Learn the Meaning of “You” in the Thai Language
As I mull over what to order for a rare dinner out, my server crouches down beside me and, pointing to a menu item, says “Perhaps pi puying would like this?” Of course, I’m translating everything he said, except for pi puying.
Pi puying is Thai for “older sibling who is female” or “older sibling lady.” This Thai combination of endearment and respect was all it took to make me feel appreciated, respected, and warmly welcomed and had me handing over a big tip.
In English, you might call a stranger “sir,” “miss,” or “ma’am,” before switching to “you” for the rest of the conversation. However, the Thai language has a plethora of other ways to address “you” across an entire spectrum, from formal, respectful, and deferential to casual, warm, and familiar (sometimes, a little too familiar!).
Read on for a deeper look into this charming aspect of the Thai language and how so much can be said with a single word.
The many sides of “you”
In grade school, Thais begin with the most common, polite, and gender-neutral “you” pronoun, khun (คุณ). When indicating a larger difference in the status between the two speakers, we also learn the more polite tan (ท่าน).
Then there’s the other side of the spectrum. As in other cultures, being more informal can indicate a closer bond. In Thai, you can reflect your bonds with “you.” Peers might refer to each other as gae (แก), ter (เธอ), or eng (เอ็ง).
Taken even further, Thais, especially youths, might use the most impolite ku (กู meaning “I”) and mung (มึง meaning “you”). The Silpakorn University journal article, “Ku and Mung: Thai Teenagers and Independence from Prescriptive Language Usage,” explains their usage as part of a “language of solidarity.”
Let’s not forget the large expat community in Thailand. Thais often add the polite khun to the front of their foreign colleagues’ names because it feels strangely plain and even rudely abrupt without it. From there, expats can begin the long climb to the inner circles of gae, ter, or perhaps even mung. When expats return home, they may long for their erstwhile honorifics in a language at once chivalrously polite and affectionately rude.
When “you” goes wrong
If impolite pronouns can be signs of affectionate familiarity in the right context, then polite pronouns can also be signs of sterile formality in the wrong context.
Although khun can signal esteem, it could also mean the speaker is deliberately putting distance between them and the other person. When used with a friend or loved one, it can even show irritation or dissatisfaction.
In extreme cases, mung can indicate an outburst of anger, especially if used by a complete stranger. Of course, by that point, there would be plenty of other more obvious non-verbal indications of the speaker’s mood and tone.
All in the family (even if you’re not)
It may be hard to see in the urban hustle and bustle of Bangkok, but once you leave the cities, you’ll start to see that family is everywhere in Thailand. Family terms are used to refer to each other, even when we’re not blood related.
A parent will often introduce their friends to their children as na (น้า meaning “my mother’s younger sibling”), ah (อา or “my father’s younger sibling”), bah (ป้า or “my parent’s older sister”), or loong (ลุง meaning “my father’s older brother”), followed by the friend’s nickname.
Other familial terms originate from the Teochew dialect, serving a constant reminder that many Thais are of Chinese descent. It’s not uncommon to hear someone shout out hia (เฮีย or “older brother”) to a man who appears to be older or jay (เจ๊ or “older sister) to an apparently older woman. Or perhaps you’ll hear someone endearingly address senior citizens as ah-mah (อาม่า or “grandmother”) or ah-gong (อากง or “grandfather”).
Coworkers, too, are more often than not given the family treatment. As most bosses are older than their employees, they’ll be called pi (พี่ for “older sibling”) plus their first name or nickname. So, of course, this can create a greater sense of obligation and protectiveness among bosses towards their employees, because they’re not just subordinates. They’re nong (น้อง or “younger siblings”).
In turn, employees might also feel more compliant and deferential to their “big brother/sister” bosses. These blurred lines can be difficult to balance, and the best Thai businesses know how to cultivate a workplace culture that feels like a chosen family.
We even address total strangers as relatives. After assessing where the stranger might fit into their family tree, a Thai will use the seemingly appropriate familial “you.” Consciously or otherwise, Thais can create familial roles wherever they go, and that can create a subtle sense of collective responsibility.
Referring to others as family helps break the ice and even sweetens things, as was the case with my server’s pi puying. And by referring to my husband as pi puchai (พี่ผู้ชาย or “older sibling who is male”) rather than the default khun look kha (คุณลูกค้า or “respected customer”), he prevented confusion as to whom exactly he was addressing, another benefit of the dynamic Thai “you.”
A true reflection of Thai culture
A lot goes into selecting Thai pronouns. They not only demonstrate how warm and familial Thais can be, but also how much specific control you can achieve in expressing emotion, friendliness, respect, formality, and courtesy, all concepts that live rent free in the Thai psyche.
Translation tools are getting better all the time, but they don’t necessarily reflect these cultural nuances. This can leave Thais feeling irked when they see clumsy subtitles that don’t match the relationships being depicted on screen, such as between parent and child or manager and employee.
The wealth of information conveyed in these word choices are another great reason to immerse yourself in Thai language learning.