I have written about how Thais greet each other and how the word Sawasdee came about in a previous column. However, what comes after that can be mind-boggling. How Thais address each other goes beyond names and pronouns. It indicates distinctive hierarchical social structures that have been ingrained in our culture.
To address someone in Thai actually shows how we relate to one another. The ways for me to address my family members, friends, the elders, the youngers, my teachers, my boss, my employees, strangers and even monks and royalty come with rules which can weave a web of social relations.
In most situations, titles or ranks and names are used. Nai (Mr), Nangsaow (Miss) and Nang (Mrs) are used in formal circumstances and they are followed by first names. Last names mainly appear in written documents and are rarely used in conversation, except for an announcement or in the news.
The number of pronouns in Thai language possibly surpasses all other languages, especially when it comes to ‘I’ and ‘you’. Here, a hierarchy is involved – it may start from very rudimentary and rough pairs to more neutral ones for all seasons and to more sophisticated and complicated ones among the masses, the military, the monastics and the majesties. In Latin languages like French, there are two pronouns for ‘you’, which are ‘tu’ for a familiar term and ‘vous’ for a formal term or for plural form. In Thai, pronouns ‘I’ and ‘you’ can identify terms of endearment, engagement or animosity and confirm the differences of the age, gender, and status of both parties.
During the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya periods, the pronouns were simpler. People either addressed each other by names or pronouns like ‘Ghuu’, ‘Dtuu’, ‘Suu’ and ‘Mhueng’ which are considered rude or impolite in modern society. The more refined pairs of ‘I’ and ‘you’ could have been used from mid-Ayutthaya since the beginning of the Divine King regime.
‘Thann’ – a polite and respectful ‘you’ – would be used to call one another among the courtiers. In a more modern context, ‘Khun’ is a fairly new pronoun, useful for neutral yet polite situations.
Semantically, this courtesy title was used to address children born to a noble mother who gave up her title to marry a man of lesser rank, for example Khun Ploy, the eldest daughter of Princess Ubolrattana. It is also informally used to courteously address virtually anyone apart from those who actually hold a title of Mom Rajawongse or higher.
‘Khun Chai’ and ‘Khun Ying’ are pronouns for male or female Mom Rajawongse. It also works as a title or a prefix as in Khun Sutthichai or Khun Nick. Khun seems to transcend age, gender and familiarity as well.
I can mostly address clients, acquaintances and even strangers using Khun. Then there are the kinship terms which are widely used in Thailand.
‘Pii’ is an elder sibling, while ‘Nong’ is a younger sibling but are commonly used among friends and contemporaries – or even between patrons and staff members in a noodle shop or corner store. ‘Lhoong’ (elder uncle), ‘Bpaa’ (elder aunt), ‘Naa’ (younger maternal uncle or aunt) and ‘Aa’ (younger paternal uncle or aunt) an be prefixed to names and nicknames once an understanding has been established. However, this will not work in five-star hotels or posh restaurants where status still holds sway when it comes to deference and restraint. Two following examples reveal how familiarity breeds contempt or blossoms among the proletarian.
One well-known Thai language professor has said she is often in a situation when she would not use kinship terms, such as with taxi drivers. They often address her with ‘Bpaa’ an older aunt – as in “Where would you like to go, Bpaa?” She scolds them off that she is not their mother’s elder sister and they are not related to each other. ‘Khun’ would be more appropriate.
Politicians often start their speech with “Por, Mhae, Pii, Nong, thiirak thanglai”, which means “all dear fathers, mothers, elder and younger siblings”. While not addressing the crowd with “Ladies and gentlemen,” a phrase which will alienate their voters, they want to get closer and sound more familiar with the grassroots. They want to look humble, not official.
Speaking Thai can be easy but addressing one another can be a minefield of social tripwires. So make sure you don’t get tongue-tied.