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Thai Time: Relearn Thai Tense the Thai Way (Part 1)

Bingo Lingo

Relearn Thai Tense the Thai Way (Part 1)…

If I were to ask you: what is the future tense word in Thai? Most of you would probably respond instantaneously-“จะ /jà/, of course!” And if I ask you: how about the most common past tense word? There are a few but you’d probably invariably select แล้ว /láeo/ as your first choice. Then let me ask you: then what does the sentence “จะไปแล้ว” /jà bpai láeo/ mean? How do ‘future’ and ‘past’ tense occur in the same sentence?

The Thai language appears to warp spacetime, making the past and the future collide, resulting in a big black hole in your brain. No wonder you never understand it.

In the vast majority of Indo-European languages such as English, French or German, everything that you do has a temporal reference: you did something; you have done something; you will do something, etc. You can even refer to an alternative past that didn’t exist (I would have gone to Chiang Mai if I hadn’t had to work on Sunday). This concept of tense is so fundamental to Indo-European languages that it’s ingrained into the speakers’ perceived reality and is something many of you probably think you cannot do without. “How can I ever say anything at all if I can’t say when I do it?”

However, Thai is a tenseless language and it doesn’t really deal with time in the same way that languages with grammaticalised tenses do.

At this point you may ask: “So what about all these translations such as ‘will’ for จะ /jà/, or ‘to have (done) already’ for แล้ว /láeo/? Is my teacher/school/book wrong?” No, they’re not wrong. That’s just one way to ease your learning difficulty by analogising Thai into concepts that you’re already familiar with in your native tongue. But if you do not want to end up with something called ‘interlanguage’ and speak broken Thai for eternity, you may want to approach Thai time in a Thai way.

That is why in this post I’m offering you an alternative approach to some of the most common time markers in Thai. My approach may seem a bit different but I’m sure it will all come together.

แล้ว /láeo/ VS ยัง /yang/ – fulfilled VS unfulfilled…

I decided to pair these two up instead of แล้ว /láeo/ VS จะ /jà/ because their functions really complement each other beyond just a past-future pairing. You’ll see why.

แล้ว /láeo/ is a fulfilled particle. It is dubbed so because it shows that the action is already done, or at least it has been set in motion, hence the conditions are fulfilled. It is often translated as ‘already’ or ‘now’:

เค้า ไป เกาหลี หนึ่ง อาทิตย์ แล้ว
káo bpai gaolǐi nùeng aatít láeo
She already went to Korea a week ago.


Her ‘going to Korea’ has already happened and now she’s in Korea.

จะ ถึง แล้ว
jà tǔeng láeo
I’m nearly there.


I’m arriving now – the ‘arriving’ part is set in motion and is bound to happen any time soon.

หนู จะ สอบ พรุ่งนี้ แล้ว
nǔu jà sòrp prûngníi láeo
I’ve got an exam tomorrow.


She hasn’t taken her exam yet but the exam has been scheduled (or as in my word- ‘set in motion’), and แล้ว /láeo/ in this case is used to express the imminence of that event.

On the other hand, ยัง /yang/ is the absolute opposite of แล้ว /láeo/: it is an unfulfilled particle. It shows that the action is still ongoing, or it has not even started yet. The action feels somewhat pending and incomplete. It is often translated as “still” or “yet”:

ยังไม่รู้เวลานัดเลย
yang mâi rúu weelaa nát loei
I don’t know the appointment time yet.


At the moment of speaking he doesn’t know what time the appointment will be. The ‘knowing’ part is therefore unfulfilled.

เล็กเค้ายังอายุแค่ 15 เอง
Lek káo yang aayú kâe sìphâa eeng
Lek is still only 15.


The implication of this phrase is that Lek’s still not old enough for whatever purpose that requires him to be older.

On a different note, when you use the ‘Have you…?’ question (แล้ว)รึยัง? /(láeo) rúe yang?/, you now know that you literally say: แล้ว + หรือ + ยัง /láeo/ + /rǔe/ + /yang/: ‘fulfilled or unfulfilled’!

ได้ /dâi…/ – achievement particle…

Although they’re written the same, this ได้ /dâi…/ does NOT have the same function as /…dâi/ ‘can, able to’. /dâi…/ is dubbed an achievement particle and is always put in front of the verb. The deeper meaning is something like “I got (the chance) to …” or “I succeeded in (doing something)”. It’s often used to describe past events (but not always).

ไม่ได้กินข้าวเมื่อเช้า
mâi dâi gin kâao mûeacháao
I didn’t eat this morning.


This means the speaker didn’t get the chance to have anything for breakfast. If you drop ได้ /dâi…/ from this sentence: ไม่กินข้าวเมื่อเช้า /mâi gin kâao mûeacháao/, it means that the speaker made a conscious decision not to have breakfast, not because he didn’t have the chance to do so.


เดือนหน้าจะได้ไปฝรั่งเศส
duean nâa jà dâi bpai fáràngsèet
I get to go to France next month.


This demonstrates how ได้ /dâi…/ doesn’t necessarily talk about the past, because in this case the event will take place in the future! The speaker of this sentence feels that his ‘going to France’ is an achievement and he’s looking forward to it.

มา / …maa/ – perfect particle…

Now this particle is probably the only Thai time marker that actually has a tense in a traditional sense. มา /…maa/ describes events that started in the past and lead up to the present moment, or as it is popularly known, the “present perfect tense”:

กินข้าวมารึยัง?
gin kâao maa rúe yang?
Have you eaten?


In many situations, กินข้าวรึยัง? /gin kâao rúe yang?/ would perhaps suffice. However, since กินข้าวรึยัง? /gin kâao rúe yang?/ has no temporal reference, it can also mean something like “Are you ready to eat?” or “Do you want to eat now?”. มา / …maa/ is there to eliminate this ambiguity.

Essentially, this word is the same มา /maa/ as in ‘to come’, but when it’s used as a time marker it follows the main verb:

รอมา 5 ชั่วโมงแล้ว
ror maa hâa chûamoong láeo
I have been waiting for 5 hours now.


/ror maa/ roughly translates as ‘have been waiting’. Although this guy has been in constant anticipation for 5 hours, he may have been doing other things while waiting. Whereas,

มารอ 5 ชั่วโมงแล้ว
maa ror hâa chûamoong láeo
I came here to wait 5 hours ago.


/maa/ in this case is NOT a time marker and literally means “to come”, so /maa ror/ in this case just means “come to wait”. Whoever this poor soul is, he hasn’t left the spot for 5 hours now. Frightening thought…

The deep sense of this time-marking มา /…maa/ is explored thoroughly in Stuart Jay Raj’s Thinking in Meanings – Cracking Thai Fundamentals Part 2 in which he explains that the famous Thai greeting ไปไหนมา? /bpai nǎi maa?/ doesn’t literally mean ‘to come’ but rather in a metaphorical sense: “Where have you been to arrive at this point (in time)?”

จะ /jà/ – intention particle…

/jà/ is widely understood as ‘will’ or ‘the future tense word’, and it often refers to the future. But more fundamentally, /jà/ is an intention particle, expressing the intention of a person to do something e.g. เค้าจะสอน /káo jà sǒrn/ can be translated as “She will teach”, “She’s going to teach” or “She intends to teach”.

จะนอนตอนสี่ทุ่ม
jà norn dtorn sìi tûm
I will go to bed at 10 p.m., I intend to go to bed at 10 p.m.


Self-explanatory.

พอจะออกจากบ้านฝนก็ตก
por jà òrk jàak bâan, fǒn gôr dtòk
As I was leaving home, it started to rain.


In this case, จะ /jà/ does not refer to the future. It shows that the speaker intended to leave home, but it started to rain before she could do so. So it’s really not valid to keep calling จะ /jà/ a future tense marker. It’s not.

ฉันจะไม่เจอเค้าอีกเลย
chán jà mâi jer káo ìik loei
I never want to see him again.


In this sentence, the speaker has made a conscious decision not to see him again. It is by choice. If you remove จะ /jà/ from this sentence, it takes on a whole new meaning: ฉันไม่เจอเค้าอีกเลย /chán mâi jer káo ìik loei/ means that the speaker has not seen him for some time (perhaps even though she wanted to).

One interesting fact about จะ /jà/: it also appears in a lot of words such as อาจ(จะ) /àat (jà)/ ‘perhaps’, คง(จะ) /kong (jà)/ ‘possibly’, น่า(จะ) /nâa (jà)/ ‘likely, should’, เกือบ(จะ) /gùeap (jà)/ ‘almost’, ควร(จะ) /kuan (jà)/ ‘should, ought to’, etc. Unpredictability, conditionality and subjectivity seem to be the theme for the word จะ /jà/ here. Note that จะ /jà/ in all these cases can almost always be dropped.

กำลัง /gamlang/ VS อยู่ /yùu/ – ongoing action VS ongoing state…

กำลัง…อยู่ /gamlang…yùu/ pattern is more or less an equivalent of ‘to be …ing’ in English. One difference from the English counterpart is that this pattern strictly refers only to an ongoing present and not to a future plan such as “I’m going to New York next week”. You can use both of these words together for any ‘to be…ing’ structure most of the time, but the two words have slightly different functions. I’ll start with กำลัง /gamlang/:

กำลัง /gamlang/ literally means ‘power, labour, energy’. When it is used as a time marker, it focuses on the ongoing ACTION (the action is being carried out at the time of the event):

ผมกำลังกินข้าว
pǒm gamlang gin kâao
I’m eating; currently what I’m doing is eating.


This sentence illustrates the movement of the speaker having his meal. The focus is on the action.

อากาศกำลังดี
aagàat gamlang dii
The weather is just about right.


I believe this needs an explanation. While it is true that in this sentence there cannot be any literal ‘action’ going on because nobody controls weather, ‘กำลัง /gamlang/’ in this case shows that the weather itself is keeping its balance; it’s not too cold or too hot, as if some effort is being made to make it so. Therefore the event seems “active”.

อยู่ /yùu/ on the other hand literally means ‘state of being, to be in a state of…’ (The word อยู่ /yùu/ itself means to live or to be alive as well.) When it is used as a time marker, it focuses on the ongoing STATE (that the current state exists at the time of the event):

ผมกินข้าวอยู่
pǒm gin kâao yùu
I’m eating; the current state that I’m in is eating.


This sentence illustrates the ongoing state of the speaker having his meal. Although the meaning is almost identical to the similar sentence we’ve seen previously, the focus of this sentence is actually on the state. Imagine you’re enjoying a meal and someone calls you on the phone, interrupting your blissful ‘state of eating’. This sentence would better suit the situation than ผมกำลังกินข้าว /pǒm gamlang gin kâao/, although both sentences would be grammatically accurate. The difference is insignificant.

ผมกำลังกินข้าวอยู่
pǒm gamlang gin kâao yùu
I’m eating; currently what I’m doing is eating and the current state that I’m in is eating.


The translation of the sentence above is probably somewhat repetitive to you, but it is a good description of how กำลัง /gamlang/ and อยู่ /yùu/ work together. If you use them both, it simply shows that both the action and the state of that action’s result are ongoing. They more or less have the same referent: eating.

แม่มีเงินอยู่ 10 บาท
mâe mii ngern yùu sìp bàat
Mum has 10 Baht.


This sentence is interesting. Verbs like ‘to have’, ‘to be’ or ‘to know’ are called static verbs–verbs that describe a state (rather than an action like ‘to go’ or ‘to eat’). Possessing something is not an action–you don’t ACT out your possession over it. In this sentence, the mother has 10 Baht. It is a state of having money, not an action.

Therefore, you cannot use กำลัง /gamlang/ instead of อยู่ /yùu/ in this case:

*แม่กำลังมีเงิน 10 บาท
*mâe gamlang mii ngern sìp bàat
Mum has 10 Baht; currently what she’s doing is having 10 Baht.


As you can see from this erroneous example above, although the difference between กำลัง /gamlang/ and อยู่ /yùu/ is minute and they can coexist most of the time, in some cases the interchangeability ceases and you’re forced to choose only one.

But most of the time you can use them both or either one. No need to overthink this.

These are some of the most common time markers in Thai. By this time you have probably realised that the irony of this post is that almost all of these ‘time markers” can’t decisively mark, ‘past’, ‘present’, or ‘future’ tense! The way they express time is entirely relative to the actual event and context, among other things.

The objective of this part 1 is to guide you through the conceptual thinking of the words’ function rather than finding a non-existent equivalence for each of them in your language.

In my next post, Thai Time: Relearn Thai Tense the Thai Way (Part 2), we will create a whole new dimension of time expression by combining these words! Sounds fun? You’re such a geek!

Download Tense Audio: 987kb zip

Until next time!

(Bingo) Arthit Juyaso
Principal of Duke Language School
My book on reading Thai fast: Read Thai in 10 Days

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Arthit (Bingo-Lingo) is the Principal of Duke Language school in Bangkok and the author of the successful Learn to Read Thai Ten Days course.

13 Comments

  1. It think it’s important to mention that Thai time markers such as ได้ เคย แล้ว กำลัง จะ จวน เกือบ ซัก เพิ่ง are relative to the context or time frame, while the tenses in English are absolute, not relative to the context or time frame. In English the tenses are relative to to current time.
    For example:
    เมื่อวานนี็ เขาโทรศัพท์มาตอนฉัน”กำลัง”อาบน้ำ
    เมื่อวานนี้ พอน้อง”จะ”ซื้อปลา คุณแม่ก็ห้าม
    ขนมพวกนี้เก็บไว้ไม่ได้นานหรอก พรุ่งนี้ก็เสีย”แล้ว”
    You can chain the time indicators in Thai and they are all relative to each other:
    พี่รู้”อยู่””แล้ว”
    ฉัน”เคย”ไปบ้านเขา”แล้ว”
    บ้านหลังนั้นสร้าง”เกือบ””จะ”เสร็จ”แล้ว”
    Source: ไวยากรณ์ไทย นววรรณ พันธุเมธา (p. 64-68)

  2. This is a great article. Thank you!
    One question about ได้
    You explain that as a tense word it is not the usual meaning of “can”
    But in your exemple I think it coul also be translated as ” I could not eat this morning” in the sense i din’t have the opportunity to eat..Am I wrong? Maybe be its due to the fact that English is not my mother tongue…

    ไม่ได้กินข้าวเมื่อเช้า
    mâi dâi gin kâao mûeacháao
    I didn’t eat this morning.

  3. @kris:
    That is correct. As I’ve said throughout the post that:

    “the irony of this post is that almost all of these ‘time markers’ can’t decisively mark, ‘past’, ‘present’, or ‘future’ tense! The way they express time is entirely relative to the actual event and context, among other things”

    which is the main point I’m trying to raise in this post.

    @Michel:
    Essentially those 2 ได้ are the same word and can be loosely unified under one concept of “possibility”. However, I tried to avoid using the word “can/could” because not in every instance that the achievement particle “ได้…” can be translated as such. For example: ผมไม่ได้ตีหมา “I didn’t hit the dog.”—it does not mean the speaker were incapable of hitting that poor dog. This sentence has nothing to do with can or can’t. Rather, he’s trying to deny that the crime wasn’t “achieved” by him (maybe by someone else but definitely not him). “Possibility” would work as the main concept of ได้, but not “can/could”.
    Besides, Since I’m talking only about time in the post I tried not to let the topic go astray too far. But good point though. Thank you!

  4. Wow, great post. Thank you.

    The insight that Thai time markers are relative to the event (to the context) is hugh.
    I’m really looking forward to part 2.

    I don’t have a specific question, but would like to know more about the uses of เคย beyond ” เคยไปกรุงเทพฯ ไหม ” ” เคย “

  5. @gaelee:
    I should have included เคย! เคย /koei/ can be dubbed “experience particle” and roughly means “to ever have done something in the speaker’s lifetime” or “used to be doing something habitually”. Thank you for pointing out, I think I’ll include this in part 2.

  6. You’re Bingo, I’ve read over that.Nice post.

  7. Wow, now I’m even more aware of how lucky I was choosing a school. They just told me “there are no tenses in Thai, deal with it”. I did a happy dance of “I don’t have to learn tenses” (or conjugations or pretty much any grammar – what an amazing language) and it was never addressed again. I think it’s much easier to learn a new language not related to the ones you know by accepting it the way it is and “feeling” it, rather than trying to force it into concepts that don’t apply.

  8. I just tried to by your e-book but when I go to checkout it just gets stuck at location.

  9. Hi Chuck, my marketing person should have got in touch with you by now. How you got the e-book safe and sound!

  10. Great article, really. Only wish I had read it 4 years ago when I was struggling with this grammar. Thanks.

  11. I’m glad to hear Dom. Still, it’s never too late!

  12. Thank you so much for this article!

    I’m passionate about learning Thai for 7 months now, but these particles just didn’t make sense to me…
    You’ve written a great article that explains accurately how they are used! thank you so much!

    Illja :)

  13. Thank you, I came across this just as I was getting confused by these particles and you’ve completely cleared it up for me.

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