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Thai Language Thai Culture: It’s All Relative

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It’s all relative: ญาติ /yâat/…

I just returned from visiting my son and daughter-in-law in the U.S. and meeting my grand children for the first time. It was a great experience, especially for my wife Pikun who could use her hard-won mothering skills to hold and feed and take care of some little ones once again. That got me to thinking about how the Thais refer to their relatives. I am always getting some relationship word wrong so I put together the following chart, mostly for my own edification. I thought I would share it with our readers. See if you can remember them all. Pop quiz on Friday.

Note: Just to make things a bit more complicated, most of the following terms can be used with people who are not your real relatives but simply with people who are of a similar age to them. Thus you get the situation where your Thai friend introduces you to someone she calls “my sister” (she’s thinking of the term พี่ /pêe/), but the person being introduced could be a sibling, or a cousin, a classmate, a coworker, or maybe just a friend.

And these are just the most common terms in use. There are lots more.

Example: The Thai word for “child” or “offspring” could be the more common/ลูก/ lôok, or one you might find in writing บุตร /bùt/, or ทายาท /taa-​yâat/ which I have only seen in dictionaries and has more of the meaning “heir”.

Grandparents’ generation: ตายาย /dtaa-​yaai/…

The names Thais use for grandparents depends on whether they are on your mother’s side (maternal) or your father’s side (paternal). Collectively they are referred to as ตายาย /dtaa-​yaai/. Quite often these terms are used as endearments in familiar settings with any older men or women, even if we don’t know them.

  • Maternal grandmother: ยาย /yaai/
  • Maternal grandfather: ตา /data/
  • Paternal grandmother: ย่า /yâa/
  • Paternal grandfather: ปู่ /bpòo/

Note: The word for great grand parent is ทวด /tûat/. To be specific we can add it to the above.

Example: Maternal great grandfather becomes ตาทวด /dtaa-​tûat/, etc.

Parents’ generation: พ่อแม่ /pôr-​mâe/…

If your parents have siblings these would simply be your aunts and uncles in English. In Thai we have to know whether they are on your mother’s side or your father’s and we also need to know whether they are their older or younger sibling.

On your mother’s side:

  • Mother: แม่ /​mâe/
    • Sisters (your maternal aunts)
      • Older: ป้า /bpâa/
      • Younger: น้า /náa/
    • Brothers (your maternal uncles)
      • Older: ลุง /lung/
      • Younger: น้า /náa/

On your father’s side:

  • Father: พ่อ /pôr/
    • Sisters (your paternal aunts)
      • Older: ป้า /bpâa/
      • Younger: อา /aa/
    • Brothers (your paternal uncles)
      • Older: ลุง /lung/
      • Younger: อา /aa/

Note: The word ลุง /lung/ can be used as an endearment with men old enough to be your parents’ age. The word ป้า /bpâa/ is the female equivalent.

Wife’s parents:

  • Mother-in-law: แม่ยาย /mâe-​yaai/ (combines the words for mother and maternal grandmother)
  • Father-in-law: พ่อตา /pôr-​dtaa/ (combines the words for father and maternal grandfather)

Husband’s parents:

  • Mother-in-law: แม่ย่า /mâe-​yâa/ (combines words for mother and paternal grandmother)
  • Father-in-law: พ่อปู่ /pôr-​bpòo/ (combines words for father and paternal grandfather)

Your generation…

You: คุณ /kun/, your siblings: พี่น้อง /pêe-​nóng/, your cousins: ลูกพี่ลูกน้อง /lôok-​pêe-​lôok-​nóng/, your spouse: แฟน /faen/, and children: ลูก /lôok/.

  • Siblings: พี่น้อง /pêe-​nóng/
    • Older sister: พี่สาว /pêe-​sǎao/
    • Younger sister: น้องสาว /nóng-​sǎao/
    • Older brother: พี่ชาย /pêe-​chaai/
    • Younger brother: น้องชาย /nóng-​chaai/
  • Cousins: ลูกพี่ลูกน้อง /lôok-​pêe-​lôok-​nóng/
    • Older cousin: พี่ /pêe/
    • Younger cousin: น้อง /nóng/

Note: We can use พี่ /pêe/ and น้อง /nóng/ as a personal pronoun with close friend and other relatives (referring to them as well as ourselves). Since finding out someone’s age is very important linguistically as well as socially, you’ll need to know whether someone is older or younger than you. Asking someone’s age is not the best way to do this. The best ways I have seen is to 1. Ask what sign of the Chinese Zodiac they are (which would tell you within a 12 year cycle who came first), or 2. Ask what year they finished school (before you did or after).

  • Spouse: คู่ครอง /kôo-​krong/ is formal, แฟน /faen/ is more familiar
    • Wife: ภรรยา /pan-​rá~​yaa/
    • Husband: สามี /sǎa-​mee/

Note: It is best to avoid using the terms ผัว /pǔa/ for husband and เมีย /mia/ for wife in polite company. They can be construed as being derogatory by some people and it is usually best to err on the side of politeness.

  • Sister-in-law
    • Wife of your younger brother: น้องสะใภ้ /nóng-​sà~​pái/
    • Wife of your older brother: พี่สะใภ้ /pêe-​sà~​pái/
  • Brother-in-law
    • Husband of your younger sister: น้องเขย /nóng-​kǒie/
    • Husband of your older sister: พี่เขย /pêe-​kǒie/

Note: The use of พี่ /pêe/ and น้อง /nóng/ for the in-laws is determined by the age of your sibling, not the age of the person (in-law).

The next generation…

  • Children: ลูก /lôok/
    • Daughter: ลูกสาว /lôok-​sǎao/
      • Son-in-law: ลูกเขย /lôok-​kǒie/
    • Son: ลูกชาย /lôok-​chaai/
      • Daughter-in-law: ลูกสะใภ้ /lôok-​sà~​pái/
    • Children of aunts and uncles: หลาน /lǎan/
      • Niece: หลานสาว /lǎan-​sǎao/
      • Nephew: หลานชาย /lǎan-​chaa/

And the next…

  • Grandchildren: หลาน /lǎan/
    • Granddaughter: หลานสาว /lǎan-​sǎao/
    • Grandson: หลานชาย /lǎan-​chaai/

And the next…

  • Great grandchildren: เหลน /lǎyn/

And all the rest…

  • Relative/relation/kin: ญาติ /yâat/ or ญาติพี่น้อง /yâat-​pêe-​nóng/

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.

10 Comments

  1. Hugh, the ins and outs of who’s who in a Thai family was and is still, very daunting to me. I am uber happy to be a ยาย though :) It must have been wonderful to meet your grandchildren.

  2. Hugh, thank you for this post. I didn’t realise how you referred to inlaws was down to the age of your sibling, not of them. Good to know :-)

  3. Hugh, an excellent and timely reminder for me. Like Snap I sometimes find it daunting because I very rarely have need of the words, so, when I do find myself in the situation I usually muff it up quite well…this post will go a long way in keeping it all straight.

  4. What an informative post Hugh. I’m quite interested in Thai culture & language. Thai cuisine is one of my all time favorites. So I quite enjoyed your post. Asking someone the sign of Chinese Zodiac that they are is really a great idea to guess their age. Thanks for sharing ll this information.

  5. First this is not directed at Hugh as I like his posts. It’s directed at the topic only;

    We just went over a quite similarly mind-numbing, totally irrelevant topic (irrelevant to anyone who ain’t Thai that is) in my Thai language class today; “Thai family terms”. I knew going into it that it was only gonna run 50 minutes, so I excused myself, went ‘n got a cup ‘o coffee and to smoke cigarettes until after the next break. If I’da had to sit thru that class I’da bitten my own veins out and killed myself on the spot!!

    Don’t get my wrong, I fully know that given Thai is SUCH a hierarchical culture and how tightly knit they are with their family bonds, even with their extended family, plus factoring in the deference Thais show to every Tom Dick and Somchai based solely on age I see why it’s important to Thais. I mean after all that’s how the Thais put people into the cubby holes they use to categorize people. However I fail to see the importance of it at all to foreigners learning Thai, even one’s with Thai significant others.

    Honestly I don’t NEED to know a person I’m introduced to is my mother in laws younger brother from a different father who is also cousin of someone else in the family. I mean that’s just parsing it out way too much for me. It just isn’t all that relevant for me to invest a second thinking about it. I rank it right up there with being able to spit out the names of 5 Thai ghosts off the top of your head on the “meter ‘o useless information”.

    Still, I always look forward to your posts Hugh, and if it’s vocab which a reader would need and will use, by all means learn it.

  6. Todd,

    Sorry you couldn’t use the info in the post. One of the reasons I write these posts is I know that the more one knows Thai,the language, the people, and the culture, the better fit we have in living here. Instead of people referring to you as “Farang” or a simple “You”, when one is conversant with all things “Thai” then they begin to refer to you as “Pi” or “Lung”, showing a much closer and intimate relationship. And one of the more important bits of Thai knowledge one can obtain is to know who everyone is around you and what their relationship is to everyone else.

    Now I know that many Expats living here could care less about these things. But (and here is another of my little stores), I was just at a house warming party for a British friend and his Thai wife and daughter. It was a nice house made from Teak (taken from older Teak structures). He had decided to build in his wife’s village and they threw a huge party for the house blessings. It just so happens that just about everyone in this village is related to his wife, and through her to him also. He had lots of “big brothers’ and “little sisters”, and “uncles” and “aunts” and lots and lots of “nieces” and “nephews”, and even a couple of “grandmas” and “grandpas”. If he even refers to a few of them with the correct relationship title they will love him forever. These aren’t “cubby holes” or “categories” but real and important relationships.

    Yes, some Expats here have a real need to get the relationships right. You wouldn’t want to call your wife’s mother’s sister a paternal uncle now, woulds you?

    Thanks for the kind words.

  7. “You wouldn’t want to call your wife’s mother’s sister a paternal uncle now, woulds you?”

    Very good point Hugh. What I like about Thai kinship terms is that you don’t have to be related to to use a fond title. And truthfully, I enjoy being called older sister. I don’t have a sister. I have two older brothers. When I was little I desperately wanted a sister (once trying my best to bargain but ended up with bangs instead). Now I have many sisters.

  8. Khun Hugh, great post. If I may add a few more terms:

    stepfather [พ่อเลี้ยง / ph-OR(f)+l-IA-ng(h)]
    stepmother [แม่เลี้ยง / m-AIR(f)+l-IA-ng(h)]
    stepson / stepdaughter [ลูกเลี้ยง / l-OO-k(f)+l-IA-ng(h)]

    godfather [พ่อบุญธรรม / ph-OR(f)+b-oo-n_th-ah-m]
    godmother [แม่บุญธรรม / m-AIR(f)+b-oo-n_th-ah-m]
    adopted son / daughter [ลูกบุญธรรม / l-OO-k(f)+b-oo-n_th-ah-m]

  9. David,

    Good ones. Thanks.

    Hugh

  10. Hugh, thank you for the informative post! Would you be able to tell me how to refer to a few other specific relatives? I’ve taken guesses, based on other in-laws and step-relatives:

    – The husband of your mother’s younger sister – น้าเขย ? (In English, he would be your uncle, but I assume there’s something more specific to indicate that he is your uncle by marriage to your maternal aunt.)

    – The wife of your father’s older brother – ลุงสะใภ้ ?

    – The husband of your paternal grandmother – ปู่เลี้ยง ?

    – The wife of your paternal grandfather – ย่าเลี้ยง ?

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