Lack of tense and plurals, and less utilization of prepositions present real challenges, as do tones and the Thai alphabet, and some Western words (i.e. a syllogism, logic, earn, perspective, hypocrisy, a bump) just don’t have directly corresponding terms in Thai. But these matters present much less difficulty than do some others.
Thai classifiers require learning which scholars of by-gone eras would have found less strange than most of us, unaccustomed to the formality essential to much of Thai language, do. Similarly, not too long ago thou was used to express intimacy, amity and sometimes disrespect (although also used when speaking to God), while you (the oblique/objective form of ye) was used mostly in formal circumstances to imply respect. Early Quakers refused to use what they considered the fancier term, instead addressing high-ranking persons with thee and thou. Those terms later disappeared from normal English usage (in French, Quakers used tu to address even those who by common convention would be addressed with the more formal vous). Thai yet retains characteristics now archaic to English; it also varies greatly between spoken and written forms. I once bought books of pithy Thai proverbs to help me absorb the language – but they proved far too difficult!
Thai (a Lao, or Tai, language) includes Central Thai (Siamese) and a dozen or so variants used within Thailand; it’s absorbed many foreign words. “Loanwords” come from both ancient and modern Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese and other dialects, especially Teochew), and from Malay. Also from the closely related Mon and Cambodian languages, 16th-century Portuguese, and English. Overlays of polysyllabic words added to common speech most often come from Pali (related to Sanskrit) and Old Khmer. Despite that the linguistic forms of Sanskrit and Pali differ greatly from Tai languages, elegant religious and literary terms come from them; occasionally new words are coined from Sanskrit roots.
Sanskrit, as ancient a language as almost any still in use, flourished from about 500 BCE to 1000 CE, but now is hardly ever (if ever at all) a mother tongue. Its grammar is similar to Latin and Greek. A cultured and sophisticated language used for religious and learned discourse, it’s related to Old Persian (as was Khom, the language of Angkor royalty, which had great influence upon Siamese royalty and language).
Pali, a literary language of rather mixed vernacular origins, was used for the Theravada Buddhist canon (and thus is thus regarded as sacred). Gautama Buddha preferred vernacular dialects and opposed the use of Sanskrit as a learned (so less natural) language. But Pali use declined about 400 CE, as Sanskrit use rose (and Buddhism’s popularity in the subcontinent declined); it died as a literary language of India in the 14th-century, and survived elsewhere only into the 18th.
Thai uses a variety of speech levels (called ‘registers’: colloquial, formal, literary and poetic); similarly, a century ago German had low, middle and high, each with its appropriate usages. The best example is “eat”: kin (กิน; common), kah-ma (ขมำ; to gobble in indecent manner), daek (แดก; vulgar, what a dog does), yat (ยัด; also vulgar), boriphok (บริโภค; formal), taan khao (ทานข้าว; polite), rapprathan ahaan (รับประทาน อาหาร; very formal), chan (ฉัน; religious) or sawoei (เสวย; royal). Words for blood (leuat เลือดม, formally lo-heet โลหิต), family relationships and hygienic or sexual terms vary similarly (although not as muchas with the terms for eat). In speech “dog” is usually ma (rising toe; หมา), while in writing, it’s sunak (สุนัข).
Thai registers, for different social contexts, include:
• Street or common speech (ภาษาพูด, spoken language): informal, used between close relatives and friends
• Market vernacular (ภาษาตลาด market language): casual, unceremonious but not intimate
• Formal Thai (ภาษาเขียน, written Thai): the official version, with respectful terms of address (used in simplified form for newspapers)
• Rhetorical Thai: for public speaking
• Religious Thai: used to discuss Buddhism or address monks, and
• Royal Thai (ราชาศัพท์): to address members of the royal family or describe their activities.
Educated Thais are familiar with all of these; those less educated have less familiarity. As situations grow more formal, so do honorifics and other terminology -as when one speaks differently with a doctor than with an intimate friend… Even in English, we have legal language, journalistic language and many others, but the Quaker influence which led to the opposite of the terminology they chose coming into general use (still, though, simplifying things) hasn’t occurred in Southeast Asia (unless perhaps communism is producing something like that effect in Vietnam, where I’ve never been and of whose language I know only that there are seven, two more, tones).
Half a book might be made on Thai pronouns alone, but simply, Phom or Dichan are snobbily polite, Chan (sometimes pronounced Shan) is the best informal 1st person pronoun, except in formal documents where one becomes a Slave of God (Ka-prajao ข้าพระเจ้า). 1st person pronouns include: ผม, เรา, ฉัน, ดิฉัน, ชั้น, หนู, กู, ข้า, กระผม, ข้าพเจ้า, กระหม่อม, อาตมา, กัน, ข้าน้อย, ข้าพระพุทธเจ้า, อั๊ว, & เค้า… Each expresses gender, age, politeness, status, or relationship between speaker and listener.
2nd person uses Khun (คุณ; good, virtue, value, quality) normally, Thaan (falling tone, ท่าน) to be even more respectful (it can be 3rd person too). Meung and Kae need to be understood when heard, but not used. Thuh (Ter, or, alternatively, Thoe… written in Thai, เธอ) is used informally, sometimes offensively, sometimes intimately, sometimes to show displeasure with children… Rao, or puak rao (เรา, or พวกเรา, the group of us) is usually “we”, but can also be a casual form of I/me or even you.
For 3rd person, khao (เขา; rising tone, sometimes puak khao - พวกเขา) is fine, Kae or Mahn (it, มัน) are OK but somewhat rude - or, as it is with 1st and 2nd person, a given or nickname can be used. Them, they = puak khao or kao thang lai (for only two people, khao tang song, or, if you will, r)khao h)thang r) sawng)…
The reflexive pronoun is tua eng (ตัวเอง); it can mean any of: myself, yourself, ourselves, himself, herself, themselves. This can be mixed with another pronoun to create an intensive pronoun like tua phom (ตัวผมเอง meaning I myself) or tua khun (ตัวคุณเอง - you yourself). Tua eng is Me, thuh eng (เธอเอง)You… Khon ni (คนนี่): Me; Khon nan (คนนั่น): That One… There’s also Nai (นาย master, 2nd, 3rd person). Again, Rao (เรา, or puak rao พวกเรา) can be first person (I), second person (you), or both (we), depending on the context.
And there’s even Khun Nu, if you want to be both sycophantically obnoxious and patronizing simultaneously…
A person might refer to themselves by nickname, but in northern “Lao” areas, to refer to another person they add “I” as a prefix (I’m called “I-Jo” or sometimes “Eye-John”); in the Central Plains that’s considered insulting and khun (คุณ means “good”) must be used. For a Chinese, “Ah” is often preferred (for a man), Jae for a woman (Ah is always followed by a name; Jae need not be).
Pii and nong indicate relative relation, not only about who is older and who younger, but who is more influential. Pii (พี่) may mean older brother or older sister, but is also used for older acquaintances), and nong (น้อง) younger brother or sister (but also used for younger acquaintances); luk pii and luk nong refer to first cousins, luk lahn to nieces and nephews and grandchildren.
Thai has no possessive pronouns; instead possession is indicated by the particle khong (ของ). For example, “my mother” is mae khong phom (แม่ของผม, mother of I). This particle is often implicit, as in mae phom (แม่ผม).
When speaking to someone older, nu (หนู) is a feminine first person (I); when speaking to someone younger, it’s a gender-less second person (you).
The second person pronoun thoe (เธอ, meaning you) is semi-feminine, used when the speaker or the listener (or both) are female. Males usually don’t address each other with it, except in the case of a father expressing intimacy with small children. “Khun thuh” (คุณเธอ) is a feminine derogative third person, but I’ll note here that inflammatory Thai speech is usually not taught, for good reason.
Instead of a second person pronoun such as khun (คุณ, you), it’s much more common for unrelated strangers to call each other พี่, น้อง, ลุง, ป้า, น้า, อา, ตา, or ยาย (brother, sister, uncle, aunt, grandpa, granny), but this is often inappropriate for foreigners, especially when the relationship has not been at all defined. Typically, one starts with faen (แฟน), or, “Faen, ja”… !!!
To express deference, the second person pronoun is sometimes replaced by a profession, similar to how, in English, presiding judges are always addressed as “your honor” rather than “you”. In Thai, students always address their teachers by kru (ครู), Khun kru (คุณครู), or ahjaan (อาจารย์ - each means teacher, อาจารย์ ranking higher than ครู) rather than คุณ (you). Doctors are addressed as Khun Moh (คุณหมอ); in print นาย แพทย์ (Nai Peht).
A monk, and even a novice monk, is not a khon, but a dohn: pra dohn neung = one monk. Pra ong neung = a Buddha image. Pra ong nohn = that particular Buddha image. Neither can be mahn (it) as a pra ong is NEVER just a thing. Members of the royal family also require specialized terminology, as also some high officials.
It all requires some getting used to! Perhaps it’s just an urban legend, perhaps not, but it’s said that a young man in India somehow got hold of a Thai transliterative dictionary, and learned the language by himself. Some amazed Thai academics came to observe this phenomenal person, and reported that he could indeed speak Thai – in a rather strange way… As it’s unlikely to have been in his dictionary, I wonder what term that guy would’ve chosen to refer to speed bumps, and how close he might have gotten to whatever road-building contractors here call them!