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Thai 101 Learners Series: Getting Personal

Thai 101 Learners Series

Let’s get down to it…

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

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

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

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

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

ผม /phǒm/ first person, for men

ฉัน /chán/ first person, for women

เรา /rao/ first person, plural

คุณ /khun/ second person

เขา /kháo/ third person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

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

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9 Comments

  1. Hi Rikker, as always, very useful for Thai amateurs like myself…. I will have to write all these down in some memorable way and practice.

    Keep the tips coming!

  2. Definitely a lot of useful information. I’ll be practicing this as well.

  3. Hi. I know this is picky but there are problems with the Thai script in this exert.

    The silent ‘อ’ of ‘อยาก’ Child speaking of mother – หนู บอก แม่ ว่า ไม่อ ยาก ไป has been attached to ‘ว่า’. The same mistake is evident with อย่างไร in the phrase “What does doctor think?” คุณ หมอ คิด ว่าอ ย่างไร. now i spotted it after a few seconds but new learners could spend hours researching this new word ‘ว่าอ’ i know i was confused for a second there.

  4. another informative post as normal from one of the best blogs on more then just learning Thai available on the internet
    well done khun rikker

  5. @Steve: Thanks for pointing that out — chalk that up to sloppy editing. Should be fixed now.

    And thanks to everyone else for the comments. :)

  6. And there are others that you will hear quite a lot too (and some you should hopefully not!)

    On the skytrain and MRT public announcements they use the even-more-polite ท่าน rather than คุณ – เรียนท่านผู้โดยสารโปรดทราบ is a favourite on the skytrain, usually replaced with “attention please” in English.

    At the other end of the scale, if someone approaches you rapidly while referring to you as มึง you probably want to beat a hasty retreat.

    Regarding หนู I hear this used by older females quite often too, when talking to older family members (parents, aunts, etc.) and sometimes just in general usage (which I have not yet been able to fathom) when talking to people in authority. Perhaps it indicates acceptance of their authority?

    I have lost count of the number of times I hear เรา used in the first person singular, but usually by younger people – and I remember doing that in English when I was younger, too. (“Lend us yer bike”, for example). And Thai teenagers’ speak is probably a language all of its own. Everyone seems to be กู มึง and มัน or ไอ้/อี something. Polite it ain’t!

    To be honest, I would be very interested to see an exhaustive list of pronouns used in Thai, along with their ‘level of politeness’ and situations where it would be appropriate to use them – as I learn more, I am picking them up, but a beginner’s guide would have come in very handy a few years ago :)

  7. Scott, it’s somewhat outdated now, but Joseph R. Cooke made a fairly complete academic analysis of Thai pronouns in the monograph “Pronominal Reference in Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese“. I don’t have a copy myself, unfortunately, but I have seen it in some libraries.

    Clearly there’s much more than can I’ve said here, and your additions are all worth knowing for intermediate/advanced speakers (though not always good to actually use!). There are also plenty more that still haven’t even been mentioned yet… I’ll keep that in mind.

  8. Thanks for the reply, and yes of course I know that in an introduction it would be silly to mention ALL the pronouns, and in the case of Thai it would be positively overwhelming!

  9. ‘in the case of Thai it would be positively overwhelming!’

    But it sure would be interesting :-)

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