Thai Language Thai Culture: Learning Thai Legalese

Thai Language

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Learning Thai Legalese…

Here is a primer on Thai legal words and phrases that you will encounter frequently in Thailand. Although we don’t do translations at WLT, and definitely don’t give legal advice, if you have a legal term you need to know in Thai send it to us and we’ll see what we can come up with.

A good reference to Thai law is Paiboon Publishing’s Thai Law for Foreigners (written in both English and Thai in the same volume).

General Legalese…

Law: กฎหมาย /gòt-mǎai/
The prefix กฎ /gòt/ means “rule” as in “rules of golf” (กฎของกอล์ฟ /gòt kǒng góp/) or the “rules of the road (traffic)” (กฎจราจร /gòt jà~raa-jon/) neither of which are exactly universally followed here.

Lawyer: ทนายความ /tá~naai-kwaam/
The short form, used in everyday speech, is simply ทนาย /tá~naai/. If there is a place where lawyers are held in lower esteem than in the West, it is right here in Thailand.

Court: ศาล /sǎan/
To go to court (or if something is brought to court) is เข้าศาล /kâo sǎan/ “enter the court”. For those who enjoy homophones (not a sexual inclination but sound-alike words) this sounds an awful lot like ข้าวสาร /kâao-sǎan/ the word for uncooked rice and the name of the infamous Bangkok street “Khao San Road”.


Sue: ฟ้อง /fóng/
When we add the word for “court” ฟ้องศาล /fóng sǎan/ “to sue in court”, then there will be no confusion. ฟ้อง /fóng/ by itself could mean “to tell” or “to inform” on someone, or as the children would say “to tattle tale”.

Judge: พิพากษา /pí-pâak-sǎa/
This is the verb “to judge”. I see this word often but in a very peculiar place. I see it on big yellow signs nailed high up in trees alongside beautiful country roads. The sign says “เยซูจะมาพิพากษาโลก” /yay-soo jà maa pí-pâak-sǎa lôhk/ which basically reads “Jesus is coming to judge you (the world).”

I have two problems with these signs.

1. Big yellow signs in beautiful first growth trees are quite ugly. Who climbs those trees anyway?

2. When Thais see a sign saying that someone is coming to judge them, they aren’t going to be enthusiastic about it.

Instead, how about “there is a person coming to give you the winning lottery number” or “a person is coming to make your neighbor’s dog stop barking in the middle of the night” ? They’d perk up for either of those.

Judge: ผู้พิพากษา /pôo-pí-pâak-sǎa/
The prefix ผู้ /pôo/ is used to mean “the person who”, in this case “the person who judges”.

Crime Legalese…

Evidence หลักฐาน /làk-tǎan/
You can have evidence มีหลักฐาน /mee làk-tǎan/ or not have any evidence ไม่มีหลักฐาน /mâi mee làk-tǎan/. หลักฐานยืนยัน /làk-tǎan-yeun-yan/ is corroborating evidence. The word ยืนยัน /yeun-yan/ means “confirm” or “validate”.

Accused: ผู้ต้องหา /pôo-dtông-hǎa/
There is that ผู้ /pôo/ word again, along with ต้องหา /dtông-hǎa/ “to accuse”, which gives us “the person who is accused”. If you read the Thai newspapers at all this word will become quite familiar. It is usually under the caption of a picture on the front page where the police are standing on both sides of quite disheveled person, or maybe a picture of an accuser pointing a figure at him/her, or a picture of the accused sitting in front of a pile of evidence (like maybe 1,000,000 ยาบ้า /yaa-bâa/ “amphetamine” tablets). He/She is always referred to as ผู้ต้องหา /pôo-dtông-hǎa/ or in TV English “the alleged perpetrator”.

Capture: (apprehend) จับกุม /jàp-gum/
Also next to the same picture mentioned above it will probably say ตำรวจจับกุมผู้ต้องหา /dtam-rùat jàp-gum pôo-dtông-hǎa/ “the police apprehended the accused (alleged perpetrator).” You see this sentence so often on the front page of most Thai newspapers that you can speed-read right through it.

Witness: พยาน /pá~yaan/
One interesting thing about this word is that it can use either of 2 classifiers to count with. It can use คน /kon/ which is the normal classifier for a person, and in writing it can use ปาก /bpàak/ which is the Thai word for “mouth”. Pretty appropriate way to count witnesses I would say.

Guilty: มีความผิด /mee-kwaam-pìt/
ผิด /pìt/means “bad” or “wrong”, so this word comes out meaning “to have badness or wrongness”. A very descriptive word.

Innocent: /ไม่ผิด mâi-pìt/
“No badness”.

Charge: (legal) ข้อหา /kôr-hǎa/
Indictment ดำเนินคดี /dam-nern-ká~dee/
According to the law: ตามกฎหมาย /dtaam-gòt-mǎai/
The 3 terms above are usually combined at the end of a newspaper article on a crime. You’ll see a version of this in almost every crime article – the police always get their man. There are ข้อหา /kôr-hǎa/ filed against the ผู้ต้องหา /pôo-dtông-hǎa/ and then a ดำเนินคดี /dam-nern-ká~dee/ is carried out ตามกฎหมาย /dtaam-gòt-mǎai/

“Charges were filed against the accused and he has been indicted according to the law.”

Family Legalese…

Birth certificate: สูติบัตร /sǒo-dtì-bàt/
This word is made up of the literary word for “birth สูติ /sòot/ and the word บัตร /bàt/ meaning “card” or “ID”. For pronunciation purposes a “dti” is put in between the words สูติ /sòot/ and บัตร /bàt/ to be pronounced /sǒo-dtì-bàt/. I have heard, and this could be just a lazy mouth of the speaker, or a local accent, the middle syllable as “gee” instead of “dti”

Marry: แต่งงาน /dtàeng-ngaan/
Marriage: การแต่งงาน /gaan-dtàeng-ngaan/
This quite often refers to the ceremony of marriage. See below for the more official word.

Register (marriage): ลงทะเบียน /long-tá~bian/ (also จดทะเบียน /jòt-tá~bian/)
ลงทะเบียน /long-tá~bian/ usually means “to register” but when used in context everyone will know that it means that you have gone down to the district office and officially registered your union. Many newcomers here think that just because they have gone through a ceremony (การแต่งงาน /gaan-dtàeng-ngaan/) that they are “married”. But for a union to be recognized by law it must be registered.

Dowry: สินสอด /sǐn-sòt/
Traditionally (not legally) in Thailand the groom or his family would pay a dowry to the girl’s family (although this is becoming rarer by the day). This is the opposite of the Indian tradition where the girl’s family is the payer and which is why few people here are afraid of having baby girls. Other words for dowry are ทองหมั้น /tong mân/ meaning “gold (for) engagement”, and then there is ค่าน้ำนม /kâa náam nom/ “price of milk”, the cost of the milk she drank growing up, a fee for raising her.

It is quite interesting that many Expats come here and find a girl to marry and wind up paying a large sum as a สินสอด /sǐn-sòt/. Quite often this will be the girl’s second or third marriage and there may be children involved from her other unions. Traditionally a สินสอด /sǐn-sòt/ is only given once, for a virgin girl. Although a man is not required to pay a สินสอด /sǐn-sòt/ for a non-virgin girl, one is often requested from an Expat.

Very few Thai men would even consider marrying a divorced woman (they don’t like buying used cars or buying an already-lived-in house either so they usually aren’t interested in “used women”). But if they did they would never consider paying a สินสอด /sǐn-sòt/ for the privilege.

Suggestion for the Expat man in this situation: If you are going to be “buying” something here in Thailand then “caveat emptor”.

(To my female readers, sorry about the “buying” metaphor but that is more or less what the สินสอด /sǐn-sòt/ tradition is.)

BTW, I have never heard of a Thai man paying a สินสอด /sǐn-sòt/ to the family of an Expat woman, virgin or otherwise.

Divorce: หย่า(กัน) /yàa (gan)/
If you have paid a large สินสอด /sǐn-sòt/ to the family of a girl and this happens to you, sorry, you are out of luck (and a lot of cash as well).

Divorce certificate: ใบหย่า /bai-yàa/
If you haven’t ลงทะเบียน /long-tá~bian/ then you won’t have to get one of these either.

Custody: การได้สิทธิในตัวลูก /gaan-dâi-sìt-nai-dtua-lôok/
ได้สิทธิ /dâi-sìt/ means to “obtain the rights” and ตัวลูก /dtua-lôok/ is ‘the (body of the) child”. Although men and women are legally equal it is usually a cold day in Bangkok before a man will get full legal custody of the children. Lots of heartaches where this is concerned.

Business Legalese…

Corporation: บริษัทจำกัด /bor-rí~sàt-jam-gàt/
This word is made up of two words บริษัท /bor-rí~sàt/ “company” and จำกัด /jam-gàt/ “limited”. A “corporation” legally is a “limited” (Ltd.) company, or a company with a “limited liability”.

Incorporate: รวมกันเป็นกลุ่มบริษัท /ruam-gan-bpen-glùm-bor-rí~sàt/
The Thai word for “to incorporate” adds the prefix expression รวมกันเป็นกลุ่ม /ruam-gan-bpen-glùm/ to the word for company บริษัท /bor-rí~sàt/. These words are รวมกัน /ruam-gan/ “to join together” and เป็นกลุ่ม /bpen-glùm/ “to be a group”.

Tax: ภาษี /paa-sěe/
A virtual four-letter-word in any language.

Pay tax: จ่ายภาษี /jàai paa-sěe/
The word จ่าย /jàai/ is “to pay”.

Evade tax: นีภาษี /něe paa-sěe/
The word นี /něe/ means “to escape” or “to run away from”.

Estate Legalese…

Estate (legacy, inheritance): มรดก /mor-rá~dòk/
The prefix มร /mor-rá/ has its roots in Sanskrit and means “death” (think of the English “mortality” or the French “mort”). This word is also used in the phrase มรดกโลก /mor-rá~dòk lôhk/ (โลก /lôhk/ means “world”) as in “world heritage (site)”

Inherit: รับมรดก /ráp-mor-rá~dòk/
รับ /ráp/ means “to receive”, as in “to receive an inheritance”.

Will: พินัยกรรม /pí-nai-gam/
The word พินัยกรรม /pí-nai-gam/ is probably the most used word in Thai soap operas. It (or its lack) usually forms the basis for all the conflicts, screaming, arguing, murdering, and other bits of chaos associated with these daily shows.

What is quite interesting is that so few people have wills in this country (even after watching on TV all the troubles that people without wills cause) that the stories from the soap operas could come right out of the daily newspaper headlines. So much for the Expat thinking that the Thai “soaps” are complete fantasies. People like them because, believe it or not, this stuff really happens.

FYI, It turns out that only 35% of Americas have wills and that number seems to be dropping. Stay tuned to your local Soaps.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand

14 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Learning Thai Legalese”

  1. David,

    Thanks. “Arrest” seems right to me although จับกุม is also translated as “capture” in 2 of the 3 dictionaries I referred to. Also, จับกุม has the Thai word จับ in it which can mean “arrest”, “capture”, “hold”, “clasp”, “secure”, “catch”.

    But using the dictionary going the other way, “arrested” is translated as จับกุม. So I will go with your correction, especially as it appears in those newspaper cations.

  2. Technically, the translation of จับกุม into English should include the element of a legal “arrest” for it to be complete. One must be legally arrested before one can be subjected to criminal procedure under the criminal justice system. A legal arrest more often than not involves actual apprehension or capture however actual apprehension or capture is not essential. In your example above, a more accurate translation of จับกุม would probably be “apprehended and arrested”. There are many cases of suspects giving themselves up for arrest at the police station. In such cases, a more accurate translation of จับกุม would probably be just “arrested”, as no apprehension or capture was involved.

  3. Hugh,

    I think your translation ค่าน้ำนมแม่ sounds better too.

    And I meant to say “any resultant increase in accuracy might result in a diminution of edginess.” It appears instead, that writing at midnight might be too late for me. 🙂

  4. One word I often see in the papers is ปากคำ (testimony, statement) for when a perp or passers-by relate their view of an incident to the police.

  5. Keith,

    Great info.

    BTW, breastfeeding in Thai is เลี้ยง_ด้วยนมแม่ /líang-​dûay-​nom-​mâe/ “raise using mothers milk” so wouldn’t “breastfeeding fee” be ค่าน้ำนมแม่ /kâa náam nom mâe/ “the price of mother’s milk”? But wait, isn’t that supposed to be free?

    Who knows? I never paid a สินสอด /sǐn-​sòt/ (been married for 41 years though) so maybe I’m not the guy to ask about these things.

  6. Thanks for the update! I’d only heard the term สินสอด before your article.

    I ran across one dictionary entry saying สินสอด and ทองหมั้น can be used together as the compound word สินสอดทองหมั้น and then a website purporting to offer legal advice that seemed to say that the สินสอด was for the parents and the ทองหมั้น was like an engagement present for the woman, but that latter assertion doesn’t seem to square with what else I have read.

    ค่าน้ำนม was described as a “breastfeeding fee” by one other site. That’s not how I would have phrased it, but I suppose one could make a case for it. I was reminded of the ugly old expression “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” but then I found an article about male/female birth ratios in India vs. Thailand.

    The ratio of boys born to girls born is skewed toward boys in India where tradition has a dowry paid to the groom’s family and there is a normal gender balance of babies born in Thailand where the tradition is that a bride price is paid to the bride’s family.

    In that light, perhaps “paying for the milk” can be seen as an acknowledgement of the value of girls.


    And finally, should you ever be driven to blog in the daylight hours, would there be the risk that any resultant diminution of accuracy might come at the cost of “edginess”? 😉


  7. Good catch. Glad I have such attentive readers.

    I got my หมั้น /mân/ (engagement) confused with my นม /nom/ (milk).
    It should read like this:

    Other words for dowry are ทองหมั้น /tong mân/ meaning “gold (for) emgagement”, and then there is ค่าน้ำนม /kâa náam nom/ “price of milk”, the cost of the milk she drank growing up, a fee for raising her.

    Hopefully we can get this changed soon. My apologies. I probably shouldn’t be writing these things at 3am. Right now it is 5:30am so it should be a little more accurate.

  8. Thanks for another interesting article!

    Shouldn’t ทองหมั้น sound like /tong ​mûn/ and translate as “engagement gold”? Although I kinda like the story about paying for the milk she drank when she was a baby. 🙂

  9. Todd,

    Thanks for the spell check. It is หนีภาษี.

    The term ชนแล้วหนี is specific to traffic crashes as the term ชน means to have a collision. So the term ชนแล้วห (“collide and escape”) means “After the collision (the driver) ran away. This happens usually since the driver (of a bus or a truck mostly) doesn’t have insurance and since he is in the bigger vehicle he would end up being responsible for the damage payments. Better to get out of town.

    As for ทะเบียนสมรส, that is the formal name for marriage certificate. ทะเบียน alone simply means “register”, but it is used as a shortcut sometimes. The word สมรส /sǒm-​rót/ is the fancy word for “marry”.

    Thanks for thinking I am “edgy”. Glad I still have that in me.

  10. Great and useful vocab!
    One correction; Isn’t that หนีภาษี?

    I’d almost throw in the phrase ชนแล้วหนี seeing as it’s always in the news with car accidents (especially fatal ones). I’ve even seen it in the written Police reports too. Although it might not be “legalese” it sure gets a LOT of mileage here.

    I see ทะเบียนสมรส written on the translation signs scattered all over Bangkok, as far as the “marriage certificate”, but it just could be the way it’s written rather than spoken.

    Hugh, those are some pretty “edgy” observations about สินสอด! For a minute I thought I was reading something I’d written 555+.

    Still, the observations are spot-on, especially as Thais ain’t all that big on anything มือสอง.


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