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Thai Time: Using Pronouns Like a Pro (Part 3: To ‘He/She’ or Not to ‘He/She’, That is the Question)

Bingo Lingo

Using pronouns like a pro…

I lied. I promised I wouldn’t take a year to write my next post but I did. Life has been hectic and I have been beyond busy. Deepest apologies. Well, my apologies won’t help you learn Thai so without further ado, let’s get into the 3rd person pronouns. They’re a lot less complex than what we’ve learnt so far.

เค้า /káo/
Person: 3rd
Sex: Both
Formality: –
Respectful: –
Polite: –
Familiar: –

This pronoun is as neutral as a pronoun can get. Apart from referring to a third party, this word doesn’t mark ANYTHING. So the good news is when you want to say he, she, or they in Thai, this word’s already got 90-95% of it covered. What’s that? Something in Thai that isn’t complicated? Oh my!

Just on one note (of course, an exception!), when talking about people of high prestige (such as what we discussed in Part 2), you should call them by their title instead and keep the use of เค้า /káo/ to a minimum.

When to use: With practically anyone.

When not to use: Probably not with people of high prestige.

ท่าน /tâan/
Person: 3rd
Sex: –
Formality: VERY
Respectful: VERY
Polite: VERY
Familiar: HELL NO
*SEMI-FROZEN REGISTER*

This pronoun is the same pronoun as the 2nd-person ท่าน /tâan/. It is used mostly by service providers when speaking to valued customers, by subordinates when speaking to a person of a significantly higher level of authority, to people of the utmost prestige, by public speakers addressing the audience, or in written language. Please refer to ท่าน /tâan/ in Part 2.

When to use: With VIPs or in formal settings.

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

มัน /man/
Person: 3rd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: VERY
*VULGAR*

This word literally means ‘it’ but it can be used like ‘he’ or ‘she’, but in a vulgar way. To put it simply, มัน /man/ is used in the same context as กู /guu/ and มึง /mueng/, although it is slightly less offensive than those two. Still, 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. Some people might think calling some ‘it’ is degrading, but within the context of Thai language, it’s fine, so long as you know when and with whom to use it.

When to use: Limited use. With close friends who have equal social status.

When not to use: With people who are of a higher status. Also, not in formal settings.

แก /gae/
Person: 3rd
Sex: –
Formality: No
Respectful: Somewhat
Polite: –
Familiar: Yes

Now, แก /gae/ is quite a bizarre pronoun: when used as a 2nd person pronoun (i.e. “you”) it’s rude and not suitable to call older people, but as a 3rd person pronoun, it’s fine! 3rd person แก /gae/ is predominantly used to refer to mature adults and the elderly in a somewhat respectful manner. When talking about your older relatives and professors (warning: ABOUT them, not TO them), you can refer to them as แก /gae/ with no problem (but NEVER to them as a 2nd person!), although you have to actually be somewhat familiar with them. Referring to strangers with this word is not cool.

When to use: Referring to older people whom you are somewhat close to.

When not to use: With everyone else.

หล่อน /lòrn/
Person: 3rd
Sex: Female
Formality: No
Respectful: No
Polite: No
Familiar: Yes

This word is a popular direct translation of the word ‘she’ in English—textbooks just love it and usually pair it with เขา /káo/ and state that หล่อน /lòrn/ means ‘she’ and เขา /káo/ means ‘he’ (and we now know that not to be true because เขา /káo/ is gender-neutral!). However, no one takes this word seriously and the Thais only use it facetiously. When used, for whatever reason, it is to refer to your female friends or female individuals whom you’re close to. In reality, though, just know it exists, you don’t need to use it.

When to use: Don’t.

When not to use: Always.

‘Zero pronoun’—you say it best, when you say nothing at all

We have already covered most well-known Thai pronouns—21 to be exact—and at this point you can start to appreciate how many things Thai people need to take into consideration before they can even start talking to someone.

This can be a minefield in the early stage of acquaintance with the individual you’re speaking to or of: “Is he older?”, “Has she got a good job?”, “Does he mind casual speech?”, “If she’s older, does she want to be treated with respect or as a friend?”, etc. This, as some linguists have posited, may partially contribute to why Thais ask some intrusive questions such as “How much money do you make?” or “How old are you?”—to establish the relative standings in society between you and them.

They do however have a hidden strategy up their sleeves to tackle this convolution. If pronouns are such a nuisance, let’s just not use them at all!
Thais drop personal pronouns all the time in conversations—in fact, NOT using any pronouns is sometimes probably more natural than using any at all. This has at least 2 benefits: #1—to save you a few superfluous words in Thai. Let’s set up a situation: you and a friend are in a room. You ask your friend where your phone is. He said it’s on the table. You can’t be bothered to get up and get it yourself so you’re asking your friend to do it. A complete sentence might look like this:

เธอไปเอามันมาให้ฉันหน่อยได้มั้ย?
ter bpai ao man maa hâi chán nòi dâi mái?
“Can you go get it for me?”

But if it’s already established to whom you’re talking to and regarding what you’re talking about, do you know how Thais would normally phrase it?

ไปเอามาให้หน่อยได้มั้ย?
bpai ao maa hâi nòi dâi mái?
“Can (you) go get (it) for (me)?”

The context (in this case, the previous conversation you had with your friend) would provide all the information that you need to fill in the pronoun gaps. Words said, job done, no pronouns, no problem.

Benefit #2, though, is our main point in this article: to avoid the whole pronoun shenanigans altogether. If you don’t use any pronouns, you don’t need to consider age, gender, social status, etc, right? Let’s have another situation: you are a flight attendant on duty. You walk up and down the aisle while serving refreshments to passengers. They are of different ages, different backgrounds, some are casual and some are uptight, some may even identify as a gender not assigned at birth. It’s impossible to acquire all that information for 100+ people while you’re serving drinks, not that you’d want to anyway! So, instead, just drop it:

รับชาหรือกาแฟคะ?
ráp chaa rŭe gaafae ká?
“Would (you) like tea or coffee?”

Problem solved. No need to even make eye contact. You can talk to a kindergarten pupil or to a prime minister using the same sentence. At this point, you may now have a question: then why don’t you do without the pronouns? Well, because there are situations you will need to use them to avoid ambiguity. Suppose there is no context or previous dialogues whatsoever, you suddenly say to your friend:

จะมาใช่มั้ย?
jà maa châi mái?
“??? is coming, right?”

Nobody will be able to decipher that. You are going to need a pronoun there for clarification. What you can take away from this is that Thai people generally omit pronouns when they think (“THEY think” are the operative words) it’s abundantly clear what the referents are. Otherwise, keep the pronouns there for succinct and effective communication.

And thus concludes this topic: “Using pronouns like a pro”! I hope you have learnt something interesting from this whole series. I will try to come up with a new topic to write again when time permits and when the muse comes to me. See you next post!

Part 1: How to Say ‘I’ in Thai
Part 2: What Should I Call ‘You’

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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.

1 Comment

  1. I loathe the use of the word “brilliant” when it isn’t applied to myself BUT in this instance it’s the only word possible.
    I’ve gone through your “I, You, S/He” and they have clarified “stuff” like no one else has done — as well as demoralized me.
    It isn’t just that you, duh, know Thai distinctions so so well, it’s that your English is demotic and deadly accurate. Many thanks.

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