A Guide to Thai - 10 facts about the Thai language

Useful facts about the Thai language

Translation in Thai

Check the Thai-only version

1. Where is Thai spoken?

Thai is spoken exclusively in Thailand, by approximately 60 million people. The dialect spoken in the Central Region is regarded as Standard Thai and is used throughout the country in schools, in the media and for official purposes.

Very distinct regional dialects are spoken in the north, northeast and south of the country.

Thai television programmes are received and understood in neighbouring Laos, where the national language is closely related to Thai.

Outside Thailand, the largest concentration of Thai speakers is in Los Angeles, California, where there are an estimated 80,000 Thai immigrants.

2. How hard is it to learn?

Thai is a tonal language, so the learner has to get used to recognising the pitch of a word. Thai has five tones:

- mid tone as in   ไมล์ [mai], mile
- low tone as in  ใหม่ [mài], new
- high tone as in  ไม้ [mái], wood
- falling tone as in  ไม่ [mâi], not
- rising tone as in  ไหม [mǎi], silk

For some learners hearing and producing different tones comes easily, while for others it takes more time and practice.

Learning a new script also presents a challenge, but most learners find it easier than they expect. The Thai script is used uniquely for Thai. If you can read Thai you will recognise some Lao and Cambodian letters, and you’ll find that knowledge of the Thai script gives you a major advantage when learning to read Lao and Cambodian.

Word order in Thai is similar to English. Basic grammar poses fewer problems than more familiar European languages because there are no verb or noun endings.

The sentence  ฉันไปกับเพื่อน [chún bpai gùp pêu-un], (literally, I-go-with-friend) could mean I am going with a friend/friends, I went with a friend/friends or I’m going with a friend/friends.

Usually the context will make the meaning clear, but the speaker may add words such as an expression of time ( พรุ่งนี้ [prÔOng née], tomorrow), or an expression of quantity ( หลาย [lǎi], several) to eliminate any possible ambiguity.

3. What you already know about Thai

Most Westerners will only know Thai words if they have visited the country.

Familiar words are  ตุ๊ก ๆ [tuk-tuk], a motorised pedicab, or if you’re interested in Thai food you might know  ต้มยำกุ้ง [tom yam kung], spicy prawn soup and  น้ำปลา [nam pla], fish sauce or even Thai boxing,  มวยไทย [muay thai].

But Thai has borrowed many words from English, adapting them to the Thai sound system. For example e-mail is  อีเมล [e-may] because Thai has no final ‘l’ sound, and stressing the second rather than the first syllable, as in  ช็อปปิ้ง [chop-PING], shopping, because Thai has no ‘sh’ sound.

4. The most difficult word or tongue twisters

A favourite Thai tongue-twister is  ใครขายไข่ไก่ [krai kǎi kài gài], who-sell-egg-chicken.

Another is  ไหมใหม่ไม่ไหม้ [mǎi mài mâi mâi], new-silk-doesn’t-burn.

Thai is full of elaborate expressions of four words or syllables of similar meaning which are grouped together to create a pleasing visual effect through the use of rhyme and alliteration.

Here’s a typical example of such an expression which is difficult for non-Thais because of the -eu-a vowel sound, which features in three of the four words:  เอื้อเฟื้อเผื่อแผ่ [êu-a féu-a pèu-a pair], to be generous, liberal.

5. Know any good Thai jokes?

Jokes are often difficult to translate effectively but here’s one of them:

 เรือกับรถไฟชนกันเหลืออะไร เหลือเชื่อ
[reu-a gùp rót fai chon gun lěu-a a-rai? lěu-a chêu-a]
What’s left when a boat and a train collide? Disbelief.

The joke hinges on the word  เหลือ [lěu-a], which means left over, remaining, but when combined with  เชื่อ [chêu-a], believe, it means unbelievable. What is unbelievable is that a boat and a train could be on a collision course.

Proverbs and traditional sayings often have a humorous flavour:

[cháhng dtai túng dtoo-a ao bai boo-a bpìt mâi mít]
You can’t hide a dead elephant with a water lily leaf.

You can’t cover up a huge mistake.

[bpìt torng lǔng prá ]
To stick gold leaf on the back of a Buddha image.

This refers to the Thai custom of applying small pieces of gold leaf to a Buddha image as an act of religious merit-making. Normally, people would apply it to the front of the image, where their virtuous actions are visible for all to see. Therefore, applying it to the back of the image means doing good without seeking recognition for it.

6. If I learn Thai, will it help me with any other languages?

Thai is closely related to Lao, the national language of neighbouring Laos.

Although Cambodian is not related to Thai, the Westerner who has learnt Thai will notice similarities between the languages which have resulted from close contact and centuries of borrowing between the two.

7. What not to say and do

Westerners often mistake the Thai use of first names as a sign of informality and equality. To be on the safe side, use  คุณ [khun], Mr/Mrs/Miss in front of a person’s name, even when addressing or referring to them in English.

With no universally agreed system, the Romanisation of Thai words can cause confusion, embarrassment and complete mispronunciations. The female name  วิภา, Vipa, for example, bears no resemblance to the English viper. The  , v is pronounced as a w, the  อิ, i is short as in bin, and the  อา, a is long as in father, so Vipa is actually pronounced [wi-pah].

It’s common to have ph and th’ in Romanised Thai first names and place names, but Westerners often get them wrong. The female name  พรทิพย์, Phornthip, for example, is pronounced [Porntip], not ‘Fornthip’, and the popular tourist destination  ภูเก็ต, Phuket, is pronounced [Poo-get], not ‘Foo-get’. So if a Thai presents you with their business card, it’s worth checking how they actually pronounce their name!

When it comes to body language, the head is regarded as sacred and the feet as dirty. Thais show respect to people of senior status by deliberately trying to keep their own head at a lower level in conversation or when passing by. Western habits such as pointing at something on the ground with a foot and putting the feet up on the desk are offensive to Thais, as this is reserved for resting a foot on the rail behind a tuk-tuk driver’s seat, perilously close to his head.

8. Famous quotations

A famous line that most Thais will have learnt in school is:
 ในน้ำมีปลา ในนามีข้าว
[nai náhm mee bplah, nai nah mee kâo]
In the water there are fish, in the paddy fields there is rice
It appears on the King Ramkhamhaeng inscription (see point 9, below) and describes the abundance of natural resources in the kingdom of Sukhothai during the 13th century AD.

Among readers of romantic novels, the dying words of the heroine of Siburapha’s 1937 novel, Behind the Painting are a favourite:
 ฉันตายโดยปราศจากคนที่รักฉัน แต่ฉันก็อิ่มใจว่าฉันมีคนที่ฉันรัก
[chún dtai doy-ee bpràht-sa-jàhk kon têe rúk chún. dtàir chún gôr ìm jai wâh chún mee kon têe chún rúk]
I die with no one to love me. Yet I am content that I have someone whom I love

9. First publication

The first example of Thai writing is believed by most Thais to be a stone inscription found on a four-sided pillar at Sukhothai, dated 1292 AD. In this inscription King Ramkhamhaeng describes the prosperity of his kingdom, its legal system, the social and economic organisation of society, the benevolence of its ruler and even the invention of the Thai script. In recent years, the authenticity of the inscription has been challenged by a number of academics, both Thai and foreign, but this debate has had little impact beyond a narrow academic circle.

10. How to be polite and show respect

Polite words can’t be translated but have a grammatical function or convey the mood of the speaker. They are used at the end of a sentence to convey politeness. Male speakers add the word  ครับ [krúp] at the end of a statement or question, while female speakers use  ค่ะ [kâh] at the end of a statement and  คะ [ká] at the end of a question.
Male:  สบายดีไหมครับ [sa-bai dee mái krúp?] How are you?
Female:  สบายดีค่ะ [sa-bai dee kâh] I’m fine, thank you.

Female:  สบายดีไหมคะ [sa-bai dee mái ká?] How are you?
Male:  สบายดีครับ [sa-bai dee krúp] I’m fine, thank you.

There is a range of pronouns for expressing different levels of respect and familiarity. Some nouns and verbs have formal and informal variants. For example: to know -  ทราบ [sâhp] is formal and  รู้ [róo] is informal to eat -  ทาน [tahn] is formal and  กิน [gin] is informal.

Formal variants are used when talking to people of higher social status (e.g. students talking to teachers, employees talking to bosses) and people you don’t know. Informal variants are used among friends, in informal situations and when talking to people of equal or lower social status.

But when it comes to talking about royalty, there’s a whole new vocabulary that has to be learnt, for example, for parts of the body and everyday actions. Thus, an ordinary person’s eye is  ตา [dtah], but if you are talking about a king’s eye, you have to refer to it as  พระเนตร [pra-nâyt]; and while  ไป [bpai] means go, when talking about kings and other royalty, it has to be preceded by  เสด็จพระราชดำเนินไป [sa-dèt prá-râht-cha-dum-nern bpai].

Thais use the same expression for good morning, good afternoon and good evening  สวัสดี [sa-wùt dee], followed by the appropriate polite particle. So male speakers say  สวัสดีครับ [sa-wùt dee krúp] and female speakers say  สวัสดีค่ะ [sa-wùt dee kâh]. This greeting is often accompanied by a ‘wai’ gesture, where the head is bowed and the hands brought together in front of the face in a prayer-like position. It’s the responsibility of the person who is younger, or of lower social status, to initiate the ‘wai’, to which the other party will respond with a ‘wai’. Foreigners, new to Thailand and eager to appear friendly, sometimes unwittingly cause embarrassment by ‘wai-ing’ a waitress, a taxi driver or young children.

Thai key phrases

Thai phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Thai alphabet

Thai alphabet

Learn the letters of the Thai alphabet - all 42

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.