Thai Language Thai Culture: Questions on Thai and Thai Usage

Thai Language

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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 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.”

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
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