When visiting any foreign country where English is not the primary language, it’s always good to know some phrases in the local language. This shows that you put in the time beforehand to connect with them.
When training Muay Thai in Thailand, most people you encounter are not going to speak English well. You might meet one or two token people at the gym that have worked overseas and/or had better education opportunities that can communicate with you proficiently. Chances are, most of the trainers at the gym will know enough Muay Thai terminology in English that you can figure out what’s going on, but they will probably lack the ability to explain in greater detail. Even in Phuket, where the proficiency of English is higher than of other provinces due to the sheer number of tourists on one island, many people lack conversational skills.
Learning some phrases in Thai will allow you to communicate with everyone a little better – trainers, cooks, drivers, etc. This can also help you tremendously when you’re in a confusing, tricky, or dangerous situation. More importantly, others will appreciate your efforts to communicate in their language.
Is there a hierarchy? How is it reflected in the language?
There is a social hierarchy. This hierarchy is fluid and can change according to situation and each person’s position. However, there is a more static, general, hierarchy that includes groups of people rather than just positions. This will be explained in further detail in a future article about Thai culture and etiquette. For the purposes of this current article, knowing your position on the hierarchy will help you tremendously when it comes to speech and to which people you need to add the polite particles to.
When it comes to Muay Thai, trainers are considered teachers, and teachers are very much revered in Thai culture. Therefore, the trainers at the camp are at a higher position on the hierarchy than you are – it is definitely not a “I’m paying for this so you work for me” situation! Because of this, you will be expected to acknowledge their presence by greeting them first. It is also important to not call a Thai trainer by their name only. They may give you a pass because you’re not Thai, but if you want to command more respect, always add “Kru” or “Ajarn” before their name. Calling someone of a higher position than you by just their name feels very abrupt. If a Thai fighter called a trainer by just their name, they would be considered very disrespectful and rude, and may even be ostracized from training with them.
When it comes to the other staff members at the camp, they are at a lower position on the hierarchy than you are. This includes cooks, housekeepers, and office staff. However, this does not mean you get a free pass to be rude to them! Being polite always goes a long way, but you don’t need to be as careful about it. If they are older than you, adding a “P” before their name will suffice for most circumstances. If they are younger than you, addressing them by just their name is fine. If you are 30 and Kaew is 60, refer to her as “P’ Kaew”. If Ta is 15, you can call her just “Ta”.
Thai people have two names – an official one that’s on documents and isn’t used in everyday interactions, and a shorter (one or two syllables) nickname everyone calls them by. This nickname can be a shortened version of their official name, or it can be completely unrelated. It is not uncommon for Thais to have nicknames from English words like Beer, Ice, Bank, or Boat. When Thais introduce themselves, they will use their nickname.
In the case of a Muay Thai gym, fighters and some trainers will have a third name – their fight name. Yodsanklai isn’t his real name nor his nickname, as is the case with all other fighters. Many trainers even still go by their fight name within the gym, especially if they had success during their competing years. Within a gym, the fighters are referred to each other by their nickname and not their fight name. Their fight name is usually reserved for press and competition purposes.
Being polite is a big part of Thai culture, and this is reflected in the language. You can make an entire statement or question more polite-sounding just by adding a particle at the end of it. This is necessary when talking to people who are on a higher position than you on the heirarchy.
ค่ะ (ka) – polite particle used by women
ครับ (khrap) – polite particle used by men
By adding one of these particles, based on your gender, to the end of what you say, you will sound more gentle and friendly. It’s similar to the difference between “Give me water” and “Water, please”. Most people have heard of the phrase “hello” in Thai, and have probably only heard it used with the polite particle:
สวัสดี (sa-wad dee) – hello
สวัสดีค่ะ (sa-wad dee ka) – hello, said by women
สวัสดีครับ (sa-wad dee khrap) – hello, said by men
When it comes to basic use of polite particles, you can just stick to ka if you’re a woman and khrap if you’re a man. If you want to widen your array of polite particles, here are a few more:
นะค่ะ (na ka) – two polite particles together, makes sentence even more polite. said by women
นะครับ (na khrap) – same as with na ka, but said by men
ครับผม (khrap pom) – a “higher” version of khrap, said by men
จ๊ะ (ja) – a little less formal than ka and khrap, but more friendly/cute. It is a genderless term that can be used by people of a higher position talking to someone of a lower rank or age. People who are close use this too, as it can convey a sense of intimacy and informal politeness
Pronoun use in Thai can be extremely complex, and because this isn’t a blog dedicated to learning Thai, its complexity won’t be unpacked here. Just know that there are the pronouns that we use in English in Thai (I, you, she, he, they, etc.), and that people often refer to themselves/the person they’re talking to in what we call “third-person”. You can even get away with referring to everyone by their name, without using pronouns! Sometimes pronouns are dropped entirely if it can be assumed who it is they’re referring to.
Let’s say two people are talking. Chai, a man, is talking to Ying, a woman. If Chai wants to ask if Ying ate yet, he can ask three ways:
1. With a pronoun (more formal) – Did you eat yet?
2. With the person’s name – Did Ying eat yet?
3. Without a pronoun or name – Eat yet?
1. คุณกินข้าวหรือยังครับ (khun gin kaow reu yang khrap) – khun is the pronoun for “you”
2. หยิงกินข้าวหรือยังครับ (Ying gin kaow reu yang khrap)
3. กินข้าวหรือยังครับ (gin kaow reu yang khrap)
Ask you can see, even though there are only two people in this conversation, they can use each other’s names when referring to each other. Using khun is a bit more formal and generally reserved for people who are still unfamiliar with one another. People who are friends will either use names or drop the name/pronoun altogether.
The /R/ and /L/ Sounds
Wait, if men use “khrap”, how come I always hear “khap”?
Well, in short…they just don’t feel like pronouncing the /r/ most times because it’s easier not to, even in formal settings. The /r/ sound is officially supposed to include a rolling of the tongue, such as saying “burro” in Spanish, and most just don’t care to do it.
/R/ is commonly omitted from speech when if follows a consonant. Some examples:
English – Thai (official pronunciation) – Commonly spoken pronunciation
who – ใคร (krai) – kai
garlic – กระเทียม (gra-tiem) – ga-tiem
straight – ตรง (dtrong) – dtong
Another fact one should know about the /r/ sound is that it is commonly swapped out with the /l/ sound in speech! This is especially true for people from the Northeastern region of Thailand (Isaan), where it is much more common than not to change all /r/ sounds to /l/ sounds. This is why the Thai word for “foreigner” (ฝรั่ง) is romanized as “farang” but often pronounced like “falang”. A couple of other examples include “danger” (อันตราย “an-de-rai” but often pronounced “an-de-lai”) and the question word “what” (อะไร “a-rai” but often pronounced “a-lai”).
So the /r/ sound is commonly dropped off if it follows a consonant, and the /l/ and /r/ sounds are swapped in speech…does that mean the /l/ sound is dropped off after consonants as well? Yep! If the official spelling of word contains an /l/ sound that follows a consonant, it is usually dropped off. A couple examples:
to change – เปลี่ยน (blien) – bien
fish – ปลา (blaa) – baa
The biggest takeaway from this section is that you may hear the same words pronounced or spelled differently phonetically, but just know that they’re the same word. And now you know why they’re different! As a sidenote, media people (such as announcers and news reporters) will pronounce all officially present /r/ and /l/ sounds correctly.
The Thai language is tonal (five tones, to be precise), which means that if you’re not careful with using the correct tone, you might be saying the wrong word! This part of the language is very difficult for a lot of people to grasp, especially those who don’t speak another language besides English simply because the tones can be harder to differentiate. An example of the tones is with khao. Depending on the tone you use with khao, it can mean “knee”, “they”, “rice”, or “go inside.” Expect to get a few chuckles as you start to learn the language, but these mistakes are completely normal and it’s better to try and fail (and get better) than to not try at all!
Thais are familiar with the use of military time, but they can refer to the time of the day in a few different ways. This is because a four-block system of six hours each is used instead of the more popular two-block system of 12 hours each. The Thai system is fairly easy to understand all the way until the fourth block, which starts at 19:00 (7 PM). Because of how easy it can be to mix up times with the Thai system, try to use military time as much as possible to avoid confusion.
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