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Pali and Sanskrit roots of Thai words…

Have you ever seen those brilliant kids in the national spelling bees? When given a word to spell, the first thing they ask for is the word’s origin. Knowing the “Latin”, or “Greek”, or any of the many other roots to our English words they immediately not only know the word’s basic meaning but they have a big head start on how to spell it correctly. Well, Thai is also a language whose roots come from many other languages.

The latest of these of course is English. But with English, Thai usually borrows the complete word. In Thai, these are referred to as ทับศัพท์ /táp sàp/ or borrowed words. It is amazing that without ever studying Thai you will already know hundreds of Thai words, albeit borrowed from English. The way they are pronounced might make them a little hard to recognize though. My golf caddie (Don’t blame me, I’m retired and supposed to be playing golf) the other day was talking about a “dy wat”. It took me a while to realize that she was talking about a “divot” that I had just made in the fairway. But when she called out the Thai word “on”, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I had hit my ball “on the green”.

The Thai Royal Language, ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/, borrows a great deal from the Cambodian Royal Language. And of course Thai has lots of Chinese influence. But the languages with the most impact on Thai, especially the roots of Thai words, are the Indian languages of Pali and Sanskrit. Although both are “dead” languages, similar to Latin, you can still hear Pali spoken daily as it is the language of the Buddhist scriptures and chants. All men who join the monkhood must learn some Pali in order to take part in the Buddhist chanting and rituals. That is not so different from the time when all Roman Catholic masses were held in Latin.

I am always looking for ways to help me increase my Thai vocabulary. And the fact that so many Thai words have their origins in Pali and Sanskrit can help with that. Just like those spelling bee kids, if we can learn the roots of a word we can get a head start on figuring out its meaning and maybe even remembering it.

By the way, the two Thai words used above both have roots in Pali and Sanskrit. The root ศัพท์ /sàp/ in each means “word”. ทับศัพท์ /táp-sàp/ = (borrowed) word.

ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/ has the extra benefit of having two roots. ราชา /raa-chaa/ means royal or pertaining to the king. So ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/ = royal words. The root ราชา /raa-chaa/, meaning “royal”, can also be seen in the English phrase “the British Raj” or in the word “Maharaja”. The “maha” in “maharaja” is another root meaning “great”. So “maharaja” = “great king”.

As you can see, one root will lead to another. This could go on for a while. That is why I have been compiling a list of Thai words that have Pali and Sanskrit roots. Glenn Slayden of thai-language.com has graciously offered to format these and place them on his website at Pali and Sanskrit Prefixes and Suffixes. If you have trouble reading the Thai simply click on the word and you’ll be shown a complete discussion of the word including a phonetic transcription.

I am still adding to this list so if you come across any roots that I don’t have yet please drop a line and we’ll try to incorporate them. For now, just have fun with the language.

See if you can find the Pali and Sanskrit roots to Thai words that also are roots to English words. There are quite a few, showing that the Thai and English languages are in fact distant cousins. Here are a few below (although some are merely guesses on my part).

ราชา /raa-chaa/
(Pali) royal, of or pertaining to king
British Raj, Raja, Maharaja, Rajasthan

มหา /má-hăa/
(Pali) great; omnipotent; large; many; much; maximal; paramount; exalted
Maharaja (great king), Mahatma (Great Soul, Atma = soul) as in Gandhi.

มรณ /mor-rá-na/́
death; the act of dying; cessation
mortal, mortality, immortal

มาตุ /maa-dtu/
(Pali) maternal; relating to mother
The word for mother in so many languages start with “m”. This is just one more.

อารย /aa-rá-yá/
(Sanskrit) Aryan race; civilized person; honorable person; honest person
Aryan, Iran

วิทยา /wít-tá-yaa/
(Pali) science; knowledge; learning; philosophy
Possibly related to wit, witty

มานุษ /maa-nút/
(Sanskrit, Pali) human; relating to human
Possibly related to human, man, woman, humanity

โทร /toh/
(Sanskrit?) remote, over a distance
Pronounced toh-rá when used in compound words. Possibly related to “tele” which is a Greek root meaning remote, over distance. The Thai words with this same prefix are so close to English. Just replace the “r” sound with an “l” and you will see.

Telephone: โทรศัพท์ /toh-rá sàp/
ศัพท์ is the Pali word for “word”

Television: โทรทัศน์ /toh-rá-tát/
ทัศน์ is the Sanskrit root for “vision”

Telegraph: โทรเลข /toh-rá lâyk/
เลข is the Pali root for “writing”

Telescope: โทรทรรศน์ /toh-rá-tát/
ทรรศน์ is the Sanskrit root for “see”

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog

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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.

17 Comments

  1. Excellent start Hugh. The only word I could think of borrowed from English at the moment is strawberry. But I have heard more than a few words in Issan that I’m sure are borrowed from Pali or Sanskrit.

    I think I need to get down regular Thai before I venture too far into other languages though…but it does help to hear and understand where the roots are coming from.

  2. Talen, If you are interested, there is a book running around – 700 Thai Words Taken from English. And while it does include strawberry, it is listed as such:

    strawberry chip = satawbuly chip
    – hip slang for air-headedness

  3. Cat, What I really need is real old fashioned ( talking 1800’s here ) talking dictionary…that will give me the most incentive to learn….unfortunately my talking dictionary only knows how to say Chocolllate Bunnny at the moment.

  4. Some of the borrowed English words that the Thai’s have integrated into their language do make me politely chuckle when hearing them. Dy-wat is one I can imagine and sataw-buly is one I have just got to hear. On my next trip I shall be heading for Tesco’s ice cream freezer.

    The Thai’s difficulty in pronouncing r’s and v’s is an obvious reason for their strange sounding words at times. I also think that their over emphasis on syllables is another major factor. Computer becomes kom…poo…ter, there is no natural rolling together of each syllable, a slight gap between each part instead…. Now for a very bad guess on my part….I reckon the bad sounding words are possibly caused by foreign English teachers who are just that, foreign to English. The teachers themselves have difficulty pronouncing many English words themselves. I hope that doesn’t kick up a storm.

    My apologies for being a little late in commenting on your posts but I have just finished a run of six 12 hour shifts and I’ve been feeling ‘wery wery’ tired. Sataw-buly, I must write that down in my book.

    ‘Wilai do you want chocolate or strawberry ice cream.’

    For once I’m actually going to enjoy going to a supermarket unless she says chocolate of course.

  5. Talen, is Pookie taking English lessons while you are away? I know a grand site if she is interested… He was talking about converting his method to learning Thai (and I wish he would).

    Martyn, six twelve hour shifts? Whoooh. It has been awhile since I’ve had to do back to back such as that.

    In one section of his course, Stu Jay Raj explains the reasons behind why Thais have difficulty pronouncing r’s and v’s. The v’s I remember (there are no v’s in the Thai alphabet so they are all converted to w’s).

    For the breakdown of the syllabals, it is all those invisible vowels in between the consonants. So in Thai thinking, strawberry would have an invisible a after the s and t (or are they all o’s? ;-)

  6. Martyn,

    The interesting thing about a borrowed word is that it is now part of the borrower’s language. Therefore, the way a Thai pronounces Strawberry is the correct way since it is no longer an English word at this point. So, if you are speaking English it is pronounced one way and if you are speaking Thai is is pronounced differently. And they are both correct.

    Most English speakers pronounce the French phrase “Coup De Grace” as “coup de gra” thinking of course that the French don’t pronounce the last “s” sound. But in this case they do and instead of “gra” it should be pronounce something like “grass”. So, it looks like we do the same thing.

    Remember, when you are asking for your ice cream, use the correct tones. It is very interesting how English loan words develop Thai tones when they are borrowed, and if not said correctly, with the correct tone, they won’t understand you.

  7. Thai word for Rose Gulab Indian also Gulab ; Siam is the name for Thailand before and it means Shyam in Indin language which means brown or Sun set.Gold is called Suwarn same is the name of Thai Airport Suwarn bhom here bhom is Bhomi which means land ie Golden land.many words like Raja,Rajkumar,rani,Rajkumari,senapati,praja,sukh,dukh,narak,swarg are few of the words Thiland & India have commen.there are many u can share it

  8. here’s a more up-to-date URL for the book: ‘700 Thai Words Taken From English’ http://adventure1.com/books.htm It’s easier to access in ebook version.

  9. The numbers โทร ตรี are related historically to two (or ‘duo’ from Latin I think) and three (or “tri-” from Latin)

  10. also ราช is also related to “regal” (from Latin). Latin and Sanskrit are related languages. They are both Indo-European languages.

  11. No matter how many words are borrowed from English that many multiplied by infinity are from Sanskrit and even those words from English can very well be from Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the mother if all languages and India is ur great grandmother.

  12. Michel Boismard

    July 8, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    Indian:your comments are correct,but(although I am no authority in the matter),the word”Siam”has nothing to do with the Hindi “shyam”,meaning the dark blue colour of the night sky,attributed to
    the complexion of Krishna.

    Hugh:Thank you for the light you throw on Sskt/Pali inserts in Thai.
    You may be interested to know that I have done a compilation of those words on the Sethaputra Thai-English dic.in 2 volumes.I researched every word identified with their original pronunciation(based on Devanagari script)And I like to self-gratifyingly think I have made no omission…
    Would sharing the infos useful to you or anyone?
    Khaorop,Michel B.

  13. Michel Boismard

    July 17, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    Hugh,I am truly impressed by your constant search into the intricacies of the Thai language showing a passionate dedication to it.I have not yet read all your numerous articles,but so far have appreciated your thoughtful comments on such topics as the monosyllabic issue and the Indic influence which has been my field,so to speak,for many years.That does not make me a Sanskrit or Pali expert,far from it,just a perpetual “word wanderer”.I have just developed a knack for fishing out those loanwords from several Asian languages.On this basis only,I’d like to ask your view on the following:
    A/ You stated that Thai was a distant cousin of English,based on common root words from Indian tongues(You quoted “maharaja”).By the
    same token,would you consider,say,Japanese as a distant cousin of Italian on account of having incorporated words such as”pizza”,cappuccino”or “mafia”?But even by taking into account longer standing loanwords,would the use of common Latin roots make English a distant cousin of Spanish?(see:”human/humano”,”natural/natural”,”notion/nociòn”etc.)
    B/The fundamental tonic/monosyllabic nature of Thai being evident,that makes it totally unrelated to any western tongue,including English.Having put aside all Indic and Khmer polysyllabic vocabulary,only one category of seemingly polysyllabic words remains to be identified:That with the “a’ “type prefixes,such as “pra’ ma’ ra’ tra’ ta’ “etc. I have no answer to that question.Have you found anything about this in your research?
    (SEE FOLLOWING MESSAGE)

  14. Michel Boismard

    July 17, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    (FOLLOWING:)They don’t seem to be all Khmer,although some definitely are. But just two clues that might shed a light on this:
    In Lao,an aubergine is”Maak kheua”and a lemon is “maak nao”.Could this show the Thai “ma'” being a contraction of “maak”?(ho heep/mo maa/sara’ aa/ko kai).The areca nut being the archetype,”maak”would then be a generic for small round fruit such as all those?
    Similarly,could “ta’ wan” be a contraction of “taa wan”meaning eye of the day:sun,just like “mata hari”in Indonesian? That would make those monosyllabic,agreed,Hugh? Plus,can we fill ALL “a’ “prefixed words into contractions such as these?
    C/ It is useful to know that Sanskrit vocabulary in Thai deals with topics such as sciences,society,politics,arts,nature,Brahmanic/
    Hindu matters,cosmology and so forth. Pali being essentially a corpus of religious terms of Theravada Buddhism. Did you consider those”topic areas”when trying to classify words into one or the other? The word”raaja”thus “mainly” comes from Sanskrit,but there is clearly a register overlap in this case,this same word also being
    used in Buddhist texts.So we have “Athiraat”being totally Sanskrit,while “thammaraat”being totally Pali….
    Khaorop, M.B.

  15. Robert Jackson

    July 2, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    The “wit” of mahawitaya is more likely related to the Latin vita through its Sanskrit cognate. Consider the “wit” of “chiwit” life and I think you will see my point. After all, education makes for a great life.
    I would love to see the dictionary mentioned above.

  16. Well, Sanskrit is not a dead language. It is still taught and used. There is a village in India where they still speak Sanskrit. Pali is also taught in curriculum as an optional language, however I am not aware if it is still used.

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