In Part I, I talked about how Thai seems to have a personal pronoun for every occasion and every relationship. In most Western languages, we have just one or two ways of saying you, whereas in Thailand, there are many options. The same goes for I.
Today I want to get specific and introduce you to a few of those pronouns, not because you’ll be using them often— in most situations chan and khun are enough – but because they offer a fascinating peek into Thai culture.
The following are just a few examples:
Chan is the multipurpose I, but to be a little more formal you can designate your gender with dichan for women and phom for men. Of course, there’s that gender particle at the end of phrases –ka for women and krap for men, which beginning Thai speakers should always include, just in case.
It gets a little more complex because of the importance Thai people give relationships. When your mom is talking to you, she’s much more likely to say mae than chan, as in Mother want you to eat your vegetables. And you might call her Khun Mae to show respect. When Grandpa is talking, he might use Bu instead of I, and of course you know that little kids often use nu, or mouse, as the personal pronoun. Other people might also refer to a child as nu, affectionately. Thai people even call a young waitress nu, but students probably shouldn’t try it.
Sometimes close friends, mostly women, use ter for you. You might also pick up on Thai people calling very close friends meung. This is considered a very low class word, definitely not suitable for student use. Stick to kuhn until you are highly skilled in the language and the culture. You will probably over-use kuhn at first, since it’s a polite word not typically used with folks lower in the Thai social hierarchy. But you won’t get in trouble, any more than the first-time visitor who gives a big deep wai to the bellhop, which is the equivalent of genuflecting to a waiter.
Keep in mind that Thai people will not normally show any anger or much reaction at all if you, for example, used meung or gah with a new Thai friend. They might laugh, or even tease you a bit, but they will understand you are trying to learn the language and doing your best. You might get a negative reaction if you use goo for I – you’ll hear Thai friends do it, but it’s definitely nor for language students, and is considered very impolite if not used with precision. (There are definitely ways to be offensive in Thailand; I’ll talk about that in another column).
Tahn is important. It appears more often in writing, than in speaking, but is a word for you that shows great respect for rank. You might use it if you meet a Buddhist abbot, but they won’t throw you out of the temple for using Kuhn.
When you are ready, you can pick up a Thai grammar. You’ll be amazed at the complexities of pronouns available for every occasion and relationship. But you can relax, too. Even without all the niceties of grammar, your Thai friends will see that you respect them and want to learn and understand their language and culture. In the beginning, you’ll do just fine with chan and kuhn.
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