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Thai Language Thai Culture: Word order in Thai “Wh” Questions

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Word order in Thai “Wh” questions…

It is common for beginning students of Thai (or students of most foreign languages for that matter) to start off making sentences and answering the teacher’s questions. In fact, quite often the art of ASKING questions is frequently left to much later, and sometimes is forgotten altogether. This is a problem with Thai since Thai questions are asked in quite a different way than English questions.

Word order of Thai “wh” questions – who, what, where, how, why – is different from the word order of English questions. The question words are in a different place. In English, the question word begins the sentence, so everyone knows the question is coming. Thai needs to set you up first. If you want to know where something is, you name that thing first and then use the question word. So, “where is the book?” in Thai word order becomes “the book is where?” Exceptions are the why questions where the question word is either in front or behind, such as “why are you sad?” or “you are sad why?”

Note that tenses in Thai questions such as in “what will”, “what did”, “what are”, as well as all the other “wh” type questions use the same pattern. It takes adding other context words to clarify your meaning. For example with: “what will you do tomorrow“, “what did you do yesterday“, “what are you doing now“, “what are you doing tonight“. And even though there is a nice future indicator in Thai such as จะ /ja/, as well as other time indicators, they are often dropped. My feeling is that it’s done specifically to confuse me, but I might just be paranoid about that.

If everyone understands the context, then these words are not needed. But many an Expat is left confused as to whether they are being asked about something they did, or will do, or are doing. When I am the one doing the asking, in order to be understood I use the context words.

There are so many ways to ask questions. I have shown just a few here but you are sure to come across many more question patterns. Observe the word order in the examples below. The Thai question words have been underlined for clarity.

How long…

Time:

จากกรุงเทพฯ ไปเชียงใหม่ ใช้เวลานานเท่าเท่าไร
jàak grung tâyp bpai chiang-mài chái way-laa naan tâo-rai
How long does it take to go from Bangkok to Chiang Mai?

เราจะต้องรอ นานแค่ไหน
rao jà dtông ror naan kâe năi
How long do we have to wait?

Length:

เรือ ยาวแค่ไหน
reua yaao kâe năi
How long is the boat?

How many…

นก กี่ตัว อยู่บนต้นไม้
nók gèe dtua yòo bon dtôn mái
How many birds are in that tree?

How much…

Cost:

เสื้อตัวนี้ราคา เท่าไหร่
sêua dtua née raa-kaa tâo rài
How much does this shirt cost?

Weigh:

คุณน้ำหนัก เท่าไหร่
kun náam nàk tâo rài
How much do you weigh?

Want:

คุณต้องการเงิน เท่าไหร่
kun dtông gaan ngern tâo rài
How much money do you want?

How do you say… in Thai…

“Hello” ว่ายังไง เป็นภาษาไทย
“Hello” wâa yang ngai bpen paa-săa tai
How do you say “hello” in Thai?

How often do you…

เรียนภาษาไทย บ่อยแค่ไหน
rian paa-săa tai bòi kâe năi
How often do you study Thai?

What did (will, etc) you do…

Future:

คุณ จะทำอะไร พรุ่งนี้
kun jà tam à-rai prûng né
What will you do tomorrow?

Past:

คุณ ทำอะไร เมื่อวาน
kun tam à-rai mêua waan
What did you do yesterday?

Present:

คุณ กำลังทำอะไร อยู่
kun gam-lang tam à-rai yòo
What are you doing?

What do you do…

คุณ ทำงานอะไร
kun tam ngaan à-rai
What do you do (for a living)?

คุณ ทำอะไร ตอนเย็น
kun tam à-rai dton yen
What do you do (in the evening)?

What do you need…

คุณ ต้องการอะไร
kun dtông gaan à-rai
What do you need?

What do you want…

คุณ ต้องการอะไร
kun dtông gaan à-rai
What do you want?

What does this mean…

Meaning:

หมายความว่าอะไร
măai kwaam wâa à-rai
What does … mean?

Translation:

“คำศัพท์” แปลว่าอะไร
”kam sàp” bplae wâa a-rai
What does “คำศัพท์” mean? (the Thai word for “vocabulary”)

What is this…

นี่ คืออะไร
nêe keu à-rai
What is this?

นี่ อะไร
nêe à-rai
What is this?

When does it…

มันจะเริ่มต้น เมื่อไหร่
man jà rêrm dtôn mêua rai
When does it begin?

ฝนตกในประเทศไทย เมื่อไหร่
fŏn dtòk nai bprà-tâyt tai mêua-rài
When does it rain in Thailand?

When will you…

คุณจะไปกรุงเทพฯ เมื่อไหร่
kun jà bpai grung tâyp mêua-rài
When will you go to Bangkok?

Where are you going…

คุณจะไปเที่ยวพักผ่อน ที่ไหน
kun jà bpai tîeow pák pòn tîi-nǎi
Where are you going on your vacation?

Where do you…

คุณเรียน ที่ไหน
kun rian têe năi
Where do you study?

Where is the…

วัดอยู่ ที่ไหน
wát yòo têe năi
Where is the temple?

Which do you like…

คุณชอบมือถือ อันไหน
kun chôp meu tĕu an năi
Which cell phone do you like?

Which is better (best, worse, worst)…

รถ คันไหน ดีกว่า
rót kan năi dee gwàa
Which car is better?

รถ คันไหน ดีที่สุด
rót kan năi dee têe sùt
Which car is the best?

รถ คันไหน แย่กว่า
rót kan năi yâe gwàa
Which car is worse

รถ คันไหน แย่ที่สุด
rót kan năi yâe têe sùt
Which car is the worst?

Who is…

เธอเป็น ใคร
ter bpen krai
Who is she?

อาจารย์ของคุณคือ ใคร
aa-jaan kŏng kun keu krai
Who is your teacher?

Who is this (on the telephone)…

นี่ ใคร ครับ
nêe krai kráp
Who is this?

ใคร พูดครับ
krai pôot kráp
Who is this?

Why…

ทำไม คุณร้องไห้ or คุณร้องไห้ ทำไม
tam-mai kun róng-hâi or kun róng-hâi tam-mai
Why are you crying?

เธออ่านหนังสือ ทำไม or ทำไม เธออ่านหนังสือ
ter àan năng-sĕu tam-mai or tam-mai ter àan năng-sĕu
Why is she reading?

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.

15 Comments

  1. Hugh, great post. I’m not up with my WH words :( hadn’t even learned ‘which’ yet. Could you please explain the difference between ต้องการ and อยาก ? We were taught that one is a need and the latter, a want/desire. Is that correct?

  2. I feel pretty ashamed now. After about two years of studying Thai, I still don’t know many of these expressions. You would think these would be some of the first things that I’d be learning.

  3. Snap,

    Good question. ต้องการ /dtông-gaan/ and อยาก /yàak/ can sometimes be confusing. Add to that the simple ต้อง /dtông/ and now we have a complete Thai lesson. Here we go:

    ต้อง /dtông/ – have to, must

    This is usually followed by a verb as in:

    คุณจะต้องจ่าย 500 บาท / kun jà dtông jàai 500 bàat / – You (will) have to pay 500 baht.
    เธอต้องกลับบ้านเร็ว / ter dtông glàp bâan reo / – She has to (must) go home early.

    ต้องการ /dtông-gaan/ – need; require; want; wish; would like (The differences in meaning need to be determined by the context)

    Quite often this is followed by a noun as in:

    ฉันต้องการ 500 บาท / chǎn dtông-gaan 500 bàat / – I need (want) 500 baht.

    But also by verbs too:

    เธอต้องการกลับบ้าน / ter dtông glàp bâan reo / – She needs (wants) to go home.

    อยาก /yàak/ – want to

    Followed by a verb.

    เธออยากกลับบ้าน / ter yàak glàp bâan / – She wants to go home.
    เธออยากได้ 500 บาท / ter yàak dâai 500 bàat / – she wants (to receive) 500 baht.

    Now see if you can decipher the following (before looking at the translation below).

    ฉันอยากเรียนภาษาไทย / chăn yàak rian paa-săa tai /
    ฉันต้องเรียนตอนเช้า / chăn dtông rian dton cháo /
    ฉันต้องการครูที่ใจดี / chăn dtông gaan kroo têe jai dee/

    I want to study Thai.
    I have to study in the morning.
    I need a kind teacher.

    Hope that helps.

  4. Hugh, thanks for going to so much trouble with the explanation, I’ve saved the information to file ;) for future reference. I’m having so much trouble stringing sentences together, choosing the correct words, word order and conjunctions. For now, I’ll have to be happy speaking in 2 – 4 word spurts.

  5. Hi Hugh – Catherine,

    I think the big problem with learning Thai that is written like this is that phonetically it just is impossible to teach everyone that speaks English how to pronounce it the right way.

    For Germans you’d need to spell it phonetically one way. For Brits, another. For Americans, another. That small yellow dictionary, wish I could remember the name of it, has the best pronounciation for us. I think it’s in the glove compartment of the car – lol.

    Great article… I think Thais speak in much shorter phrases though. Westerners want to change it to be long and drawn out like they speak – but, in reality – common Thais speak very abbreviated – and still understand each other. Ok, cheers…

  6. Hugh – A great post and a very helpful one for regular visitors and newbies to Thailand. The where’s, why’s and what’s are at the forefront of most tourists tongues as they have a thousand questions to ask but lack the language skills to pop the question.

    I am familiar with a few of the WH words you list but some of the others are new to me and most useful.

  7. Several months ago, I was in the Andrew Biggs Academy at Major Ekami buying some more of his books which teach English to Thais, (as I use them in reverse to see how Thai grammar differs from English).

    He had a small ‘booklet’ (which I think) is called the “Little Book of Question Words”. It goes over all the English question words, and explains how their usage differs from the Thai equivalents. It has good examples of both English and Thai sentences showing the difference in construction. That little book helped me get my head around Thai question words really quickly. It’s written in quite an easy level of Thai so even beginner readers could and would understand it.

    Interestingly enough sitting a Thai class the other day at a school I was perusing, they were covering question words. The teacher said that putting “Why” (ทำไม) at the beginning of the sentence shows mild interest, as in just asking ‘why’, and even a superficial answer will suffice. However when it is put at the end of the sentence the meaning changes into “what was the reason”, and requires a more in-depth answer.
    I dunno as it’s the first time I’d heard that before.

    Hugh, great post!

  8. Tod,

    You’re the second person to mention to me about the different positions of the Why question word in Thai. I have given it lots of thought, and lots of listening. I always try to remember that whenever “rules” are given (in grammar books or grammar teachers) they are usually what is referred to as “prescriptive grammar”, or what you should do,and listening will give us a more “descriptive” grammar or what people really do.

    Here is how I have “heard” the why question word used. Please check with your teacher and let me know what she thinks of these ideas as they don’t come from a grammar text but through observation.

    1. When the why word is up front (most often) it seems to be a typical “give me information” type question.

    ex. ทำไมคุณไปที่บ้านของเขา /tam-mai kun bpai têe bâan kŏng kăo/

    Meaning: Why did you go to his house? (please tell me the reason)

    2. When the why word is up front but is stressed a little more than usual then it would seem more of a command.

    ex. “ทำไม” คุณไปที่บ้านของเขา /”tam-mai” kun bpai têe bâan kŏng kăo/

    Meaning: Give me a good reason why you went to his house.

    3. When the why word is at the end, and there is a little tension in the voice then the speaker may not approve of the person’s action and questions the motivation behind it.

    ex. คุณไปที่บ้านของเขา “ทำไม” /kun bpai têe bâan kŏng kăo “tam-mai”/(the ทำไม is stressed and maybe said a little louder than the rest of the question)

    Meaning: Why in the world would you go to his house? (you know that was a bad idea)

    4. When the why word is at the end, and instead of tension the speaker shows some exasperation then the speaker is showing disapproval in a less challenging way.

    ex. คุณไปที่บ้านของเขา “ทำไม” /kun bpai têe bâan kŏng kăo tam-maaaaai/(the ทำไม is more drawn out with maybe a little whining sound to it and maybe an added rising tone at the end).

    Meaning: You know that going to his house was a bad idea, why did you do it?

    BTW, good idea to get books that teach English to Thais to help you learn Thai. I do that all the time and it helps a lot, especially if the book is in 2 languages. Makes reading Thai lots easier. Check out the “สองภาษา” /sŏng paa-săa/ – 2 languages books. They have them at all levels.

  9. Hugh, that’s an excellent explanation – thanks for taking the time :-)

  10. I was thinking about your response to my comment and I agree with your examples.

    In reviewing my class notes; when the teacher used ทำไม at the end of sentences it carried more of a negative connotation or disproval.

    Even though she explained it in English as ‘asking for more information’ when it’s tagged on the end, clearly her examples mirror your comments.

    Now I didn’t particularly notice the “stressed” or “unstressed” versions (at the beginning or the end of a sentence) but that could just be I didn’t hear or pick up on it, lol.

    Good answer(s) Hugh, thanx, and I’ll look for those สองภาษา books when I’m out and about.
    Tod

  11. Todd,

    Stress is a funny thing with the Thai language. In English we often do it with our voice rising. can’t do that in Thai as that would change the tone (although it sometimes happens, especially in songs). The stress and come from an abruptness or even a facial expression. Check out Thai soap operas (เรื่องน้ำเน่า /rêuang-​nám-​nâo/ – literally “rotten water”) if you want to see stressful language.

  12. Ditto. That’s the way we learnt ทำไม also. Placing it at the end of a sentence makes it more like an interrogation or demand for information.

  13. How long is the boat??????

    Hugh…please tell me when I will use that one :p

  14. Lani,

    I guess you haven’t seen our boat in the canal behind our house. We had the option of buying the 2 meter one or the 3 meter one(it’s a simple paddle boat เรือพาย /reua paai/).

    เรือยาวแค่ไหน /reua yaao kâe năi/ How long is the boat?
    เรือของเรายาวสามเมตร /reua kŏng rao yaao săam máyt/ Our boat is 3 meters long.

    So next time you see me you can ask me how long my boat is.

    Cheers

  15. 5555 okay – i was thinking fabric or something girly not manly boat talk :P

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