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Thai Language Thai Culture: And the Honor goes to…

Thai Language

Is it Kun, Pêe, Aa-jaann, or Pôo yài Moo?…

There used to be a time in the west when calling a person by their first name was something you didn’t do until you had known them for a considerable length of time, and then only when you had become very close. Nowadays, the new generation is often on a first name basis literally from the time they meet. That may be true in a lot of places, but in Thailand there is a wrinkle to this rule.

Although Thais are always on a first name basis because they eschew the use of last names, they almost never use the person’s first name or nickname on its own. They almost always add some kind of honorific or relationship title. And if we leave this honorific off then it’s possible that we are forcing a familiarity with our Thai acquaintances that we have not yet earned.

The most common of these honorifics is คุณ /kun/ (Sir or Madam) which is usually OK to use with most people except it just might be a little formal to use with people really close to you.

The term คุณ /kun/ was originally a royal title bestowed to show respect. Later it took on the use it has today. คุณ /kun/ can also mean “you”. Thus, you get the ubiquitous “hey you.”, so very jarring to the English speaking listener’s ear. But due to the mistranslation, the one who calls out “hey you” just might think he is merely saying, “hello sir”.

Another meaning for คุณ /kun/ is Mr./Ms. For years I was referred to as “Mr. Hugh” (mostly because in Thai they would have been using “Kun Hugh”). Later, when I became a little older and got my masters degree I graduated to อาจารย์ /aa-jaan/ (teacher) Hugh. Now that I am retired, and everyone (is there a conspiracy here?) refers to me as ลุง /lung/ (elder uncle) Hugh. As long as they haven’t started with ตา /dtaa/ (grandpa) Hugh, I’m OK with that.

Many honorifics used with our names either describe a certain status we have achieved or a relationship between us and the speaker. Age relationships are quite important in Thailand and will usually determine what type of honorific or relationship title is used. One trick my wife uses when meeting someone new is to say, “by the way, what year did you graduate?” The answer will usually tell her, without having to ask the person’s age, whether she is older or younger than the person she has just met, and thus, what honorific to use.

In Thailand, words westerners use only with family members quite often indicate age relationships. Since these relationships are significant, using the correct one is essential. It is also quite important to use the correct honorific with someone who has achieved his or her title through education or promotion.

In Chiang Mai (where I live), the term used for an older woman is แม่ /mâem (mother). In other parts of Thailand it could be น้า /náa/ (younger aunt) or ป้า /bpâab/ (older aunt). My wife likes Chiang Mai’s คุณ แม่ /kun mâe/. She much prefers it over one that we are beginning to hear more and more lately, คุณ ยาย /kun yaai/ (grandmother). The use of kun before another honorific – as in คุณ แม่ /kun mâe/ or คุณ ลุง /kun lung/ – essentially doubles the honor bestowed upon the listener.

The only time you might hear someone using a person’s name alone is when speaking to a young child, or sometimes to a servant, or when young people speak with someone their own age. But even servants are due their honorifics. An older servant might be referred to as ป้า /bpâa/ (auntie). A younger one might be referred to as น้อง /nóng/ (younger sister). Our children were instructed to call their nanny พี่ /pêe/ (older sister).

Jarring to my ears is when an expat speaks to, or refers to, a Thai using the first name only. For example, “hello Wichai” and “where is Mali going?”

Suggestion. Listen to what Thais are saying. Start paying attention to how often you hear Thais referring to each other using first names only. You’ll notice that it’s not very often. Then watch how often you are referred to by your first name alone. You’ll find it’s only from Thais who’ve lived in the west for quite some time.

In Thailand it’s more proper to say, “hello Kun Wichai” and “where is Pêe Mali going?”

So next time you are talking to a friend or even referring to them when talking with someone else, try using an appropriate honorific. Something like Kun Somchai, or Aa-jaan Somchai, or Pêe Somchai, or Lung Somchai. Your listeners will know that you have graduated to not only a better understanding of the Thai language but a closer understanding of Thais and their relationships.

Common Thai honorifics…

The following are common honorifics heard daily in Thailand. You can use any of these followed by a first name or nickname. Oh! Just one last wrinkle. The term “kun” is fine when used with someone else’s name but is not used when referring to yourself. I can refer to myself as Lung Hugh, or Aa-jaan Hugh, or Pêe Hugh, but I cannot call myself Kun Hugh.

The honorific is followed by the person’s name or nickname. A few examples are: Kun Catherine, Pêe Lek, Aa-jaan Jackson, and Pôo yài Moo.

Mr/Miss/Ms/Mrs/: คุณ /kun/
Mother: แม่ /mâe/
Father: พ่อ /pôr/
Younger Sibling: น้อง /nóng/
Older Sibling: พี่ /pêe/
Elder Uncle: ลุง /lung/
Younger Aunt: น้า /náa/
Older Aunt: ป้า /bpâa/
Grandmother: ยาย /yaai/
Grandfather: ตา /dtaa/
Medical Doctor: หมอ /mŏr/
Teacher: อาจารย์ /aa-jaan/
Professor: ศาสตราจารย์ /sàat-dtraa-jaan/
Village Chief: ผู้ใหญ่ /pôo yài/
Mayor: นายก /naa-yók/
Governor: ผู้ว่า /pôo wâa/
Boss: นาย /naai/

When in doubt (except with really close friends, or those a lot younger than you, or who are related to you), คุณ /kun/ is always a polite way out.

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.

8 Comments

  1. Some great information there Hugh. I’ve used Khun a lot but I didn’t know all the other honorifics. Things like this are great to know because when used properly you’ll get smiles all around and the Thai’s involved are really happy to see you are learning more than the typical Thai most foreigners will strive to use.

  2. thanks for the insights.
    I have picked up the habit of calling people who are the same age as me or sometimes younger คุณแม่ or คุณพ่อ – they happen to be the parents of the kids who are in my class. :-) I cannot learn so many names.
    Turns out that there is a higher-ranking Thai teacher and a lower-ranking assistant, the latter happens to be 2 years older, but they use น้อง and พี according to their status, not their age.
    Teacher X or Ajan X is often used as a form of address among (young!) speakers of English while speaking English because we just got stuck using titles.

  3. Betti,

    Your use of คุณแม่ or คุณพ่อ sounds fine and in fact very endearing. I use คุณแม่ when I am talking to the mother of a friend. When I was a teacher at a high school here, I taught the students not to call me “teacher” since we usually don’t do that in a native English speaking environment. Way back in the early 70s there was a very popular movie here (about high school students and their teacher) called “To Sir With Love” staring Sidney Poitier (song by Lulu, still heard on the radio today). The students started calling all the farang teachers “Sir”, even the women. That was fun.

  4. Hugh and Catherine – I love words and these are just poetic to me

    ‘…but in Thailand there is a small wrinkle to this rule.’…simple but poetic… Google search ‘Steve Harley, lyrics’…you’ll kinda know where my mind set was hatched from or possibly smacked from a baseball bat into hell.

    Khun or ‘Hey son.’ They are 6000 miles apart but it basically means the same. Respect is the name of the game. Abuse and lose, speak the spiel, basically you’ve gotta convince the spit you hit and turn the idle bullshit chat into ear wax. Respect, respect is what life is all about.

    Oh! One last wrinkle…. words…poetic..I kinda of think that the world is changing, maybe changed and the honorific is slowly being replaced by the horrific….hugging and mugging aren’t words that far apart in most tabloids nowadays.

    A very interesting post but after a few beers and…what really messed me up was the Working Men’s Club was doing G&T at £2 a hit.

    Thailand maybe a country that preaches respect but hey…look at the top of the banana tree and tell me….for all the respect that the Land of Smiles holds, would you buy the banana. Give it ten years and I fear khun will become son.

  5. another well written an informative post its normally pretty easy to pay the correct amount of respect to meeting new people just using age that’s about as in depth as i go but always with a smile and you can’t go far wrong in Thailand

  6. Hugh – “To Sir With Love” is such a beautiful classic (I haven’t thought about that movie for years, but I could easily watch it again.

    Respect and smiles, are indeed the name of the game in Thailand. That, and lots of laughter.

  7. I’m not a native speaker of English – maybe that is one of the reasons why a “hey you” said with a smile goes down a lot better than a grumpy “madam”.
    And I also love the touts that are consistent and stubborn about addressing me “sir”. :-D
    Btw, I have another nice one from school. We have a six-year-old little boy in my class who is the older of two brothers, and is called “P Ton” at home (the younger one is Nong Tang). He absolutely insists on being called “P Ton” and will totally refuse to listen if I just say “Ton”. “Nong Ton” occasionally ends him up in tears. He has a bit of an obsessive-compulsive tendency anyway. So, that’s how I have come to address a 6-year-old as “P Ton”.

  8. Betti,

    I have 2 sons. When the second one was born we began calling our first son Pee Tangmo (his nick name) so that his brother would learn to call him that. Well, I guess he thought that was his whole name so he began to refer to himself as Pee Tangmo. His family started calling him that and he was called that by his kindergarten teachers. He is 31 years old now and his mom still calls him Pee Tangmo. I don’t think this situation is unusual. It is kind of cute too.

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