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Thai Time: Using Pronouns Like a Pro (Part 3: To ‘He/She’ or Not to ‘He/She’, That is the Question)

Bingo Lingo

Using pronouns like a pro…

I lied. I promised I wouldn’t take a year to write my next post but I did. Life has been hectic and I have been beyond busy. Deepest apologies. Well, my apologies won’t help you learn Thai so without further ado, let’s get into the 3rd person pronouns. They’re a lot less complex than what we’ve learnt so far.

เค้า /káo/
Person: 3rd
Sex: Both
Formality: –
Respectful: –
Polite: –
Familiar: –

This pronoun is as neutral as a pronoun can get. Apart from referring to a third party, this word doesn’t mark ANYTHING. So the good news is when you want to say he, she, or they in Thai, this word’s already got 90-95% of it covered. What’s that? Something in Thai that isn’t complicated? Oh my!

Just on one note (of course, an exception!), when talking about people of high prestige (such as what we discussed in Part 2), you should call them by their title instead and keep the use of เค้า /káo/ to a minimum.

When to use: With practically anyone.

When not to use: Probably not with people of high prestige.

ท่าน /tâan/
Person: 3rd
Sex: –
Formality: VERY
Respectful: VERY
Polite: VERY
Familiar: HELL NO
*SEMI-FROZEN REGISTER*

This pronoun is the same pronoun as the 2nd-person ท่าน /tâan/. It is used mostly by service providers when speaking to valued customers, by subordinates when speaking to a person of a significantly higher level of authority, to people of the utmost prestige, by public speakers addressing the audience, or in written language. Please refer to ท่าน /tâan/ in Part 2.

When to use: With VIPs or in formal settings.

When not to use: most of the time, unless you want to be sarcastic.

มัน /man/
Person: 3rd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: VERY
*VULGAR*

This word literally means ‘it’ but it can be used like ‘he’ or ‘she’, but in a vulgar way. To put it simply, มัน /man/ is used in the same context as กู /guu/ and มึง /mueng/, although it is slightly less offensive than those two. Still, only use with very close friends. Do not use with strangers as it will provoke them. You mustn’t use it in the presence of a respected audience. Some people might think calling some ‘it’ is degrading, but within the context of Thai language, it’s fine, so long as you know when and with whom to use it.

When to use: Limited use. With close friends who have equal social status.

When not to use: With people who are of a higher status. Also, not in formal settings.

แก /gae/
Person: 3rd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: Somewhat
Polite: –
Familiar: Yes

Now, แก /gae/ is quite a bizarre pronoun: when used as a 2nd person pronoun (i.e. “you”) it’s rude and not suitable to call older people, but as a 3rd person pronoun, it’s fine! 3rd person แก /gae/ is predominantly used to refer to mature adults and the elderly in a somewhat respectful manner. When talking about your older relatives and professors (warning: ABOUT them, not TO them), you can refer to them as แก /gae/ with no problem (but NEVER to them as a 2nd person!), although you have to actually be somewhat familiar with them. Referring to strangers with this word is not cool.

When to use: Referring to older people whom you are somewhat close to.

When not to use: With everyone else.

หล่อน /lòrn/
Person: 3rd
Sex: Female
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: Yes

This word is a popular direct translation of the word ‘she’ in English—textbooks just love it and usually pair it with เขา /káo/ and state that หล่อน /lòrn/ means ‘she’ and เขา /káo/ means ‘he’ (and we now know that not to be true because เขา /káo/ is gender-neutral!). However, no one takes this word seriously and the Thais only use it facetiously. When used, for whatever reason, it is to refer to your female friends or female individuals whom you’re close to. In reality, though, just know it exists, you don’t need to use it.

When to use: Don’t.

When not to use: Always.

‘Zero pronoun’—you say it best, when you say nothing at all

We have already covered most well-known Thai pronouns—21 to be exact—and at this point you can start to appreciate how many things Thai people need to take into consideration before they can even start talking to someone.

This can be a minefield in the early stage of acquaintance with the individual you’re speaking to or of: “Is he older?”, “Has she got a good job?”, “Does he mind casual speech?”, “If she’s older, does she want to be treated with respect or as a friend?”, etc. This, as some linguists have posited, may partially contribute to why Thais ask some intrusive questions such as “How much money do you make?” or “How old are you?”—to establish the relative standings in society between you and them.

They do however have a hidden strategy up their sleeves to tackle this convolution. If pronouns are such a nuisance, let’s just not use them at all!
Thais drop personal pronouns all the time in conversations—in fact, NOT using any pronouns is sometimes probably more natural than using any at all. This has at least 2 benefits: #1—to save you a few superfluous words in Thai. Let’s set up a situation: you and a friend are in a room. You ask your friend where your phone is. He said it’s on the table. You can’t be bothered to get up and get it yourself so you’re asking your friend to do it. A complete sentence might look like this:

เธอไปเอามันมาให้ฉันหน่อยได้มั้ย?
ter bpai ao man maa hâi chán nòi dâi mái?
“Can you go get it for me?”

But if it’s already established to whom you’re talking to and regarding what you’re talking about, do you know how Thais would normally phrase it?

ไปเอามาให้หน่อยได้มั้ย?
bpai ao maa hâi nòi dâi mái?
“Can (you) go get (it) for (me)?”

The context (in this case, the previous conversation you had with your friend) would provide all the information that you need to fill in the pronoun gaps. Words said, job done, no pronouns, no problem.

Benefit #2, though, is our main point in this article: to avoid the whole pronoun shenanigans altogether. If you don’t use any pronouns, you don’t need to consider age, gender, social status, etc, right? Let’s have another situation: you are a flight attendant on duty. You walk up and down the aisle while serving refreshments to passengers. They are of different ages, different backgrounds, some are casual and some are uptight, some may even identify as a gender not assigned at birth. It’s impossible to acquire all that information for 100+ people while you’re serving drinks, not that you’d want to anyway! So, instead, just drop it:

รับชาหรือกาแฟคะ?
ráp chaa rŭe gaafae ká?
“Would (you) like tea or coffee?”

Problem solved. No need to even make eye contact. You can talk to a kindergarten pupil or to a prime minister using the same sentence. At this point, you may now have a question: then why don’t you do without the pronouns? Well, because there are situations you will need to use them to avoid ambiguity. Suppose there is no context or previous dialogues whatsoever, you suddenly say to your friend:

จะมาใช่มั้ย?
jà maa châi mái?
“??? is coming, right?”

Nobody will be able to decipher that. You are going to need a pronoun there for clarification. What you can take away from this is that Thai people generally omit pronouns when they think (“THEY think” are the operative words) it’s abundantly clear what the referents are. Otherwise, keep the pronouns there for succinct and effective communication.

And thus concludes this topic: “Using pronouns like a pro”! I hope you have learnt something interesting from this whole series. I will try to come up with a new topic to write again when time permits and when the muse comes to me. See you next post!

Part 1: How to Say ‘I’ in Thai
Part 2: What Should I Call ‘You’

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Thai Time: Using Pronouns Like a Pro (Part 2: What Should I Call ‘You’)

Bingo Lingo

Using pronouns like a pro…

In the previous post, Using Pronouns Like a Pro Part 1 (which was yonks ago—I apologise!), I introduced you to the world of Thai personal pronouns. We also broke the first person pronouns into factors and inspected the usage of each word. Now, in this post, we’ll talk about how to use the second person pronoun ‘you’.

คุณ /kun/
Person: 2nd
Sex: Both
Formality: Yes
Respectful: –
Polite: Yes
Familiar: No

This word is a pair word for both ผม /pǒm/ and ดิฉัน /dichán/, and is perhaps the only word beginners use to address every Thai person, but over time you might want to change this word to something more familiar and less formal to your listeners. Now, learners need to be aware that while it is true that this word is polite, it is NOT respectful (NB: not respectful doesn’t mean disrespectful); คุณ is not okay to use with people of higher prestige or authority. If you perceive your listeners to have higher prestige or authority status than you, call them by their appropriate title instead (we will discuss social status later on in this post.)

When to use: With most people. Strangers, service providers, people you have a professional relationship with.

When not to use: Probably not with close friends or with friends you want to get close to, also with people of higher social status.

Paired pronoun: ผม /pǒm/, ดิฉัน /dichán/

เธอ /ter/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: –
Familiar: –

เธอ /ter/ is a paired word with ฉัน /chán/ — it is considered a default ‘you’ pronoun and you’ll hear this word used a lot in songs and literature. This word is popular amongst Thais when used cross-gender; female calling male and male calling female. This word is considered ‘non-respectful’ (different from disrespectful) and should not be used with people of higher social status.

When to use: Talking to friends of the opposite sex around the same age or younger.

When not to use: When you need to be extremely polite. Certainly not with people of higher social status, such as doctors, monks, university professors. People you don’t know well.

Paired pronoun: ฉัน /chán/

นาย /naai/
Person: 2nd
Sex: Male
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: –
Familiar: –

นาย /naai/ is cute. It originally meant ‘lord’ but now means ‘Mr.’ or ‘boss’ in contemporary Thai. When it is used as a 2nd person pronoun, it can be used to call any male listener of the same age with any level of familiarity. However, you might want to change this pronoun to something more personal later on as you and that male person get closer. In addition, this word can be used in lieu of เธอ /ter/ as they share the same hierarchical attributes, but only if the listener is male, of course.

When to use: your listener is around your age, same social status, and is a man!

When not to use: anyone who does not fit the criteria above.

Paired pronoun:

เรา /rao/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: –
Respectful: No
Polite: –
Familiar: Somewhat

What? เรา /rao/ can mean you?? Yes, it can! Older people use this word to call someone around their child’s age in an endearing tone e.g. พ่อแม่เราอยู่ที่ไหน? /pôr-mâe rao yùu tîinǎi?/ “Where are your parents?”. Aw. However, as a 2nd person pronoun it is a little condescending, because by calling someone with this word you treat them like a little kid, which in some cases is dismissive of their social status, so be careful who you’re ‘rao’-ing because he or she might turn out to be a university professor or a high-rank police officer, and they will hate it, and hate you in the process.

When to use: Talking to kids or someone your child’s age.

When not to use: When that ‘kid’ has achieved more than you have.

มึง /mueng/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: HELL NO
Respectful: HELL NO
Polite: HELL NO Familiar: VERY *VULGAR*

This word is the paired pronoun of กู /guu/ and it is chosen for the same context of use. Only use with very close friends. Do not use with strangers as it will provoke them. You mustn’t use it in the presence of a respected audience. And all that jazz.

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: กู /guu/

เอ็ง /eng/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: VERY *VULGAR*

It is the paired pronoun of ข้า /kâa/ and is similar to มึง /mueng/ above; this one is also considered vulgar, although it is nowhere near as vulgar as มึง /mueng/. Just like the pronoun ข้า /kâa/, เอ็ง /eng/ 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.

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: ข้า /kâa/

แก /gae/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: Yes
*SEMI-VULGAR*

This word has a similar context of use as มึง /mueng/ and เอ็ง /eng/ but is much less vulgar. It is used both by male and female to refer to someone close and around their age. It is perfect amongst friends of considerable intimacy. It’s not really that impolite but still should be reserved for friends you know very well. Use with caution.

When to use: Friends your age or slightly younger. Probably best to wait until they initiate it first.

When not to use: Older people and strangers.

Paired pronoun: (in some cases) ฉัน /chán/

ท่าน /tâan/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: VERY
Respectful: VERY
Polite: VERY
Familiar: HELL NO
*SEMI-FROZEN REGISTER*

This pronoun is an over-the-top respectful pronoun used mostly by service providers when speaking to valued customers, by subordinates when speaking to a person of a much higher level of authority, to people of great prestige, by public speakers addressing the audience, or in written language. This word is hardly heard in spoken language so when you do hear it, you know there’s a real V.I.P. in the room!

When to use: With V.I.P. or in formal settings

When not to use: most of the time, unless you want to be sarcastic

ลื้อ /lúe/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: Yes
*CHINESE ORIGIN*

This word comes from the Teochew word 汝 [lɨ˥˨] (you). This word is used mainly by people of Teochew ancestry and is still commonly used amongst Thai families of Chinese descent. Not recommended for learners, just like อั๊ว /úa’/

When to use: When you’re Chinese-Thai.

When not to use: When you’re not Chinese-Thai.

Paired pronoun: อั๊ว /úa’/

ตัวเอง /dtua-eeng/
Person: 2nd
Sex: Mostly female
Formality: No
Respectful: –
Polite: –
Familiar: Yes
*LOVERSPEAK*

This word essentially means “self” and is paired with the 1st person pronoun เค้า /káo/ “I” which essentially means “he, she” …yes, whoever came up with this utterly confusing idea must have been wasted on Ya Dong or something. Just like the 1st person pronoun เค้า /káo/, this word is generally used by young females to call their best friends or boyfriend and in my opinion should not be picked up by learners of Thai, especially if you’re male, because it sounds incredibly effeminate and obnoxious! But that’s just my opinion.

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: เค้า /káo/

Prestige, authority, seniority—because we’re better than (the pronoun) ‘you’…

Thailand is characterised by, despite what some Thais desperately try to tell you, social hierarchy. Where you stand in society can affect how people address you. Those who have a higher social status must be addressed with respect by those of lower status. And in many cases, even the polite pronoun คุณ /kun/ may not be polite enough, as I will explain.

From my experience of having been hearing many non-native speakers of Thai preferring to stick to polite pronouns such as คุณ /kun/, thinking they would always sound nice and never offend anyone if they use polite pronouns all the time. Was that a true statement? No. Not at all. A couple of years back while I was still doing my Master’s course, one of my professors told the class that foreign students at our university irritate her when they speak Thai to her because they address her as คุณ /kun/!

Why did a seemingly polite word such as คุณ /kun/ manage to offend my easy-going professor? The reason is that in Thailand, people with high prestige such as educators or doctors must be treated with respect. While คุณ /kun/ is a “polite” word, it is neutral in terms of “respectfulness”. By calling her คุณ /kun/, those students unknowingly dragged her down to their ‘level’. My professor said she understood that they knew no better and she could look over their faux pas, but she felt compelled to switch to English because she didn’t want to be called คุณ /kun/ repeatedly by students. There goes their opportunity to practice Thai, just because of one pronoun.

So how should they have addressed her? In the next section I will explain about the first—and perhaps the most prominent agent that dictates the way Thai people address each other: social status. Where you rank in the hierarchy is determined by a complex set of many different factors, but in this article we’ll consider only the three most important ones, in their respective priority order: prestige, authority, and seniority.

Prestige is usually decided by profession or personal achievement. Examples of people with high prestige are educators (teachers and lecturers), doctors and medical practitioners (dentists and surgeons), high-ranking military officers, politicians, people with a high academic degree (Ph.D. and above), or even respected astrologers, etc. Normally you address them by their title first, and if you want, stick their name after it. For example:

ครูอาทิตย์ /kruu Arthit/ “Teacher Arthit”
อาจารย์สุดาพร /aajaan Sudaporn/ “Professor Sudaporn”
(คุณ*)หมอพรทิพย์ /(kun*) mǒr Pornthip/ “Doctor Pornthip” (medical doctor)
(ท่าน)นายกสมชาย /(tâan) naayók Somchai/ “Mr. Prime Minister Somchai”
(ท่าน)พลเอกประยุทธ์ /(tâan) pon-èek Prayuth/ “General Prayuth”
ด็อกเตอร์อมรา /dórk-dtêr Amara/ “Doctor Amara” (PhD)
อาจารย์ลักษณ์ /aajaan Lak/, หมอลักษณ์ /mǒr Lak/ (title for astrologers)

*Note that the word คุณ /kun/ is this case doesn’t mean “you” but a polite title like “Mr.” or “Ms.”

People with high prestige must be addressed by their profession, field of expertise, or the title that gives them the prestige they possess, rather than by pronouns like คุณ /kun/, which may be viewed as disrespectful to their status.

Authority is usually decided by who has more power or a higher rank, such as a relationship between employer vs employee, boss vs subordinate, police or government officer vs civilian, etc.

People with higher authority are generally addressed by their position or by using polite pronouns (in most cases without their name):

ท่านประธาน /tâan bprataan/ “CEO”
เจ้านาย /jâonaai/ “Boss” (literally “master”)
หัวหน้า /hǔanâa/, บอส /bórt/ “Boss”
ผ.อ. /pǒr-or/ “Dean” (of a university, hospital, etc.)
คุณตำรวจ /kun dtamrùat/ “(Police) officer”

Except your bosses or direct superiors, you can use the word คุณ /kun/ with people of high authority, but be aware that using any disrespectful or impolite pronouns with them is a direct challenge to their power. Respect my authoritah!

Seniority plays a very important role when addressing people. In the Thai language, kinship terms are often used instead of pronouns to show respect to older people while creating solidarity; by addressing people as if they were your own relatives, you create a casual, friendly atmosphere. For instance, when visiting your Thai friend or partner’s parents, they may ask you to call them แม่ /mâe/ “Mum” or พ่อ /pôr/ “Dad” instead of คุณ /kun/ which sounds too formal and distant.

If your addressee is a relative of your friend or partner, you can just address them in the same way that your friend or partner does. For strangers and acquaintances, you can still use kinship terms to address them as well. In this case, age is crucial. Speakers must estimate the age of an addressee to determine his/her generation and choose an appropriate kinship term.

พี่… /pîi…/ (lit. older brother or sister)
for calling someone who may be slightly older than you

(คุณ)น้า… /(kun) náa…/ (lit. mother’s younger sibling)
for calling someone who’s younger than your parents but couldn’t be your parents’ child

(คุณ)ป้า… /(kun) bpâa…/ (lit. parents’ older sister)
for calling a female older than your parents, but couldn’t be their mother

(คุณ)ลุง… /(kun) lung…/ (lit. parents’ older brother)
for calling a male older than your parents, but couldn’t be their father

(คุณ)ยาย… /(kun) yaai…/ (lit. mother’s mother)
for calling a female who’s around your grandmother’s age

(คุณ)ตา… /(kun) dtaa…/ (lit. mother’s father)
for calling a male who’s around your grandfather’s age

You can just use these kinship terms by themselves or stick the person’s name afterwards like พี่ติ๊ก /pîi dtík/. Older people automatically assume respect from younger people. By default, you have to address them with respectful kinship terms. Avoid using คุณ /kun…/ (except in formal situations) because it will drive a social wedge between you and them.

Now, you may have a question like “What if I am a university professor talking to an older fruit seller? Who’s higher in the hierarchy?” In a “status dilemma” such as this, just remember that prestige takes precedence over authority, and authority takes precedence over seniority, so if you’re a teacher which is a prestigious status, you automatically rank higher than older people who do not have the prestige over you. In this case, the fruit seller will have to (assuming he or she knows you’re a teacher) address you as ครูจอห์น /kruu John/ or อาจารย์ลอร่า /Aajaan Laura/. However, both of you can engage in what I call “mutually respectful entitling”; you can also call him or her with a title of seniority such as น้า /náa/ ป้า /bpâa/ or ลุง /lung/ while he or she calls you with a title of prestige like ครู /kruu/ or อาจารย์ /aajaan/.

Does that seem a bit too hard to digest? I’ll leave you to have a respite for now. Don’t shy away from re-reading this article again if you feel that you still haven’t quite fully grasped the idea. In my next and the last post regarding pronouns, Thai Time: Using pronouns like a pro (Part 3: To ‘He/She’ or Not to ‘He/She’, That is the Question) we will discuss how to use 3rd person pronouns, and whether using pronouns is important at all! I promise I won’t wait a year this time!

Until next time (soon)!

Part 1: How to Say ‘I’ in Thai
Part 3: To ‘He/She’ or Not to ‘He/She’, That is the Question

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