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Thai Language Thai Culture: Telephone Thai

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Talking Thai on the telephone…

It probably took me ten years before I could understand anything anyone said on the telephone here in Thailand. It’s not the language. My wife had the same problem in English when she got to America. It is just really hard dealing with a disembodied voice and not seeing the person who is talking. We quickly realize how important body posture, facial expressions, and mouth movements are when we are talking to someone on the phone, especially in a foreign language.

One way to make things easier is to be able to use telephone-specific speech correctly. Every language has its own special telephone phrases. Below are some useful Thai phone words and phrases.

Note: Thai ending particles or หางเสียง /hăang sĭang/ (e.g. ครับ/คะ /kráp/ká/) are very important in everyday life and even more so over the telephone. I have even heard someone comment on the undesirability of a person because they didn’t use หางเสียง /hăang sĭang/ appropriately. When it comes to telephone conversations, especially when we are talking to someone on the other end of the line who we may not know, you can never overuse หางเสียง /hăang sĭang/. The more the better. Never underestimate the importance of Thai ending particles; try to make liberal use of them in any telephone conversations we have.

Saying Hello…

Thais will typically answer the phone with สวัสดีครับ /sà-wàt-dee kráp/. But occasionally they will use the English loan word ฮัลโล /ha-loh/. As native English speakers, we usually answer the phone in Thailand simply by saying “hello”. As innocent as this may be it can lead to some problems.

If you answer with “hello” the caller will almost invariably know that you are not a native Thai speaker no matter how good your Thai pronunciation is. I am always a bit disgruntled when I answer the telephone and the caller knows immediately that I am not a native speaker. I mean, I work really hard at my pronunciation and I have only said one word, “hello”. How do they know? Well, it turns out that a Thai “hello” (and this is officially a Thai word now and can be found in the dictionary) and an English “hello” are different animals.

When I answer the phone with “hello”, often the person calling will stutter and try to speak English to me, or they sometimes hang up altogether.

Here is how that kind of conversation usually goes (taken from an actual conversation I had just this morning). You may have encountered something similar.

Telephone: Ring
Me: Hello.
Caller: (after hesitating) ฮัลโล /ha-loh/.
Me: Hello?
Caller: (longer hesitation) ฮัลโล /ha-loh/.
Me: Hello!
Caller: Hangs up.

What’s the story? I think I have discovered the reason. Native speakers of English usually say the word “hello” like this, /hel lôw/, stressing the second syllable which makes it sound like a falling tone. The Thai way to say “hello” is ฮัลโล /hel loh/ where both syllables have a mid tone. I have even heard this word used with a rising tone and an elongated vowel on the second syllable. Also, the English “hello” ends with a “w” sound. The Thai “hello” has a more elongated second syllable with maybe a hint of an “h” at the end.

So you see, when a native English speaker says “hello” in Thai we are usually using the incorrect tone and sometimes even an incorrect ending sound. Since the caller often doesn’t want to hassle with speaking to a foreigner over the phone they just hang up. Now I stick with สวัสดีครับ /sà-wàt-dee kráp/ when I answer the phone.

Typical telephone-specific speech situations…

ขอพูดกับ… ครับ
kŏr pôot gàp… kráp
May I speak to…

ผมอยากจะพูดกับ… ครับ
pŏm yàak jà pôot gàp… kráp
I would like to speak with …

นี่ใครพูดครับ
nêe krai pôot kráp
Who is this.

นี่…พูด ครับ
nêe… pôot kráp
This is…

โปรดถือสายไว้สักครู่ครับ
bpròht tĕu săai wái sàk krô kráp
Hold on a minute.

กรุณารอสักครู่ครับ
gà-rú-naa ror sàk krô kráp
One minute please.

จะเข้ามาเมื่อไรครับ
jà kâo maa mêua-rai kráp
When will he be back?

เดี๋ยวมาครับ
dĭeow maa kráp
He’ll be right here.

Voice mail (message): ข้อความ /kôr kwaam/

ขอฝากข้อความครับ
kŏr fàak kôr kwaam kráp
Can I leave a message?

จะฝากข้อความไหมคะ
jà fàak kôr kwaam măi ká
Would you like to leave a message?

กรุณาฝากข้อความคะ
gà-rú-naa fàak kôr kwaam ká
Please leave a message.

ให้รับใช้อะไรคะ
hâi ráp chái à-rai ká
How may I help you?

ขอโทษค่ะ Mr. Wallace ไม่อยู่ค่ะ
kŏr tôht ká/ Mr. Wallace /mâi yòo ká
I am sorry. Mr. Wallace is not available.

Put you through, connect you: ต่อให้ /dtòr hâi/

จะโทรมาใหม่ค่ะ
jà toh maa mài kâ
I will call you back.

ต่อ 411
dtòr 411
Extension 411.

ดิฉันจะส่งแฟกซ์เอกสาร
dì-chăn jà sòng fâek àyk-gà-săan
I’ll fax you.

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. Nice read, I have been in Thailand for 1 year and have picked up on it slowly.
    It is a challenging language because of the tones, but thats what makes it more fun.
    Cheers

  2. Hugh, I’ve never really thought about the word hello as a giveaway but now that I think back on it and how the Thai’s I know say hello I definitely see your point. Even my girls young daughter says halow.

    Even so I stand out as a non native speaker no matter what. Hopefully once I progress past my troubles with speaking Thai to a Thai in person I can advance to having troubles speaking Thai to a Thai on the phone.

  3. Such a valuable post Hugh! Thanks Cat for posting this. Ka.

  4. Every time I’ve heard a Thai saying Hello on the phone, it has a very definite rising tone on the second syllable, which is long, as well.

    To me it sounds like: Ha Laaawwww?

    Answer like that and you’re sure to be replied to in Thai.

  5. Hugh and Catherine,

    We poor souls who live away from Thailand do sometimes have problems conversing in English with our Thai soul mates. Catherine may remember this one.

    Brring brring brring (telephone)

    WILAI – Hello hus…band, what you doing?

    ME – Hello darling now I sit bar and drink some beer. What you do?

    WILAI – Now I stay bedroom. Have new friend come.

    ME – What name friend you?

    WILAI – Ladlet.

    ME – Ladlet…..Who the hell is Ladlet.

    WILAI – Yes. Ladlet. He very beautiful and soft. Ladlet not name, is same we see before cartoon.

    ME – How big is Ladlet.

    WILAI – Nitnoi (small), now he sleep in basket. Cola (our puppy) love him too much.

    ME – Wilai I don’t understand Ladlet. It’s not English talk. Check your dictionary.

    WILAI – Deeo deeo (wait one moment) I go check dick shun hairy…..Hus…band, me ting tong (stupid) my friend have name Labbet not Ladlet.

    ME – Wilai how the bloody hell do you spell Labbet.

    WILAI – R -A-B-B-I-T same I speak before Labbet.

    ME – Rabbit…..Okay now I understand….

    The quiet village girl who gets emotional sometimes and likes nothing better than to prune the roses and sniff the soft scent of our village garden has once more shown her love of animals. In a village where the soi dogs forever roam hungry, wild cats prowl in the night and cobra’s have been seen not more than a few spits away, Wonderful Wi has been given a bloody rabbit. Handkerchiefs at the ready please.

  6. Christopher Johnedis

    March 5, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    หวัดดีทุกๆ คน:

    พี่ Hugh นะครับ คำว่า Hugh ภาษาไทยสะกดยังไงครับ น่าจะเป็น ฮิว แต่น้องก็กลัวเขียนผิด

    A very important post indeed. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I would like to add that — from what I hear walking around, riding the bus, talking to friends on the phone — hello seems like the standard greeting on the phone. Most certainly, it is ฮัลโหล with a rising tone (or more like ฮะ-โหล). I think also that is very often followed by a particle ฮัลโหลครับ/ค่ะ (ha-low kap/ka). Certainly สวัสดี (sa-wat-dee) is the safest way to รับสาย (rap-sai) pick up/answer the phone.

    Males, in more formal conversations, not only seem to use particles very often, but also often extend them to ครับผม (kap-pom). (Sorry, I don’t know how to use the little accent symbols over words.)

    หวัดดีครับผม (wat-dee-kap-pom)
    อะไรนะครับผม (a-rai-na-kap-pom)

    If the conversation isn’t so formal, the conversation seems to very often end with:

    งั้นแค่นี้นะครับ/คะ (gnan-kea-nee-na-kap/ka) “Well, that’s all for now.” Or maybe something like, “let’s call it a conversation.”
    แค่นี้เหมือนกันครับ/ค่ะ (kae-nee-muean-gan-kap/ka) “Alright sounds good.”
    ครับ/ค่ะ สวัสดีครับ/ค่ะ (ka sa-wat-dee-kap/ka) “Bye.”
    สวัสดีครับ/ค่ะ (sa-wat-dee-kap/ka) “Bye.”

    I have found this very hard to get used to, as I don’t think we say that all that much in America. When we want to get off the phone, it’s like a process of warming up to actually say goodbye. That’s the way I do it anyway. It feels abrupt for someone who I was just talking to for 20 minutes to say, “alright, so see you.”

    My final observation is that closer friends won’t use particles or say หวัดดี (wat-dee) very often — at the beginning or end of a conversation (though at the end more than the beginning).

    Instead of ครับ/ค่่ะ (kap/ka), it’s จ้ะ or จะ (ja)
    Instead of ใช่ครับ/ค่ะ (chai-kap/ka), it’s เอ่อใช่ (I don’t know how to write that) or just เอ่อ

    I will say that, I just try to avoid using these words because you could offend someone pretty easily. Once my friend told me อย่าเอ่อซิ, don’t say (that particle). She was pissed for a minute and then it was ok. I feel like it probably will take a long time to become accustomed to using those words appropriately. Given that I’m about six months into this learning process, I probably shouldn’t even be writing this post. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    Thank you for listening.

    คริสโตเฟอร์
    Christopher

  7. Thanks for an excellent post Hugh! Why Thais say, ‘hello, hello, hello’ now makes sense. But I wonder why Bruneians do it? English is their second language (well used) but sometimes it takes six back to back hellos before the real conversations starts (or someone hangs up).

  8. Christopher,

    Yes, my name in Thai is spelled ฮิว. Ending particles can be challenging. That is why I am working on a post of how to use them. Most people know ครับ/คะ but there are lots more. Give me a little while to put my thoughts together.

    You are doing pretty well for studying for such a short time. Keep up the good work.

  9. Wow, these phone phrases are very helpful! Thanks for showing them in Thai as well so I can practice my reading and get the pronunciation correct.

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