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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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Thai Time: Using Pronouns Like a Pro (Part 1: How to Say ‘I’ in Thai)

Bingo Lingo

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:

Bingo Lingo

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.

Bingo LingoAt 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.

Let’s start!

ผม /pŏm/
Person: 1st
Sex: Male
Formality: Yes
Respectful: Yes
Polite: Yes
Familiar: No

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/

ดิฉัน /dichán/
Person: 1st
Sex: Female
Formality: VERY
Respectful: Yes
Polite: Yes
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/

ฉัน /chán/
Person: 1st
Sex: Mostly female
Formality: –
Respectful: Sometimes no
Polite: –
Familiar: Yes

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/

เรา /rao/
Person: 1st
Sex: Both
Formality: –
Respectful: No
Polite: –
Familiar: Somewhat

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.

หนู /nǔu/
Person: 1st
Sex: Mostly female
Formality: –
Respectful: Yes Polite: Yes
Familiar: Somewhat

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.)

กู /guu/
Person: 1st
Sex: –
Formality: HELL NO
Respectful: HELL NO
Polite: HELL NO
Familiar: VERY
*VULGAR*

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/

ข้า /kâa/
Person: 1st
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: VERY
*VULGAR*

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/

ข้าพเจ้า /kâapajâao/
Person: 1st
Sex: –
Formality: VERY
Respectful: –
Polite: Yes
Familiar: HELL NO
*FROZEN REGISTER*

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.

อั๊ว /úa’/
Person: 1st
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: Yes
*CHINESE ORIGIN*

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/

เค้า /káo/
Person: 1st
Sex: Mostly female
Formality: No
Respectful: –
Polite: –
Familiar: Yes
*LOVERSPEAK*

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!

Part 2: What Should I Call ‘You’
Part 3: To ‘He/She’ or Not to ‘He/She’, That is the Question

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Thai Time: Thai Sentence Expansion Drills

Bingo Lingo

Thai Sentence Expansion Drills…

The idea for this brief post came from Aaron Myers’ handy Language Learning Tip: Sentence Expansion Drills (see his post for further explanation). For sure, it’s a quick way to increase your Thai skills!

How It Works: You can do sentence expansion drills in a lot of different ways. The simplest is to just have these sorts of conversations with yourself about the things you see around you. You could also do this drill on paper. Another great way to do these sorts of drills is to do them with a native speaker.

Using this method, below are sample sentences. Added words have been underlined.

–>> And please don’t panic. Pdf files with and without transliteration are in the downloads below. Audio downloads are included.

ฉันไปโรงเรียน
I go to school.


ฉันชอบไปโรงเรียน
I like going to school.


ฉันชอบไปเรียนที่โรงเรียน
I like going to study at school.


ฉันชอบไปเรียนภาษาไทยที่โรงเรียน
I like going to study Thai at school


ฉันชอบขี่จักรยานไปเรียนภาษาไทยที่โรงเรียน
I like riding a bicycle to go to study Thai at school.


ฉันกับเพื่อนชอบขี่จักรยานไปเรียนภาษาไทยที่โรงเรียน
My friend and I like riding bicycles to go to study Thai at school.


ฉันกับเพื่อนคนจีนชอบขี่จักรยานไปเรียนภาษาไทยที่โรงเรียน
My Chinese friend and I like riding bicycles to go to study Thai at school.


ฉันกับเพื่อนคนจีนชอบขี่จักรยานไปเรียนภาษาไทยที่โรงเรียนทุกเช้า
My Chinese friend and I like riding bicycles to go to study Thai at school every morning.


ฉันกับเพื่อนคนจีนชอบขี่จักรยานไปเรียนภาษาไทยที่โรงเรียนทุกเช้าวันเสาร์อาทิตย์
My Chinese friend and I like riding bicycles to go to study Thai at school every Saturday and Sunday morning.


ฉันกับเพื่อนคนจีนไม่ชอบขี่จักรยานไปเรียนภาษาไทยที่โรงเรียนทุกเช้าวันเสาร์อาทิตย์
My Chinese friend and I don’t like riding bicycles to go to study Thai at school every Saturday and Sunday morning


 

Tips and rules…

1. Thai is an SVO language; the word order is subject-verb-object.

2. In Thai, adjectives come after nouns, e.g. เพื่อนคนจีน (friend human-China) “a Chinese friend”.

3. When using multiple verbs in one sentence, you can often just “stack” them up without using any connector, e.g. ฉันชอบไปเรียน (I like go study) “I like to go to study”.

4. When doing sentence expansion drill in Thai, it’s easier start from the core components first (nouns & verbs) and then use descriptive words such as adjectives and adverbs (time, place & manner) to expand sentences.

Downloads: Thai Sentence Expansion Drills…

Thai Sentence Expansion Drills (pdf with transliteration): 174kb
Thai Sentence Expansion Drills (pdf without transliteration): 170kb
Thai Sentence Expansion Drills (audio): 796kb

Note: These files are for personal use only (please do not place them on other websites).

Until next time!

(Bingo) Arthit Juyaso
Principal of Duke Language School
My book on reading Thai fast: Read Thai in 10 Days

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Thai Time: Relearn Thai Tense the Thai Way (Part 2)

Bingo Lingo

Relearn Thai tense the Thai way (Part 2)…

In the previous post, we’ve talked about some of the most common time markers in Thai. Actually, I forgot the experience particle เคย /koei/ which is also a VERY important time marker! So before we move on to the next step of our advanced time manipulation like I promised, let’s take a look at this word for a second…

เคย /koei/ – experience particle…

เคย /koei/ is used to describe past experience. This past experience can be a one-off thing that you’ve ‘ever’ done, or it can be something you used to do habitually. Just like มา /maa/, /koei/ is another true tense marker because it only describes events of the past. Experience can only be a thing of the past, right?

ฉันเคยไปเกาหลี
chán koei bpai gaolĭi
I’ve been to Korea.


The speaker has been to Korea; she has the experience of travelling there. In this case /koei/ refers to the speaker’s one-off experience that she has ‘EVER’ been to Korea (unless she adds “twice”, “three times”, etc.)

ฉันเคยอยู่เกาหลี
chán koei yùu gaolĭi
I used to live in Korea.


The speaker in this sentence has an experience in Korea too, but in her case she has the experience of living there. Notice how /koei/ translates to different tenses in English depending on the context of the event. In this case, it is not a one-off experience. She used to live there for an extended period of time. It was constant.

ผมเคยซื้อของที่ร้านนั้นบ่อย
pǒm koei súe kǒrng tîi ráan nán bòi
I used to buy stuff from that shop all the time.


The /koei/ in this case doesn’t describe a one-off experience, nor a continual state of being, but the habituality of the speaker.

If you speak any Romance language, the last 2 usages are an equivalent of the “imperfect tense” like the Italian “Io parlavo”, Spanish “Yo hablaba”, or Portuguese “Eu falava”.

It’s about time – putting the building blocks of time together…

We have learnt what these 8 time markers actually mean and how to use them individually, now it’s time for more complex stuff. By combining these time markers you can create a multitude of expressions of time. Imagine that these time markers are like building blocks. Each individual word has its own primary attribute, and when you put them together they create compound references of time.

However, I am not going to spoon-feed you. As a believer in active learning, I am going to present you with sentences containing multiple time markers. You’re going to read each sentence, consult translation for the words you don’t know, going over the meaning of the particles in part one if necessary. Guess what the sentence might mean in terms of temporal reference, then you can read my explanation. It’s important you try to do it yourself, as long-term knowledge sticks better if you rattle your brain trying to come up with your own answer first. You may forget what you remember, but you will never forget what you understand.

Ready? Scroll carefully or you might accidentally see the answer!

เค้ากำลังไปแล้ว
káo gamlang bpai láeo


เค้า /káo/ – he/she, ไป /bpai/ – to go

(Stop scrolling here!)

Answer: “He’s on the way now.”

/gamlang/ and /láeo/ create the meaning of ‘an ongoing action that has already been set in motion’. He has fulfilled the requirement for ‘going’ by perhaps actually having already left the place, or packing up and getting ready to leave. Either way something is being done in order to go to the destination, but that something is still in process so you won’t be seeing him at point B just yet because he’s still actively working on getting there.

พ่อยังนอนอยู่
pôr yang norn yùu


พ่อ /pôr/ – father, นอน /norn/ – to sleep

(Stop scrolling here!)

Answer: “Dad’s still sleeping.”

/yang/ and /yùu/ create the meaning of ‘an ongoing state that is still unfinished or pending’. The father’s state of ‘sleeping’ is not complete because he hasn’t woken up yet. The sleeping state /norn yùu/ will be complete once the father wakes up or is woken up by someone.

ทุกคนกำลังจะไป
túkkon gamlang jà bpai


ทุกคน /túkkon/ – everyone

(Stop scrolling here!)

Answer: “Everyone’s about to leave.”

/gamlang/ and /jà/ create a meaning of ‘an ongoing action intended to happen’, i.e. “to be about to”. Everyone is still not ready to leave yet, but they are now planning to do so. This is different from #1 กำลัง…แล้ว /gamlang…láeo/ because in #1 the subject is already ‘in the process’ of doing the action, whilst in #3 the subject is only planning to do the action in the near future.

ลูกค้ายังไม่ได้จ่ายเงิน
lûukkáa yang mâi dâi jàai ngern


ลูกค้า /lûukkáa/ – customer, จ่ายเงิน /jàai ngern/ – to pay (money)

(Stop scrolling here!)

Answer: The customer still hasn’t paid yet.

/yang/ and /mâi dâi/ create the meaning of ‘an action that has not been achieved yet and is incomplete’. You can just say ลูกค้ายังไม่จ่ายเงิน /lûukkáa yang mâi jàai ngern/ without the word /dâi/ as well, but keeping the word /dâi/ there makes it seem less deliberate and may imply that the customer ‘hasn’t got around to doing it yet, not because he’s not going to’.

ผมจะกลับบ้านแล้ว
pǒm jà glàp bâan láeo


ผม /pǒm/ – I (male), กลับบ้าน /glàp bâan/ – to go home

(Stop scrolling here!)

Answer: I’m going home right now.

/jà/ and /láeo/, going back to the initial question I posed in part 1, create the meaning of ‘an action intended to be set in motion any time soon’. In this example, the speaker hasn’t started going home yet, but he is so close to doing that, perhaps in a matter of minutes or even seconds. This structure shows how imminent the action is.

ชั้นจะยังไม่ซื้อรถ
chán jà yang mâi súe rót


ชั้น /chán/ – I (mostly female), ซื้อ /súe/ – to buy, รถ /rót/ – car

(Stop scrolling here!)

Answer: I won’t buy a car just yet.

/jà/ and /yang mâi/ create the meaning of ‘an action that is intentionally prevented from being fulfilled’. You can just say ชั้นยังไม่ซื้อรถ /chán yang mâi súe rót/ without the word /jà/ as well, but keeping the word /jà/ there makes it clear that the speaker has made a conscious decision NOT to buy a car. That conscious decision or intention is implied just by the word /jà/.

นักเรียนเคยได้เรียนบทนี้แล้ว
nákrian koei dâi rian bòt níi láeo


นักเรียน /nákrian/ – student, เรียน /rian/ – to study, บท /bòt/ – lesson, นี้ /níi/ – this

(Stop scrolling here!)

Answer: The students have already studied this lesson.

Here comes a combination of 3 particles! /koei/, /dâi/ and /láeo/ create the meaning of ‘an experience that the subject has achieved and has already completed’. The students, in this case, have been taught this lesson and have completed it in its entirety. The past experience has been completely achieved.

จอห์นได้เป็นหัวหน้ามาสามเดือนแล้ว
John dâi bpen hǔanâa maa sǎam duean láeo


เป็น /bpen/ – to be, หัวหน้า /hǔanâa/ – boss, สาม /sǎam/ – three, เดือน /duean/ – month

(Stop scrolling here!)

Answer: John has been the boss for 3 months already.

/dâi/, /maa/ and /láeo/ create a meaning of ‘an achievement that has been continuing from the past up until the present and has completed a certain milestone’. John has been promoted in the past (which is an achievement). That achievement has been in effect up until now (past progressive), and he has just completed a period of 3 months as the boss.

How did you do? Don’t fret if your answers are not quite the same as mine. The accuracy in deeper meaning comes from getting a lot of input from native speakers and repeated use. I hope you take away something from my posts and use it to improve your understanding of Thai. Remember, the most important thing is stop comparing Thai time to your native language and try to construct your understanding from the ground up. Good luck and happy learning!

(Bingo) Arthit Juyaso
Principal of Duke Language School
My book on reading Thai fast: Read Thai in 10 Days

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Thai Time: Relearn Thai Tense the Thai Way (Part 1)

Bingo Lingo

Relearn Thai Tense the Thai Way (Part 1)…

If I were to ask you: what is the future tense word in Thai? Most of you would probably respond instantaneously-“จะ /jà/, of course!” And if I ask you: how about the most common past tense word? There are a few but you’d probably invariably select แล้ว /láeo/ as your first choice. Then let me ask you: then what does the sentence “จะไปแล้ว” /jà bpai láeo/ mean? How do ‘future’ and ‘past’ tense occur in the same sentence?

The Thai language appears to warp spacetime, making the past and the future collide, resulting in a big black hole in your brain. No wonder you never understand it.

In the vast majority of Indo-European languages such as English, French or German, everything that you do has a temporal reference: you did something; you have done something; you will do something, etc. You can even refer to an alternative past that didn’t exist (I would have gone to Chiang Mai if I hadn’t had to work on Sunday). This concept of tense is so fundamental to Indo-European languages that it’s ingrained into the speakers’ perceived reality and is something many of you probably think you cannot do without. “How can I ever say anything at all if I can’t say when I do it?”

However, Thai is a tenseless language and it doesn’t really deal with time in the same way that languages with grammaticalised tenses do.

At this point you may ask: “So what about all these translations such as ‘will’ for จะ /jà/, or ‘to have (done) already’ for แล้ว /láeo/? Is my teacher/school/book wrong?” No, they’re not wrong. That’s just one way to ease your learning difficulty by analogising Thai into concepts that you’re already familiar with in your native tongue. But if you do not want to end up with something called ‘interlanguage’ and speak broken Thai for eternity, you may want to approach Thai time in a Thai way.

That is why in this post I’m offering you an alternative approach to some of the most common time markers in Thai. My approach may seem a bit different but I’m sure it will all come together.

แล้ว /láeo/ VS ยัง /yang/ – fulfilled VS unfulfilled…

I decided to pair these two up instead of แล้ว /láeo/ VS จะ /jà/ because their functions really complement each other beyond just a past-future pairing. You’ll see why.

แล้ว /láeo/ is a fulfilled particle. It is dubbed so because it shows that the action is already done, or at least it has been set in motion, hence the conditions are fulfilled. It is often translated as ‘already’ or ‘now’:

เค้า ไป เกาหลี หนึ่ง อาทิตย์ แล้ว
káo bpai gaolǐi nùeng aatít láeo
She already went to Korea a week ago.


Her ‘going to Korea’ has already happened and now she’s in Korea.

จะ ถึง แล้ว
jà tǔeng láeo
I’m nearly there.


I’m arriving now – the ‘arriving’ part is set in motion and is bound to happen any time soon.

หนู จะ สอบ พรุ่งนี้ แล้ว
nǔu jà sòrp prûngníi láeo
I’ve got an exam tomorrow.


She hasn’t taken her exam yet but the exam has been scheduled (or as in my word- ‘set in motion’), and แล้ว /láeo/ in this case is used to express the imminence of that event.

On the other hand, ยัง /yang/ is the absolute opposite of แล้ว /láeo/: it is an unfulfilled particle. It shows that the action is still ongoing, or it has not even started yet. The action feels somewhat pending and incomplete. It is often translated as “still” or “yet”:

ยังไม่รู้เวลานัดเลย
yang mâi rúu weelaa nát loei
I don’t know the appointment time yet.


At the moment of speaking he doesn’t know what time the appointment will be. The ‘knowing’ part is therefore unfulfilled.

เล็กเค้ายังอายุแค่ 15 เอง
Lek káo yang aayú kâe sìphâa eeng
Lek is still only 15.


The implication of this phrase is that Lek’s still not old enough for whatever purpose that requires him to be older.

On a different note, when you use the ‘Have you…?’ question (แล้ว)รึยัง? /(láeo) rúe yang?/, you now know that you literally say: แล้ว + หรือ + ยัง /láeo/ + /rǔe/ + /yang/: ‘fulfilled or unfulfilled’!

ได้ /dâi…/ – achievement particle…

Although they’re written the same, this ได้ /dâi…/ does NOT have the same function as /…dâi/ ‘can, able to’. /dâi…/ is dubbed an achievement particle and is always put in front of the verb. The deeper meaning is something like “I got (the chance) to …” or “I succeeded in (doing something)”. It’s often used to describe past events (but not always).

ไม่ได้กินข้าวเมื่อเช้า
mâi dâi gin kâao mûeacháao
I didn’t eat this morning.


This means the speaker didn’t get the chance to have anything for breakfast. If you drop ได้ /dâi…/ from this sentence: ไม่กินข้าวเมื่อเช้า /mâi gin kâao mûeacháao/, it means that the speaker made a conscious decision not to have breakfast, not because he didn’t have the chance to do so.


เดือนหน้าจะได้ไปฝรั่งเศส
duean nâa jà dâi bpai fáràngsèet
I get to go to France next month.


This demonstrates how ได้ /dâi…/ doesn’t necessarily talk about the past, because in this case the event will take place in the future! The speaker of this sentence feels that his ‘going to France’ is an achievement and he’s looking forward to it.

มา / …maa/ – perfect particle…

Now this particle is probably the only Thai time marker that actually has a tense in a traditional sense. มา /…maa/ describes events that started in the past and lead up to the present moment, or as it is popularly known, the “present perfect tense”:

กินข้าวมารึยัง?
gin kâao maa rúe yang?
Have you eaten?


In many situations, กินข้าวรึยัง? /gin kâao rúe yang?/ would perhaps suffice. However, since กินข้าวรึยัง? /gin kâao rúe yang?/ has no temporal reference, it can also mean something like “Are you ready to eat?” or “Do you want to eat now?”. มา / …maa/ is there to eliminate this ambiguity.

Essentially, this word is the same มา /maa/ as in ‘to come’, but when it’s used as a time marker it follows the main verb:

รอมา 5 ชั่วโมงแล้ว
ror maa hâa chûamoong láeo
I have been waiting for 5 hours now.


/ror maa/ roughly translates as ‘have been waiting’. Although this guy has been in constant anticipation for 5 hours, he may have been doing other things while waiting. Whereas,

มารอ 5 ชั่วโมงแล้ว
maa ror hâa chûamoong láeo
I came here to wait 5 hours ago.


/maa/ in this case is NOT a time marker and literally means “to come”, so /maa ror/ in this case just means “come to wait”. Whoever this poor soul is, he hasn’t left the spot for 5 hours now. Frightening thought…

The deep sense of this time-marking มา /…maa/ is explored thoroughly in Stuart Jay Raj’s Thinking in Meanings – Cracking Thai Fundamentals Part 2 in which he explains that the famous Thai greeting ไปไหนมา? /bpai nǎi maa?/ doesn’t literally mean ‘to come’ but rather in a metaphorical sense: “Where have you been to arrive at this point (in time)?”

จะ /jà/ – intention particle…

/jà/ is widely understood as ‘will’ or ‘the future tense word’, and it often refers to the future. But more fundamentally, /jà/ is an intention particle, expressing the intention of a person to do something e.g. เค้าจะสอน /káo jà sǒrn/ can be translated as “She will teach”, “She’s going to teach” or “She intends to teach”.

จะนอนตอนสี่ทุ่ม
jà norn dtorn sìi tûm
I will go to bed at 10 p.m., I intend to go to bed at 10 p.m.


Self-explanatory.

พอจะออกจากบ้านฝนก็ตก
por jà òrk jàak bâan, fǒn gôr dtòk
As I was leaving home, it started to rain.


In this case, จะ /jà/ does not refer to the future. It shows that the speaker intended to leave home, but it started to rain before she could do so. So it’s really not valid to keep calling จะ /jà/ a future tense marker. It’s not.

ฉันจะไม่เจอเค้าอีกเลย
chán jà mâi jer káo ìik loei
I never want to see him again.


In this sentence, the speaker has made a conscious decision not to see him again. It is by choice. If you remove จะ /jà/ from this sentence, it takes on a whole new meaning: ฉันไม่เจอเค้าอีกเลย /chán mâi jer káo ìik loei/ means that the speaker has not seen him for some time (perhaps even though she wanted to).

One interesting fact about จะ /jà/: it also appears in a lot of words such as อาจ(จะ) /àat (jà)/ ‘perhaps’, คง(จะ) /kong (jà)/ ‘possibly’, น่า(จะ) /nâa (jà)/ ‘likely, should’, เกือบ(จะ) /gùeap (jà)/ ‘almost’, ควร(จะ) /kuan (jà)/ ‘should, ought to’, etc. Unpredictability, conditionality and subjectivity seem to be the theme for the word จะ /jà/ here. Note that จะ /jà/ in all these cases can almost always be dropped.

กำลัง /gamlang/ VS อยู่ /yùu/ – ongoing action VS ongoing state…

กำลัง…อยู่ /gamlang…yùu/ pattern is more or less an equivalent of ‘to be …ing’ in English. One difference from the English counterpart is that this pattern strictly refers only to an ongoing present and not to a future plan such as “I’m going to New York next week”. You can use both of these words together for any ‘to be…ing’ structure most of the time, but the two words have slightly different functions. I’ll start with กำลัง /gamlang/:

กำลัง /gamlang/ literally means ‘power, labour, energy’. When it is used as a time marker, it focuses on the ongoing ACTION (the action is being carried out at the time of the event):

ผมกำลังกินข้าว
pǒm gamlang gin kâao
I’m eating; currently what I’m doing is eating.


This sentence illustrates the movement of the speaker having his meal. The focus is on the action.

อากาศกำลังดี
aagàat gamlang dii
The weather is just about right.


I believe this needs an explanation. While it is true that in this sentence there cannot be any literal ‘action’ going on because nobody controls weather, ‘กำลัง /gamlang/’ in this case shows that the weather itself is keeping its balance; it’s not too cold or too hot, as if some effort is being made to make it so. Therefore the event seems “active”.

อยู่ /yùu/ on the other hand literally means ‘state of being, to be in a state of…’ (The word อยู่ /yùu/ itself means to live or to be alive as well.) When it is used as a time marker, it focuses on the ongoing STATE (that the current state exists at the time of the event):

ผมกินข้าวอยู่
pǒm gin kâao yùu
I’m eating; the current state that I’m in is eating.


This sentence illustrates the ongoing state of the speaker having his meal. Although the meaning is almost identical to the similar sentence we’ve seen previously, the focus of this sentence is actually on the state. Imagine you’re enjoying a meal and someone calls you on the phone, interrupting your blissful ‘state of eating’. This sentence would better suit the situation than ผมกำลังกินข้าว /pǒm gamlang gin kâao/, although both sentences would be grammatically accurate. The difference is insignificant.

ผมกำลังกินข้าวอยู่
pǒm gamlang gin kâao yùu
I’m eating; currently what I’m doing is eating and the current state that I’m in is eating.


The translation of the sentence above is probably somewhat repetitive to you, but it is a good description of how กำลัง /gamlang/ and อยู่ /yùu/ work together. If you use them both, it simply shows that both the action and the state of that action’s result are ongoing. They more or less have the same referent: eating.

แม่มีเงินอยู่ 10 บาท
mâe mii ngern yùu sìp bàat
Mum has 10 Baht.


This sentence is interesting. Verbs like ‘to have’, ‘to be’ or ‘to know’ are called static verbs–verbs that describe a state (rather than an action like ‘to go’ or ‘to eat’). Possessing something is not an action–you don’t ACT out your possession over it. In this sentence, the mother has 10 Baht. It is a state of having money, not an action.

Therefore, you cannot use กำลัง /gamlang/ instead of อยู่ /yùu/ in this case:

*แม่กำลังมีเงิน 10 บาท
*mâe gamlang mii ngern sìp bàat
Mum has 10 Baht; currently what she’s doing is having 10 Baht.


As you can see from this erroneous example above, although the difference between กำลัง /gamlang/ and อยู่ /yùu/ is minute and they can coexist most of the time, in some cases the interchangeability ceases and you’re forced to choose only one.

But most of the time you can use them both or either one. No need to overthink this.

These are some of the most common time markers in Thai. By this time you have probably realised that the irony of this post is that almost all of these ‘time markers” can’t decisively mark, ‘past’, ‘present’, or ‘future’ tense! The way they express time is entirely relative to the actual event and context, among other things.

The objective of this part 1 is to guide you through the conceptual thinking of the words’ function rather than finding a non-existent equivalence for each of them in your language.

In my next post, Thai Time: Relearn Thai Tense the Thai Way (Part 2), we will create a whole new dimension of time expression by combining these words! Sounds fun? You’re such a geek!

Download Tense Audio: 987kb zip

Until next time!

(Bingo) Arthit Juyaso
Principal of Duke Language School
My book on reading Thai fast: Read Thai in 10 Days

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