This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Questions on Thai and Thai Usage…
Lots of people have questions about the Thai language and usage. If you have a question or two about the Thai language why not send it on to us and we’ll see what answers we can come up with.
Let’s try a couple here today.
How do we say “International” in Thai?…
A friend asked me the difference between the two words Thais use to mean “international”.
The most familiar Thai word for “international” is นานาชาติ /naa-naa-châat/.
All (every): นานา /naa-naa/
Nation: ชาติ /châat/
The reason that the word นานาชาติ /naa-naa-châat/ is most familiar to Expats is probably because of the term โรงเรียนนานาชาติ /rohng-rian naa-naa-châat/: international school (โรงเรียน /rohng-rian/) school).
There are many international schools in Thailand these days but when I first came here there was only one in the whole country. Its name was “The International School Bangkok” or “ISB”, which of course still exists until this day. Its common name in Thai is โรงเรียนนานาชาติ /rohng-rian naa-naa-châat/, of course. Check out their cool website.
The second “international” word is สากล /sǎa-gon/ meaning universal, worldwide, used by all. Although this word does not specifically mean “international” it sometimes can be translated as such.
One use of the term สากล /sǎa-gon/ is in the term เพลงสากล /playng sǎa-gon/.
The word เพลง /playng/ means “song” or “music” and to differentiate between Thai music and “world” or “international” or “western” music the term เพลงสากล /playng sǎa-gon/ can be used.
Another term is one I hear quite often: มาตรฐานสากล /mâat-dtrà~tǎan sǎa-gon/.
The word มาตรฐาน /mâat-dtrà~tǎan/ means “standards”. You’ll hear this term when you go to buy some kind of equipment or building material and the salesman wants you to trust the quality of what you are buying by telling you that in the manufacturing of this product they use มาตรฐานสากล /mâat-dtrà~tǎan sǎa-gon/, or international or universal standards.
One example using สากล /sǎa-gon/ is the term Universal Product Code (UPC) or รหัสสากลสำหรับผลิตภัณฑ์ /rá~hàt-sǎa-gon-sǎm-ràp-pà~lìt-dtà~pan/. We also refer to this in English as a “bar code”. This long word is broken down into:
Code: รหัส /rá~hàt/
Universal: สากล /sǎa-gon/
For: สำหรับ /sǎm-ràp/
Product: ผลิตภัณฑ์ /pà~lìt-dtà~pan/
(The word ผลิต /pà~lìt/ means to manufacture or to produce)
But the Thai word for “bar code” that I would use (the one easiest for this old brain to remember) is บาร์โค้ด /baa-kóht/. It’s a borrowed word and most Thais would use it too.
How do you use the Thai words for Temporary and Permanent?…
Depending on our plans we could be in Thailand on a temporary or a permanent basis.
Temporary, short term: ชั่วคราว /chûa-kraao/
Permanent, settled, stable: ถาวร /tǎa-won/
One could say:
chan yòo bprà-tâyt tai chûa kraao
I am living in Thailand temporarily (for a short time).
chan yòo bprà-tâyt tai tǎa-won
I am living in Thailand permanently (forever).
But there is a caveat or two with these words.
Be careful when using the word ชั่วคราว /chûa-kraao/. Thais absolutely love play on words. Just as there is an English idiom “short time”, the Thais use ชั่วคราว /chûa-kraao/ to mean the short time one might spend with a questionable (and paid) companion of the night.
The term ถาวร /tǎa-won/ means “permanent” but I am rather reluctant to use this term since I live in a Buddhist culture which teaches that nothing is “permanent” and that all things change. The term อนิจจัง /à-nít-jang/ (impermanence) is a popular expression and is one of the Buddhists 3 states of being.
When something bad happens that we have no control over a Thai might use the exclamation อนิจจัง! /a-nít jang/ which is the equivalent to the English saying “Sh*t happens!”
Why, when I say a Thai borrowed word, am I often misunderstood?…
Example: Why is the Thai loan word for “coupon” pronounced so differently from the English word?
When we go to a food court we very often have to buy coupons to pay for our food. The Thais use the same word for “coupon” as we do in English but it is pronounced quite differently. The English word is pronounced more or less “que” + “pon”, with the “n” at the end being clearly pronounced.
The Thai word คูปอง /koo-bpong/ has a “koo” at the beginning instead and a “bpong” for the second syllable. Note the ‘ng” at the end. If you say the word “coupon” in the English way (especially without the “ng”), there is no way anyone here will understand you.
The reason we think that the Thais are pronouncing this word in such a funny way comes from our being “Anglo-centric”. We sometimes feel that all the words that Thais borrow come from English. In fact, the Thai language borrows words from lots of different languages. In the case of “coupon” this word is probably borrowed from French and not English. The first syllable in the French pronunciation is more or less “koo” like the Thai word. The second syllable begins with a French “bp” sound similar to the Thai sound, and not the English “p” sound, and it ends with sort of a nasal. The French do not pronounce the final “n” in this word. To a Thai ear this nasal ending sounds very much like a final “ng”.
The moral of this story: If you want to be understood in Thailand, pronounce the borrowed words the way the Thais say it, not the way you think it should be said.
Thais speaking about themselves in the third person…
Sometimes Thais will speak about themselves in the third person. For example, someone named Noi saying something like “Noi is very happy now”.
What’s up with that? Is that normal, or a sign for a personality disorder?
This question comes from thaivisa.com which usually has some quite knowledgeable linguistic types. Not so with this culturally challenged questioner. The “third person” that the questioner is asking about is usually defined as using “he”, “she”, “it” or a person’s name.
In the west we sometimes think it is a bit arrogant to refer to yourself in the third person. To westerners, “Hugh likes to eat ice cream” sounds a little weird. But that’s not what is happening when a Thai uses his/her name to refer to themselves.
When Thais use their name in this way they are not speaking in the “third person” but are really speaking in the “first person”. They are simply using one way (of many) to say “I” in Thai.
Go to any Thai dictionary and look up the word “I”. You’ll find words like ผม /pǒm/ (for men), ดิฉัน /dì~chan/ (for women), ฉัน /chǎn/ (familiar), ข้าพเจ้า /kâa-pá~jâao/ (very formal), กู goo (quite crude). And that’s just scratching the surface. One can also refer to themselves as หนู /nǒo/ (little one), or น้อง /nóng/ (younger sibling), or พี่ /pêe/ (older sibling), or ป้า /bpâa/ (auntie), or ลุง /lung/ (uncle), or ครู /kroo/ (teacher). And sometimes the word for “I” can be simply left out and dropped.
And of the dozens of ways Thais use to say “I” one more is to use your own name.
So if I say “ฮิวชอบกินไอติม” /Hugh chôp gin ai-dtim/ I’m not using the “third person”. The correct translation is “I like to eat ice cream.”
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27 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Questions on Thai and Thai Usage”
Scott; good catch on the “grown-upz”, “hafta”, “gonna”, “shoulda-woulda-coulda” way that I write. I may indeed be old(er), but I guess I still haven’t grown up yet 555+.
As far as “phrozen-phrasez”; that’s a term I particularly like!! It succinctly describes “constructs” in Thai that never change, are said over and over many times a day, yet remain “phrozen”.
Again, I dunno about the “political correctness” of แก or เธอ when dealing with Thai officialdom. If I had to “pick sides” I’d side with Hugh and his “take-on-thingz”, he’s got a LOT more “time-on-the-ground” here than I do. I just relate what works for me and in no way encourage people to “do-as-I-do”.
Why am I NOT surprised (nor particularly care) that Thailand would have a “code of conduct” written on the books as far as relating to officials here? Especially given the way they adhere to the “blind respect” in superior/subordinate relations here.
Perhaps, I’m gonna hafta look at how I write seeing as mostly “grown-upz” read this website ;). FWIW: I thought those were all “real words”, seein’ as they don’t come up in my “spell-checker” anymore. ..
I use คุณ. It is one of those you-can’t-go-wrong words.
An interesting word along these lines that I sometimes encounter is นาย /naai/. It sort of means “boss” but can also mean something like “sir” or “mam”. The only time I ever hear it is when my caddie is taking to me and uses นาย. That seems to be customary to golf. It is also used for police and military officers (as in “sir”). But I wouldn’t use it in everyday situations. My son is a U.S. Marine officer and when I refer to him when I am speaking Thai with friends I say he is a นายทหาร /naai tá~hǎan/, meaning a military officer.
As for ท่าน, I have only used that a few times. When talking to monks it is basically a requirement, or addressing the provincial governor if you want him to like you, or with someone way up on the social ladder. I have never used it in daily conversation.
My advice, use คุณ unless there is a title you can use like อาจารย์ aa-jaan “teacher”, or คุณหมอ /kun mǒr/ “doctor”.
Kaewmala and Hugh,
Thank you for your posts. So, if แก and เธอ are too familiar to use with a female immigration officer then which would you suggest? Is คุณ acceptable or should a foreigner use ท่าน?
I like your posts on the various forums and it’s nice to get a different viewpoint, but if you’re a 53 year old who uses words like hafta, grown upz, phrozen phrasez, etc. then maybe you aren’t in the best position to judge what is considered to be age-appropriate use of a language.
Sorry I guess I shoulda phrased that a little better. If Google is to be trusted, Benjawan was born in 1967, so that’d make her 45. That is at the very high end as far as the age range of Thais I ever poll about contemporary usage of the Thai language. Perhaps her more “international lifestyle” would make her more open minded than Thais who haven’t travel abroad, but really I dunno, never met her.
Just as an example; I’m 53 y/o, but I’d never ever ask the opinion of a Thai my age (or older) about ANYTHING to do with Thai culture or the Thai language. It is my experience that they’re just too outta touch and way too set in their “traditional thai ways”. On the rare occasions I have solicited opinions from “grown-ups”, I’ve found they rarely comprehend what’s really happening in regards to cultural and language changes the Thai youth of today are making.
I hafta say that even some of your comments Hugh make me think that while you’re around Thais every day, you don’t “get” what’s really going on because of your position in Thai society and that the Thais around you know you speak and understand Thai. I wouldn’t be surprised that they alter how they speak even to each other when you’re in earshot.
Thankfully here no one knows me from Adam; I’m just another foreigner hangin’ about, so the Thais don’t feel compelled to change their forms of address, their manner of speaking or anything when I eavesdrop on ’em. They just think I’m like the rest of the foreigners here and don’t understand anything said around me. I have to know a Thai pretty darned well, or have a situation where I hafta speak to them in Thai before I ever let on I have the slightest inkling that I can understand and/or speak Thai.
I just wanted to clear up the misunderstanding, and in hindsight perhaps my idiomatic expression wasn’t the best to use. Please know I meant no offense to Benjawan or any other grown upz.
I will state once and for all to ALL the new learners of the Thai language, follow Hugh’s and other more learned posters advice on here as far as what is and what is no appropriate in regards to the Thai language. It may seem like I offer out my opinions to stir the pot (or wind up Hugh) but that is NOT the case, I just want to show that things ain’t always what they’re presented to us as being.
Thanks for the nice words and I am glad that what you do works for your here.
But I do have to let you know that you got one thing absolutely wrong. Khun Benjawan Becker is about as far from “long in the tooth” as one can get. She and I are good friends and my wife and I and she and her charming husband get together every time they come to Chiang Mai. We speak Thai together but never talk about language or linguistics. Her English is absolutely fluent as is her Issan Thai and Spanish.
I won’t tell you how old she is but maybe it is all her accomplishments, so many books published, so many of them written by herself (sometimes under a pseudonym) that you would think that this all was done by someone much older. She is quite stunning to look at and has more energy than I ever had even in my 30s (and I am hyperactive). I believe that the word hyperactive would be much too tame for her.
Here is a picture of her from the book cover of her Asian Award winning The Interpreter’s Journal (http://www.paiboonpublishing.com/details.php?prodId=75). Long in the tooth? I think not.
I love the way you put things across Hugh, that’s why I like reading your posts. Even if I don’t agree with your “take-on-all-thingz-thai”, the posts are full of good useful vocab and information about the Thai language. I know some foreigners here who think along similar lines. To me they’re just too “thai-i-fied”. I guess hangin’ around Thais is “catchy” to a degree. I sure hope I’m immune.
Don’t get me wrong I love what Benjawan’s done for foreign learners of this language. In fact, she’s probably done more than any other Thai in the country to promote the learning of the Thai language to foreigners. However, don’t forget she’s getting pretty “long in the tooth” as well. Some of her delineations between what’s appropriate and what is not in the Thai society of today may be more than slightly prejudiced by her age. As I said, older Thais (or even Thais my age) ain’t my first choice as far as anything to do with Thai culture or the Thai language.
As for calling the girl at Immigrations เธอ, I needed to use the word “you”. She knows me by sight and name but is easily 15 years my junior. True she is able to exert a “modicum of control” over me, but just barely. Because I so rarely use พี่/น้อง when addressing a Thai ever, that was the best I could come up with “on the fly”. I doubt it’s gonna affect our relationship, and it certainly wasn’t made disrespectfully.
FWIW: I hear Thai kids use เรา ALL the time when referring to themselves in the first person (so it’s far from too “royal” a term to use). Perhaps because you guys don’t hear it, the kids have “adjusted” their pronoun usage when you’re within ear shot. I have observed this happening when eavesdropping on a group of Thai kids when an older Thai gets near ‘em. They’ll switch to a higher register of address, stop using expletives, etc, even if that person isn’t in the conversation. It’s not until the older person leaves the area that they drop back into more informal usage. I also hear guys use ฉัน, ชั้น as first person pronouns when in their immediate circle of friends (even when I’m sitting with them).
I’m well aware of how “stratified” or hierarchical Thai society is (it’s one of the things I dislike the most here). Thankfully simply by being foreigners here we get a LOT of leeway when interacting with Thais from any of the levels. I like how I can talk to managing directors of companies and Soi side sellers the same way. It’s one quality about being a foreigner I exploit 100% here. Not to mention there’re few foreigners here who can do more than spit out “phrozen-phrazes” or simple sentences in Thai, so any foreigner who can actually have a semi-intelligent conversation in Thai with Thais is also cut a LOT of slack.
Now should I understand and be aware of the framework which Thais operate in culturally and the restrictions their society puts on their interactions? Yep, most definitely I should and believe me I try to further my “education” in that regard. However, am I obligated or should I simply by choosing to live here feel compelled in any way shape or form to mimic or somehow conform to how Thais act? Nope, I don’t feel that even to the slightest degree. I’m 100% American born-bred-corn fed, and I ain’t gonna give up actin’ like an American because I happen to live in Thailand surrounded by Thais.
I do caution every new learner of Thai to take the words of wisdom offered out by other posters and NOT copy or emulate the way I speak Thai. My Thai is coarse, blunt, terse, and I speak it in a really “un-Thai” way. It works for me, and I’ve had no inkling that ANY Thai I’ve interacted with is worse for the wear or holds a grudge because of the way I speak Thai.
Good luck in your Thai language endeavors. . .
Kaewmala, a huge “thank you” from me as well for chiming in 🙂
Hi, Hugh. Thanks. Can never turn down a bowl of khow soi. 🙂 Great insight on your part too btw. 🙂
Thanks so much for your clear and thorough explanation. I am so glad you took the time to read the post and to offer your insightful comments. Next time you are in Chiang Mai I owe you a bowl of Khow Soi.
This is a very interesting discussion, from a native Thai speaker’s point of view.
1) In terms of first-person pronouns, for women ดิฉัน /di-chan/ is indeed too formal for day-to-day conversations and ฉัน /chan/ less so but still a bit standoffish (the more informalized form ชั้น /chann/ is more widely used in spoken language but only with friends, or someone junior in intimate circle, or when wanting to act melodramatic in looking down one’s nose at another to put him/her in a proper place Thai soap opera style, ;). However, I’d be hard-pressed to think of better pronouns for western female expats to use, unless they want to adopt the Thai tradition of calling oneself by one’s nickname. A western woman can get away with that (maybe even make her adorable)–if she’s younger than 30, but otherwise she looks a bit silly. Somehow foreign women adopting the Thai familial pronouns like phii, nong, mae, paa, would be peculiar too, which leaves few choices left (the same goes for men).
2) For the male first pronoun ผม /phom/, it is actually the standard, most widely used, most neutral, formally and informally, for Thai males of all ages, including young boys. As a Thai woman I sometimes feel envious of them for this, because it relieves them of the burden of having to find different first pronouns with different people in different contexts, and not having to deal with awkward moments when none is the right fit! Thai women and girls have to deal with too many choices of first person pronouns, หนู /noo/, one’s nickname, น้อง /nong/, พี่ /phii/, etc. while the guys can just use with anyone younger, older, higher or lower in rank or seniority, with strangers, with colleages or at a conference. Women have different pronouns for all of these. So, ผม is in my view the most appropriate first person pronoun for male non-native speakers.
3) There is a rather big generation gap is Thai language usage. Indeed, กู /kuu/ or มึง /mueng/ can be both rude and intimate, depending on who’s using it with whom and under what circumstance. Very close male friends of all ages may use these terms with one another but not all. I have noticed people of all sexes in their early thirties and younger use these terms with close friends more often. They may also use the non-gender specific second pronoun แก /kae/. The second pronoun เธอ /ther/ is kosher among friends of any sex too, not at all impolite.
4) However, to use เธอ with a female immigration official would be wince-inducing, I can’t imagine she would like that at all because it’s too informal and does not confer respect. And definitely not with a male, since the pronoun is often used among juveniles with one another or with them by older persons. It’s too effeminate to use with adult men. To use แก /kae/ with a stranger, esp. someone working in an official capacity, would be rude and downright insulting. Now, แก as a third-person pronoun is not impolite, but it can only be used with someone senior in rank or age you know and have some level of familiarity with. You can’t just use it with anybody.
5) As for เรา /rao/ as a first person pronoun used by adult men, this is strange to my ear. It also sounds a bit “royal”, a bit standoffish, not quite right. I have yet to hear any Thai man of any age I know use it. I have used it, however, with friends, but would not use it with strangers.
6) The argument that foreigners should try to speak the real language spoken is valid. However, if you are going that route you need to make sure what you are about and what you are saying is correct. Thai language is extremely hierarchical, it’s not always nice but there is still the decorum to observe and if you don’t you’d be the one looking foolish and risk offending people. Thai people rarely confront someone outright for a transgression but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it. For Thais switching pronouns is second nature to us, although for women there can be awakward moments, but we do observe the nuanced codes of decorum.
For example, a young can sprout words like มึง กู เหี้ย แม่ง ห่า with his friend on the phone just before he walks in a restaurant to meet an uncle or an old professor, with whom he’ll call himself ผม, and use the polite ครับ. All the Ramkhamhaeng-era vobaculary, animals and lizards as terms of address or otherwise would not spill out of his mouth. Girls and women who may use similar language with their girlfriends would not use it in the presence of their parents. English speaking youngsters also don’t swear in front of their parents. Even in the West people don’t go swaggering into the big boss’s and greet him, “Yo, man, whaz up?” Or ask him “How’s it hanging, dude?” It’s just manners and observing the appropriate time and place. In Thai, we just have too many pronouns to make it complicated and sometimes maddening.
More on the use of แก /gae/ (you)
I asked a friend about the use of this word in an official capacity. Here is what she said (please allow a bit of paraphrasing).
“If I were an immigration officer and a person used that word with me, it would be a cold day in hell before he got his visa!”
Also, she said that there is a law on the Thai books called ดูหมิ่นพนักงาน /doo-mìn pá~nák-ngaan/ (ดูหมิ่น /doo-mìn/ – scorn, disdain, insulting; พนักงาน /pá~nák-ngaan/ – worker, official) which says that you can be arrested for being insulting to a (government) official. She thought the use of แก /gae/, especially if it were by a Thai, in a government office, could constitute a breaking of this law.
Use what feels right for you, but I just wanted to make sure our readers had a little background before emulating the language of others here.
BTW, I didn’t say “higher ups speak more politely or more formally to their subordinates”. People can be quite nasty with each other at times. I have a relative by marriage who speaks to serving people and waitresses as if they were trash. Because of this I do not go out with her anymore.
I was talking about people of a higher “social status”, quite a different thing. And it isn’t a myth. It is an observation I asked if anyone else had noticed. I would guess that you haven’t.
Todd and anyone who goes to immigration,
I usually don’t give advice about living in Thailand, sometimes maybe a suggestion or two. Here is a suggestion.
In our encounters with people here we will find that some will be more important to our happiness than others. My barber is one of these, and the women in the market who makes those great fried chicken wings that I love. I am overly polite to each of them.
In my opinion no one in the country is more important to my happiness than the person who stamps my visa.
So, I suggest that we refrain from using the word แก /gae/ when talking to them. แก /gae/ is one of the dozens of words we can use for “you” (it can also mean he/she when used with friends). But one look at Benjawan Becker’s Software Dictionary and she will tell you that this word is impolite and crude unless used with very close friends (and it is one step up from vulgar).
Now the last person in this country I want to be impolite with is the person who issues my visa to stay here.
I do not “only wanna speak to them in their language”. I want to “communicate”. And in this case, I want to communicate how important that immigration official is to me. I address him/her using คุณ /kun/ and suggest that others might choose to do the same. Who knows? Someday we might need to ask a favor of them.
That just shows the differences in Thai perceptions of what “passes for normal” between generations. Certainly older people are more tied to their Thai ways. Because of that very reason they sure aren’t the first demographic of Thai I’d ever search out when seeking advice on “all-thingz-thai”, especially when it comes to foreigners speakin’ Thai. I just don’t see that same behavior in the Thai youth of today, no matter the demographic (from Chula-kidz to normal Thai teenz). Even my Thai friends, who’re closer to my age, are far more relaxed in forms of address. I think overall the younger generation seems to have a far less rigid take on things.
I haven’t observed any difference in how Thais interact with me when I use informal terms of address with Thais. Granted the Immigrations officer may have given me a sidelong glance when I used เธอ with her even though she’s seen me out there at least a couple times a month for the last several years. However a fairly high ranking police officer I know very well doesn’t even blink when I address him as แก (because I can’t ever remember his name).
I’m just not a person who buys into something so blatantly class divisive as the various forms of address. It is easily one of the most limiting factors in getting Thais to integrate into the “real world”. FWIW: I’ve interacted with every demographic of Thai from the hi-so’s right on down to the lo-so’s, (well except those “bangkok-wanna-b-hi-so” ones which I call “faux-so’s”). I’ve also eavesdropped on Thai superiors talkin’ down to their subordinates in very dismissive and demeaning ways, so I dunno if I’d put much faith into the “higher ups speak more politely or more formally to their subordinates” myth.
I’m certainly not advocating people emulate how I speak Thai to Thais. I am only pointing out things we’re taught by Thais especially as foreign speakers of Thai don’t always add up to the way Thais talk to one another. It’s as if they’re teaching us how they wished they’d talk to one another in a perfect world instead of how they really do. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves in almost every language school I’ve toured, we’re taught ultra formal way too polite totally foreign sounding Thai and we’re often taught to say things no Thai would ever say.
Then again I didn’t undertake learning Thai to speak like a Thai, I only wanna speak to them in their language. Honestly I am fine speaking Thai just like I speak English; terse, blunt, to the point and as equals. It doesn’t matter to me one bit how old you are, where you work, how much your suit costs, what car you drive, where you went to uni, or how many do-dangles you’ve got hangin’ off your uniform, you’re just a human being same as me. Now don’t misunderstand; I am polite in my interactions, because I was taught courtesy doesn’t take a college degree. However in my books people “earn” respect, it’s not something I give away for free.
Sorry my take on “all-thingz-thai” runs counter to many other peoples’ perceptions and my intent isn’t to “ruffle any feathers”, only point out there’s more than one way to look at things, especially where Thais are involved.
Still, it’s an interesting post, love the comments.
I will say that I’ve found opinions on what’s polite and what’s not all over the place. And this from Thais.
“I have observed this, and I wonder if anyone else has – The higher a person’s social status (e.g. the CEO of a company, the governor of a province, the mayor of a city, a college professor), and the more sophisticated a person is, the more respectful they are when talking to others and the more polite the pronouns they choose to use are. In a hierarchical culture you would think it was the other way around.”
Hugh, the way it was explained to me is that those higher socially have an obligation to speak in the manner befitting their level in society. And that’s why some Thais are shocked when a well salaried expat starts speaking street Thai to them.
So teachers and others of the same status and higher are not supposed to talk like truck drivers. Or they will lose respect? I’ll have to get clarification but I believe it was mentioned.
When I ask friends about using certain words I hear on the street I sometimes get a NO you cannot! They are not trying to snow me (as I used to believe). They just want me to learn/understand my role regarding the level I (apparently) inhibit in Thai society.
Note: The friends I bug with Thai questions are mostly middle class, in their late 50s early 60s… The younger generation might have different views (but their parents might not).
I would guess that unlike you I AM here “to impress” the people I talk to.
I show respect, sometimes more than required, and love getting shown respect back. A lot of times your choice of pronouns is a way to do this. Luckily for me when people use “you” when talking to me they use “Ajarn” or “Khun Lung”. I’ve earned that, by teaching long enough and living long enough.
And I use “Khun” with most people unless there is another title I could use with them. This is not that strange nor does it distance you from others. I know a married couple (a doctor and a teacher) who refer to each other as “Khun”. It all has to do with how comfortable you feel, what level of society the person you are speaking to is, and what level you would like to be seen as. I have never used “แก ” or “เธอ” as I don’t feel comfortable using them. “เรา” seems a little too royal for me. I have only heard adults use กู & มึง a few times and never with me.
When I talk to my gardener I call him by his name, when I speak to the foreman building our new bungalow I say “Khun Sanga”, with his workers I say “Khun Chang” (chang = skilled worker), with my former teacher colleagues I say “Ajarn + name”, with my golf caddie I say “Nong” (this is more of a Chiang Mai thing to call younger people whereas “Noo” might be used elsewhere).
I have observed this, and I wonder if anyone else has – The higher a person’s social status (e.g. the CEO of a company, the governor of a province, the mayor of a city, a college professor), and the more sophisticated a person is, the more respectful they are when talking to others and the more polite the pronouns they choose to use are. In a hierarchical culture you would think it was the other way around.
I guess the adage would be “The more respectful you are the more respect you will be shown.”
That referring to themselves in the third person threw me for a loop at first. Like you said doin’ it in English is sort of putting on airs or you sound like you’ve got some undefined mental illness.
I don’t often hear Thai guys use their own names when referring to themselves. In fact I can’t ever remember ever hearing a Thai guy do it. I have heard it more times than I can count with Thai girls and even Thai women right up to about their late 30’s. It seems once they hit about 40 they stop it. Then again these are just my observations from eavesdropping on Thais.
The use of ผม, ดิฉัน & ฉัน are easily one of the “give-aways” that who ever speaking is a fairly new speaker of Thai; fresh out of a school which brain washes us to speak Thai like a foreigner. In most all of the informal Thai conversations I listen in on, there’s almost no usage of first or second person pronouns, they’re simply left out because they’re understood in context.
I personally have rarely if ever used ผม, and much prefer เรา (which we are taught in Thai school is “we” but is also the informal first person pronoun “I” as well). Being a totally informal kinda guy (no matter how important the Thai I’m dealing with thinks they are), if I hafta use a pronoun for myself I use that one.
I can’t even remember the last time I used คุณ either when addressing a Thai (other than sayin’ the phrozen-phraze; ขอบคุณ). Once I’ve met ‘em, if I hafta refer to them when speaking they’re either their name (if I can remember it) just แก or sometimes เธอ if they’re female. Listening to any group of Thais who know each other well (co-workers, students, etc) a person hears กู & มึง all the time no matter the age of the people. It is far more prevalent in usage than the Thais who teach us would like us to believe. They are a “know your audience” forms of address, and you really hafta be “tight” with a group of Thais to be able to use ‘em without side long glances.
Again being a foreigner speaking Thai, thankfully I operate outside boundaries of what Thais would do in social settings. I ain’t here to impress any of the Thais I interact with; I just wanna speak to ‘em in Thai.
Always love the posts Hugh, even if I don’t take ‘em to heart, they’re chock full of useful info. ..
That must have been quite a moment!
So far my teachers haven’t slipped me any malapropisms in the course of my education; perhaps my teachers took pity on me knowing I was fully capable of putting my foot in my mouth all by myself.
( Hmm. I bet “putting my foot in my mouth” would sound really bad in Thai. 🙂
A friend of mine related a story where someone told him that “hello” in Thai was สวัสดีค่ะ and that he greeted Thais with that phrase for a couple of months until someone finally corrected him. I am not sure if it was a prank or an unwitting response . . .
I am reminded of something that happened to me a long time ago. It seems that it is really funny to some people here to get the “Farang” to say something really off color or stupid. So quite often, as a joke, they will teach you to say something inappropriate. A fellow teacher did this to me once.
The word for hungry is หิว /hǐw/. One way to say I am really hungry is หิวจะตาย /hǐw jà dtaai/ which means that “I am so hungry I could die.” My fellow teacher (who later became one of my best friends) said I should say หิวจะตายห่า /hǐw jà dtaai hàa/ which more or less means (and I didn’t know this at the time) “I am really f#cking hungry.”
The first time I had the opportunity to use it and impress my friend I was with her and our headmaster when he asked if we wanted to have lunch with him. I answered as my friend had taught me. His shocked expression told me right there I had done something wrong – but he quickly sized up the situation and stared right at my fellow teacher – he knew what she had done – and we all had a bit of a strained laugh.
Needless to say that was the last time I used that expression.
Seems like I haven’t watched enough ละคร!
And your advice sounds right about playing it safe when one doesn’t have complete understanding of the social situation.
I was eating lunch at an Asian festival in America a couple of years ago when the American husband of my first Thai teacher tried to teach those two words to me. His mention of them certainly raised some eyebrows with at least one native Thai, so I got the impression they were more rude than simply informal, but I was not sure of just how they were interpreted.
And being the age that I am, I certainly could not pass for a วัยรุ่น.
So for now I will continue to stick with ผม and คุณ _ but for my next adventure, I will worry about the usage of ฉัน and เธอ.
The pronouns มึง /meung/ – you, and กู /goo/ – I, can be heard often – but usually on Thai soap operas by people who are really angry and are screaming at each other (a Thai soap opera standard). They are considered quite rude in normal conversation.
But, just as in other languages, rude talk is often used between close friends and มึง /meung/ and กู /goo/ are quite often used in this manner. But this is usually limited to young people (and I have heard it used with oldsters who have known each other since they were young).
For us Expats trying to speak Thai, it is best to eliminate these (and other) rude expressions from our vocabulary. To be rude in a friendly manner takes a complete understanding of the social situation, something close to impossible for most of us. And since most of us are already adults they would not only sound rude, they would sound silly.
Another nice article, Hugh. 🙂 Insights like yours are hard to come by when one is trying to learn Thai outside of Thailand.
I’d love to hear your thoughts regarding some of the other pronouns like มรึง and กรู. I’m using the polite spellings here, much like writing “darn” instead of “damn.” 🙂
I gather that they are commonly used among friends, but overly informal or perhaps even insulting otherwise, as their use implies a close relationship that may not exist.
I think I also read somewhere that long ago they were appropriate terms for everyday use, but Thai, like all languages, has evolved over the years, and that is no longer the case.
Just a tongue-in-the-cheek question regarding “ชั่วคราว”, which you mentioned is used by Thais as the term for ‘short time’ for paid companionship. Then may I ask you what’s the colloquial term for ‘long time’? Any clue?
Thanks and best regards.
Thank you for the clarification…on all points! 😉
Your Thai teacher is basically correct – most people who use their name in place of “I” are women and children. I use it mostly with my wife. What am I going to use ผม, ฉัน, พี่? All of these mean “I” but didn’t sound right. When we talk together she uses her name to refer to herself and I use my name to refer to myself. With others I usually don’t use my name. But I am going to guess that you wouldn’t take me for gay no matter what pronoun I used (Not that there is anything wrong with that. – Apologies to the cast of Seinfeld.)
Nice article! Thank you.
Just one question: my Thai teacher, in BKK, told me not to use my own name instead of “I”.
I have been told that only girls and children can do it and that it would sound like if you were gay if a male would do so.
Do you confirm?