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Thai Time: Using Pronouns Like a Pro (Part 2: What Should I Call ‘You’)

Bingo Lingo

Using pronouns like a pro…

In the previous post, Using Pronouns Like a Pro Part 1 (which was yonks ago—I apologise!), I introduced you to the world of Thai personal pronouns. We also broke the first person pronouns into factors and inspected the usage of each word. Now, in this post, we’ll talk about how to use the second person pronoun ‘you’.

คุณ /kun/
Person: 2nd
Sex: Both
Formality: Yes
Respectful: –
Polite: Yes
Familiar: No

This word is a pair word for both ผม /pǒm/ and ดิฉัน /dichán/, and is perhaps the only word beginners use to address every Thai person, but over time you might want to change this word to something more familiar and less formal to your listeners. Now, learners need to be aware that while it is true that this word is polite, it is NOT respectful (NB: not respectful doesn’t mean disrespectful); คุณ is not okay to use with people of higher prestige or authority. If you perceive your listeners to have higher prestige or authority status than you, call them by their appropriate title instead (we will discuss social status later on in this post.)

When to use: With most people. Strangers, service providers, people you have a professional relationship with.

When not to use: Probably not with close friends or with friends you want to get close to, also with people of higher social status.

Paired pronoun: ผม /pǒm/, ดิฉัน /dichán/

เธอ /ter/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: –
Familiar: –

เธอ /ter/ is a paired word with ฉัน /chán/ — it is considered a default ‘you’ pronoun and you’ll hear this word used a lot in songs and literature. This word is popular amongst Thais when used cross-gender; female calling male and male calling female. This word is considered ‘non-respectful’ (different from disrespectful) and should not be used with people of higher social status.

When to use: Talking to friends of the opposite sex around the same age or younger.

When not to use: When you need to be extremely polite. Certainly not with people of higher social status, such as doctors, monks, university professors. People you don’t know well.

Paired pronoun: ฉัน /chán/

นาย /naai/
Person: 2nd
Sex: Male
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: –
Familiar: –

นาย /naai/ is cute. It originally meant ‘lord’ but now means ‘Mr.’ or ‘boss’ in contemporary Thai. When it is used as a 2nd person pronoun, it can be used to call any male listener of the same age with any level of familiarity. However, you might want to change this pronoun to something more personal later on as you and that male person get closer. In addition, this word can be used in lieu of เธอ /ter/ as they share the same hierarchical attributes, but only if the listener is male, of course.

When to use: your listener is around your age, same social status, and is a man!

When not to use: anyone who does not fit the criteria above.

Paired pronoun:

เรา /rao/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: –
Respectful: No
Polite: –
Familiar: Somewhat

What? เรา /rao/ can mean you?? Yes, it can! Older people use this word to call someone around their child’s age in an endearing tone e.g. พ่อแม่เราอยู่ที่ไหน? /pôr-mâe rao yùu tîinǎi?/ “Where are your parents?”. Aw. However, as a 2nd person pronoun it is a little condescending, because by calling someone with this word you treat them like a little kid, which in some cases is dismissive of their social status, so be careful who you’re ‘rao’-ing because he or she might turn out to be a university professor or a high-rank police officer, and they will hate it, and hate you in the process.

When to use: Talking to kids or someone your child’s age.

When not to use: When that ‘kid’ has achieved more than you have.

มึง /mueng/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: HELL NO
Respectful: HELL NO
Polite: HELL NO Familiar: VERY *VULGAR*

This word is the paired pronoun of กู /guu/ and it is chosen for the same context of use. Only use with very close friends. Do not use with strangers as it will provoke them. You mustn’t use it in the presence of a respected audience. And all that jazz.

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: กู /guu/

เอ็ง /eng/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: VERY *VULGAR*

It is the paired pronoun of ข้า /kâa/ and is similar to มึง /mueng/ above; this one is also considered vulgar, although it is nowhere near as vulgar as มึง /mueng/. Just like the pronoun ข้า /kâa/, เอ็ง /eng/ 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.

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: ข้า /kâa/

แก /gae/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: Yes
*SEMI-VULGAR*

This word has a similar context of use as มึง /mueng/ and เอ็ง /eng/ but is much less vulgar. It is used both by male and female to refer to someone close and around their age. It is perfect amongst friends of considerable intimacy. It’s not really that impolite but still should be reserved for friends you know very well. Use with caution.

When to use: Friends your age or slightly younger. Probably best to wait until they initiate it first.

When not to use: Older people and strangers.

Paired pronoun: (in some cases) ฉัน /chán/

ท่าน /tâan/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: VERY
Respectful: VERY
Polite: VERY
Familiar: HELL NO
*SEMI-FROZEN REGISTER*

This pronoun is an over-the-top respectful pronoun used mostly by service providers when speaking to valued customers, by subordinates when speaking to a person of a much higher level of authority, to people of great prestige, by public speakers addressing the audience, or in written language. This word is hardly heard in spoken language so when you do hear it, you know there’s a real V.I.P. in the room!

When to use: With V.I.P. or in formal settings

When not to use: most of the time, unless you want to be sarcastic

ลื้อ /lúe/
Person: 2nd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: Yes
*CHINESE ORIGIN*

This word comes from the Teochew word 汝 [lɨ˥˨] (you). This word is used mainly by people of Teochew ancestry and is still commonly used amongst Thai families of Chinese descent. Not recommended for learners, just like อั๊ว /úa’/

When to use: When you’re Chinese-Thai.

When not to use: When you’re not Chinese-Thai.

Paired pronoun: อั๊ว /úa’/

ตัวเอง /dtua-eeng/
Person: 2nd
Sex: Mostly female
Formality: No
Respectful: –
Polite: –
Familiar: Yes
*LOVERSPEAK*

This word essentially means “self” and is paired with the 1st person pronoun เค้า /káo/ “I” which essentially means “he, she” …yes, whoever came up with this utterly confusing idea must have been wasted on Ya Dong or something. Just like the 1st person pronoun เค้า /káo/, this word is generally used by young females to call their best friends or boyfriend and in my opinion should not be picked up by learners of Thai, especially if you’re male, because it sounds incredibly effeminate and obnoxious! But that’s just my opinion.

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: เค้า /káo/

Prestige, authority, seniority—because we’re better than (the pronoun) ‘you’…

Thailand is characterised by, despite what some Thais desperately try to tell you, social hierarchy. Where you stand in society can affect how people address you. Those who have a higher social status must be addressed with respect by those of lower status. And in many cases, even the polite pronoun คุณ /kun/ may not be polite enough, as I will explain.

From my experience of having been hearing many non-native speakers of Thai preferring to stick to polite pronouns such as คุณ /kun/, thinking they would always sound nice and never offend anyone if they use polite pronouns all the time. Was that a true statement? No. Not at all. A couple of years back while I was still doing my Master’s course, one of my professors told the class that foreign students at our university irritate her when they speak Thai to her because they address her as คุณ /kun/!

Why did a seemingly polite word such as คุณ /kun/ manage to offend my easy-going professor? The reason is that in Thailand, people with high prestige such as educators or doctors must be treated with respect. While คุณ /kun/ is a “polite” word, it is neutral in terms of “respectfulness”. By calling her คุณ /kun/, those students unknowingly dragged her down to their ‘level’. My professor said she understood that they knew no better and she could look over their faux pas, but she felt compelled to switch to English because she didn’t want to be called คุณ /kun/ repeatedly by students. There goes their opportunity to practice Thai, just because of one pronoun.

So how should they have addressed her? In the next section I will explain about the first—and perhaps the most prominent agent that dictates the way Thai people address each other: social status. Where you rank in the hierarchy is determined by a complex set of many different factors, but in this article we’ll consider only the three most important ones, in their respective priority order: prestige, authority, and seniority.

Prestige is usually decided by profession or personal achievement. Examples of people with high prestige are educators (teachers and lecturers), doctors and medical practitioners (dentists and surgeons), high-ranking military officers, politicians, people with a high academic degree (Ph.D. and above), or even respected astrologers, etc. Normally you address them by their title first, and if you want, stick their name after it. For example:

ครูอาทิตย์ /kruu Arthit/ “Teacher Arthit”
อาจารย์สุดาพร /aajaan Sudaporn/ “Professor Sudaporn”
(คุณ*)หมอพรทิพย์ /(kun*) mǒr Pornthip/ “Doctor Pornthip” (medical doctor)
(ท่าน)นายกสมชาย /(tâan) naayók Somchai/ “Mr. Prime Minister Somchai”
(ท่าน)พลเอกประยุทธ์ /(tâan) pon-èek Prayuth/ “General Prayuth”
ด็อกเตอร์อมรา /dórk-dtêr Amara/ “Doctor Amara” (PhD)
อาจารย์ลักษณ์ /aajaan Lak/, หมอลักษณ์ /mǒr Lak/ (title for astrologers)

*Note that the word คุณ /kun/ is this case doesn’t mean “you” but a polite title like “Mr.” or “Ms.”

People with high prestige must be addressed by their profession, field of expertise, or the title that gives them the prestige they possess, rather than by pronouns like คุณ /kun/, which may be viewed as disrespectful to their status.

Authority is usually decided by who has more power or a higher rank, such as a relationship between employer vs employee, boss vs subordinate, police or government officer vs civilian, etc.

People with higher authority are generally addressed by their position or by using polite pronouns (in most cases without their name):

ท่านประธาน /tâan bprataan/ “CEO”
เจ้านาย /jâonaai/ “Boss” (literally “master”)
หัวหน้า /hǔanâa/, บอส /bórt/ “Boss”
ผ.อ. /pǒr-or/ “Dean” (of a university, hospital, etc.)
คุณตำรวจ /kun dtamrùat/ “(Police) officer”

Except your bosses or direct superiors, you can use the word คุณ /kun/ with people of high authority, but be aware that using any disrespectful or impolite pronouns with them is a direct challenge to their power. Respect my authoritah!

Seniority plays a very important role when addressing people. In the Thai language, kinship terms are often used instead of pronouns to show respect to older people while creating solidarity; by addressing people as if they were your own relatives, you create a casual, friendly atmosphere. For instance, when visiting your Thai friend or partner’s parents, they may ask you to call them แม่ /mâe/ “Mum” or พ่อ /pôr/ “Dad” instead of คุณ /kun/ which sounds too formal and distant.

If your addressee is a relative of your friend or partner, you can just address them in the same way that your friend or partner does. For strangers and acquaintances, you can still use kinship terms to address them as well. In this case, age is crucial. Speakers must estimate the age of an addressee to determine his/her generation and choose an appropriate kinship term.

พี่… /pîi…/ (lit. older brother or sister)
for calling someone who may be slightly older than you

(คุณ)น้า… /(kun) náa…/ (lit. mother’s younger sibling)
for calling someone who’s younger than your parents but couldn’t be your parents’ child

(คุณ)ป้า… /(kun) bpâa…/ (lit. parents’ older sister)
for calling a female older than your parents, but couldn’t be their mother

(คุณ)ลุง… /(kun) lung…/ (lit. parents’ older brother)
for calling a male older than your parents, but couldn’t be their father

(คุณ)ยาย… /(kun) yaai…/ (lit. mother’s mother)
for calling a female who’s around your grandmother’s age

(คุณ)ตา… /(kun) dtaa…/ (lit. mother’s father)
for calling a male who’s around your grandfather’s age

You can just use these kinship terms by themselves or stick the person’s name afterwards like พี่ติ๊ก /pîi dtík/. Older people automatically assume respect from younger people. By default, you have to address them with respectful kinship terms. Avoid using คุณ /kun…/ (except in formal situations) because it will drive a social wedge between you and them.

Now, you may have a question like “What if I am a university professor talking to an older fruit seller? Who’s higher in the hierarchy?” In a “status dilemma” such as this, just remember that prestige takes precedence over authority, and authority takes precedence over seniority, so if you’re a teacher which is a prestigious status, you automatically rank higher than older people who do not have the prestige over you. In this case, the fruit seller will have to (assuming he or she knows you’re a teacher) address you as ครูจอห์น /kruu John/ or อาจารย์ลอร่า /Aajaan Laura/. However, both of you can engage in what I call “mutually respectful entitling”; you can also call him or her with a title of seniority such as น้า /náa/ ป้า /bpâa/ or ลุง /lung/ while he or she calls you with a title of prestige like ครู /kruu/ or อาจารย์ /aajaan/.

Does that seem a bit too hard to digest? I’ll leave you to have a respite for now. Don’t shy away from re-reading this article again if you feel that you still haven’t quite fully grasped the idea. In my next and the last post regarding pronouns, Thai Time: Using pronouns like a pro (Part 3: To ‘He/She’ or Not to ‘He/She’, That is the Question) we will discuss how to use 3rd person pronouns, and whether using pronouns is important at all! I promise I won’t wait a year this time!

Until next time (soon)!

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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.

4 Comments

  1. Excellent!!! Hope to read more by Arthit Juyaso!

  2. This is so helpful, thank you!

  3. Good post but it only deals with how to choose pronouns in a way to be as respectful as possible. The biggest problem I find though is how to choose the right pronoun for when a less formal one is required. For example, I was once in Tesco waiting to get some vegetables weighed but the staff had their backs to me. I had no idea how old they were so I just said ‘khun khrap’ which they found hilarious. I’m guessing it must be too formal for supermarket staff, but ‘nong’ seemed inappropriate as they weren’t waitresses and could have been older than me. And a separate issue is I have no idea how to respond if someone uses the pronoun ‘ท่าน /tâan/’ with me, in a genuine not sarcastic way, as that pronoun doesn’t seem to be paired with any other.

  4. Good resource. Thanks for teaching us. very helpful.

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