Thai Language Thai Culture: Thai Roots

Thai Language

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Thai Roots…

I am always looking for new ways to learn Thai vocabulary so that this ancient brain of mine can retain new words. I usually find that if I can learn a new word in some kind of context it makes it easier to remember.

Lots of Thai vocabulary use root words which are then combined with other words to build new compound ones. Example: If we take the root word โต๊ะ /dtó/ (table), and add กิน /gin/ (to eat), and ข้าว /kâao/ (rice), we get โต๊ะกินข้าว, which is dining table.

It is fun to learn a new “big” word and break it down into its constituent parts. That way we can learn lots of little words too.

I was browsing through a dictionary the other day (yes, I “have a life” but once in a while I do weird nerdy things like read dictionaries) and I came across some good root words that can help us learn lots of new vocab.

The two words we’ll play with today are quite simple and even most new learners will know them. Let’s see how many new words we can find which use these root words to build upon.


The root words are:

clock, watch, o’clock: นาฬิกา /naa-lí~gaa/
vehicle, auto, car, wagon, etc.: รถ /rót/

I’ll give you the root and the word’s constituent parts. See if you can figure out the meaning. Answers will be below.

นาฬิกา /naa-lí~gaa/

นาฬิกาข้อมือ /naa-lí~gaa-kɔ̂ɔ–mʉʉ/ = นาฬิกา + ข้อ + มือ
joint: ข้อ /kɔ̂ɔ-/
hand: มือ /kɔ̂mʉʉ/
wrist: ข้อมือ /kɔ̂ɔ–mʉʉ/

นาฬิกาจับเวลา /naa-lí~gaa-jàp-wee-laa/ = นาฬิกา + จับ+ เวลา
to get, grab: จับ /jàp/
time: เวลา /way-laa/
to keep time: จับเวลา /jàp-wee-laa/

นาฬิกาแดด /naa-lí~gaa-dɛ̀ɛt/ = นาฬิกา + แดด
sunlight: แดด /-dɛ̀ɛt/

นาฬิกาทราย /naa-lí~gaa-saai/ = นาฬิกา + ทราย
sand: ทราย /saai/

นาฬิกาบันทึกเวลาทำงาน /naa-lí~gaa-ban-tʉ́k-wee-laa-tam-ngaan/
= นาฬิกา + บันทึก + เวลา + ทำงาน
to record: บันทึก /ban-téuk/
time: เวลา /way-laa/
to work: ทำงาน /tam-ngaan/

นาฬิกาปลุก /naa-lí~gaa-bplùk/ = นาฬิกา + ปลุก
to wake (someone up): ปลุก /bplùk/

นาฬิกาลูกตุ้ม /naa-lí-gaa-lûuk-dtûm/ = นาฬิกา + ลูก + ตุ้ม
a classifier for round objects: ลูก /lûuk/
ตุ้ม /dtûm/ = a hanging object
ลูกตุ้ม /lûuk-dtûm/ = pendulum

Answers for นาฬิกา:
นาฬิกาข้อมือ /naa-lí~gaa-kɔ̂ɔ-mʉʉ/ = wristwatch
นาฬิกาจับเวลา /naa-lí~gaa-jàp-wee-laa/ = stopwatch
นาฬิกาแดด /naa-lí~gaa-dɛ̀ɛt/ = sundial
นาฬิกาทราย /naa-lí~gaa-saai/ = hourglass
นาฬิกาบันทึกเวลาทำงาน /naa-lí~gaa-ban-tʉ́k-wee-laa-tam-ngaan/ = time clock
นาฬิกาปลุก /naa-lí~gaa-bplùk/ = alarm clock
นาฬิกาลูกตุ้ม /naa-lí-gaa-lûuk-dtûm/ = grandfather clock

รถ /rót/ There are lots and lots of compound words using รถ as their root. We’ll just give a sample here:

รถยนต์ /rót-yon/ = รถ + ยนต์
machine: ยนต์ /yon/

รถกวาดหิมะ /rót-gwàat-hì-má/ = รถ + กวาด + หิมะ
to sweep: กวาด /gwàat/
snow: หิมะ /hì-má/

รถพ่วง /rót-pûuang/ = รถ + พ่วง
to tow: พ่วง /pûuang/

รถเก๋ง /rót-gěng/ = รถ + เก๋ง
cab (of a truck), sedan: เก๋ง /gěng/

รถขุด /rót-kùt/ = รถ + ขุด
to dig (with a tool): ขุด /kùt/

รถเข็น /rót-kěn/ = รถ + เข็น
to push: เข็น /kěn/

รถเข็นเด็ก /rót-kěn-dèk/ = รถ + เข็น + เด็ก
to push: เข็น /kěn/
child: เด็ก /dèk/

รถแข่ง /rót-kɛ̀ng/ = รถ + แข่ง
to compete, race: แข่ง /kɛ̀ng/

รถเช่า /rót-châo/ = รถ + เช่า
to rent: เช่า /châo/

รถดับเพลิง /rót-dàp-pləəng/ = รถ + ดับ + เพลิง
to extinguish: ดับ /dàp/
fire: เพลิง /pləəng/

รถไถนา /rót-tǎi-naa/ = รถ + ไถ + นา
to plough: ไถ /tǎi/
field, rice field: นา /naa/

Answers for รถ:
รถยนต์ /rót-yon/ = automobile
รถกวาดหิมะ /rót-gwàat-hì-má/ = snowplow
รถพ่วง /rót-pûuang/ = trailer
รถเก๋ง /rót-gěng/ = car; sedan (saloon car)
ถขุด /rót-kùt/ = backhoe; excavator
รถเข็น /rót-kěn/ = barrow; shopping; pushcart; wheelbarrow
รถเข็นเด็ก /rót-kěn-dèk/ = baby buggy; baby carriage
รถแข่ง /rót-kɛ̀ng/ = race car
รถเช่า /rót-châo/ = rental car
รถดับเพลิง /rót-dàp-pləəng/ = fire engine; fire truck
รถไถนา /rót-tǎi-naa/ = tractor

Now try finding a Thai root word and using a dictionary to look up all the words that are built upon it. Here is a suggestion,
start with น้ำ /nám/ (fluid, water).

Here is a word we found using น้ำ:
น้ำมัน /nám-man/ = น้ำ + มัน
fat, grease: มัน /man/
oil, fuel, petrol: น้ำมัน /nám-man/

The word น้ำมัน /nám-man/ (oil) itself can also act as a root word. Back to the dictionary we find an example:
น้ำมันพืช /nám-man-pʉ̂ʉt/ = น้ำมัน + พืช
plant, vegetation: พืช /pʉ̂ʉt/
vegetable oil: น้ำมันพืช /nám-man-pʉ̂ʉt/

Who knows; try doing these exercises a few times and you might find yourself reading the dictionary in your free time too.

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

13 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Thai Roots”

  1. Todd, definitely check it out. I don’t lug mine around but I do have two copies so I can keep one at home and one at my mom’s house.

    Looking at mine now I don’t actually see the words ‘Library Edition,’ not in English anyway. If it’s two volumes and it’s about 8 inches by 11 inches and has lots of sentences, that’s the one you want.

    The more abridged editions save space by taking out some or most of the sentences. At that point, it’s lost what I love about it.

    And thanks for the info on the Domnern Sathienpong Dictionary. I will be getting that, too, as soon as I figure out how to order it from here (USA)

    And Hugh, great post as always. Thanks.

  2. I have found you hafta be careful with jumping on the bandwagon of “let’s break compound words down to their base words” concept.. I mean it can work fine sometimes, but there are more than a few times that the meanings of the base words which comprise a compound word will give you NOTHING close to the meaning of the word which has those components. Still it can certainly get your recognition of Thai words up to speed..

    I don’t have that So Sethaputhra Thai-English Dictionary, but I should probably go look for it. I think I might have seen it but it appeared too “clunky” for me to lug around all the time being a two volume set..

    Gaelee; is there a big difference between the Library Edition and the Desk version?

    FWIW: the Domnern Sathienpong Thai-English Dictionary has 4 PAGES worth of เป็น entries with hundreds of examples.. (Plus it comes with a C/D with spoken sound files too) so it’s not so bad either 🙂

    Note to Hugh; missed the ม on your recap of Rick Bradford’s contribution of จานดาวเทียม ;P

  3. Hugh,
    I’d like to second your choice of So Sethaputra’s New Model Dictionary (Library Edition) as my favorite as well, except that I prefer the Thai-English version.

    For those who haven’t seen it, yes there’s a sentence for every word, but some words warrant many sentences.

    เป็น for instance has almost 2 pages of 50+ sentences.
    ต่อ has almost 3 pages (no, I didn’t count the sentences for this one). You get the idea.

    Bernard, I was in Chiang Mai in 2011 and DK Books was exactly where I saw it. Yeah, 2 years ago now, but that’s where I would look.

    Btw it’s two volumes. Don’t leave the bookstore with only half the alphabet!

  4. Hi Bernard!

    It is my impression that French and Thai are more sensible and pragmatic languages than English. But again, my command of the first two is limited, French more so than Thai. 🙂

    English does have occasional success in combining multisyllabic words such as “workbench” or “worktable” which might be similar to โต๊ะทำงาน, but I suspect that breaking apart Thai words to understand their meaning might yield greater results than trying to do the same with English words. 🙂

  5. Rick,

    Good catch. ศาสตร์ /sàat/ is an often used suffix. In fact there are lots and lots of them – which just gave me an idea for a future post.

    For those who might be confused how about the word จานดาวเทีย, how about breaking it down this way.


    จาน = dish, plate
    ดาว = star
    เทีย = artificial, fake, false
    ดาวเทีย = satellite, artificial (man made) star
    จานดาวเทีย = satellite dish

    5 for the price of 1.

  6. You can also try this using common suffixes, such as -ศาสตร์ (science). So there is แพทยศาสตร์, ดาราศาสตร์,ดาราศาสตร์,คณิตศาสตร์ and a whole heap more.

    The great thing about learning words in combinations is that you often get two words for the price of one, and context to go with them as well.

    Let’s say you are a complete novice at Thai, and the TV guy fixes you up with what he calls a จานดาวเทียม — you get 3 for 1; plate, star, and false.

  7. Reading the dictionary (especially a good Thai-to-English one) is an excellent way to thai err, tie words together.

    I spent so much time reading mine that it’s exactly why I reviewed the Domnern Sathienpong Dictionary for this site;

    I’d look up a word and before I know it I’d end up reading the dictionary and the various entries for an hour or more!

    I have found English to Thai dictionaries not all that useful, but man goin’ the other way from Thai to English and you can really get some useful stuff outta them..

  8. Keith,
    French as latin languages (Italian, Spanish…), and of course also English (that uses so many French words even if nowadays it is difficult to tracks them) doesn’t build multi syllabus words the same way as thai. French speaking doesn’t play “puzzles” ! And we neither have the so typically Thai serialization of verbs.

  9. Thank you Hugh.
    I will try to find it at DK books Chiang Mai, or an another one with use examples.
    That’s what missing in the Benjawan’s (and other electronic dictionaries). But Benjawan’s has very other good features as Keith reported above.

    I would like also that the electronic dictionaries will have some questions/games/flashcards integrated functions. Why give so many words, without making fun to play/discover them ?

  10. Bernard,

    The “paper” dictionary I like best is So Sethaputr’s (pronounced Saw Set-a-buut”) New Model English-Thai Dictionary (Library Edition). I don’t even know if you can still get it as they are mostly selling the PC version now. The reason I like it best is because every translated word comes with a sample sentence showing its use. Lots of good reading practice. In fact, when I started teaching myself to read (not too long ago comparatively) I would use his book daily for practice. BTW, my copy is almost 40 years old, and well used. The have recently updated the entries.

  11. One of my favorite features of the Talking Thai iPhone dictionary is its “Find Words Inside” feature. I agree that knowing the constituent parts of a word not only improves comprehension, but aids memorization as well.

    I think that might be one of the key strengths of the Thai language. Perhaps it is like French in that way, but my knowledge of French is not sufficient to make me sure.

    It can also offer insights into our different living situations. For example, I would be more likely to ตักหิมะ than กวาดหิมะ after a big snowstorm. I think the last time snow fell in Thailand was what we would call a “dusting” and was about 60 years ago in Chiang Rai.

  12. Very good Hugh. It’s good to learn words, and it’s also – if not mainly – good for the brain which needs to exercise as much as the body !

    And, by the way, this story reminds me that I have to buy a thai dictionary.
    I mean a “book”, a real one.
    I have many electronic dictionaries on my Mac, my iPhone and iPad mini. And I use mainly the Benjawan Becker’s one Talking English-Thai. These dics are very practical to make quick searches and picking up words, but it is impossible to “read” them. Electronic dictionaries are good to find, not so good to learn, new words.

    Thanks for that. Have a nice day in Chiang Mai. The weather is morning is cool and the hilly mountains around my place in Doi Saket are all crowned by beautiful clouds.


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