Using pronouns like a pro…
“I” for males is ผม /pǒm/ and for females is ดิฉัน /dichán/, “you” is คุณ /kun/, and “he” and “she” are เค้า /káo/. Every student knows that. Every student uses these. That’s how the Thais do it. Or do they?
One of the blessings of the English language is the ease of the choice of pronouns. It is generally agreed that there are 7: I, we, you, he, she, it and they (we’ll put vernacular variations such as “one”, “y’all”, “youse” aside). There are only 3 factors that govern the choice of these pronouns: person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), number (singular or plural) and sex (masculine, feminine, or non-human neuter).
And that’s it. “I” will always be “I” no matter who “I” am. “You” will always be “you” whether “you” are a president or a beggar. However, if you have even a little bit of knowledge of the Thai language, you must have at least heard that there are OODLES more pronouns than just 7. If a learner asks “How do you translate the pronoun XXX into Thai?”, they will get something like this as a result:
The tabulated mess above is caused by the Thai pronoun system which reflects the interconnected relationships amongst Thai people. Thai people’s choice of pronouns is NEVER absolute; they will choose a pronoun that suits the situation and the relationship between them and the person they’re speaking to. They can refer to themselves and others in many different ways.
At this point, you would probably think, “Yeah, it’s all well and lovely that Thai language is so profound, I get it, but please just give me one word for each English pronoun to use, just one word!” After doing some quick look-up on your favourite phrasebook, your wish is granted:
And I think that these equivalents are a good place to start. When you start learning a language, no one wants to have the entire grammar book shoved down their throat. You tear off each page, chew, swallow, and digest. These words are perfectly functional and will get the job done. However, learners will benefit greatly from the ability to shuffle between different pronouns appropriately, as the ability to do so is another milestone that will move you up a few steps from “poot Thai daai nit noi”, and you will convince Thai people you have an understanding not only of their language but of Thailand’s social structure, which encourages Thais to speak to you in Thai. If you sound natural then Thais will think you ‘get’ them.
But before we go into each individual word, let’s look at some of the factors that influence the choice of pronouns.
Factors that govern the choice of Thai pronouns…
This is a deep, hard, complex subject to touch upon. I do not dare to claim I have it all figured out and certainly cannot provide you the perfect formulae for the choice of pronouns. It seems there are countless variables at work when it comes to this, but I can give you what I think of as the most important for determining your relationship with whomever you’re conversing with. So here goes:
Person: This factor is universal for all languages, not just Thai. The 1st person is the speaker (or yourself in this case), the 2nd person is the person you are speaking to, and the 3rd person is the person you mention while speaking to the 2nd person.
Sex: Obviously. Some pronouns can tell you the gender of the person being referred to. Everyone knows ผม /pǒm/ is for male and ดิฉัน /dichán/ is for female. However, a lot of Thai pronouns can be used to refer to either sex, such as เขา /káo/ which can either refer to the male or female 3rd person.
Formality: The situation or circumstance people are in restricts the way in which they refer to one other. You might call your friend such obscene nicknames in private, but when you refer to him during a formal quarterly meeting—for whatever reason—you will most definitely have to refer to him as ‘Mr. (followed by surname)’. Formality also comes from your audience. Rude nicknames that you give to your friend can’t be used when both of you are talking to your university professor. A respected individual brings about a formal air wherever they go, so take that into account.
Respect: In Thailand, you would want to express your modesty to people who are ranked high in the social hierarchy, be it through age, authority, or other criteria. This can be done in two ways: address the listener or the mentioned individual with a respectful pronoun and/or refer to yourself with a humble pronoun. Beware however, as excessive reverence can be seen as sarcasm.
Politeness: A lot of people seem to mix this one up with the respect factor. Being polite means that you’re following social norms because you want to show the world that you’re good-mannered and educated, while being respectful means that you want to display some kind of reverence to a particular individual because society dictates that they deserve it. Politeness is more about ‘expressing your virtue’ but respect is more about ‘expressing your subservience’.
Familiarity: You wouldn’t call a guy you just met ‘Toby Boo Boo’. That would be such an egregious violation of personal space. This factor is not really apparent in English, but in Romance languages there are pronouns designated for different levels of intimacy: tu-vous in French, tú-usted in Spanish, and so on (for reference: “T-V distinction” by Brown & Gilman, 1960). In Thai, there are also pronouns you reserve for people you don’t know well and pronouns you exclusively use with those you are close to.
Please note that I’m missing the ‘Number’ factor from this article, because most pronouns in Thai can be used to refer to a single person or a group of people. If you must express that you’re referring to more than just 1 person, you can stick the พวก /pûak-/ prefix in front of that pronoun. However, the reality is that Thai people do not use it that much and I imagine if you’re here reading this, you want to speak like a native speaker, not the Thai language that follows English’s grammatical rules (the only exception being เรา /rao/ which I’ll talk about in the pronoun list).
There is also another important factor: ‘Moods & attitudes’. Our state of mind and our attitude towards people or things are reflected in our speech. This is how humans can read each other; through their rhetoric. You know your Mum is in a good mood when you’re referred to as ‘Ben honey’ and you know her wrath is about to rain down upon you when that turns to ‘Benjamin’. However, we’re not going to talk much about it in this article because of its complicated nature. For instance, some forms of moods can change the speaker’s intention entirely. To give you an example, while the word คุณ /kun/ shows politeness [+polite], it implies that you and the person you’re speaking to are not that close [-intimate]. However, if it’s meant as a sarcasm or irony towards your friend (like when you’re being extra polite to your best friend as a joke), suddenly it is not polite [-polite] but very familiar [+intimate]. As you can see, this is going to be problematic for our simplistic, box-ticking method, so I’ll leave it out until someone cares enough to do a proper analysis on it.
How to say ‘I’ in Thai…
With the factors explained above combined, you can read through this list to see what attributes each pronoun has. I’ll also give a short description and concrete examples of interpersonal and situational context where the pronoun may be deemed appropriate. If that factor has blank (-) at any pronoun, it means that that factor isn’t really relevant and the pronoun can be used in either situation.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the 1st person pronouns first.
Some 1st person pronouns also have a counterpart which is normally used in the 2nd person as its pair. I’ll note which word each pronoun is paired with, if any.
If you’re a guy, you’ve probably used this word hundreds of time by now. This very convenient male pronoun for men can be used with pretty much everyone and will never offend anyone. However, keep in mind that ผม /pǒm/ carries an air of formality, so while it is a nice little polite word, it can also sound stuffy when using with friends.
- When to use: Pretty much with everyone e.g. teacher, older people, younger people that you don’t know well, in a (mature) relationship, strangers, acquaintances, etc.
- When not to use: Probably with close friends or with friends you want to get close to.
- Paired pronoun: คุณ /kun/
Familiar: HELL NO
I can’t think of many pronouns that are more official-sounding than ดิฉัน /dichán/. While it is true that it’s polite and you’ll never offend anyone with it, it sounds frighteningly distant and is rarely used among people who have any kind of relationship of any degree of familiarity with each other rather than professional. Thai teachers use it a lot in Thai classrooms because it’s easy to teach, but in reality you’ll only hear this word from Thai females in situations which they consider formal, such as in meetings with clients, in interviews, making a speech. Some female friends of mine say they have never even used this word in their lives!
For female learners who want to sound natural, I suggest you find another strategy, such as referring to yourself by name (I know, some of you think it’s silly, but hey, that’s what we do).
- When to use: Dealing with Thai officials, people you have a professional relationship with, being interviewed, with strangers, etc.
- When not to use: In any situation that requires solidarity. Not with your friends, partner, partner’s family, colleagues, bosses, or anyone you wish to love you.
- Paired pronoun: คุณ /kun/
Sex: Mostly female
Respectful: Sometimes no
ฉัน /chán/ is a funny one—it is considered a default ‘I’ pronoun, this is why you’ll hear this word used a lot in songs and literature. In real life, it is commonly used by females in informal situations, but can also be used by men as well, especially when talking to females of equal or lower status. Many male learners think this word is exclusively feminine and are reluctant to use it. It’s a fun word to use with female friends who you are close to!
Another myth I want to debunk, there is nothing polite about the word ฉัน /chán/. If anything, with a sharp tone of voice and a wrong attitude, it makes you sound arrogant! It’s not impolite, it’s just not polite either.
- When to use: Talking to friends of the opposite sex, people who do not mind you being a bit cheeky to them.
- When not to use: When you need to be extremely polite. Certainly not with people of higher status, such as doctor, monks, university professors. Probably not even with your Thai teachers, unless they don’t mind. (Chances are they won’t, because they’re the one teaching this word to you!)
- Paired pronoun: เธอ /ter/
If you look up a dictionary you’ll see เรา /rao/ being translated as ‘we’ in English, but in fact this word is often used as singular. (Think of the royal singular ‘we’, it’s not the same but you get the point.) This nice little word is very versatile—both male and female speakers can use it with almost everyone around the same age or younger, as long as the circumstance doesn’t require you to be formal.
- When to use: Talking to friends or acquaintances of the same age. Pretty much with anyone who isn’t older or who doesn’t have a higher social status.
- When not to use: With older people or people you should be showing respect to.
Sex: Mostly female
Respectful: Yes Polite: Yes
The literal meaning of หนู /nǔu/ is ‘rat, mouse’. The metaphorical use of this word as a pronoun expresses deference towards the listener who is of a higher status or deserves respect; calling yourself a rat surely makes anyone feel small! It is normally used by females when talking to their parents, older relatives, teachers, bosses or more senior colleagues, although some small boys may use this word when talking to their parents as well. (In which case they generally drop this use when they’re older—or not, I know a few male adult ‘rats’!)
This word is a good word to show respect to older Thais while sounding friendly as well. At first they might be surprised when female foreigners try to use this word. I say keep at it, if you want to win over their heart.
- When to use: You’re female and you want to show respect and win favour from older Thais.
- When not to use: You’re male. (unless you want people to second-guess your sexual orientation.)
Formality: HELL NO
Respectful: HELL NO
Polite: HELL NO
Years ago before the polite pronouns had been invented, กู /guu/ used to be the default pronoun for ‘I’. Everybody used it, including kings. Nowadays it is considered a profanity. The only context in which this would be acceptable to use is with your really close friends to express intimacy, and even then you mustn’t use it in the presence of a respected audience; you can call yourself กู /guu/ with a friend who doesn’t mind that, but if your professor is there too then their presence will automatically create an environment where only polite language is allowed. Violate this and prepare to be scolded, or at least judged!
Also, if you try and use this word with people you’re not close to, it will immediately be interpreted as a provocation. For a nation that avoids confrontation at all cost, provocation is a serious issue for Thais! No matter how angry you are with anyone, do not attempt to use กู /guu/ and มึง /mueng/ with them unless you’re prepared to handle the ramifications that may follow… it can turn pretty ugly, in my experience.
I say avoid using this word until your Thai proficiency is right up there first. Don’t run before you can walk, don’t swear before you can talk.
On a side note, males tend to use this word more than females but it is not really an uncommon thing to hear Thai females using it any more, if they feel comfortable enough with their company.
- When to use: Very limited use. With close friends (only when they initiate it, and only when respected individuals are not around).
- When not to use: When you’re not sure you can get out of it alive.
- Paired pronoun: มึง /mueng/
Similar to กู /guu/ above, this one is also considered vulgar, although it is nowhere near as vulgar as กู /guu/. However ข้า /kâa/ sounds quite archaic for the 21st century. Its implication is that the speaker is of an older generation or that he or she comes from quite a remote part of Thailand. You’ll see this word a lot in old literature or in stories set in the past. Granted, there are people still using this word, but it’s not really a fashionable word people use today. It’d be an odd choice of pronoun for non-native speakers, dost thou not agree?
- When to use: Never? Unless you’re writing a Thai epic novel.
- When not to use: When you’re not writing a Thai epic novel.
- Paired pronoun: เอ็ง /eng/
Familiar: HELL NO
The use of ข้าพเจ้า /kâapajâao/ is restricted only to the ‘frozen register’—the level of language that is highly ceremonial and unchanging, often in one-directional communication style, such as formal speeches, pledges, contracts or declarations, etc. Therefore, normally you’ll only see it written, not said.
- When to use: Drafting a speech or a housing lease.
- When not to use: In general two-way communication.
This word comes from the Teochew word我 [ua˥˨] (I). This word is used mainly by people of Teochew ancestry who migrated to Siam/Thailand throughout its history. As the influence of the Chinese-Thai grew, ethnic Thais also started picking up Chinese words to use in their speech as well.
In Chinese-Thai families where the Chinese identity is still strong, code-mixing between Thai and Chinese is very common and it is perfectly fine and inoffensive, but when spoken by Thai people (who have no Teochew background) this word can be off-putting because it has a harsh, angry tone to it. This is not to mention it might also confuse your listener, because why would you use a word of Teochew Chinese origin when speaking Thai?
- When to use: When you’re Chinese-Thai.
- When not to use: When you’re not Chinese-Thai.
- Paired pronoun: ลื้อ /lúe/
Sex: Mostly female
Confused? You should be. Me too. This word is originally a 3rd person pronoun, but you might have witnessed overt Thai lovebirds referring to themselves by this word. เค้า /káo/ as a 1st person pronoun is largely used by Thai females who have a ‘sweet girl’ personality. You know, lovely and cute and naive. They won’t just use it with anyone either, it has to be their close friends, boyfriend or husband. This pronoun, used in this way, expresses the speaker’s affection towards the listener, albeit a little nauseating. So it’s a good thing! I guess…
- When to use: Should you use this word? No. At least save it for when talking to your boyfriend/girlfriend only.
- When not to use: Need I say more?
- Paired pronoun: ตัวเอง /dtua-eeng/
…And that was just the words for “I”! In my next post, Thai time: Using pronouns like a pro (Part 2: What should I call ‘you’), in addition to the factors we’ve learnt in this post we’ll also explore the crucial concept of ‘social status’ and how to apply that to addressing Thai people appropriately. It’s not as straightforward as in English, but at least I hope you’ll find it interesting.
Until next time!
(Bingo) Arthit Juyaso
Principal of Duke Language School
My book on reading Thai fast: Read Thai in 10 Days