Phrases like “Sawasdee khrub”, Sawasdee kha”, “Khob khun khrub”, and “Khob khun kha”, are often overheard in Thailand. Most visitors and expatriates learning the Thai language are customarily told that khrub is an ending particle used by men and kha is the one used by women. But are there more meanings to these little words? Are they even translatable? What is their significance? Why do Thai people use them?
I’m only a colloquial speaker, not a linguist, but I am fascinated by how people express themselves verbally. As parts of speech, these little words can be categorized as either ending particles or sentence suffixes, or even adverbs in Thai lexicon. ‘Khrub’ and ‘kha’ are the most often used, as they connote politeness and respect from the speakers to the listeners. Thai culture is hierarchical and our social structure is reflected in the language. We probably have the most pronouns for ‘I’ and ‘you’ amongst all languages. These refer to the relationship between the first and second person, from the King and royal family members to monks of all ranks, to adults and children, to masters and serfs, and to family members and friends. Therefore, like these pronouns, the ending particles infer the formality and informality of the situations, the familiarity and unfamiliarity of the conversers, the expressions of emotions and purposes, and even the gender identification.
Although these ending particles may be almost untranslatable, they have a lot of meanings and connotations. When used on their own, words like ‘khrub,’ ‘kha,’ ‘ha,’ ‘ja,’ ‘jaa,’ and ‘ya’ mean “Yes”, “Yes, Sir”, “Yes, Ma’am”, “Yeah”, or “Yep”. However, when they are used at the end of sentences, their meanings and connotations shift and change from various situations and the moods and tones of voice. For asking, requesting, and pleading, “na” would also be added as in na khrub, na kha, na ha, or na ja. These ‘na’ suffixes also sound as terms of endearment, while ‘ya’ and ‘na ya’ endings express disdain, annoyance, and sarcasm. They are most likely to be used among women, gay men, and other LGTBQ, akin to the phrases uttered when a villainess is not amused.
But beyond these, there are myriads of interchangeable ending particles for all types of occasions. For instance, to express contempt, anger, and unpleasant surprises, wa, wei, woi, woey, hoey, or woey hoey are added to the sentence, such as “Ma thummai woey hoey?” (Why the heck do you come here?). However, these are more informal and considered impolite or rude to use.
Nonetheless, Thais don’t use all these ending particles at the end of every sentence. They are only used to make the key points and the whole conversation smoother. For example, when speaking politely, especially to strangers such as in the contexts of an office or in service businesses, these ending particles are of utmost importance. It’s because they convey that the speaker does not sound abrupt and has a haang siang or a “tail end of one’s voice”. These intonations of voice also help persuade and disarm someone’s defence. So rounding off one’s sentence with the harmonized “tail end” voice will make all’s well that ends well.
Historically speaking, the words ‘khrub’ and ‘kha’ have only been widely used from 1943, during General Plaek Phibulsongkram’s administration, when the word sawasdee was coined and started its widespread usage. ‘Khrub’ and ‘khrub phom’ derived from the phrases khorub and khorub ghrapom (both used by men to express high respect), while ‘kha’ came from phrachaokhaa and payakha (used by men), and paekha and chaokha (used by women). These words were used among the courtiers when speaking to royal family members to express reverence. Interestingly, ‘kha’ wasn’t exclusively used by women, but also among male royalty because of the word phayakha. So it is not uncommon to hear adult men speaking to young girls using ‘kha’. Likewise, adult women may use ‘khrub’ when talking to young boys. Psychologically, this is mirroring by imitating the speech pattern to build rapport, gain understanding, and strengthen the relationship.
Besides Thai, other Southeast Asian languages also have these ending particles. The sweet-sounding ‘jaow’ in Lanna Thai is used to round off a sentence in Northern Thailand. Singaporean’s and Malaysian’s ‘lah’ are widely heard with many humorous connotations. Chinese dialects such as Cantonese have several particles too, such as ‘ah’, ‘ge’, ‘je’, and ‘wo’. Some European languages, such as Bulgarian, use ‘be’, ‘de’, and ‘ma’ in informal situations too. Even Canadian or New Zealand English also has an “eh” at the end of sentences.
As parts of our daily communications, these small sentence suffices in conversations actually pack a lot of punches. Then it is how we would decode these encoded messages that matters most.