This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Loan words by any other name…
A long while ago I did a research paper that got published in Passa, the Chulalongkorn Linguistics publication, about the frequency of English loan words in Thai. Borrowing words from English has been going on for a while. At that time I was under the opinion that words got borrowed from one language to another out of necessity, or when the target language didn’t have a word that expressed the needed concept.
I changed my opinion when I came across แบตเตอรี่ /bàet-dter-rêe/, a loan word for a car battery. The same word was often used for flashlight batteries also. I didn’t know then that there was a perfectly good Thai word, หม้อไฟ /môr fai/, that was just as well-known and used and meant exactly the same thing. The real Thai word comes from หม้อ /môr/ (literally: a small container) and ไฟ /fai/ (literally: fire, electricity). That is not to be confused with the dry cell battery, ถ่าน /tàan/. So, not only did Thai have a perfectly good word for “battery”, they had two of them.
Now that I have a little more experience with the Thai language I realize that there are lots of loanwords from English that have perfectly good Thai words that express the same thing or concept. So my idea that words are borrowed out of necessity maybe doesn’t fit anymore. I am now of the opinion that Thai often borrows words from English because the people, for whatever reason, just seem to like them.
If you are looking for a good resource to learn Thai online, check out Learn Thai from a White Guy. Upon entering your email, you'll get five free lessons to help you start learning to read Thai.
Sometimes when studying Thai, or any subject really, it is good to give yourself some fun exercises. Even though using English loan words is perfectly acceptable, and almost everyone will understand them, you might want to try this the next time you are looking for a vocabulary building exercise. When you hear an English loan word used in Thai, look up the real Thai word. So later, when a Thai speaker is being cool by using the English loan word, you can turn around and be just as cool by using the perfectly good Thai word. It will probably shock them too which will up your Thai speaking credentials.
I recently did this exercise myself. Here are some examples of English loan words that I have heard over the last few days and their Thai equivalents.
The loan word for “computer” is คอมพิวเตอร์ /kom-piw-dter/ of course, and even more common is the shortened form คอมฯ /kom/. But the formal Thai word, endorsed by the Royal Thai institute, is คณิตกรณ์ /ká-nít gon/ (literally: thing for calculating). I honestly have to say that I have never heard this word spoken.
A cook or chef in a restaurant is sometimes referred to with the loan word กุ๊ก /gúk/ instead of the colloquial Thai word คนครัว /kon krua/ (literally: person of the kitchen) or the more fancy ภักษการ /pák-sà-gaan/ or just as easily go to a ร้านกาแฟ /ráan gaa-fae/ (literally: coffee store).
Thais love boxing and I watched a championship bout with some Thai friends. The word most often heard on TV for “champ” is แชมป์ /chaem/ or maybe even แชมเปญ /chaem-bpayn/ instead of using the Thai word ผู้ชนะเลิศ /pôo chá-ná lêrt/ (literally: person who won excellence).
The late Michael Jackson is referred to in the newspapers as a superstar ซูเปอร์สตาร์ /soo-bper sà-dtâa/ when he just as easily could be called ดาราที่ยิ่งใหญ่ /daa-raa têe yîng yài/ (literally: star which is great).
When you go to your local mechanic to fix your brakes or เบรค bràyk, see if he will fix your ที่ห้ามล้อ /têe hâam lór/ (literally: the thing which restrains the wheels). Hopefully, he will know that they are the same things.
In the evening I like to watch TV, ทีวี /tee-wee/ or โทรทัศน์ /toh-rá-tát/ (literally: see from a distance) or listen to my stereo สเตริโอ /sà-dtay rí-oh/ or ระบบเสียงมิติ /rá-bòp-sĭang mí-dtì/ (literally: system sound dimension).
Would you rather go to a show โชว์ /choh/ or a การแสดง /gaan sà-daeng/ (literally: acting, performing)? They are the same thing.
It may be a little easier to say PC พีซี /pee see/ but the perfectly good word for personal computer, though somewhat longer, and not altogether Thai, is คอมพิวเตอร์ส่วนบุคคล /kom-piw-dter sùan bùk-kon/ (literally: personal computer).
If I think in terms of English loanwords:
I used to ride my motorcycle, มอร์เตอร์ไซค์ /mor-dtêr sai/ to the office, ออฟฟิศ /óp-fít/ where I planned projects, โปรเจ็คต์ /bproh-jèk/, and hoped to get a bonus, โบนัส /boh-nát/, so that someday I could buy a nice big villa, วิลล่า /win-lâa/.
Or just as easily think in Thai:
I used to ride my motorcycle, รถจักรยานยนตร์ /rót jàk-grà yaan yon/ (literally: powered bicycle) to the office, ที่ทำงาน /têe tam ngaan/ (literally: place where work is done) where I planned projects โครงการ /krohng gaan/ (literally: project) and hoped to get a bonus บำเหน็จ /bam-nèt/ (literally: bonus) so that someday I could buy a nice big villa, คฤหาสน์ /ká-réu-hàat/ (literally: mansion, villa).
And my least favorite English loan word, really two loanwords, is เช็คบิล /chék bin/, a combination of “check” and “bill”, called out at a restaurant when you want the check, or the bill. How someone thought to put the two together is beyond me, especially since there is not only a perfectly good Thai word for this concept (“check please”), there are lots of them. You can use เก็บเงินด้วย /gèp ngern dûay/ (literally: collect money please), เก็บตังค์ด้วย /gèp dtang dûay/ (literally: collect coins please), คิดเงินด้วย /kít ngern dûay/ (literally: calculate the money please), among others.
It is probably just cool for most people to use lots of English words in their everyday speech. Young people all want to be trendy or modern, โมเดิร์น /moh-dern/, but they can be just as up to date being ทันสมัย /tan sà-măi/ (literally: catch up with the times). But sometimes it isn’t just being cool; it is simply easier to use the loan word. Think of how long your Thai sentence would be without using another loan word for battery แบต /bàet/ in the nicely compact sentence แบตมอด /bàet môt/ (literally: battery is used up) when your cell phone battery has died.