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Thai Language Thai Culture: A Rose (กุหลาบ) by Any Other Name

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A rose (กุหลาบ /gù-làap/) by any other name…

I find that place names in Thai are quite difficult to remember. Well, I should say that I find names of any kind difficult to remember and it isn’t just because of the language or my advancing age. You can tell me your name and 2 minutes later I will have forgotten. I have always had that problem. I believe that the gene for remembering names was not passed on to me. But no problem, I have found a way, a sort of mnemonic, to remember Thai place names.

It turns out that most place names have a meaning. Here is the trick I have been using lately. When I hear a name I try to translate it in my head as someone is telling it to me (or later when I get back to my dictionary). If I can figure out what it means then I can usually remember it later when I have to.

Geographical place names…

As is true with many western names, Thai place names often mean something. In the U.S. place names are frequently named directly for individual people. New York is named after the Duke of York; San Francisco after Saint Francis. But there are many other names with less familiar etymology. Chicago is named after the Chicago Indian tribe. Florida has the Spanish root word “flor” meanng “flowers”. Los Angeles is Spanish for “The Angels”, the same meaning as Krunthep. Philadelphia is the city of “philo”, Greek for “loving”. And my favorite American city, Seattle, was named after a local Indian Chief.

Likewise, there are lots of Thai place names with quite esoteric or ancient meanings, but the ones easiest to figure out are names using the following affixes:

บุรี /bù-ree/ (…buri)
เชียง /chiang/ (Chiang …)
นคร /ná-kon/ (Nakhon …)
กรุง /grung/ (Krung…)
บาง /baang/ (Bang…)

These all mean basically the same thing, “city” or “town”. They act similarly to the English suffixes “bury” as in Roxbury and borough as in Brattleborough. The endings “bury” and บุรี /bù-ree/ sound similar but are of different origins

The following are some familiar Thai names which use the “city” words. They are usually combined with a description word which carries the meaning.

บุรี /bù-ree/
Chonburi: ชลบุรี ชล /chon/ (water)
Rajburi: ราชบุรี ราช /râat/ (royal)
Singburi: สิงห์บุรี สิงห์ /sĭng/ (lion)
Thonburi: ธนบุรี ธน /ton/ (treasure)
Petchaburi: เพชรบุรี เพชร /pét/ (diamond)

เชียง /chiang/
Chiang Mai: เชียงใหม่ ใหม่ /mài/ (new)
Chiang Dao: เชียงดาว ดาว /daao/ (star)
Chiang Saen: เชียงแสน แสน /săen/ (extreme, a lot)
Chiang Khong: เชียงของ ของ /kŏng/ (from Mekong River)

นคร /ná-kon/
Nakhon Pratom: นครปฐม ปฐม /bpà-tŏm/ (first, original)
Nakhon Panom: นครพนม พนม /pá-nom/ (mountain, hill)
Nakhon Sawan: นครสวรรค์ รสวรรค์ /sà-wăn/ (heavenly)
Nakhon Ratchasima: นครราชสีมา ราชสีมา /râat-chá-sĕe-maa/ (royal boundary, aka Korat)

บาง /baang/
Bangkok: บางกอก /กอก gòk/ (olive)
Bangplee: บางพลี พลี /plee/ (religious offering)
Bangkapi: บางกะปิ กะปิ /gà-bpì/ (shrimp paste)
Bangrak: บางรัก รัก /rák/ (love)
Bangsan: บางแสน แสน /săen/ (extreme, a lot)

กรุง /grung/
Krungthep: กรุงเทพฯ เทพ /grung tâyp/ (angel)

Quite often the longer version of Bangkok’s name, กรุงเทพมหานคร /grung tâyp má-hăa ná-kon/, is used. You might see road signs saying “Krungthep Mahanakhon”. The “Maha” means great and “Nakhon” and “Krung” we know mean city. So Bangkok’s longer name is translated as “The Great City of Angels”. But of course that is only part of the name. Its real name is listed in the Guinness Book of Word Records as the longest place name in the world. Translating that would be fun. I usually just stick with “Bangkok”.

Mountains and rivers…

Many place names start with “Doi” ดอย /doi/. This means hill or mountain in the northern dialect. And even more start with “Mae” แม่ /mâe/. This means “mother” but is really a shortened form of แม่น้ำ /mâe náam/, meaning mother of waters, or river. The words Mekong River literally mean “River Kong River”.

Street names…

These are also quite impossible for me to remember. This, finding the meaning mnemonic trick, helps me with street names too. Here are some well-known street names from Chiang Mai where I live. The names are a lot easier to remember once you realize what they mean. Your town will have similar names with similar meanings. See if you can break them down.

Rajdamnern: ราชดำเนิน /râat-chá-dam-nern/ (royal + walk)
Rajdamree: ราชดำริ /râat-chá-dam-rì/ (royal + think, consider)
Chang Puek: ช้างเผือก /cháang-pèuak/ (elephant + albino/white)
Chang Klan: ช้างคลาน /cháang-klaan/ (elephant + crawl)
Chang Moi: ช้างม่อย /cháang-môi/ (elephant + doze, nap)
Cholaprathan: ชลประทาน /chon bprà-taan/ (irrigation)
Thapae: ท่าแพ /tâa pae/ (landing + raft)
Suthep: สุเทพ /sù-tâyp/ (angel)
Huey kaew: ห้วยแก้ว /hûay gâew/ (stream + glass)

Here are a few Bangkok street names…

Silom: สีลม /sĕe lom/ (windmill)
Sukhumvit: สุขุมวิท /sù-kùm-wít/ (prudent; profound; wise)
Wittayu (Wireless:) วิทยุ /wít-tá-yú/ (radio, or wireless)
Khao San: ข้าวสาร /kâao săan/ (rice)
Chitlom: ชิดลม /chít-lom/ (near the breeze)
Ploenchit: เพลินจิต /plern jìt/ (happy heart or mind)

Mispronounced names…

Not only can knowing the meaning of a word help you remember it, it can also help with learning how to pronounce it properly. The worst culprit in the Thai language, that is infamous in transliterating its words so that they are rendered unpronounceable, is probably the name of Bangkok’s international airport, Suvarnabhumi สุวรรณภูมิ. How in the world is the uninitiated person supposed to pronounce that? Su-Varn-A-Boo-Mi, right? Not exactly.

The word is made up of two parts สุวรรณ /sù-wan/ (one of Thai’s many words meaning gold) and ภูมิ /poom/ (meaning land or country). So the true pronunciation of Suvarnabhumi (adding an “a” in the middle to connect the two parts and with a final silent “i”) is /sù-wan-ná poom/ (Golden Land).

Another mispronounced Thai name, made famous because it is in the title of an Oscar winning film, is the river “Kwai”, from “Bridge on the River Kwai”. Good movie, bad pronunciation. Everyone in the world pronounces it “Kwai”. Many new Thai language learners think River Kwai means “Water Buffalo River” because that is the way the name of the river is usually mispronounced. ควาย /kwaai/ is Thai for water buffalo.

But the real name of the river is แม่น้ำแคว /mâe náam kwae/. แม่น้ำ /mâe náam/ is Thai for river and แคว /kwae/ means tributary. So it is not the Water Buffalo River, it is the Tributary River, and it is not kwai it is kwae.

Romantic names…

Some place name definitions just make them sound so much more romantic or exotic. Chiang Mai, or “New City” in translation, is a pretty ordinary name. But when it is referred to by its more ancient name, “Lanna” or “Lanna Thai” it becomes a little more interesting. In fact, there was a former kingdom in the north known as Lanna Thai before it was annexed by the Thais from the south. The word “Lanna” ล้านนา /láan naa/ is made of two Thai words, ล้าน /láan/ (million), and นา /naa/ (rice field). So the translation for Lanna is “Land of a Million Rice Fields”.

Similarly, Laos, the country just to the north of Chiang Mai, uses a language closely related to the Lanna or Chiang Mai dialect. It used to be called the Kingdom of ล้านช้าง /láan cháang/. That in translation means, “Land of a Million Elephants”.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand

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Hugh Leong loves explaining things. And during his 40 plus years of trying to learn Thai and its culture, he learned to love the cross-cultural aspect of living in a foreign country and speaking its language. His series, Thai Language Thai Culture, covers various aspects of learning Thai, and how the Thai culture influences how we say things.

9 Comments

  1. Catherine and Hugh – Great post and one which is topical to me.

    On my stays at our village house in Udon Thani we regularly take a ride into the city which is 65km away. We pass loads of villages en route. I rarely put my glasses on and my eyesight without them is not good for detail. We kept passing a village (on my December trip) which read to me as Ban Na Na, I thought great, a village called Banana.

    I decided villages names would make a good post so this trip I started photographing the village name signs from the car as we passed through them (some came out rather fuzzy). I got quite a few but missed one hell of a lot too. I was very disappointed when viewing my shots with my glasses on and Ban Na Na turned out to be Ban Na Wa. Here’s a few of the lovely names I got.

    Ban Santi Suk
    Ban Fai Taek
    Ban Mak Kong
    Ban Sang Sa
    Ban Non Sa-At

    One I was determined to get but kept missing was Ban Khok, I wanted it because I thought it read as Bangkok, Wilai corrected me and it reads more like Ban-Coke but the Coke is heavily pronounced.

    I’ve shelved the post for the time being as I need to find out more about the village name meanings and the villages themselves.

    Interesting post, I really enjoyed the read. I always thought Suvarnabhumi had something to do with Cobra’s. Gold Land…perhaps that’s why the yellow shirts took it over. They might have been gold mining in Terminal 2.

  2. I wrote the above thinking of the big stuff. I should have thought a little bit more about the small stuff. So here goes.

    There are tens of thousands of place names around Thailand that have the word “Baan” or “Ban” in them. This comes from the words หมู่บ้าน mòo-bâan. หมู่ mòo means a group or a collection, and บ้าน bâan means house. So หมู่บ้าน mòo-bâan is a collection of houses, or a village.

    All those road signs ones sees saying, “Ban …” mean “The Village of …”

    Now the trick is to translate the next few words after บ้าน bâan. Some village names can be rather hilarious. My wife comes from บ้านศีรษะจระเข้ bâan sěe-sa jor-rá~kây or “The Village of the Large Crocodile Head”

    I am not exactly sure of the names of the villages on your rout since they aren’t written in Thai, but I can take a guess on a few:

    Ban Santi Suk The Village of Peaceful Happiness

    Ban Fai Taek The Village of Broken Fire (or depending on the tone it could be “Broken Hope” or “Broken Mole”) I kind of like the last one best.

    Ban Non Sa-At The Village of Clean Sleep

  3. I’m sorry. I should have said that my wife comes from บ้านศีรษะจระเข้ใหญ่ bâan sěe-sa jor-rá~kây yài. The Village of the Big Crocodile Head, because there is also a บ้านศีรษะจระเข้เล็ก bâan sěe-sa jor-rá~kây lék, or the Village of the Small Crocodile Head. Wouldn’t want to confuse the two.
    .-= Hugh Leong´s last blog ..Review: Three-Way Thai–English English–Thai Talking Dictionary for Windows PCs =-.

  4. thanks for the translation of Chiang Mai street names :-)

    for some weird reason, the longer a Thai word is, the easier I can remember. I can remember every student’s full name in two weeks. one-syllable words, forget it, takes months.

  5. Great stuff, Hugh. I can’t imagine the amount of bullying that goes on from the Large Crocodile Head villagers. Those poor “Small Head” guys must get ridiculed on a daily basis. “My Crocodile Head is bigger than yours!” :)

  6. I’ve been doing something similar to Martyn and this post definitely helps clear some things up.

    In Nakhon Phanom the city is cut up into Wat districts that all have a different name.

  7. I find town and city names in Thailand fabulously interesting. When I brought the subject up to Hugh, he said ‘speak of the devil’ as he’d already written this wonderful post. And that’s Hugh, always one step ahead :-)

    Taking photos of signs to collect the names and meanings from around Thailand would take time, but it’d also be a fun way to learn more Thai as well as Thai history. I’m game to pursue this further if you all are.

  8. Hi Hugh Leong! & ever body interest in learning Thai language!

    Thanks you. It’s a good job.I’m learning Thai last 2 years, never go to Thai class. Learn from books, MP3, TV and most effectively with inter-net Websites(Esp, Thai-language.com). As I have the experience in learning languages. I’m trying hardly to learn Thai. I learned Frech when I was in Europe. Then little German and Spanish. I’m a Tamil from Jaffna, Srilanka. As you mention, Bangkok’s international airport, Suvarnabhumi สุวรรณภูมิ, its not clearly explained. This’s a Sanskrit word. In Skt สุวรรณ Suvarna means Gold, ภูมิ Pumi means wolrd or land. In Tamil we are usining This words and even in Singala and lot of Indian languages. In Thai lnaguage it’s correctly written. But, Thai peoples can’t pronounce it correctly. Not only this word there is a lot words come from Skt and Phali. Ex, มหา Maha- big in Skt, นคร Nakon-town Nagar in Skt. Many words come from India but changed by the time and the difficuties to pronounce for the Thai peoples. When I learned to read & write, I found a lot of words we(Tamis) are using are changed. I dont know Sanskrit, but the skt words in Tamil. When you go to Thai-languge.com they mention the origines of the words. Many loaned words can be identifi by mispronounced spelling or silent letters (–์ ทัณฑฆาต thanthakhat, or การันต์ karan , indicates silent letter ) Thank you. Please courage me to learn more.

  9. Fernandes,

    Thanks for your comments. If you look you will see that I wrote the article on thai-language.com about the Sanskrit and Pali origins of Thai words that you mention. And WLT posted an article about them. You can read it here http://womenlearnthai.com/index.php/thai-language-thai-culture-pali-and-sanskrit-roots/. You have a good base for learning Thai. Don’t give up. It is a long road but it is worth the hard work.
    .-= Hugh Leong´s last blog ..Review: Three-Way Thai–English English–Thai Talking Dictionary for Windows PCs =-.

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