Thai Language Thai Culture: Pali and Sanskrit Roots

Thai Language

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

Pali and Sanskrit roots of Thai words…

Have you ever seen those brilliant kids in the national spelling bees? When given a word to spell, the first thing they ask for is the word’s origin. Knowing the “Latin”, or “Greek”, or any of the many other roots to our English words they immediately not only know the word’s basic meaning but they have a big head start on how to spell it correctly. Well, Thai is also a language whose roots come from many other languages.

The latest of these of course is English. But with English, Thai usually borrows the complete word. In Thai, these are referred to as ทับศัพท์ /táp sàp/ or borrowed words. It is amazing that without ever studying Thai you will already know hundreds of Thai words, albeit borrowed from English. The way they are pronounced might make them a little hard to recognize though. My golf caddie (Don’t blame me, I’m retired and supposed to be playing golf) the other day was talking about a “dy wat”. It took me a while to realize that she was talking about a “divot” that I had just made in the fairway. But when she called out the Thai word “on”, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I had hit my ball “on the green”.

The Thai Royal Language, ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/, borrows a great deal from the Cambodian Royal Language. And of course Thai has lots of Chinese influence. But the languages with the most impact on Thai, especially the roots of Thai words, are the Indian languages of Pali and Sanskrit. Although both are “dead” languages, similar to Latin, you can still hear Pali spoken daily as it is the language of the Buddhist scriptures and chants. All men who join the monkhood must learn some Pali in order to take part in the Buddhist chanting and rituals. That is not so different from the time when all Roman Catholic masses were held in Latin.

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I am always looking for ways to help me increase my Thai vocabulary. And the fact that so many Thai words have their origins in Pali and Sanskrit can help with that. Just like those spelling bee kids, if we can learn the roots of a word we can get a head start on figuring out its meaning and maybe even remembering it.

By the way, the two Thai words used above both have roots in Pali and Sanskrit. The root ศัพท์ /sàp/ in each means “word”. ทับศัพท์ /táp-sàp/ = (borrowed) word.

ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/ has the extra benefit of having two roots. ราชา /raa-chaa/ means royal or pertaining to the king. So ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/ = royal words. The root ราชา /raa-chaa/, meaning “royal”, can also be seen in the English phrase “the British Raj” or in the word “Maharaja”. The “maha” in “maharaja” is another root meaning “great”. So “maharaja” = “great king”.

As you can see, one root will lead to another. This could go on for a while. That is why I have been compiling a list of Thai words that have Pali and Sanskrit roots. Glenn Slayden of thai-language.com has graciously offered to format these and place them on his website at Pali and Sanskrit Prefixes and Suffixes. If you have trouble reading the Thai simply click on the word and you’ll be shown a complete discussion of the word including a phonetic transcription.

I am still adding to this list so if you come across any roots that I don’t have yet please drop a line and we’ll try to incorporate them. For now, just have fun with the language.

See if you can find the Pali and Sanskrit roots to Thai words that also are roots to English words. There are quite a few, showing that the Thai and English languages are in fact distant cousins. Here are a few below (although some are merely guesses on my part).

ราชา /raa-chaa/
(Pali) royal, of or pertaining to king
British Raj, Raja, Maharaja, Rajasthan

มหา /má-hăa/
(Pali) great; omnipotent; large; many; much; maximal; paramount; exalted
Maharaja (great king), Mahatma (Great Soul, Atma = soul) as in Gandhi.

มรณ /mor-rá-na/́
death; the act of dying; cessation
mortal, mortality, immortal

มาตุ /maa-dtu/
(Pali) maternal; relating to mother
The word for mother in so many languages start with “m”. This is just one more.

อารย /aa-rá-yá/
(Sanskrit) Aryan race; civilized person; honorable person; honest person
Aryan, Iran

วิทยา /wít-tá-yaa/
(Pali) science; knowledge; learning; philosophy
Possibly related to wit, witty

มานุษ /maa-nút/
(Sanskrit, Pali) human; relating to human
Possibly related to human, man, woman, humanity

โทร /toh/
(Sanskrit?) remote, over a distance
Pronounced toh-rá when used in compound words. Possibly related to “tele” which is a Greek root meaning remote, over distance. The Thai words with this same prefix are so close to English. Just replace the “r” sound with an “l” and you will see.

Telephone: โทรศัพท์ /toh-rá sàp/
ศัพท์ is the Pali word for “word”

Television: โทรทัศน์ /toh-rá-tát/
ทัศน์ is the Sanskrit root for “vision”

Telegraph: โทรเลข /toh-rá lâyk/
เลข is the Pali root for “writing”

Telescope: โทรทรรศน์ /toh-rá-tát/
ทรรศน์ is the Sanskrit root for “see”

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog

26 comments
  1. Overall a pretty much birds eye view of the Thai Language. However, as pointed out by someone earlier in reference to ‘dead language’ in the following statement is not correct: “But the languages with the most impact on Thai, especially the roots of Thai words, are the Indian languages of Pali and Sanskrit. Although both are “dead”.
    Neither Pali nor Sanskrit are dead language and they never will be “dead” language because that would mean death to both Hinduism and Buddhism. All the “Poojas” whether it be Hindu weddings or Ganesh Pooja or Budhist celebrations are carried out in the applicable language of Sanskrit or Pali.
    The other point that is inappropriate is:
    “อารย /aa-rá-yá/
    (Sanskrit) Aryan race; civilized person; honorable person; honest person
    Aryan, Iran
    “Aryan” and “Iran” as a country is not the same thing. Hinduism as a religion eventually acquired two different forms: “arya samaj” and “sanatan”. The “arya” is derived from the Vedic Scriptures and “sanatan” is a modification of “arya samaj” Basically, a short cut to ‘arya samaj’. There is absolutely no link to “iran” as a country which not so long ago was known as “Persia”. Neither does Iran has to do anything with the Arayan civilization.

  2. I am from Sanskrit and Pali background and can tell you these words are written and pronounced in correctly by Thais. For example , knowledge is Vidya and nor with TTA ya, king is Raja and not Ra chha, sin is pap not bab, land is bhumi and nitvohym , greeting is not sawadee but swosthi or namaste , I am pretty sure the Siamese people would be able to write and pronounce Sanskrit correctly as Indians do …it seems to me that Thais are not exactly Siamese so they pronounce Thai way …for in Bali and Sri Lanka Sanskrit is written and pronounce d cirrwctkt .

  3. Sanskrit is a fake language. its stolen from tamil language and copied all tamil literature and burned tamil literature. its happened all through history. Victors kill the enemy history. But the power of tamil is its everywhere. Korean speaks more tamil. Cameroon speaks tamil. Australiasians speak tamil. Most english words have tamil roots ( not the words british copied from india when they ruled). If you ask north indians they will say sanskrit is 5000 years old. infact sanskrit is created only in 150ad. There were many languages before sanskrit…but before all languages there is only one language spoken by human… Even before elamaite and sumerian…. tamil words used in even remote places in earth shows its reach. go study more….also thai temples use tamil bajan.

  4. Hugh,
    Thanks for this post. I enjoy finding roots of Thai words.
    In the link above “http://www.thai-language.com/ref/pali-sanskrit-affixes”
    (Pali and Sanskrit Prefixes and Suffixes)

    The webpage includes สุข (health) so I suggest to include ทุกข์ as it is often used as the opposite of สุข and I guess that it is also a word from Pali language.

  5. Thai language certainly have abundant Sankrit and Pali words in it. But as a Thai I sometimes wonder why our language did not have the same exposure to sanskrit as did English to Latin. Basically English is sometimes called a double-derivation language (i.e. derived as much from Saxon as from Latin/Greek) and its wealth in vocabularies is based on this character. Thai language could have been the same. But somehow we do not have the same level of command of Sanskrit roots as the English – which obviously allows them to permutate and construct new terms.

    I surmise that this was because the Thai (and Khmer) were only exposed to Pali and Sanskrit only on the religious and literary level. However, Sanskrit’s cultural influence stopped there; whereas Latin was also the language of science, philosophy and the Enlightenment which many European languages continued to absorb.

    This is why when it comes to literature, sanskrit terms are everywhere in Thai literary composition. [Thai did adopt Pali’s numerous Chanda (ฉันท์) meters and forms from Sri Lanka since the Ayutthaya period; and these meters requires words with short (lahu) and long (Kuru) quality. The original poetic form of the Thai (and Lao) language was klong (โคลง). But to compose in Chanda meters Sanskrit had to be imported. ] However, Sanskrit played a much smaller role in the philosophical and scientific tradition. Siam’s trade with India was limited (we trade so much more with China) and Sanskrit did not become the language of law and science like how the Latin was to the European. We use Pali as the source of philosophical language, and Pali is our chief source for metaphysical term.

    In modern time, when the Thais adopted western ideas and science, they first look for Sanskrit to provide words for the new technical terms of western origin. However, it has been more of a struggle. Since non-literary Sanskrit terms were pretty much Greek to the Thais and some adoption ended in a failure. In sum, while the Thai language is much affiliation to Sanskrit, I would argue that the relationship between Thai and Sanskrit is not as close as the relationship between English and Latin.

  6. Hmm. But there is some similarities between bengali and hindi language also. So, if you think learning bengali is hard (because bengali is more rich and high literatural language and more foreign language words added than hindi language) than you can learn hindi and some tothsama (sanskrit) words to understand thai easily.

    Example-
    Thai – อารย /aa-rá-yá/
    Bengali – আর্য/arrjo/
    Hindi – आर्य/aary (y spell as ‘j’ or ‘z’ in hindi)
    English – Aarya (means an ancient nation or civilization who conquered many countries such as europe, egypt, iran (iran mean ‘the land of aarya), afghanistan, pakistan, india, bangladesh etc.)

  7. If you know bengali and some ‘tothsama’ words (Sanskrit words) then you can understand some thai words. I am bengali speaking bangladeshi citizen.
    Example-
    1. Bengali – Raja
    Thai – raa-chaa
    English – Royal or king

    2. Bengali – Sobdo
    Thai – sàp
    English – Word

    3. Bengali- Moha
    Thai – má-hăa
    English – Great

    4. Bengali – Mora (as a bengali dialect)
    Thai – mor-rá-na
    English – Dead or die

    5. Bengali – Matri (Not sure)
    Thai – maa-dtu
    English – Maternal

    6. Bengali – Manush
    Thai – maa-nút
    English – Man or human.

  8. Well, Sanskrit is not a dead language. It is still taught and used. There is a village in India where they still speak Sanskrit. Pali is also taught in curriculum as an optional language, however I am not aware if it is still used.

  9. The “wit” of mahawitaya is more likely related to the Latin vita through its Sanskrit cognate. Consider the “wit” of “chiwit” life and I think you will see my point. After all, education makes for a great life.
    I would love to see the dictionary mentioned above.

  10. (FOLLOWING:)They don’t seem to be all Khmer,although some definitely are. But just two clues that might shed a light on this:
    In Lao,an aubergine is”Maak kheua”and a lemon is “maak nao”.Could this show the Thai “ma'” being a contraction of “maak”?(ho heep/mo maa/sara’ aa/ko kai).The areca nut being the archetype,”maak”would then be a generic for small round fruit such as all those?
    Similarly,could “ta’ wan” be a contraction of “taa wan”meaning eye of the day:sun,just like “mata hari”in Indonesian? That would make those monosyllabic,agreed,Hugh? Plus,can we fill ALL “a’ “prefixed words into contractions such as these?
    C/ It is useful to know that Sanskrit vocabulary in Thai deals with topics such as sciences,society,politics,arts,nature,Brahmanic/
    Hindu matters,cosmology and so forth. Pali being essentially a corpus of religious terms of Theravada Buddhism. Did you consider those”topic areas”when trying to classify words into one or the other? The word”raaja”thus “mainly” comes from Sanskrit,but there is clearly a register overlap in this case,this same word also being
    used in Buddhist texts.So we have “Athiraat”being totally Sanskrit,while “thammaraat”being totally Pali….
    Khaorop, M.B.

  11. Hugh,I am truly impressed by your constant search into the intricacies of the Thai language showing a passionate dedication to it.I have not yet read all your numerous articles,but so far have appreciated your thoughtful comments on such topics as the monosyllabic issue and the Indic influence which has been my field,so to speak,for many years.That does not make me a Sanskrit or Pali expert,far from it,just a perpetual “word wanderer”.I have just developed a knack for fishing out those loanwords from several Asian languages.On this basis only,I’d like to ask your view on the following:
    A/ You stated that Thai was a distant cousin of English,based on common root words from Indian tongues(You quoted “maharaja”).By the
    same token,would you consider,say,Japanese as a distant cousin of Italian on account of having incorporated words such as”pizza”,cappuccino”or “mafia”?But even by taking into account longer standing loanwords,would the use of common Latin roots make English a distant cousin of Spanish?(see:”human/humano”,”natural/natural”,”notion/nociòn”etc.)
    B/The fundamental tonic/monosyllabic nature of Thai being evident,that makes it totally unrelated to any western tongue,including English.Having put aside all Indic and Khmer polysyllabic vocabulary,only one category of seemingly polysyllabic words remains to be identified:That with the “a’ “type prefixes,such as “pra’ ma’ ra’ tra’ ta’ “etc. I have no answer to that question.Have you found anything about this in your research?
    (SEE FOLLOWING MESSAGE)

  12. Indian:your comments are correct,but(although I am no authority in the matter),the word”Siam”has nothing to do with the Hindi “shyam”,meaning the dark blue colour of the night sky,attributed to
    the complexion of Krishna.

    Hugh:Thank you for the light you throw on Sskt/Pali inserts in Thai.
    You may be interested to know that I have done a compilation of those words on the Sethaputra Thai-English dic.in 2 volumes.I researched every word identified with their original pronunciation(based on Devanagari script)And I like to self-gratifyingly think I have made no omission…
    Would sharing the infos useful to you or anyone?
    Khaorop,Michel B.

  13. No matter how many words are borrowed from English that many multiplied by infinity are from Sanskrit and even those words from English can very well be from Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the mother if all languages and India is ur great grandmother.

  14. also ราช is also related to “regal” (from Latin). Latin and Sanskrit are related languages. They are both Indo-European languages.

  15. The numbers โทร ตรี are related historically to two (or ‘duo’ from Latin I think) and three (or “tri-” from Latin)

  16. Thai word for Rose Gulab Indian also Gulab ; Siam is the name for Thailand before and it means Shyam in Indin language which means brown or Sun set.Gold is called Suwarn same is the name of Thai Airport Suwarn bhom here bhom is Bhomi which means land ie Golden land.many words like Raja,Rajkumar,rani,Rajkumari,senapati,praja,sukh,dukh,narak,swarg are few of the words Thiland & India have commen.there are many u can share it

  17. Martyn,

    The interesting thing about a borrowed word is that it is now part of the borrower’s language. Therefore, the way a Thai pronounces Strawberry is the correct way since it is no longer an English word at this point. So, if you are speaking English it is pronounced one way and if you are speaking Thai is is pronounced differently. And they are both correct.

    Most English speakers pronounce the French phrase “Coup De Grace” as “coup de gra” thinking of course that the French don’t pronounce the last “s” sound. But in this case they do and instead of “gra” it should be pronounce something like “grass”. So, it looks like we do the same thing.

    Remember, when you are asking for your ice cream, use the correct tones. It is very interesting how English loan words develop Thai tones when they are borrowed, and if not said correctly, with the correct tone, they won’t understand you.

  18. Talen, is Pookie taking English lessons while you are away? I know a grand site if she is interested… He was talking about converting his method to learning Thai (and I wish he would).

    Martyn, six twelve hour shifts? Whoooh. It has been awhile since I’ve had to do back to back such as that.

    In one section of his course, Stu Jay Raj explains the reasons behind why Thais have difficulty pronouncing r’s and v’s. The v’s I remember (there are no v’s in the Thai alphabet so they are all converted to w’s).

    For the breakdown of the syllabals, it is all those invisible vowels in between the consonants. So in Thai thinking, strawberry would have an invisible a after the s and t (or are they all o’s? 😉

  19. Some of the borrowed English words that the Thai’s have integrated into their language do make me politely chuckle when hearing them. Dy-wat is one I can imagine and sataw-buly is one I have just got to hear. On my next trip I shall be heading for Tesco’s ice cream freezer.

    The Thai’s difficulty in pronouncing r’s and v’s is an obvious reason for their strange sounding words at times. I also think that their over emphasis on syllables is another major factor. Computer becomes kom…poo…ter, there is no natural rolling together of each syllable, a slight gap between each part instead…. Now for a very bad guess on my part….I reckon the bad sounding words are possibly caused by foreign English teachers who are just that, foreign to English. The teachers themselves have difficulty pronouncing many English words themselves. I hope that doesn’t kick up a storm.

    My apologies for being a little late in commenting on your posts but I have just finished a run of six 12 hour shifts and I’ve been feeling ‘wery wery’ tired. Sataw-buly, I must write that down in my book.

    ‘Wilai do you want chocolate or strawberry ice cream.’

    For once I’m actually going to enjoy going to a supermarket unless she says chocolate of course.

  20. Cat, What I really need is real old fashioned ( talking 1800’s here ) talking dictionary…that will give me the most incentive to learn….unfortunately my talking dictionary only knows how to say Chocolllate Bunnny at the moment.

  21. Excellent start Hugh. The only word I could think of borrowed from English at the moment is strawberry. But I have heard more than a few words in Issan that I’m sure are borrowed from Pali or Sanskrit.

    I think I need to get down regular Thai before I venture too far into other languages though…but it does help to hear and understand where the roots are coming from.

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