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Thai Language Thai Culture: What’s There “to Know”?

Thai Language

Thai language and Thai culture go hand in hand…

Thai, just like any language, has multiple ways to say the same things. And culture has a lot to do with which words we use in which situations. Although this makes for a robust, fun language to learn and use, it causes us non-native Thai speakers all sorts of confusion and difficulties. These arise not only because we have to work harder to learn more than one way to say the same thing (there are more than 20 ways to say the personal pronoun “I”), but because we need to learn when and where a certain word or phrase is properly used. One clear example of this is the Thai word(s) for “to know”.

Look up “know” in any good English/Thai dictionary and you will come back with two very good and proper Thai words, ทราบ /sâap/, and รู้ /róo/. They both mean “to know” and the only difference seems to be that ทราบ /sâap/ is usually labeled “formal”. But that label really doesn’t tell us when to use one and when to use the other.

Because our ideas of social rank differ greatly from the ways the Thais think of it, “formal” is a word that is difficult for most westerners to understand. Other terms we might use to indicate the same thing are: polite, respectful, differential, and well-mannered. Or as one dictionary puts it, “used in a setting where those of a higher social rank are present.” See, we have different ways to say the same thing too.

So, if they mean the same thing, when do we use ทราบ /sâap/ and when do we use รู้ /róo/?

The word รู้ /róo/ seems to be the more useful of the two since, besides having a meaning itself, lots of compound words are formed with it.

Examples:

To know a piece of information: รู้ /róo/
To know a person or place: รู้จัก /róo jàk/
To feel an emotion; to experience: รู้สึก /róo sèuk/
To know (one’s) mind: รู้ใจ /róo jai/
To be aware: รู้ตัว /róo dtua/
To know the language of: รู้ภาษา /róo paa-săa/
To know (what’s going on): รู้เรื่อง /róo rêuang/

ความรู้ /kwaam róo/ means “knowledge” but there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent using ทราบ /sâap/. One rare compound using ทราบ /sâap/ is the word รับทราบ /ráp sâap/, which means “acknowledge”. Another is ซึมทราบ /seum sâap/, meaning “understand clearly” or “empathize”.

The use of รู้ /róo/ in a compound word is always OK in both informal or formal settings and even when “those of a higher social rank are present”.

Examples:

Do you know Somchai?

รู้จัก (ครับ/ค่ะ)
róo jàk (kráp/kâ)
Yes I do.

ม่รู้จัก (ครับ/ค่ะ)
mâi róo jàk (kráp/kâ)
No I don’t.

How are you feeling?

รู้สึกดี (ครับ/ค่ะ)
róo sèuk dee (kráp/kâ)
Good.

รู้สึกไม่ดี (ครับ/ค่ะ)
róo sèuk mâi dee (kráp/kâ)
Not so good.

เขามีความรู้มากมาย
kăo mee kwaam róo mâak maai
He is very knowledgeable.

But if someone asks you if you know something or some piece of information, it is often better to answer with ทราบ /sâap/ or ไม่ทราบ /mâi sâap/. It is a softer, less abrupt way of speaking.

Examples:

Do you know when they are coming?

ทราบ (ครับ/ค่ะ) …
sâap (kráp/kâ) …
Yes I do.

ไม่ทราบ (ครับ/ค่ะ)
mâi sâap (kráp/kâ)
No I don’t.

Do you know what time the movie begins?

ทราบ (ครับ/ค่ะ) …
sâap (kráp/kâ) …
Yes I do.

ไม่ทราบ (ครับ/ค่ะ)
mâi sâap (kráp/kâ)
No I don’t.

Just for fun, here are more words that show different levels of formality. There are dozens of informal/formal/casual/vulgar personal pronouns in Thai, but let’s leave them for another time.

Restaurant:
ร้านอาหาร /ráan aa-hăan/ (colloquial)
ภัตตาคาร /pát-dtaa-kaan/ (formal)

Eat:
กิน /gin/ (colloquial)
ทาน /taan/ (formal)
รับประทาน /ráp bprà-taan/ (very formal)

Husband:
ผัว /pŭa/ (colloquial)
สามี /săa-mee/ (formal)

Wife:
เมีย /mia/ (colloquial)
ภรรยา /pan-rá-yaa/ (formal)

Give me (as in asking for something):
เอา /ao/ (casual)
ขอ /kŏr/ (formal)

Thank you:
ขอบใจ /kòp jai/ (casual)
ขอบคุณ /kòp kun/ (formal)
ขอบพระคุณ /kòp prá kun/ (very formal)

I’m sorry:
ขอโทษ /kŏr tôht/ (casual)
ขออภัย /kŏr à-pai/ (formal)
ประทานโทษ /bprà-taan tôht/ (very formal)

Dog:
หมา /măa/ (casual)
สุนัข /sù-nák/ (formal)

Pig:
หมู /mŏo/ (casual)
สุกร /sù-gon/ (formal)

Foot:
เท้า /táo/ (casual)
ตีน /dteen/ (vulgar)

Defecate:
ขี้ /kêe/ (as a verb it borders on the vulgar)
อุจจาระ /ùt-jaa-ra/ (formal)
ถ่ายอุจจาระ /tàai ùt-jaa-ra/ (very formal)
อึ /èu/ (used with little children)

Urinate:
ฉี่ /chèe/ (casual)
ปัสสาวะ /bpàt-săa-wá/ (formal)
เยี่ยว /yîeow/ (vulgar)

So when you have a choice between a formal and a casual word in Thai, which one do you choose? Here is what works for me. Listen to how those around you speak, especially well-respected people like teachers, doctors, and your elders, and speak like they do. If they use a word (with you) then you can use the word (with them).

Also, be aware of your surroundings. If you are in the doctor’s office and you want to tell him you are having trouble urinating (and who doesn’t?) then ปัสสาวะ /bpàt-săa-wá/ is the better word. But if you are out with your drinking biddies and need to go to the bathroom then ฉี่ /chèe/ is more appropriate. It is probably a good idea to always avoid the vulgar words like เยี่ยว /yîeow/.

If you are in doubt, treat everyone as if they are of a “high social rank”. And why not? It won’t hurt and you can’t go wrong being polite in Thailand.

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.

8 Comments

  1. I always go for the informal…mostly because I have never been in a formal situation and probably will never be. But, in the event I am this is good to know but I am sure to screw up even more if in a formal situation. I’ll be mumbling Issan and Thai maybe one formal word.

    I will be known as a mutt I think.

  2. I like the idea of knowing when to use formal words; knowing what their impact can be. My Thai teacher prefers formal, but she will also point out when it is overkill. I enjoy watching her ‘work the room’, especially when she changes from one form to the other!

  3. You are right about the Thai language having some kind of social rank/respect system. Sometimes a simple word like ‘Roo’ (know) can turn oh so bad.

    In English it’s usually fine to say ‘I know’ when someone tells you something you already know, but if you were to say ‘Roo’ (Know) or ‘Roo Laew’ (I already know) to a Thai person when they are telling you something, that is considered very rude and disrespectful.

    I’ve been told the best way to handle it is to ignore them but act like you’re listening (especially when they are giving you a really long explanation about something you knew in the last decade)

    :)

  4. Hugh I have got to strongly disagree with you, I have no problem urinating it’s just the rate of frequency that concerns me.

    Hugh/Catherine – I have been aware for years that the Thai’s have more formal words they use when talking to people of a higher social rank but I have never seen the topic explained. You could argue that English is similar in that if you were speaking to Royalty for example your choice of word would hopefully be on a higher plane. Young people conversing with their grand parents would in many cases talk ‘up’ and omit slang.

    This does make learning Thai even more difficult but as Talen points out the chances of getting in that situation are remote whilst at the basic learning stage. Perhaps a tight lip is required at the local politician’s birthday party and a nappy at the doctor’s surgery. Or both for both,(thought I’d finish with some really bad English).

  5. Nelson, welcome to WLT :-)

    ‘I’ve been told the best way to handle it is to ignore them but act like you’re listening (especially when they are giving you a really long explanation about something you knew in the last decade)’

    That sounds like a good plan (I hope I have the patience!) I certainly wouldn’t want to be perceived rude (enough snafus happening naturally).

    Martyn, I agree, in that English is similar. I would not speak (or even sit) in the same manner around my MIL as I would friends.

    As for the situation being remote… when you get a Thai teacher, they will expect to be treated politely. It’s a teacher thing.

  6. Update:
    I just returned from a short vacation. One of the days was spent at my wife’s college reunion. At my table was a former governor, an air force general, a dean of a university, the former head of the Rural Electricity Board of Thailand and currently a consultant with Thailand’s renewable energy program, the current head of the Electricity Board of Chiang Mai, and a few teachers. Everyone knew each other since college (except me and some other spouses), and most people had imbibed quite a lot, so the conversation was quite casual. In a different situation we might have spoken differently. So, like I said, “Listen to how those around you speak” and “be aware of your surroundings” and you’ll be fine as long as you know how to switch your levels of formality. Fun was had by all.

  7. Hi Hugh, sounds like you had a great time! I was also off for a brief (surprise) break, but in Kanchanaburi.

    Sometimes I wish I could be a fly on wall. A recorder would work too (then I could break the conversations down in my own time).

  8. If you notice, many of the formal words in Thai are of Pali/Sanskrit origin whereas the “informal” or “colloquial” terms are native to Thai. We see the same thing happen in English between words of Germanic origin and those borrowed from Latin (through French).

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