If you’re American or Kiwi or Brit, you’ll say I love you. In Baden-Baden, it’s Ich liebe dich, and in Paris in springtime you might say je t’aime. English speakers have no options for the I and the you, (unless they want to sound like Shakespeare and say thee.) It’s just plain old I and you.

At least the French and Germans have a couple of choices: a more formal you and a less formal one, but I guess if you’re professing love, you’ve reached the informal stage. By the way, even the Spanish has two levels of you, (or three in some countries.)

So why does Thailand have so many ways to say I and you? is it the time to learn Thai ?

Remember, language creates culture and culture creates language. Japan is crowded: lots of humans in very small places. To create some personal space, Japanese bow to each other, a gesture completely unnecessary, say, on the Texas prairie, where your nearest neighbor might be an hour away. They use a formal language that serves in part to create distance.

It’s not quite the same in Thailand. We have enough room. We don’t need elaborate bowing rituals to establish personal space. We still wai sometimes– palms touching and raised before the face, with a slight bow—but our cultural values are a bit different. If are not sure about how to behave in Thailand you need to understand Thai culture and Thai language.

We Thai people value family above all else. And our families are extended and include blood relatives and in-laws and even the neighbors. And monks. And the Royal Family. And persons of high rank, and low. And children. And pets. And teachers. We have pronouns for them all. And for ourselves, too, depending on the occasion.

Thai society is marked by fierce devotion to family and country, and it all flows through a complex hierarchy of age, ranks, and relationships. This is reflected in every social interaction, whether at a restaurant or in the Temple. Some of the distinctions are disappearing, especially in Bangkok and bigger cities like Chiang Mai, but many are still there, and they impact language in general and pronouns in particular. A young professional might address an older tuk-tuk driver as Pi (older person), or if he’s a regular, even Lung (uncle.) It’s all about the relationship, often based as much on age as on social role.

If I’m older and in a restaurant, I’m more likely to say Pi koh nahm noi, krap –the old person would like some water, even if I’m 30 and the waiter is 20. If I’m very young myself, especially if I’m a girl, I might say nu for I, in effect saying The mouse wants water. And someone might use ter for the same young girl, rather than the more common Kuhn for you. Then there’s a whole separate set of pronouns when talking about the King and his family, and the royal family themselves have words only they use. And monks of various ranks. And on and on.

And then, perhaps most confusing of all, are the pronouns Thais, especially younger ones, use with their close friends. Warning: I’ll tell you later what some of these words are, but do NOT try to use them until you are fluent in both Thai language and culture. You are certain to miss the mark, in the midst of all the subtleties.

Are you confused yet? Rest easy. In the vast majority of cases, you are safe calling yourself chan and the other person khun. Or to be a little more formal, you can dicahn if you’re female and pohm if you’re male.

Still it’s important to know about these pronouns, not because you’ll be using most of them any time soon, but because they can help you understand the amazing and complex Thai culture more fully.
Find a native Thai speaker to help you learn Thai or get a Thai teacher, it will safe you a lot of time and avoid a lot of mistakes when encounter with Thai people.

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