย แต่งงาน แล้ว เอา ลูกเขย เข้า บ้าน
kon-tai dtàeng kâo – kon tai dtàeng-ngaan láew ao lôok-kŏie kâo bâan

Thai people marry, then have the son-in-law move in.
คนไทย แต่ง แล้ว ให้ ลูกเขย เข้า บ้าน
kon-tai dtàeng láew hâi lôok-kŏie kâo bâan

Chinese people marry, exit: When Chinese marry they must have their daughters out of the house.
คนจีน แต่ง ออก – คนจีน ถ้า ลูกสาว แต่งงาน แล้ว ต้อง ออกจาก บ้าน
kon jeen dtàeng òk – kon-jeen tâa lôok-săao dtàeng-ngaan láew dtông òk-jàak bâan

Chinese people marry, then have the daughter move out.
คนจีน แต่ง แล้ว ให้ ลูกสาว ออกจาก บ้าน
kon-jeen dtàeng láew hâi lôok-săao òk-jàak bâan

The logic here is that Thai people feel the need for the son-in-law to move in because he can then help on the farm (it also assures that he does not beat their daughter). But the Chinese people want the daughter-in-law to move in to take care of the housekeeping and help in the family business.

Traditionally in Thailand, living with multiple generations in one household is common. So in a typical Thai household it’s quite possible to have the newlyweds, the brides’ mother and father, the brides’ grandparents and even great grandparents, the brides’ sisters with their kids and husbands, and sometimes the brides’ unmarried uncles.

And with the son-in-law moving into his wife’s family home, Thai family units are/were often had a high concentration of the female side of the family. And even though the traditional ways of Thai life are being replaced by modern living, using family terms from the mother’s side is upheld even today.

So there you have it – the reason for the use of female kinship terms for Thai servants.

But I’m not done yet… in my research I came across a theory that is quiet fun. I’m not sure how true it is (Khun Narisa says that Thai newlyweds were not commonly given such a choice), but here we go:

Paraphrasing: If Thai a bridegroom moves his new wife in with his mother there will be fights and disharmony between the two women. But if he moves in with his new mother-in-law she’ll spoil him like she does her own son. Sweet!

Thai vocabulary: Terms for your Thai house help…

แม่บ้าน /mâe-bâan/
Housekeeper (house mother)

เมด /mâyt/
Housekeeper, maid

คน ช่วย ทำงานบ้าน /kon chûay tam-ngaan-bâan/
Person who helps with housework

พี่เลี้ยง /pêe-líang/
Nanny or au pair

คนเลี้ยงเด็ก /kon-líang-dèk/
Nanny or au pair

แม่ครัว /mâe-krua/
Female cook

พ่อครัว /pôr-krua/
Male cook

คนขับรถ /kon-kàp-rót/

แม่ /mâe/

ยาย /yaai/

ตา /dtaa/

ลุง /lung/
Uncle (mother’s elder brother)

น้า /náa/
Uncle (mother’s younger brother)

ป้า /bpâa/
Aunt (mother’s older sister)

น้า /náa/
Aunt (mother’s younger sister)

พี่ /pêe/
Used when talking to someone older

น้อง /nóng/
Used when talking to someone younger

So, what are your thoughts on Thai kinship terms?

Downloads: Kinship terms for Thai housekeepers, nannies, drivers…

The below downloads include the Thai script, transliteration, and sound files to the above vocabulary. Sound files for the male kinship terms are there too.

Pdf download 1.6mg: Kinship Terms for Thai Housekeepers and More
Sound download 680kb: Kinship Terms for Thai Housekeepers and More

Please note: The materials are for your own personal use only.

The Thai HouseTalk series…

Next we are going to launch into the meat of the series with the basic cleaning instructions needed to communicate with your Thai maid (housekeeper, cleaner, mâe-bâan, Khun Gung, whatever you’ve finally decided).

Connecting posts:

12 thoughts on “HouseTalk: Kinship Terms for Thai Housekeepers and more”

  1. One of the more interesting kinship term problems I have run across is one of my wife’s university friends has, at the age of 27 or so, become the second wife of a rather high ranked civil servant much older then her. He is also some 10 years older then his now mother-in-law.

    The telling of the first visit to mother was very amusing as nobody was sure how to refer to each other or even who was suppose to wai first. They settled it by basically not actually directly addressing each other and just giving small nods at the introduction.

  2. Lani, I haven’t gotten up the nerve to call my security guards uncle yet but I’m working up to it. They really don’t do much to generate a conversation (they sit on chairs mostly) so I’ll have to engineer something. I’m looking forward to seeing the surprise on their faces. Or confusion.

    Have fun with your Thai tutor 🙂

  3. I love this post Cat! Bravo! One of my absolute favorites because it is soooo useful and interesting and relevant.

    I remember when I was growing up I was told to call all my mom’s friends aunt or uncle. In English!!!! I didn’t understand why, even when my mom explained, and now I do. I mean, you know when I took my first Thai class and all. . .

    But I’ve been wondering what to call the security guard. . .555

    Awesome. Looking forward to reading more in this series, but now I got to go meet my Thai tutor!!!!!!!!!


  4. Ta Martyn. เมด is indeed maid. In English maid seems to hold its own as one of the standards even though I’m told that it’s no longer politically correct.

  5. Catherine and Sarawan

    A smashing post although all the different kinship terms do take a bit of getting used to. I think I could cause a few cricked necks in a household by getting them wrong most times.

    I listened to the audio pronunciations (most handy) and noticed the word เมด /mâyt/ is as near to English as you could possibly get. Unfortunately my tongue and teeth dance to different tunes on most of the others. น้อง /nóng/ is one I’ve used in Thailand on many occasions when addressing younger people.

  6. Wow, I’m slow, just saw this now! Snap, I’m very fond of the term Yai as well, especially when my little daughter shrieks it out with glee if she spots my mother’s car. Yai Yai Yai Yai YAAAAAAAAI! And Catherine, I’m with you on the warm and fuzzy feeling. There’s a great community of maids/nannies/guards/handymen/motorcyle drivers/etc on our soi, with most of them working here for years in the different buildings. Everyone is a ba or yai or lung, and it’s a wonderful way to begin to connect into the community, even as a clueless farang (or clueless half-Thai).

  7. Talen, reading about kinship terms often just might keep the words in our heads. The only other option is to adopt a Thai family (now that’s a thought).

  8. Cat, what a great post that will help me back up what I learned in class. We learned all the kinship words but it’s hard to keep track when you aren’t in the situation of having a Thai family living with you.

  9. I like Yaai too 🙂 When I started WLT I right away acquired a younger Thai sister so when we emailed back and forth I had to remember what to call myself and her too. Being an older sister gives a warm and fuzzy feeling (I only have older brothers).

  10. The Thai kinship system is a little daunting at first and I still have yet to learn whose who! Although, I did learn quickly how to tell people that I am a ยาย /yaai and I have a หลานสาว /lǎhn-sǎo, back home 🙂 I like Yaai…maybe I’ll swap it for Nanny.


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