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Thai 101 Learners Series: More on Titles

Thai 101 Learners Series

Titles are here there and everywhere…

What’s in a title? That which we call a Ms. by any other title would smell as sweet.

Apologies to Shakespeare. I read an interesting Thai law the other day on the topic of titles for women.

As you may know, the basic titles for women in Thailand are นาง สาว /naang sǎao/ for a single woman (like Miss) and นาง /naang/ for a married woman (like Mrs.).

Only, that’s not quite the case. A law issued on January 31 of this year [2008] states the following:

  • A woman aged fully 15 years or older, who has never been married, must use the title นาง สาว /naang sǎao/.
  • A married woman may use the title นาง /naang/ or นาง สาว /naang sǎao/ according to her preference, by informing the local registrar.
  • A married woman whose marriage later comes to an end may use the title นาง /naang/ or นาง สาว /naang sǎao/ according to her preference, by informing the local registrar.

An explanatory note as to the reason for the change states: the former law “affected the daily lives of married and formerly married women, including their careers, the education of their children, and the carrying of various legal actions, which constitutes unjust sexual discrimination”.

Now that’s interesting. As far as I know, titles like Mr, Ms and Mrs have no legal status in the United States, where I was born. I don’t know when I’ve used the title Mr for myself, except when doing things like applying for a visa to the Thai embassy.

Funny how that is.

In Thailand, everyone has some kind of title…

Nowadays, all men (all commoners, anyway) are นาย /naai/. Girls and boys under 15 are เด็ก หญิง /dèk yǐng/ and เด็ก ชาย /dèk chaai/, respectively.

Royal titles are very complex, so I’m not going to get into them here. Hereditary titles for descendants of royalty are still in use, too. These pass only through male lines. You’ll see the titles หม่อม ราชวงศ์ /màwm râatchawong/, who is the child of a หม่อม เจ้า /màwm châao/, the lowest tier considered royalty, and หม่อม หลวง /màwm lǔang/, who is the child of a male หม่อม ราชวงศ์ /màwm râatchawong/.

Children of a หม่อม หลวง /màwm lǔang/ receive no title, but can append ณ อยุธยา /Na Ayutthaya/, meaning “of Ayutthaya” to their name, indicating their royal lineage.

Honorific titles for woman of non-royal lineage are granted by His Majesty the King. They are: ท่าน ผู้ หญิง /thân phûu yǐng/, said to be equivalent to the British title Dame; and คุณ หญิง /khun yǐng/, said to be equivalent to the British title Lady. Honorific titles for non-royal men are no longer in use.

There is still a lot of prestige attached to any of the honorific or hereditary titles. But in modern Thai society, there are other titles which will also gain you much respect, and which are available to anyone: titles of education. In particular, ดร. “Doctor” for non-medical doctorate holders, and นพ./พญ. /naai phâet and phâet yǐng/, for men and women medical doctors hold a lot of cachet; but also professorial titles: in descending order, ศ. “Professor”, รศ. “Associate Professor”, and ผศ. “Assistant Professor”.

And let’s not forget military and police titles. There are a large number of these, and they vary depending on the branch of the military. Wikipedia has a good rundown on these.

It is not uncommon to stack up multiple titles, either. In an extreme case, you might see ผศ.ดร.พ.ต.ต. which unravels to “Assistant Professor Doctor Police Major so-and-so”. Quite the mouthful.

On the news, anchors always use a person’s full title at least the first time they mention a person. When you have a person with multiple titles, like Thaksin Shinawatra, they might say this: อดีต นายก รัฐมนตรี พัน ตำรวจ โท ดอกเตอร์ ทักษิณ ชินวัตร /adìit naayók rátthamontrii phan tamrùat thoo dàwkter tháksǐn chinnawát/: “Former prime minister Police Lieutenant General Doctor Thaksin Shinawatra”.

Never mind that he left the police force more than 20 years ago.

All in all, titles are far more important in Thailand than they are in my homeland. In the US, some pompous ass might correct you with “that’s Dr. so-and-so”, because he wants you to know he has a fancy degree. It’s generally much less of a big deal, and (as in the case of the pompous ass) being overly showy with titles is tacky.

Back in Mother England they seem to be more important, though I have very little clue about the hierarchy involved in those. My mom says her side of the family has traced our genealogy back to Charlemagne.

Probably me and 10 million other people. I don’t think I’m going to inherit any titles any time soon!

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. Rikker, Titles are always something that scare me when speaking Thai. I have normally refered to people by name to get around it so this has been very helpful to me in a few ways.

    I have referred to children as de pooying or de poochai respectively. I’m a little confused with my learning as I thought dek dek pooying or dek dek poochai meant the plural… children. And I’m not quite sure what dek is saying in either case. Maybe you can clear that up for me.

  2. Rikker and Catherine, titles in Thailand are obviously in co tandem with the greeting or ‘wai’ as it’s known. Respect for your elders or more social high ranked people make the wai higher and titles would seem to be an important part of that type of culture. Having gained a lofty position in the police force, army or a university doctorate one needs a social ranking title on tow in a culture zone such as Thailand. I knew dek dek meant baby or child but didn’t realise that pooying and poochai accompanied it.

  3. Martyn, I was just reading about the royal title ณ อยุธยา (‘of Ayutthaya’) today in Chris Baker’s ‘History of Thailand’. If you get a chance, grab a copy as it fills in what other books on Thai history leave out.

    And the longer I’m in Thailand, the more I enjoy the respect angle. I am personally grateful to a few teachers who are quite adept at getting things done just by dropping the ‘I’m a teacher’ line in their introductions. Things I’ve been banging my head against…

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