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Thai 101 Learners Series: A Trusted Native Speaker is Essential

Thai 101 Learners Series

A trusted native speaker is essential….

You may have noticed by now that learning Thai takes real effort and discipline. No two ways about it. Expect to put in long hours tweaking your pronunciation, expanding your vocabulary, solidifying your grasp on the grammar.

One of the best — and most necessary — language resources you have is a trusted native speaker. Someone who will put up with your questions. It could be a spouse, a friend, or that Thai language teacher you pay good money to.

Ideally, this person will be introspective and inquisitive about his or her own language. In practice, this means that you’ll get answers besides “that’s just how we say it” (though sometimes that’s a legitimate answer, too). And when they don’t know the answer, they’ll be interested in figuring it out for you.

That’s the ideal situation. But you’ve also got to be comfortable asking complete strangers, while being appropriately critical about the advice you receive.

Asking for help with the language is like asking for directions. Sometimes there’s one clear way to go. Just as often, there are varying opinions on the best route to take.

It’s happened to me many times in Thailand where a stranger has given me incorrect directions. Not just “I think it’s somewhere up there on the left” when it was actually on the right; I’m talking specific, detailed, wrong directions.

This kind of experience can be bewildering, even infuriating, but it helps if you put yourself in their cultural shoes. It’s not mean-spiritedness, or the natives having a laugh at your expense. Rather, in a face-driven culture, fulfilling the request is as important as being legitimately helpful. Very often Thais will smile and say what they think you want to hear, which means that it can be hard getting genuine criticism out of them.

Here’s a phrase to know:

ต้องพูดว่าอย่างไร /tawng phuut waa yang-ngai/ “How should I say it?”

Everyone has those experiences where they are able to make themselves understood, but only with much repetition and gesticulating. Some of us do it every day. (“I said ‘can you turn down the radio’, not ‘I’d like two baked potatoes’!”) For Thai learners, once you’ve made yourself understood, this is a perfect time to ask your unwitting victim how you should have said it in the first place.

On the flip side of this language coin, you’ll also find that as a second language learner, Thais hold you to a higher standard than they hold themselves. I don’t think there’s anything peculiar about this; it’s probably true for most languages. For example, in my native accent, I tend to pronounce the word “sandwich” as “samwich” — but I don’t think they should teach Thai schoolchildren to say it that way.

Expect to be corrected for things that native speakers would get away with. For example, the Thai word อย่างไร /yaang-rai/ is regularly reduced to ยังไง /yang-ngai/, and even just ไง /ngai/. So the (very informal) phrase เป็นไงมั่ง /pen ngai mang/ “How are you?” is short for เป็นอย่างไรบ้าง /pen yaang-rai baang/.

This won’t stop the schoolmarm types from insisting you speak like Thailand’s answer to Walter Cronkite, though. In these situations, accept the criticism politely. The real lesson to be learned here is in knowing around whom you can let the rules slide, and around whom you should speak more like a textbook.

To give another example, some time or another you’ll meet some well-meaning person who tells you that you don’t use the polite particles ครับ /khrap/ or คะ /kha/ enough. And then a couple days later, after you’ve been careful to use the polite particles every other word or so, someone else will tell you that you’re overusing them.

So who is right? Well, both are. Thai society is highly stratified, so you need to be a bit of a linguistic chameleon. Age, education, social standing, and profession are all factors you’ve got to consider when choosing which parts of the language you should and shouldn’t use with someone.

This is where your trusted native speaker becomes essential. Ask them for the dirt on what works best for which situation, so you don’t end up talking to a five-year-old like he’s an abbot, or an aristocrat like she’s a peasant.

It takes a long time to learn all the ways in which “polite Thai,” “street Thai” and other varieties differ, but there are lots of resources at your disposal. The new series “Thai Language Thai Culture” by Hugh Leong, for one, is not to be missed. Especially this installment, which delves into the different levels of the language in good detail.

I said it wasn’t easy. Now get to work, and โชคดี!

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

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Thai 101 Learners Series: Bumper-to-bumper Language Lessons

Thai 101 Learners Series

Bumper stickers are us…

Bumper stickers in Thailand make for an interesting language lesson and a good way to pass time when you’re caught in traffic.

Apart from the typical เมา ไม่ ขับ /mao mai khap/ “Don’t Drink and Drive” and เรา รัก ในห ลวง /rao rak nai luang/ “We Love the King” stickers, one can typically count on Thai bumper stickers to be one of two things: clever and sexually suggestive. Frequently they are both.

One clever sticker I saw recently made me chuckle. On government vehicles you’ll see the lettering ใช ใ้น ราชการ เท่า นั้น /chai nai raatchakaan thao nan/ “For Official Government Use Only” below the logo of whatever department it belongs to.

A taxi had adorned its bumper with: ใช้ หนี ราชการ เท่า นั้น /chai nii raatchakaan thao nan/ “For Fleeing (from) Government Officials Only”, a play on the usual phrase by simply replacing ใน /nai/ with หนี /nii/.

If your sensibilities aren’t too delicate, take a look at the website that Doug Cooper put up sometime back during the Clinton administration: Thai Bumper Stickers (no longer online)

It’s a large collection of Thai bumper stickers. Most are transcribed and many are translated. Some of the translations are wrong, and you have to download a special font to see the phonetic Thai, but it’s still a nice collection. The content is not the kind of Thai you’ll want to use in polite company, if ever. Be warned.

Here’s one that’s suggestive but relatively mild: รับ สอน ก่อน วิวาห์ /rap son gon wiwaa/, which means “(I teach) wedding night lessons”.

Thai 101 Learners Series

And another nice bit of wordplay:

Thai 101 Learners Series

It reads: วัตถุ เมา ไว /wat-too mao wai/ “Highly intoxicatable”. This is a play on วัตถุ ไว ไฟ /wat-too wai fai/ “Flammable material”, as seen on gas tankers, liquid propane cylinders and so on.

There is another popular one that I’ve seen so many times, that I began wondering if I’d gone colorblind.

The gimmick is sticker lettering on the rear of the car saying: รถ คัน นี้ สี (X) /rot kan nee see X/ “This car is (color)”, filling in the blank with any color that the car isn’t. The lettering is often the color the car purports to be, but not always.

A typical example is a pink taxi with lettering on its bumper: รถ คัน นี้ สี เขียว /rot kan nee see kieow/ “This car is green”. I looked around on some Thai message boards, and many people claim it’s done to แก้ เคล็ค /gae klet/ as Thais say – “to ward off bad luck”, because some colors are considered luckier than others.

I’m sure plenty do it to be ironic or trendy.

Thai 101 Learners SeriesOne more for the road, from the “just-keep-telling-yourself-that” department:

ลูก ผู้ ชาย ต้อง ไว้ พุง /look poo chaai tong wai poong/ “Real men have a paunch.”

There is certainly no lack of bumper stickers on vehicles in Thailand, and trying to read them can also improve your ability to read some of the highly stylized fonts that are often used on signs and other forms of advertising, such as Thai script designed to look like Chinese, which we see around the Vegetarian Festival.

This might even help you to start to develop the confidence you will need to read the most difficult script of all: handwritten Thai.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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Thai 101 Learners Series: A Few Facts about Farang

Thai 101 Learners Series

A farang by any other name…

Any white foreigner who spends even a few days in Thailand will learn at least one Thai word: ฝรั่ง /farang/. It’s being used by Thais to refer to them – whether they’re aware of it or not.

Farang is one of the first words that will stand out from the jumble of Thai constantly spoken on all sides. People are most likely to be saying things like, “Come take this farang’s order, my English is terrible,” or “Help! I can’t make head nor tail of what the farang wants.”

If you’re in a place foreigners don’t normally frequent, you’re likely to hear it randomly shouted at your very presence, by staring children and adults alike.

For the most part, it’s used harmlessly. Some people take it as an insult, but I don’t. If somebody uses it like it’s my name, I might let them know. Thais generally mean no harm by the word, even if they tend to overuse it.

The etymology behind the word farang is relatively clear, but some persistent folk etymologies muddy the waters. I don’t want to get too much into tracing the history of the word right now, though.

The short version: farang doesn’t come from the Thai word ฝรั่งเศษ /farangseet/ “Français”, since its use predates the arrival of caucasians in Thailand; nor does it come from the fact that white people have skin like the inside of a guava.

Likely cognates of farang are found in many languages and many countries, stretching from the Middle East out to Oceania. It was almost certainly spread by Persian traders across mainland Asia many centuries ago. Such traders arrived in Siam by the 16th century, bringing along with their wares the word farangi, meaning Westerner or white man, from the Arabic word “faranji”, and ultimately referring to the Germanic tribe the Franks, dating from the crusades, perhaps as early as the turn of the first millennium, AD.

Yes, that really is the short version.

The so-called farangs have shared their appellation with many things in Thai. The guava, known as ฝรั่ง /farang/ in Thai, is actually native to the Americas and was most likely introduced to Southeast Asia by the Portuguese.

In the early 19th century, John Crawfurd wrote of a fruit the Thais called “banana of the Franks (Kloa-Farang)”, or กล้วย ฝรั่ง /kluai farang/.

So the fruit gets its name from the foreigners who introduced it, and not the other way around.

It’s not just guavas, though. Many of the things introduced by westerners are called “X farang”, which is to say, “the farang version of X”. Common ones include the following:

มัน ฝรั่ง /man farang/ “potato”.
มัน /man/ is a general word for tubers, thus potatoes are “farang tubers”.

หมาก ฝรั่ง /maak farang/ “chewing gum”.
หมาก้ /maak/ is betel, thus gum is “farang betel”.

หน่อ ไม้ ฝรั่ง /naw maai farang/ “asparagus”.
หน่อ ยไม้ /naw maai/ are bamboo shoots, thus asparagus is “farang bamboo shoots”.

ผัก ชี ฝรั่ง /phak chii farang/ “parsley”.
ผักชี /phak chii/ is cilantro/coriander, thus parsely is “farang cilantro”.

In addition to asparagus and potatoes, there are several more plant species not native to Southeast Asia that are known as the “farang” version of some other common plant. These include the following:

มะกอก ฝรั่ง /makok farang/ “A western-style olive”, as opposed to the larger Thai ‘makok’.

Incidentally, the name of the city of Bangkok is believed to derive from มะกอก /makok/.

แค ฝรั่ง /khae farang/ “Gliricidia sepium”, a medium-size leguminous tree.

ตะขบ ฝรั่ง /takhop farang/, kind of flowering plant.

ผัก บุ้ง ฝรั่ง /phak boong farang/ “Morning Glory”, as opposed to the aquatic version (Ipomoea aquatica) used in the popular Thai dish ผัดผัก บุ้ง ไฟ แดง /phak boong fai daeng/ “stir-fried morning glory with oyster sauce”.

ประทัด ฝรั่ง /prathad farang/ “a shrub or small tree” native to Brazil.

แพงพวย ฝรั่ง /phaengphuai farang/ “The Water Primrose”, a herbaceous perennial plant native to the Americas and found on the margins of lakes and ponds.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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Thai 101 Learners Series: Vocabulary Acquisition

Thai 101 Learners Series

Taking the long way home…

One skill that will always come in handy when learning a second language is being able to say what you want without knowing how to say it.

Yes, you read correctly. It’s the fine art of circumlocution: literally, talking a circle around what you mean. And it’s something you’ll find you need to do in virtually every conversation. The value of circumlocution is twofold:

First, it gets your point across.

Second, and probably more importantly, the person you’re talking with is bound to tell you the correct word after he figures out what on earth you have been trying to say.

Venturing forth to talk about things you haven’t learned yet is a great way to expand your vocabulary, so be fearless.

First off, consider the word ที่ /thîi/. It’s an extremely versatile word, and you may recall from an earlier column that it’s the second most commonly used word in Thai, after การ /kaan/. It turns out that ที่ /thîi/ is really useful when you find yourself searching for the right word.

One meaning of ที่ /thîi/ is, roughly, “a thing used to… ”, in such expressions as ที่ นั่ง /thîi nâng/ “seat” (literally, thing for sitting) and ที่ นอน /thîi nawn/ “mattress, bed” (literally, thing used for sleeping), ที่ ปัด น้ำ ฝน /thîi pàt nám fǒn/ “windshield wiper” (literally, rainwater wiper), ที่ เย็บ กระดาษ /thîi yép kradàat/, “stapler” (literally “a thing to sew paper”).

In many other expressions, ที่ /thîi/ is sometimes used in place of a more specific word. ไม้ ตี ยุง /máai tii yung/ refers to those ever-popular racquet-shaped electric mosquito zappers, but you’ll also hear ที่ ตี ยุง /thîi tii yung/ “mosquito swatter”.

To make a long story short, ที่ /thîi/ is a handy word to use at times when you want to refer to something, but you don’t know what it’s called.

Sometimes you may even stumble upon the correct name. If you ask for “a thing that opens bottles”, ที่ เปิด ขวด thîi pèrt khùat/, then you’ve hit on the exact phrase Thais use for “bottle opener”. Lucky eh? Even if you don’t get it exactly right, this short word goes a long way in helping find what you need.

Say you were at the store and you needed to buy a rubber eraser, but you didn’t know what it was called. So you try asking for ที่ ลบ ดินสอ /thîi lóp dinsǎw/, literally “a thing for erasing pencils”.

You aren’t going to win any elocution prizes, but the shopkeeper would probably give a big อ๋อ /ǎw/ (which is Thai for “now I know what you’re talking about, you nutty farang”) before fetching you a ยาง ลบ /yaang lóp/, a rubber eraser. Mission accomplished.

Practise using basic words like these in order to get your meaning across; there are plenty more where ที่ /thîi/ came from.

เครื่อง /khrûeang/ is a common word for machines and gadgets: เครื่อง บิน /khrûeang bin/ “airplane”, เครื่อง ซัก ผ้า /khrûeang sák phâa/ “washing machine”, เครื่อง คิด เลข /khrûeang khít lêek/ “calculator” and so forth.

For example, you might use เครื่อง /khrûeang/ if you forgot what a refrigerator is called.

เครื่อง ที่ ทำ ให้ อหาร เย็น /khrûeang thîi tham hâi aahǎan yen/ “machine that makes food cold” will sound funny to the Thai ear, but they’ll probably be able to figure out what you mean. Then they will tell you it’s called a ตู้ เย็น /tûu yen/ “fridge”.

รถ /rót/ is used with all things wheeled: รถ ยนตร์ /rót yon/ “automobile”, รถ เมล์ /rót mee/ “bus”, รถ ไฟ /rót fai/ “train”.

You could ask the word for “bicycle” by describing it as รถ ที่ ใช้ เท้า ถีบ /rót thîi chái tháao thìip/ “vehicle that you use your feet to propel”. This will lead you to the proper word, รถ จักรยาน /rót jàkrayaan/, or just จักรยาน /jàkrayaan/.

Incidentally, รถ ถีบ /rót thìip/ is the old Isarn word for bicycle.

And one final useful word: คล้าย /khláai/ or คล้ายๆ /khláai khláai/ “similar to”. You could describe a pen as คล้ายๆ ดินสอ /khláai khláai dinsǎw/ “similar to a pencil”.

You might also mimic the action of writing, or better yet, just pull out a pen and ask them the word. You get the idea. Or, if you were trying to tell a Thai friend what a Nissan Tiida looks like, try saying it’s คล้ายๆ /khláai khláai/ Honda Jazz.

If you don’t find yourself in need of a little circumlocution every day, then you’re probably not learning much.

Now go and strike up a conversation with someone about, I dunno, a hydroelectric power plant or the gearing mechanism on your old Suzuki Caribbean.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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Thai 101 Learners Series: More on Titles

Thai 101 Learners Series

Titles are here there and everywhere…

What’s in a title? That which we call a Ms. by any other title would smell as sweet.

Apologies to Shakespeare. I read an interesting Thai law the other day on the topic of titles for women.

As you may know, the basic titles for women in Thailand are นาง สาว /naang sǎao/ for a single woman (like Miss) and นาง /naang/ for a married woman (like Mrs.).

Only, that’s not quite the case. A law issued on January 31 of this year [2008] states the following:

  • A woman aged fully 15 years or older, who has never been married, must use the title นาง สาว /naang sǎao/.
  • A married woman may use the title นาง /naang/ or นาง สาว /naang sǎao/ according to her preference, by informing the local registrar.
  • A married woman whose marriage later comes to an end may use the title นาง /naang/ or นาง สาว /naang sǎao/ according to her preference, by informing the local registrar.

An explanatory note as to the reason for the change states: the former law “affected the daily lives of married and formerly married women, including their careers, the education of their children, and the carrying of various legal actions, which constitutes unjust sexual discrimination”.

Now that’s interesting. As far as I know, titles like Mr, Ms and Mrs have no legal status in the United States, where I was born. I don’t know when I’ve used the title Mr for myself, except when doing things like applying for a visa to the Thai embassy.

Funny how that is.

In Thailand, everyone has some kind of title…

Nowadays, all men (all commoners, anyway) are นาย /naai/. Girls and boys under 15 are เด็ก หญิง /dèk yǐng/ and เด็ก ชาย /dèk chaai/, respectively.

Royal titles are very complex, so I’m not going to get into them here. Hereditary titles for descendants of royalty are still in use, too. These pass only through male lines. You’ll see the titles หม่อม ราชวงศ์ /màwm râatchawong/, who is the child of a หม่อม เจ้า /màwm châao/, the lowest tier considered royalty, and หม่อม หลวง /màwm lǔang/, who is the child of a male หม่อม ราชวงศ์ /màwm râatchawong/.

Children of a หม่อม หลวง /màwm lǔang/ receive no title, but can append ณ อยุธยา /Na Ayutthaya/, meaning “of Ayutthaya” to their name, indicating their royal lineage.

Honorific titles for woman of non-royal lineage are granted by His Majesty the King. They are: ท่าน ผู้ หญิง /thân phûu yǐng/, said to be equivalent to the British title Dame; and คุณ หญิง /khun yǐng/, said to be equivalent to the British title Lady. Honorific titles for non-royal men are no longer in use.

There is still a lot of prestige attached to any of the honorific or hereditary titles. But in modern Thai society, there are other titles which will also gain you much respect, and which are available to anyone: titles of education. In particular, ดร. “Doctor” for non-medical doctorate holders, and นพ./พญ. /naai phâet and phâet yǐng/, for men and women medical doctors hold a lot of cachet; but also professorial titles: in descending order, ศ. “Professor”, รศ. “Associate Professor”, and ผศ. “Assistant Professor”.

And let’s not forget military and police titles. There are a large number of these, and they vary depending on the branch of the military. Wikipedia has a good rundown on these.

It is not uncommon to stack up multiple titles, either. In an extreme case, you might see ผศ.ดร.พ.ต.ต. which unravels to “Assistant Professor Doctor Police Major so-and-so”. Quite the mouthful.

On the news, anchors always use a person’s full title at least the first time they mention a person. When you have a person with multiple titles, like Thaksin Shinawatra, they might say this: อดีต นายก รัฐมนตรี พัน ตำรวจ โท ดอกเตอร์ ทักษิณ ชินวัตร /adìit naayók rátthamontrii phan tamrùat thoo dàwkter tháksǐn chinnawát/: “Former prime minister Police Lieutenant General Doctor Thaksin Shinawatra”.

Never mind that he left the police force more than 20 years ago.

All in all, titles are far more important in Thailand than they are in my homeland. In the US, some pompous ass might correct you with “that’s Dr. so-and-so”, because he wants you to know he has a fancy degree. It’s generally much less of a big deal, and (as in the case of the pompous ass) being overly showy with titles is tacky.

Back in Mother England they seem to be more important, though I have very little clue about the hierarchy involved in those. My mom says her side of the family has traced our genealogy back to Charlemagne.

Probably me and 10 million other people. I don’t think I’m going to inherit any titles any time soon!

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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Thai 101 Learners Series: Bringing Abstract into Real Life

Thai 101 Learners Series

Two of the most common words of all…

In any language, a tiny handful of words make up a disproportionate percentage of the sentences you write or speak. It’s a mathematical law, actually.

In the British National Corpus, a collection of 100 million words of written and spoken English, more than 6% is taken up by just one word: “the”. The 10 most common words in written English are indeed pretty dull: the, of, to, in, and, a, for, was, is, that.

The list looks pretty similar in Thai: การ /kaan/, ที่ /thii/, ของ /khawng/, ใน /nai/, และ /lae/, ได้ /dai/, เป็น /pen/, มี /mii/, จะ /ja/, ใช้ /chai/ and ความ /khwaam/.

That Thai list goes to 11 today, because I want to go into some detail about the two words that bookend the list: การ /kaan/ and ความ /khwaam/. Needless to say, you’d be hard pressed to hold a conversation without using these two little words – although I’m sure some clever reader is going to make it their goal today to do just that… Let me know how that goes.

The words การ /kaan/ and ความ /khwaam/ have come to take on new grammatical functions in Thai.

การ /kaan/ literally means “work” or “action”, and you’ll still see it used in this sense:

ผู้ ว่า การ /phuu waa kaan/ governor – literally, “the person who dictates work”;

ประธาน รักษา การ /prathaan raksaa kaan/ “acting president”;

การ บ้าน /kaan baan/ “homework”, but not งาน บ้าน /ngaan baan/ “housework”, as in sweeping and dusting.

ความ /khwaam/ literally means “substance, gist, matter”, as seen in phrases such as:

บท ความ /bot khwaam/ “newspaper, magazine article”;

แจ้ง ความ /jaeng khwaam/ “file a complaint with the police”;

ความ ใน ใจ /khwaam nai jai/ “what’s on one’s mind, in one’s heart”. So what’s their grammatical function? They both prefix an existing word or phrase to create a new noun.

ความ /khwaam/ turns verbs into abstract nouns:

รัก /rak/ “love”, the verb, becomes ความ รัก /khwaam rak/ “love”, the noun;

เห็น /hen/ “see” becomes ความ เห็น /khwaam hen/ “viewpoint” or “opinion”;

ตาย /taai/ “die” becomes ความ ตาย /khwaam taai/ “death”.

ความ /kwaam/ also pairs with what we would call adjectives in English, although they behave somewhat more like verbs in Thai:

สุข /suk/ “happy” becomes ความ สุข /khwaam suk/ “happiness”;

หิว /hiw/ “hungry” becomes ความ หิว /khwaam hiw/ “hunger”;

รุน แรง /run raeng/ “violent” becomes ความ รุน แรง /khwaam run raeng/ “violence”.

การ /kaan/, however, behaves much like “-ing” in English. Not the continuous tense, like “I am walking”, but the gerund form, such as “I hate walking”.

Other common examples: การ พูด /kaan phuut/ “talking” and การ ว่าย น้ำ /kaan waai naam/ “swimming”.

Take note, though, that in Thai you won’t use การ /kaan/ everywhere you’d use “-ing” in English. It’s often just not necessary.

Another use of การ /kaan/ is to form new abstract nouns, similar to ความ /khwaam/. This is done when the noun refers to the overall activities and actions surrounding a particular noun:

เมือง mueang/ “city, nation” becomes การ เมือง /kaan mueang/ “politics” – as in, “the work of running a nation”;

เงิน /ngern/ “money” becomes การ เงิน /kaan ngern/ “finance”, while ตลาด /talaat/ “market” becomes การ ตลาด /kaan talaat/ “marketing”.

Or การ /kaan/ can pair up with a verb in the same way:

ศึกษา /sueksaa/ “study” becomes การ ศึกษา /kaan sueksaa/ “education”; แสดง /sadaeng/ “perform, show” becomes การ แสดง /kaan sadaeng/ “performance, show”; ท่อง เที่ยว /thong thiao/ “sightsee, tour” becomes การ ท่อง เที่ยว /kaan thong thiao/ “tourism”.

Something else to notice is that both การ /kaan/ and ความ /khwaam/ regularly attach to larger phrases:

การ เข้า ใจ ผิด /kaan khao jai phit/ “misunderstanding”; ความ น่า เชื่อ ถือ /khwaam naa chuea thue/ “credibility, reliability”; ความ ไม่ ซื่อ สัตย์ /khwaam mai sue sat/ “dishonesty”.

Since Thai is a language that tends toward short words that combine into phrases, rather than many prefixes and suffixes, often these long phrases still correspond to just one English word.

Familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of การ /kaan/ and ความ /khwaam/ as soon as possible. As always, remember to pay attention to when native speakers use them – and also when they don’t. These two words alone can greatly expand your conversational possibilities.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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Thai 101 Learners Series: Getting Personal

Thai 101 Learners Series

Let’s get down to it…

English and Thai take rather different approaches to personal pronouns. In English, there’s a small set of words we use in most situations: I, we, you, he, she, they, it. In the object case there are a few that change: me, us, him, her.

Unless you’re reading Shakespeare or the Bible, there’s not a whole lot more to know about English pronouns. Most native English speakers don’t know how lucky they have it in this regard.

Addressing people in Thai means you have to define your relationship to them: familiar or formal, friend or family, superior or subordinate.

Before we go on, here’s an ultra-quick refresher course: There are three “persons” in grammar. First person refers to the speaker (I, we). Second person refers to the listener (you). Third person refers to third parties (he, she, they).

You may already know some basic Thai pronouns, such as:

ผม /phǒm/ first person, for men

ฉัน /chán/ first person, for women

เรา /rao/ first person, plural

คุณ /khun/ second person

เขา /kháo/ third person.

Use these exclusively and you’ll get your point across. But for native speakers, there’s much more to it.

Thai kinship terms – the words used with various relatives – form the foundation of how Thais address one another in everyday casual interactions.

Words such as แม่ /mâe/ “mother”, พ่อ /phâw/ “father”, and ลูก /lûuk/ “child” can be used in all three persons.

For example: mother speaking to child – แม่ ซื้อ ขนม มา ให้ ลูก /mâe súe khanǒm maa hâi lûuk/ “I bought you a treat”, and child speaking to mother – ลูก กวาด บ้าน ให้ แม่ /lûuk kwàat bâan hâi mâe/ “I swept the house for you.”

Child speaking of mother – หนู บอก แม่ ว่า ไม่ อยาก ไป /nǔu bàwk mâe wâa mâi yàak pai/ “I told her that I don’t want to go.”

Also notice that หนู /nǔu/ literally “mouse” or “rat” is used as a pronoun for a young child, in first or second person, and also by coquettish young women with older men. It is supposed to sound cute.

The point is that these “kinship” terms can be used to converse informally with anyone, not just blood relatives. Thais call this นับ ญาติ /náp yâat/ “count (as a) relative”.

If you’re talking to someone within reasonable proximity of your own age, there’s พี่ /phîi/ “older sibling” for people older than you, and น้อง /náwng/ “younger sibling” for your juniors.

So you might use พ่อ /phâw/ and แม่ /mâe/ with people around your parents age. ลุง /lung/ “uncle” and ป้า /pâa/ “aunt” are commonly used for folks slightly older than your parents.

For the elderly, there’s ตา /taa/ “(maternal) grandfather” and ยาย /yaai/ “(maternal) grandmother”. Especially when talking with older people, often คุณ /khun/ is added to show more respect, becoming คุณ ตา /khun taa/ and คุณ ยาย /khun yaai/.

For some reason, Thais don’t use the terms ปู่ /pùu/ “(paternal) grandfather” or ย่า /yâa/ “(paternal) grandmother” for this purpose, though.

This practice is generally viewed as friendly, but it’s not always appropriate. It can be difficult to know which terms to use when – and with whom. To many Thai women in their forties, there’s nothing worse than being called ป้า /pâa/ by a stranger. You have been warned.

If you’re not sure, follow the native speaker’s lead. If someone talking to you uses ป้า /pâa/ to refer to herself, then it’s safe to use.

In some settings, a job title also commonly takes on the function of pronoun. At the doctor’s office, Thais refer to the doctor as หมอ /mǎw/ or คุณ หมอ /khun mǎw/, and the doctor will likely refer to him or herself as หมอ /mǎw/ when addressing patients.

Similarly, teachers are typically known as คุณ ครู /khun khruu/ to their students, and also use ครู /khruu/ for themselves.

For professors and some other teachers, อาจารย์ /aajaan/ works the same way.

You might say, Hey! We do that in English, too. Sure, in English we say things like “Doctor, what’s this growth on my elbow?” or “Teacher, Sally kicked me in the shins.”

The thing to remember about Thai is that these words tend to entirely replace pronouns.

In Thai you might ask the equivalent of “What does doctor think?” คุณ หมอ คิด ว่า อย่างไร /khun mǎw khít wâa yàang rai/ instead of “What do you think?” or, “Is teacher tired?” คุณ ครู เหนื่อย ไหม /khun khruu nùeai mái/ instead of “Are you tired?”

You should start to get the picture by now. Time to get out there and start chatting with your newfound relatives.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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Thai 101 Learners Series: Don’t Speak it, Think it

Thai 101 Learners Series

Language thinking gets you everywhere…

When speaking a new language, it’s tough to kick the impulse to translate what you want to say from your mother tongue.

When you’re first learning, you’re thinking of each sentence in English first. This can result in some pretty tortured Thai.

As you continue to improve, your speech patterns should start to sound more like a native speaker.

In achieving this, remember it’s often the little things that count. Like prepositions: those words that pair up with a noun to tell us where things are, when something happens and so on.

Languages can use prepositions very differently.

In English we’re used to saying that we visited a friend on Sunday, but if we try to translate that into Thai using บน /bon/, it sounds very silly. For Thais, you do things in a certain day. The same can apply to spatial descriptions. For example, in English we say the bird is in the sky, but that sounds silly in Thai.

Instead you have to say the bird is on บน /bon/ the sky.

There’s plenty in common, too. Both English and Thai use “in” ใน /nai/ for months and years. Thai for “in 2005…” would be: ใน ปี ๒๐๐๕ /nai pii sǎwng phan hâa/.

Let’s have a look at some basic prepositions:

1. บน /bon/ “on (top of)”, as in “the book is on the table” หนังสือ อยู่ บน โต๊ะ /nangsǔe yùu bon tó/. Thais talk about the upper level of a house as บน บ้าน /bon bâan/ “on the house”, a reference to the traditional Thai house built on stilts. You’ll hear this even in Bangkok, where elegant stilt houses have given way to hulking cement monstrosities.

2. ใต้ /tai/ “below, underneath”, as in “the hammer is underneath the table”: ค้อน อยู่ ใต้ โต๊ะ /kháwn yùu tâi tó/.

And the phrase ใต้ โต๊ะ /tâi tó/ is also commonly used to mean illicit or secret dealings, probably from the English phrase “under the table”. Also, the open-air area beneath a Thai stilt house is called ใต้ ถุน /tâi thǔn/. ใต้ /tâi/ is also the word for “south”.

3. เหนือ /nǔea/ “above, over”, as in “there’s a spider hanging above the table” มี แมง มุม ลอย อยู่ เหนือ โต๊ะ /mii maeng mum loi yùu nǔea tó/.

Similar to its opposite ใต้ /tâi/, เหนือ /nǔea/ is also the word for “north”. But you’ll see it in common phrases like เหนือ หัว /nǔea hǔa/ “overhead” (or the more polite version เหนือ ศีรษะ /nǔea sǐisà/, and เหนือ ธรรมชาติ /nǔea thammachâat/ “supernatural” (literally “over nature”).

4. ข้าง /khâang/ “beside, next to”, as in “the chair is next to the table”: เก้าอี้ อยู่ ข้าง โต๊ะ /kâo-ii yùu khâang tó/.

You’ll also see this word in phrases like ผล ข้าง เคียง /phǒn khâang khiang/ “side effects” and เข้า ข้าง /khâo khâang/ “to take (a) side” in an argument.

5. ล่าง /lâang/ “bottom-most, lowest to the ground”, as in: “His room is on the ground floor”. ห้อง ของ เขาอ ยู่ ชั้น ล่าง /hâwng khǎwng kháo yùu chán lâang/.

Or if you drive a car in Thailand, you may have to fix the ช่วง ล่าง /chûang lâang/, which is the “suspension”, so-called because it’s part of the underbody of the vehicle.

6. หน้า /nâa/ “in front of, front,” as in: “The car is parked in front of the house”. รถ จอด อยู่ หน้า บ้าน /rót jàwt yùu nâa bâan/. หน้า is also the word for “face”.

The word หน้า /nâa/ shows up all over the place: หัว หน้า /hǔa nâa/ “boss”; ล่วง หน้า /lûang nâa/ “ahead of time, in advance, early”; หน้า ตา /nâa taa/ “appearance”; หน้า รถ /nâa rót/ “hood (of a car)”.

7. หลัง /lǎng/ “behind”, as in “the keys fell behind the sofa”: กุญแจ หล่น อยู่ ข้าง หลัง โซฟา /kunjae lòn yùu khâang lǎng soofaa/. หลัง is also the word for “back”, as in ปวด หลัง /pùat lǎng/ “backache”.

You’ll see หลัง /lǎng/ in expressions like: ทีห ลัง /thii lǎng/ “later”; หลัง จาก /lǎng jàak/ “after (in time)”, ถอย หลัง /thǒi lǎng/ “to reverse, move backwards”, สัน หลัง /sǎn lǎng/ “spine, backbone”.

You can also add the word ข้าง /khâang/ “side” to the front of any of these, to be more specific. หน้า /nâa/ can mean a lot of things, but ข้าง หน้า /khâang nâa/ narrows it down to “in front of, ahead”.

You can even say ข้าง ข้าง /khâang khâang/. Repeating the word emphasizes that it’s directly adjacent to what you’re describing: อยู่ ข้าง ข้าง ตู้ เย็น /yùu khâang khâang tûu yen/ “it’s right next to the fridge”.

Paying close attention to how native speakers use these basic but important words can help your Thai immensely.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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Thai 101 Learners Series: Pigs and Bombs go Hand in Hand

Thai 101 Learners Series

The Thais have nicknames too…

This week I’ll give you a break from my normal spiel on the linguistic nuts and bolts of the Thai language and do something a bit lighter. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Thailand, you’re bound to have noticed that Thais have very colorful nicknames. Common Thai nicknames include อ้วน (Ooan, meaning fat) and หมู (Moo, meaning pig). I know at least half a dozen people named แดง (Daeng, red).

In Thai culture, a person’s nickname is generally chosen by the parents at birth and is used throughout their life. Thai nicknames are different from legal names. The legal name usually comes from Pali and Sanskrit words, with careful attention given to attach an auspicious meaning. Often parents will ask a trusted monk to choose the name for a child on their behalf.

Nicknames, on the other hand, have their own logic. Ooan was probably a podgy baby, while Moo was likely born in the Year of the Pig and Daeng may have had a ruddy complexion at birth. My wife’s nickname is เก้า (Kao, the word for nine) because she was born at 9 am on the 19th day of the 9th Thai month.

Nicknames are an interesting part of Thai culture. Thais have a fondness for changing their given names, often for astrological reasons. My mother-in-law changed her name the year she retired. At the advice of a fortune teller, an aspiring Thai weightlifter changed her name from Junpim Kuntatean to Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon before going on to smash an Olympic record in the 53-kilogram women’s clean-and-jerk and return home with a gold medal.

While some Thais are known to change their formal names many times in the course of a lifetime, nicknames usually stick. Sure, I know people who have changed their nicknames, but I know more who have changed their legal name and kept the nickname. The nickname is so integral to Thai culture that longtime acquaintances may know each other only by their nickname.

In recent decades, though, a new trend has developed. More and more Thai nicknames are coming from English. First, a few popular ones. I would be surprised if you don’t know anyone with one of these names.

For boys: แบงค์ (Bank); เบิร์ด (Bird); ก็อฟ (Golf)

For girls: โบว์ (Bow); กิ๊ฟ (Gift); โรส (Rose)

When you first run into some of these nicknames, it can be comical. But after a while, you don’t even bat an eye when you run into a person named Cartoon or Fluke. There’s a certain perceived cachet to English names. English is cool. It’s different. No matter how many Banks there are, there are still boatloads more Thai people named Moo and Daeng. So it’s a way to be unique.

Maybe too unique. I’ve run into some very, well, creative nicknames. I knew a fellow who worked as a baker and I thought for a long time his son was named East, until one day he corrected me to say no, the boy’s name is ยีสต์ (Yeast). It was a word he knew through his profession and he liked the sound of it.

Another time, I met a Muslim man who had given his son the nickname ก๊อด (God). He was proud of the name and saw it as a sign of his strong faith in his religion. I don’t even want to think of how that would go over in my conservative American hometown if this kid became an exchange student there.

And it’s not just Thailand. When I was in the fourth grade, a boy named Percy moved into my town. He had emigrated from China with his parents and we were in the same class at school.

My best friend, who lived next door to the family, asked Percy why he chose that name. My friend swore that the response was that he liked Pepsi and Percy was close to Pepsi. My nine-year-old mind thought for sure my friend was pulling my leg.

Well, now that I’ve lived in Thailand for a while, I’m inclined to believe him. I’ve met more than one Pepsi. I’ve also met เบ็นซ (Benz), เฟิร์สท (First), สต็อป (Stop), ไทเกอร์ (Tiger), ฟิวส์ (Fuse), เบียร์ (Beer), มิ้นท์ (Mint), ไอซ์ (Ice) and many more. I’ve heard of such names as มาเฟีย (Mafia) and ไฮเนเก้น (Heineken).

Gwyneth Paltrow has a daughter named Apple. If she ever comes to Thailand, she’ll fit right in.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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Thai 101 Learners Series: Everything to all Men

Thai 101 Learners Series

Every, many and more…

Let’s look at the difference between ทั้ง /tháng/ and ทุก /thúk/, remembering that “th” is pronounced as a “T” while breathing out. In rough translation, ทั้ง corresponds to “all” and ทุก to “every”. You use ทั้ง for all of one thing and ทุก for all of many things.

As with typical Thai counting, you’ll need to remember your classifiers. You know, those special little words that make life difficult. The pattern is the same as for counting, but ทั้ง and ทุก go in the slot where the number normally goes.

So where you would say ข้าว หนึ่ง จาน /khâaw nèung jaan/ or “one plate of rice”, now you can ข้าว ทั้ง จาน /khâaw tháng jaan/ or “the whole plate of rice” or ข้าว ทุก จาน /khâaw thúk jaan/ or “every plate of rice”.

Let’s look at some real-world examples. Say you meet a group of friends for dinner. There are many friends, but only one group.

If you want to check whether everyone is present and accounted for, you might ask, มา ครบ ทุก คน หรือ ยัง /maa khrop thúk khon réu yang/ “Has everyone arrived yet?” ทุก คน /thúk khon/ literally means “every person”.

Or if you were a group of picky eaters, upon your departure, an exhausted waiter might remark to the chef with relief, เขา กลับ กัน ทั้ง กลุ่ม เเล้ว /kháo klàp kan tháng klùm láew/ “The whole group has left”. ทั้ง กลุ่ม /tháng klùm/ means the “whole group”.

An easy way to contrast the difference is with ทั้ง วัน /tháng wan/ “all day” and ทุก วัน /thúk wan/ “each day”. It’s true that I eat sticky rice just about every day, ทุก วัน. But if I ate it all day, ทั้ง วัน, I’d need a stomach staple.

We can also throw the numbers back into the mix, putting the number in between ทั้ง or ทุก and the classifier.

ทั้ง สาม คน /tháng sǎam khon/ means “all three people”. As in, if I loan three friends 1,000 baht apiece, how many will still owe me the money a month later? In all likelihood, ทั้ง สาม คน.

ทุก สาม คน /thúk sǎam khon/ on the other hand is “every three people”. This expression is probably used less often, but we can imagine, say, a restaurant without enough menus. They might tell the waiters to give out one menu for every three people:

เมนู หนึ่ง ใบ ต่อ ทุก สาม คน /meenuu nèung bai tòr thúk sǎam khon/ “one menu for every third person”. I think I’ve eaten there before. Probably didn’t leave a tip.

Another phrase that comes in useful is ทั้ง หมด /tháng mòt/, or often just หมด /mòt/. It’s a multipurpose word for “all” that a lot of the time will get you out of having to remember classifiers.

To revisit earlier examples:

The waiter could say, เขา กลับ กัน (ทั้ง)หมด เเลว /kháo klàp kan (tháng) mòt láew/ “they’ve all left”. And which of your no-account friends still owes you that 1,000 baht? Why, ทั้ง หมด – all you were foolish enough to lend to.

It’s easy to find new phrases for ทุก: ทุก คืน /thúk kheun/ “every night”, ทุก ที่ /thúk thîi/ “everywhere”, ทุก บ้าน /thúk bâan/ “every house/home”.

You may have heard the pop song released to celebrate HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 80th birthday in 2007: รูป ที่ มี ทุก บ้าน /rûup thîi mii thúk bâan/ “The picture found in every home”, referring to the omnipresent photographs of HM The King.

There are many other useful ทั้ง phrases, too:

ทั้ง ปี /tháng pii/ “all year”, ทั้ง คู่ /tháng khûu/ “both” – but ทั้ง สอง /tháng sǒrng/ also works, or ทั้ง คืน (tháng kheun) “all night”, which can describe nocturnal activities like, uh, you know, karaoke and heartfelt chats.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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