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Thai 101 Learners Series: Bringing Abstract into Real Life

Thai 101 Learners Series

Two of the most common words of all…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ความ /khwaam/ turns verbs into abstract nouns:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

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

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3 Comments

  1. Excellent post, thanks!

  2. Catherine a very clever and useful post from Mr Dockum because these two small words will link some many others together. You have been posting like crazy since my UK departure and I will catch up on my return. A very busy holiday agenda has left me with little internet time and strangely I’m quite enjoying it. Best wishes from myself and a very happy Wilai.

  3. Martyn, Rikker does have a growing number of handy posts here. And just as useful, he’ll be offering them in a pdf for download.

    While there are a number of new posts since you’ve been in transit and recovery, they will still be here once you are back in the UK. Because right now, passing over hugs from me to Wilai is much more important. Agreed? Agreed :-)

    Hi Alex, welcome to WLT!

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