For the first part of our guide to Thai Culture we decided to cover the Thai Language.
Language is an extremely useful tool in helping us to understand culture. It can give valuable insight into social structures and the collective-memory of its users. Developments in language can also be used to analyse the movement of people over time between areas.
The Thai Language to which we refer here is Central Thai. This is the language of the education system and official language of the Thai Nation which has become dominant, stemming from Bangkok. In addition to Central Thai there are other regional variations of Thai (notably Khorat or North-eastern Thai, Northern Thai and Southern Thai) as well as completely separate languages spoken by minorities residing in Thailand. In fact, although estimates of the number of Thai speakers often vary greatly, it has been suggested that as little as 45% of the population of Thailand should be classed as speakers of Central Thai. (Source: UCLA)
The current form of Thai Language seems to have developed from Khmer but has also been influenced by Chinese, as well as Sanskrit and Pali languages imported from India. King Ramkhamhaeng is generally credited as being the ‘inventor’ of the Thai script in it’s modern form and the creator of the extremely famous ‘Ramkhamhaeng Stone Inscription’ back in 1292, yet the authenticity of this stone has been called into question in recent years.
On face value the Thai language may seem very strange to both the foreign ear and eye and while it has many differences to Western languages, it also has some similarities.
The most striking difference between Thai and English is the fact that Thai is a tonal language. There are five tones in Thai and each word has a defined tone. Get the tone wrong and you change the meaning. This means that the tone of the voice used for each word is more rigid than in English.
English language uses tone in a very different way to Thai. Speakers can use rising inflection of any word to indicate a question, yet Thai speakers must use a defined ‘question particle’ or ‘question tag’ to communicate questioning. Confused? All will become clear…
The Tones of Thai Language
The five tones of Thai are commonly known as mid-tone, falling-tone, rising-tone, high-tone and low-tone. The tone of a word is defined by the combination of vowels, consonants and ‘tone markers’ in each word.
Tone is often a stumbling block to foreigners and the main reason that foreigners who do not read Thai can often have communication issues when in Thailand. The slightest error in inflection can render a sentence meaningless, very confusing or both!
Take the sound of “maa”. Pronounced with a mid-tone it means “to come”. Pronounced with a high-tone it means “horse”. Pronounced with a rising tone it means “dog” but in low and falling tones has no real meaning. If you don’t get the correct tone, unless the Thai you are talking to can work out what you mean from the context of the sentence, you may be met with puzzled looks.
Like English, Thai language has an alphabet which is made up of consonants and vowels. It is not made up of “symbols” like Chinese and Japanese script. It is also read from left to right.
While the English alphabet has a total of 26 letters; 21 consonants and 5 vowels, the Thai alphabet has 44 consonants and 28 vowels. In addition to this there are four tone markers and Thai numerals to contend with, as well as at least 5 extra symbols to indicate vowel length, silent syllables, repetition and so on.
Video: Thai Alphabet Song
The reason Thai has so many more vowels than English is that each Thai vowel sound has a long and short version and some vowels are compound vowels, formed through combining other vowel sounds.
Also similar to English is the sentence structure of Thai. Generally speaking most Thai sentences follow the pattern of subject, verb, object. Unlike English, yet similar to French object details are qualified after the object. So, ‘hair long’, not ‘long hair’, or ‘car red’ not ‘red car’.
Written Thai Many foreigners would agree that written Thai looks very nice, even if they can’t read it. Each letter, with the exception of some vowels and tone markers, has what is known as a ‘head’; a circle where, when written, the formation of the letter begins. Although when hand written Thai’s may join-up the letters, officially Thai language is not designed to be joined-up and when printed the letters are always separate from one-another. Although Thai’s are not taught to join letters it is not uncommon to see joined-up hand writing.
Vowels can appear before, above, after or below a consonant and a tone marker will always appear above the syllable that it affects.
Although there is a growing trend in using English punctuation marks in written Thai, especially in advertising and novels, Thai language does not have its own punctuation marks as there is simply no need for them. Where in English we would indicate a question in written language by using a question mark, Thai would use the ‘question particle’ deeming question marks redundant.
Sentences and Spaces
Written ‘sentences’ or ‘thoughts’ are separated by leaving a space. There are no full stops or commas in written Thai although it is common to see the use of colons where a list will follow and brackets are used in the same way as in written English.
There are no spaces between written words. The reader must judge where one word starts and one word ends by identifying the syllables. The ability to judge this comes through exposure to Thai and increases over time.
Words are Rigid in Form
Unlike English the form of words are rigid. There is no addition made to words to indicate pluralisation, past tense or even ownership. To help explain take the word ‘go’ in English.
English can adapt the word ‘go’ to indicate the context in which it is used. ‘Go’ could become ‘going’ to indicate something occurring in the present or future, ‘gone’ to indicate the past, or could be substituted for ‘went’ or ‘been’ changing the form of the word all together. Yet in Thai, there is only ‘go’.
In written Thai this is then modified by adding words before or after the word “go” to indicate time, rather than adapting the word itself. Words such as “will”, “already” and a prefix to indicate continuous action, “gamlang”, modify the tense of “go” to future, past and present respectively.
In spoken Thai, however, these modifiers are often dropped, so, “I go to school” could mean “I am going to school”, “I went to school”, “I have been to school” or “I will go to school”. Because of this decoding the meaning of the words in a sentence is very much dependant on the context in which they are used.
Letters are also rigid in their form and there is no lower or upper case. This means that letters always look the same in whatever word they appear unlike English in which proper nouns and sentences beginnings are capitalised.
While plurals are used in Thai, words do not change their form, so plurals are indicated by referring to the object, the quantity of them, and then what is known as a classifier.
In Thai language every object has a classifier group to which it belongs. The classifier attached to each object is defined by the shape, size and characteristics of an item. Fruit for example has the classifier “luuk”, which means child, but also refers to small, round-shaped things. Flat, slim objects such as papers are classified as “bai” which means leaf, yet “bai” is also a classifier for glasses. Living things are classified as “dua”, meaning bodies and so on. (There are too many to mention here.)
Example: Here is an example involving a quantity of oranges. In English “4 oranges”. In Thai becomes:
object quantity classifier
orange ("som") 4 ("see") classifier for fruit (“luuk”)
Language and Society
While there is no such thing as a caste-system in Thailand, Thai society operates under a fairly rigid social-hierarchy. There are clear social boundaries which exist and the Thai language speaker must select appropriate language depending on who they are addressing and in what situation.
Age and occupation play a large role in defining the social standing of those in Thai society. Elders command most respect and language is adjusted accordingly by minors addressing them.
The words “phi” and “nong” meaning older brother/sister and younger brother/sister respectively are the most obvious example of the relevance of age in Thai society, and the influence this has had upon Thai language use. Before addressing an individual the Thai speaker must make a quick assessment as to whether the person they are talking to is older or younger than them or of a significantly higher social status.
If the person is clearly older than the use of “phi”, older brother/sister, is employed, (providing the person is not old enough to be your grandparent in which case there are specific, age-relative terms to use) indicating respect and to a certain extent inferiority.
On the other hand if the person appears younger, then they would be addressed as “nong”. This quite often not only indicates a younger age but a slight inferior standing. For example when calling a waitress in a restaurant customers would use the this term. However, at the same time, the word “nong” can also be used as a means of showing affection to a younger person, implying that the person is part of the family of the speaker, even if they are not directly related.
In addition to this people that are regarded as having highly respected careers such as teachers, professors, doctors etc will be addressed by their job title by those that are not even their students or patients (providing that their occupation is known by others).
In addition to these ‘titles’ being placed before names you may be familiar with the words, “ka” and “khrab” which are ‘polite particles’ used at the end of most sentences of spoken Thai. “ka” is used by female speakers and “khrab” by males.
Using these ‘polite particles’ shows good manners and demonstrates that you respect the individual you are talking to. They are also used in place of “yes” during conversation to indicate that you are following the conversation or to agree with a point raised.