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Thai Time: Using Pronouns Like a Pro (Part 1: How to Say ‘I’ in Thai)

Bingo Lingo

Using pronouns like a pro…

“I” for males is ผม /pǒm/ and for females is ดิฉัน /dichán/, “you” is คุณ /kun/, and “he” and “she” are เค้า /káo/. Every student knows that. Every student uses these. That’s how the Thais do it. Or do they?

One of the blessings of the English language is the ease of the choice of pronouns. It is generally agreed that there are 7: I, we, you, he, she, it and they (we’ll put vernacular variations such as “one”, “y’all”, “youse” aside). There are only 3 factors that govern the choice of these pronouns: person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), number (singular or plural) and sex (masculine, feminine, or non-human neuter).

And that’s it. “I” will always be “I” no matter who “I” am. “You” will always be “you” whether “you” are a president or a beggar. However, if you have even a little bit of knowledge of the Thai language, you must have at least heard that there are OODLES more pronouns than just 7. If a learner asks “How do you translate the pronoun XXX into Thai?”, they will get something like this as a result:

Bingo Lingo

The tabulated mess above is caused by the Thai pronoun system which reflects the interconnected relationships amongst Thai people. Thai people’s choice of pronouns is NEVER absolute; they will choose a pronoun that suits the situation and the relationship between them and the person they’re speaking to. They can refer to themselves and others in many different ways.

Bingo LingoAt this point, you would probably think, “Yeah, it’s all well and lovely that Thai language is so profound, I get it, but please just give me one word for each English pronoun to use, just one word!” After doing some quick look-up on your favourite phrasebook, your wish is granted:

And I think that these equivalents are a good place to start. When you start learning a language, no one wants to have the entire grammar book shoved down their throat. You tear off each page, chew, swallow, and digest. These words are perfectly functional and will get the job done. However, learners will benefit greatly from the ability to shuffle between different pronouns appropriately, as the ability to do so is another milestone that will move you up a few steps from “poot Thai daai nit noi”, and you will convince Thai people you have an understanding not only of their language but of Thailand’s social structure, which encourages Thais to speak to you in Thai. If you sound natural then Thais will think you ‘get’ them.

But before we go into each individual word, let’s look at some of the factors that influence the choice of pronouns.

Factors that govern the choice of Thai pronouns…

This is a deep, hard, complex subject to touch upon. I do not dare to claim I have it all figured out and certainly cannot provide you the perfect formulae for the choice of pronouns. It seems there are countless variables at work when it comes to this, but I can give you what I think of as the most important for determining your relationship with whomever you’re conversing with. So here goes:

Person: This factor is universal for all languages, not just Thai. The 1st person is the speaker (or yourself in this case), the 2nd person is the person you are speaking to, and the 3rd person is the person you mention while speaking to the 2nd person.

Sex: Obviously. Some pronouns can tell you the gender of the person being referred to. Everyone knows ผม /pǒm/ is for male and ดิฉัน /dichán/ is for female. However, a lot of Thai pronouns can be used to refer to either sex, such as เขา /káo/ which can either refer to the male or female 3rd person.

Formality: The situation or circumstance people are in restricts the way in which they refer to one other. You might call your friend such obscene nicknames in private, but when you refer to him during a formal quarterly meeting—for whatever reason—you will most definitely have to refer to him as ‘Mr. (followed by surname)’. Formality also comes from your audience. Rude nicknames that you give to your friend can’t be used when both of you are talking to your university professor. A respected individual brings about a formal air wherever they go, so take that into account.

Respect: In Thailand, you would want to express your modesty to people who are ranked high in the social hierarchy, be it through age, authority, or other criteria. This can be done in two ways: address the listener or the mentioned individual with a respectful pronoun and/or refer to yourself with a humble pronoun. Beware however, as excessive reverence can be seen as sarcasm.

Politeness: A lot of people seem to mix this one up with the respect factor. Being polite means that you’re following social norms because you want to show the world that you’re good-mannered and educated, while being respectful means that you want to display some kind of reverence to a particular individual because society dictates that they deserve it. Politeness is more about ‘expressing your virtue’ but respect is more about ‘expressing your subservience’.

Familiarity: You wouldn’t call a guy you just met ‘Toby Boo Boo’. That would be such an egregious violation of personal space. This factor is not really apparent in English, but in Romance languages there are pronouns designated for different levels of intimacy: tu-vous in French, tú-usted in Spanish, and so on (for reference: “T-V distinction” by Brown & Gilman, 1960). In Thai, there are also pronouns you reserve for people you don’t know well and pronouns you exclusively use with those you are close to.

Please note that I’m missing the ‘Number’ factor from this article, because most pronouns in Thai can be used to refer to a single person or a group of people. If you must express that you’re referring to more than just 1 person, you can stick the พวก /pûak-/ prefix in front of that pronoun. However, the reality is that Thai people do not use it that much and I imagine if you’re here reading this, you want to speak like a native speaker, not the Thai language that follows English’s grammatical rules (the only exception being เรา /rao/ which I’ll talk about in the pronoun list).

There is also another important factor: ‘Moods & attitudes’. Our state of mind and our attitude towards people or things are reflected in our speech. This is how humans can read each other; through their rhetoric. You know your Mum is in a good mood when you’re referred to as ‘Ben honey’ and you know her wrath is about to rain down upon you when that turns to ‘Benjamin’. However, we’re not going to talk much about it in this article because of its complicated nature. For instance, some forms of moods can change the speaker’s intention entirely. To give you an example, while the word คุณ /kun/ shows politeness [+polite], it implies that you and the person you’re speaking to are not that close [-intimate]. However, if it’s meant as a sarcasm or irony towards your friend (like when you’re being extra polite to your best friend as a joke), suddenly it is not polite [-polite] but very familiar [+intimate]. As you can see, this is going to be problematic for our simplistic, box-ticking method, so I’ll leave it out until someone cares enough to do a proper analysis on it.

How to say ‘I’ in Thai…

With the factors explained above combined, you can read through this list to see what attributes each pronoun has. I’ll also give a short description and concrete examples of interpersonal and situational context where the pronoun may be deemed appropriate. If that factor has blank (-) at any pronoun, it means that that factor isn’t really relevant and the pronoun can be used in either situation.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the 1st person pronouns first.

Some 1st person pronouns also have a counterpart which is normally used in the 2nd person as its pair. I’ll note which word each pronoun is paired with, if any.

Let’s start!

ผม /pŏm/
Person: 1st
Sex: Male
Formality: Yes
Respectful: Yes
Polite: Yes
Familiar: No

If you’re a guy, you’ve probably used this word hundreds of time by now. This very convenient male pronoun for men can be used with pretty much everyone and will never offend anyone. However, keep in mind that ผม /pǒm/ carries an air of formality, so while it is a nice little polite word, it can also sound stuffy when using with friends.

  • When to use: Pretty much with everyone e.g. teacher, older people, younger people that you don’t know well, in a (mature) relationship, strangers, acquaintances, etc.
  • When not to use: Probably with close friends or with friends you want to get close to.
  • Paired pronoun: คุณ /kun/

ดิฉัน /dichán/
Person: 1st
Sex: Female
Formality: VERY
Respectful: Yes
Polite: Yes
Familiar: HELL NO

I can’t think of many pronouns that are more official-sounding than ดิฉัน /dichán/. While it is true that it’s polite and you’ll never offend anyone with it, it sounds frighteningly distant and is rarely used among people who have any kind of relationship of any degree of familiarity with each other rather than professional. Thai teachers use it a lot in Thai classrooms because it’s easy to teach, but in reality you’ll only hear this word from Thai females in situations which they consider formal, such as in meetings with clients, in interviews, making a speech. Some female friends of mine say they have never even used this word in their lives!

For female learners who want to sound natural, I suggest you find another strategy, such as referring to yourself by name (I know, some of you think it’s silly, but hey, that’s what we do).

  • When to use: Dealing with Thai officials, people you have a professional relationship with, being interviewed, with strangers, etc.
  • When not to use: In any situation that requires solidarity. Not with your friends, partner, partner’s family, colleagues, bosses, or anyone you wish to love you.
  • Paired pronoun: คุณ /kun/

ฉัน /chán/
Person: 1st
Sex: Mostly female
Formality: –
Respectful: Sometimes no
Polite: –
Familiar: Yes

ฉัน /chán/ is a funny one—it is considered a default ‘I’ pronoun, this is why you’ll hear this word used a lot in songs and literature. In real life, it is commonly used by females in informal situations, but can also be used by men as well, especially when talking to females of equal or lower status. Many male learners think this word is exclusively feminine and are reluctant to use it. It’s a fun word to use with female friends who you are close to!

Another myth I want to debunk, there is nothing polite about the word ฉัน /chán/. If anything, with a sharp tone of voice and a wrong attitude, it makes you sound arrogant! It’s not impolite, it’s just not polite either.

  • When to use: Talking to friends of the opposite sex, people who do not mind you being a bit cheeky to them.
  • When not to use: When you need to be extremely polite. Certainly not with people of higher status, such as doctor, monks, university professors. Probably not even with your Thai teachers, unless they don’t mind. (Chances are they won’t, because they’re the one teaching this word to you!)
  • Paired pronoun: เธอ /ter/

เรา /rao/
Person: 1st
Sex: Both
Formality: –
Respectful: No
Polite: –
Familiar: Somewhat

If you look up a dictionary you’ll see เรา /rao/ being translated as ‘we’ in English, but in fact this word is often used as singular. (Think of the royal singular ‘we’, it’s not the same but you get the point.) This nice little word is very versatile—both male and female speakers can use it with almost everyone around the same age or younger, as long as the circumstance doesn’t require you to be formal.

  • When to use: Talking to friends or acquaintances of the same age. Pretty much with anyone who isn’t older or who doesn’t have a higher social status.
  • When not to use: With older people or people you should be showing respect to.

หนู /nǔu/
Person: 1st
Sex: Mostly female
Formality: –
Respectful: Yes Polite: Yes
Familiar: Somewhat

The literal meaning of หนู /nǔu/ is ‘rat, mouse’. The metaphorical use of this word as a pronoun expresses deference towards the listener who is of a higher status or deserves respect; calling yourself a rat surely makes anyone feel small! It is normally used by females when talking to their parents, older relatives, teachers, bosses or more senior colleagues, although some small boys may use this word when talking to their parents as well. (In which case they generally drop this use when they’re older—or not, I know a few male adult ‘rats’!)

This word is a good word to show respect to older Thais while sounding friendly as well. At first they might be surprised when female foreigners try to use this word. I say keep at it, if you want to win over their heart.

  • When to use: You’re female and you want to show respect and win favour from older Thais.
  • When not to use: You’re male. (unless you want people to second-guess your sexual orientation.)

กู /guu/
Person: 1st
Sex: –
Formality: HELL NO
Respectful: HELL NO
Polite: HELL NO
Familiar: VERY
*VULGAR*

Years ago before the polite pronouns had been invented, กู /guu/ used to be the default pronoun for ‘I’. Everybody used it, including kings. Nowadays it is considered a profanity. The only context in which this would be acceptable to use is with your really close friends to express intimacy, and even then you mustn’t use it in the presence of a respected audience; you can call yourself กู /guu/ with a friend who doesn’t mind that, but if your professor is there too then their presence will automatically create an environment where only polite language is allowed. Violate this and prepare to be scolded, or at least judged!

Also, if you try and use this word with people you’re not close to, it will immediately be interpreted as a provocation. For a nation that avoids confrontation at all cost, provocation is a serious issue for Thais! No matter how angry you are with anyone, do not attempt to use กู /guu/ and มึง /mueng/ with them unless you’re prepared to handle the ramifications that may follow… it can turn pretty ugly, in my experience.

I say avoid using this word until your Thai proficiency is right up there first. Don’t run before you can walk, don’t swear before you can talk.

On a side note, males tend to use this word more than females but it is not really an uncommon thing to hear Thai females using it any more, if they feel comfortable enough with their company.

  • When to use: Very limited use. With close friends (only when they initiate it, and only when respected individuals are not around).
  • When not to use: When you’re not sure you can get out of it alive.
  • Paired pronoun: มึง /mueng/

ข้า /kâa/
Person: 1st
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: VERY
*VULGAR*

Similar to กู /guu/ above, this one is also considered vulgar, although it is nowhere near as vulgar as กู /guu/. However ข้า /kâa/ sounds quite archaic for the 21st century. Its implication is that the speaker is of an older generation or that he or she comes from quite a remote part of Thailand. You’ll see this word a lot in old literature or in stories set in the past. Granted, there are people still using this word, but it’s not really a fashionable word people use today. It’d be an odd choice of pronoun for non-native speakers, dost thou not agree?

  • When to use: Never? Unless you’re writing a Thai epic novel.
  • When not to use: When you’re not writing a Thai epic novel.
  • Paired pronoun: เอ็ง /eng/

ข้าพเจ้า /kâapajâao/
Person: 1st
Sex: –
Formality: VERY
Respectful: –
Polite: Yes
Familiar: HELL NO
*FROZEN REGISTER*

The use of ข้าพเจ้า /kâapajâao/ is restricted only to the ‘frozen register’—the level of language that is highly ceremonial and unchanging, often in one-directional communication style, such as formal speeches, pledges, contracts or declarations, etc. Therefore, normally you’ll only see it written, not said.

  • When to use: Drafting a speech or a housing lease.
  • When not to use: In general two-way communication.

อั๊ว /úa’/
Person: 1st
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: Yes
*CHINESE ORIGIN*

This word comes from the Teochew word我 [ua˥˨] (I). This word is used mainly by people of Teochew ancestry who migrated to Siam/Thailand throughout its history. As the influence of the Chinese-Thai grew, ethnic Thais also started picking up Chinese words to use in their speech as well.

In Chinese-Thai families where the Chinese identity is still strong, code-mixing between Thai and Chinese is very common and it is perfectly fine and inoffensive, but when spoken by Thai people (who have no Teochew background) this word can be off-putting because it has a harsh, angry tone to it. This is not to mention it might also confuse your listener, because why would you use a word of Teochew Chinese origin when speaking Thai?

  • When to use: When you’re Chinese-Thai.
  • When not to use: When you’re not Chinese-Thai.
  • Paired pronoun: ลื้อ /lúe/

เค้า /káo/
Person: 1st
Sex: Mostly female
Formality: No
Respectful: –
Polite: –
Familiar: Yes
*LOVERSPEAK*

Confused? You should be. Me too. This word is originally a 3rd person pronoun, but you might have witnessed overt Thai lovebirds referring to themselves by this word. เค้า /káo/ as a 1st person pronoun is largely used by Thai females who have a ‘sweet girl’ personality. You know, lovely and cute and naive. They won’t just use it with anyone either, it has to be their close friends, boyfriend or husband. This pronoun, used in this way, expresses the speaker’s affection towards the listener, albeit a little nauseating. So it’s a good thing! I guess…

  • When to use: Should you use this word? No. At least save it for when talking to your boyfriend/girlfriend only.
  • When not to use: Need I say more?
  • Paired pronoun: ตัวเอง /dtua-eeng/

…And that was just the words for “I”! In my next post, Thai time: Using pronouns like a pro (Part 2: What should I call ‘you’), in addition to the factors we’ve learnt in this post we’ll also explore the crucial concept of ‘social status’ and how to apply that to addressing Thai people appropriately. It’s not as straightforward as in English, but at least I hope you’ll find it interesting.

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.

8 Comments

  1. I’ve heard Thai students using กู and มึง in the presence of their professors. Maybe the times they are a-changin’.

  2. In 7 years, I have almost never heard my wife use “I” (dichan). The only time I can recall is when I had introduced her to the president of a university I was working with. The rest of the time it’s (mostly) no pronoun or her nickname. When she is speaking to me in Tinglish, it’s either her nickname (“Jum do”) or “mia.”

  3. ดอมินิค

    December 18, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    How would you categorize the use of one’s own first name as a personal pronoun.? How familiar?Female only?
    Excellent and entertaining article! Looking forward to the sequel.

  4. Kudos to Bingo! This is a very well written article explaining about different factors that govern the choices of Thai pronouns. A great resource for Thai learners!

    I do not wish to interfere with your post Bingo but as this is a topic that interests me very much, and I feel there is a good base for discussion, I would like to share my input and opinion. I started writing a short post but I don’t do ‘brief’ so it has turned into the long winded explanation below! (Sorry, sometimes I can’t stop typing! :)

    I would like to discuss and elaborate on the pronoun ฉัน.

    It is actually pronounced Chăn (Rising tone) and a (relaxed) variation of the pronunciation is ชั้น : Chán (High tone) or Chắn (Between a high and rising tone). Note: Chắn can’t be written in Thai script as there is no tone mark to represent this tone. As Bingo mentioned in his article, ฉัน : Chăn is considered the default ‘I’ pronoun at the present time.

    ฉัน : Chăn is not impolite and/or sharp. ฉัน : Chăn is actually considered a nicer friction / nasal sound, especially when it is used in music melodies in comparison to ผม : Pŏm. In Thai, it is considered that any sounds that are produced from the soft palate and/or are nasal sounds are nice, soft and sweet (Live sounds) in comparison to any sounds that are produced from the hard palate and/or lips (Dead sound). Please note, whether a word has a nice/soft sound or not depends on the combination of sounds in a word.

    ฉัน : Chăn is a standard, polite and nice sounding word, that is why it’s still used in music, however males don’t really use it as ‘I (male)’ in literature or conversation in the present day. Male writers would mostly use ผม : Pŏm to refer to themselves. We normally only find ฉัน : Chăn used as ‘I (male)’ in literature that was written quite a few decades ago.

    To provide context, I would like to add an explanation about the history of how we use Thai pronouns. To keep things simple I will write about only the history of ‘I’ pronouns.

    Around 40-50 years ago, ฉัน : Chăn was still in use by both males and females as a polite and quite formal pronoun. At the time and to present day, people generally and customary used กู : Guu as a 1st person pronoun either by males or females when they were in a close relationship, like within family and close friends. If you used กู : Guu with people who you are not close to, it was considered rude as you shouldn’t cross the line of familiarity.

    กู : Guu meaning I (male/female) and มึง : Mueng (male/female) are original Thai words used in the Sukhothai Kingdom. It is believed to be the first established Kingdom of Thai people. During the Sukhothai era, Thais didn’t have much formality like in the Ayuthaya Kingdom era or modern day. I would say everyone was equal, like one big family who respected their elders. We actually called the King พ่อขุน : Pôr~Khŭn meaning the noble father. Thais also called each other brother, sister, uncle, aunty, etc. as they regarded everyone as their family. Thais still think like this in the present day and it is the reason why we use the pronouns พี่ : Pêe (elder brother/sister/person), น้อง : Nórng (younger brother/sister/person) and other family words to address each other.

    However, language evolves with society. In the latter days, the Ayuthaya Kingdom was established and became dominant, ruling other Kingdoms such as Sukhothai, Lanna, etc. So Ayuthaya’s society and customs have a lot of influence in Thai language. In fact, Ayutthaya’s monarch adopted the old Khmer administration; regarding the king as another form of God and established classes for royalty, noble servants, commoners, farmers, slaves, etc. Subsequently, they established the royal Thai language for commoners to use when speaking with or about the King, royal family or with noble servants. The nobles slowly established their own language and the words ‘กู : Guu’ and ‘มึง : Mueng’ were then considered pronouns used by commoners, usually farmers, poor and uneducated people, and eventually these pronouns became vulgar in feeling when used in formal situations as explained above.

    There is a lot more that I can explain about the evolution of different pronouns but for now I would like to get back to the word ฉัน : Chăn.

    During the past 30 years or so, ฉัน : Chăn has been particularly used in formal situations by females only. We, females, use this word; in the workplace, with officers in authority, or even with strangers when we would like to be formal. It is also used by school girls in formal situations to communicate with people of the same age.

    The question is ‘Do females like to use it?’ and ‘Why?’. The thing is, naturally Thais are relaxed people. We don’t like formality. Therefore, we tend to behave in a relaxed way and use friendly speech. Therefore, we normally approach people by using other informal and friendly pronouns like ‘พี่ : Pêe (elder brother/sister/person), น้อง : Nórng (younger brother/sister/person), etc. If someone uses the word ฉัน : Chăn all the time, it seems like that person is too formal and perhaps even arrogant. Please note, ชั้น : Chán and Chắn could be considered even more arrogant as they sound abrupt.

    Note that, ดิฉัน : Dí-Chăn and its variation of the pronunciation are used differently to ฉัน : Chăn. ดิฉัน : Dí-Chăn is a very formal and official pronoun ‘I (female)’ used; in business correspondence, TV hosting, reporters, etc.

    Nowadays, Thais (especially females) can’t actually be bothered with the formality of using different types of pronouns to address oneself. We normally address ourselves simply with our nickname in most situations.

    Over all, the usage of ฉัน : Chăn and the message it portrays is all about the context and situation. A simple word but a complicated subject!

    I hope my input helps. I am welcome to feedback and a discussion on this interesting topic.

  5. Excellent well written article Bingo!

    Alas, once again I see my “fox-paw” is; IF I have to refer to myself in the first person I use เรา 100% of the time with everyone, no matter who they are. Also when using second person pronouns, if they’re a girl they’re เธอ, if they’re a guy they’re แก, again without regard to any of the criteria which thais use to select pronouns.

    I think as far as a foreigner making first person statements in thai the song verse; “you say it best, when you say nothing at all” is the best practice. As a rule thais don’t use first person pronouns when making statements in the first person, yet everyone listening knows they’re hearing a statement. Foreign speakers of thai really seem to be ผม’ing, ดิฉัน’ing and ฉัน’ing their brains out when they speak in the first person.
    To me it makes them sound really un-thai, but hey that’s just me.

  6. @Matthew: Then unfortunately the students owe those professors the due respect they deserve… Time may have changed.

    @Tony C: Dichan is like a mythical creature. Outside of the classroom and they’re hardly seen anywhere.

    @ดอมินิค: Ah, that will come up on the part three to this really, really long post. Names as pronouns have their own use, I’ll clear that up in the upcoming posts. I’ll try to work as fast as possible, please bear with me :-)

    @Kruu Jiab: Thank you for your very precious input! Your explanation is exhaustive and clear–I’m sure readers will find it very constructive. Gratitudes for your contribution!

    @od Daniels: Yeah, ‘zero-pronoun’ is coming up in the later part of this post. Despite me writing about pronouns, I am actually itchy to talk about other words you can use instead of pronouns though!

  7. Hello,
    We are going to Thailand next month. Never been before. So, if I were to say hello and give my name, should I say, Sa wat dii, Lynda ka, and leave off the chan?

    I am quickly trying to learn some of the language, but there sure are a lot of If’s, ands or buts around it. lol

    Thanks!

  8. Hi Lynda,
    If you wanted to say what your name is without using a pronoun, you might say “sa wat dee, cheuu Lynda kha.” “Cheuu” (falling tone) means “name;” I think the person you were speaking to would infer that you were referring to yourself, based on the context, especially if you were to gesture toward yourself.

    Bingo– thanks for this! David Smythe’s “Teach Yourself Thai” gives “ฉัน” as being the informal way for a female to refer to herself, but doesn’t go into the nuances as you do– now I know not to use it!

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