Facts about Thai: Script, Pronouns and Syllables

Thai, known as Central Thai and previously as Siamese, is the national language and unofficial national language of Thailand. Though there are over 60 languages spoken in Thailand proper, most people speak Thai as at least a second language. As a Tai language, it is partially mutually intelligible by several others in its family group.

As an official language of the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) and an official minority language in several countries outside of Thailand, knowing a few interesting facts and figures about Thai is important for anyone diving into linguistics and global culture.

A Few Facts about the Amazing Thai Language

1. Thai is a member of the Southwestern Tai language group and is mutually intelligible to varying degrees with some of its sister and cousin languages.

The Thai language family shows the descendancy of Thai and other languages from their Kra-Dai origin. Thai shares mutual intelligibility with Southern Thai and and a number of other languages on the same level as their parent language, Sukothai.

2. The Thai script is an abugida, combining consonants and vowels into units using diacritic marks

There are 44 consonants and 16 vowel symbols which combine into about 32 different vowel sounds. There are also four diacritic marks to distinguish sounds and pronunciation. 

3. Thai word order is technically subject-verb-object (SVO) like in English, but with some significant differences in grammar afterward.

Often within a sentence, the subject ends up being dropped entirely if it contextually makes sense what the speaker is referring to.

Also, nouns are very often followed by their pronouns. The English sentence “[Preeda] [is learning about] [Thai]” would become “[Preeda] [she] [is learning about] [Thai].”

There is also a habit of putting the topic first before describing the rest of the sentence. For example; “[Many foreigners] [live] [in Thailand]” might become “[Foreigners who move] [come live in Thailand] [there are many].”

Because of the topic-first structure, the SVO often becomes in practice OSV.

4. Thai sentences can be made up almost entirely of verbs

It’s not unusual for a Thai sentence to be made up of a string of five verbs or more.

5. Nouns in Thai are bare

They do not use surface determiners or quantifiers, nor do they take articles beforehand (such as ‘a’ or ‘the’). There’s no grammatical gender for nouns and none of them have any different form in single, plural, definite, indefinite, or otherwise. However, sometimes nouns can be repeated to emphasize plurality.

6. Instead of pronouns, Thai speakers tend to refer to each other by nicknames which rarely relate to their official name but are still given at birth.

However, there are many, many personal pronouns in Thai, and they change depending on gender, social status, relationship, formality, and occupation. There are special pronouns that are rarely used (especially the formal ones used exclusively for royalty), but the following chart covers some of absolute basics, written in approximate Romanized transcription.

PronounGenderUsed forContext
PhomMale onlyFirst person singularUniversal
ChanFemale or maleFirst person female singularUniversal
2nd person male friends/relativesInformal/intimate
Di-chanFemaleFirst person singularFormal
KhunMale or femaleSecond person singularUniversal
ThaanMale or femaleSecond person singular or third person singularFormal – for authority figures and religious figures
RaoFemale or maleFirst person plural or (less common) first person pluralUniversal
Khao (rising tone)MaleThird person maleUniversal
FemaleThird person femaleInformal
Male or femaleThird person plural or second person singular or first person singularInformal
Khao (high tone)Male or femaleAny person, singular or pluralInformal
ThurFemaleThird person singularUniversal
Male or femaleSecond person singularInformal/intimate

As well as formal and informal, there are several pronouns which are considered vulgar and/or offensive to the person being spoken to. Pronouns which are safe in one context may also be considered rude in another, as the wrong pronoun can make it seem like you think another person is below you in status.

7. Thai speakers didn’t really use surnames until 1913

Nowadays, new surnames must not duplicate any other and can be no longer than ten consonants (plus vowels and diacritics). Women are allowed to either keep their own name or take their husband’s name since 2002.

8. There are several different registers in Thai which means the same word in English has many Thai translations depending on the context it is used.

The most common registers are:

Thai nameEnglish nameFormalityUsed by
Phasa phutCommon/Street ThaiInformal (no polite address)Close relatives and friends
Phasa khianElegant/Formal ThaiRespectful (formal address)Official documentation and newspapers
Rhetorical ThaiFormalPublic speaking
Religious ThaiVery formalOnly for monks or discussing Buddhism
Racha sapRoyal ThaiExtremely formalUsed when talking to or about royalty

Elegant and Street Thai are the only ones used on a daily basis, but the other three are taught in schools and most Thai speakers are fluent in all of them.

9. Most words in Thai are monosyllabic

There are words with multiple syllables, but almost all of those have entered Thai through foreign influences. The most common foreign contributors are:

  • Pali or Sanskrit
  • Chinese
  • Arabic
  • English
  • French
  • Khmer / Old Khmer
  • Portuguese

10. Standard Thai (such as what is taught in language-learning classrooms for foreigners) is based on Bangkok Thai

This is the speech pattern of the educated people in Bangkok and it usually focuses on the elegant register, though some street register is also taught.

11. Though there are many Tai-descended languages in Thailand, many natives think of them as simply dialects of “proper” Thai.

They’re often referred to as “other kinds of Thai” or “regional variants” of the language.

Final Thoughts

This multi-dialectical language spans a huge area and a huge number of people in the world. It’s an essential language to know a little about for those who care about sociolinguistic development and a fantastic way to open the door to an important part of our shared history.

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