LANGUAGES IN THAILAND--THAI, CHINESE AND ENGLISH—AND REALLY LONG THAI NAMES

LANGUAGES IN THAILAND

Thailand is famous for its really long, impossible-to say place names, family names and given names. The official name of Bangkok—Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit—has 167 letters and 40 syllables (a Guinness book record for a city name). It means “the Great City, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Capital of the World Endowed with Nine Precious Gems, the Happy City.” (See Names Below)

By one count 74 languages are spoken in Thailand, including numerous Thai dialects. Ethnic and regional dialects also are spoken, as are various dialects of Chinese. In the north, each hill tribe has its own language or dialect. The members of these tribes usually speak Thai as well. In the south near the Malaysian border many people speak only Malay.

Nearly 94 percent of the people speak Tai-Kadai (Daic) languages, with Thai (in various dialects) being predominant and the national and official language. Another 2 percent speak Austro-Asiatic languages, 2 percent speak Austronesian languages, 1 percent speak Tibeto-Burman languages, and 0.2 percent speak Hmong-Mien languages. Standard Thai is based on the dialect spoken in the Chao Phraya Valley.

Foreign visitors often experience difficulty picking up the Thai language and other languages in Thailand as they are considerably different from many foreign languages. Visitors unfamiliar with tonal languages often have difficulty pronouncing even the most basic terms when learning to speak Thai, but with some practice visitors find that Thai people enjoy helping them with their pronunciation of the Thai language. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Making languages in Thailand particularly hard for the average tourist to use is the fact there are so many long, seemingly impossible-to-say names. The problem is compounded further by the inconsistency of romanised Thai spellings. When buying train or bus tickets or giving instruction to taxi drivers it is a good idea to have everything written down. You can either copy the Thai characters from a guide book or phrase book or get a Thai person to write them for you—along with the romanised translation— if you are going to be dealing with taxi and tuk tuk drivers that maybe can’t read English.

The Royal Institute is the official arbiter of the Thai language.

Tai-Kadai Languages

Thai is one of the 40 or so languages in the Tai family found in Thailand, Laos, North Vietnam, and parts of China. Among a number of languages previously spoken in this region, the Thai language, or Siamese Tai, became the language of administration and prestige in the late twelfth century, with its script invented in 1283.

Thai and Laotian are Tai-Kadai languages. Thai is closely related to Laotian and Shan. Some classify it as a Kam-Tai language. Kam-Tai languages are mainly spoken by Thais, Laotians and some tribes in Southeast Asia and China. Speaking of the "Thai" actually means speaking about members of the Tai-Kadai language family, which consists of six subgroups, defined by their geographical settlement: 1) Western Thai (Shan); 2) Southern Thai (Siamese) ; 3) Mekong Thai (Lao, etc); 4) Upland Thai ("Coloured" Thai); 5) Eastern Thai (Nung, etc); 6) Kadai (Li, Kelao, Laqua). This way we can find many members of this language family in China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The Thai language has traditionally been regarded as a branch of the Sintic family of languages, which also includes Chinese and Tibetan. Many now consider it a Tai-Kadai language, which is related to Indonesian and distantly related to the Proto-Austric family of languages spoken in the Philippines, Melanesia. Polynesia and Micronesia.

The Thai-Kadai group is the largest ethnolingustic group in Southeast Asia, There are more than 75 million people in the group and they range across an area that extends from eastern India to southeast China. Most of the speakers live in southern China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Thai and Laotian are Ta-Kadai languages as are the languages spoken by many of the minorities in southern China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

Like Sino-Tibetan languages, Ta-Kadai languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone or pitch in which it is spoken. For example the Thai word maa means "horse" when pronounced with a high pitch, "come" with a medium pitch, and "dog with a rising pitch.

The early people that lived in northern Southeast Asia and migrated there belonged mostly to the Austro-Thai ethnolingustic family, particularly in the Thai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien (Miao-Yao) subgroups. Austro-Thai groups occupied a long swath of that extends from Assam area of northeastern India to the Red River valley in southern China and northern Vietnam.

Thai Language

Thai is the national language of Thailand. Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal language. It has five tones (meaning that words or syllables with similar sounds have a different meaning depending on the high, low, rising, falling or level tone or pitch of the sound). For example, the Thai word maa means "horse" when pronounced with a high pitch, "come" with a medium pitch, and "dog with a rising pitch. To untrained ears the differences between tones is often very hard to detect.

Because Thai is tonal it is very difficult for non-Thai- speakers to speak even if you have a phrase book. The Thai language also has its own alphabet, with 44 consonants, 30 vowels and nine tonal signs. According to the Thailand Foreign Office: “Both spoken and written Thai are quite different from many other languages and hence too complicated for non-native speakers to pick up quickly...The Thai language is neatly and pleasantly structured, reflecting the Thai identity in many ways. It is used only in Thailand, and communicates the gentle nature of the Thai people, for example, through the particles, such as khrap for men and kha for women. Such particles vary with the status of the speakers and the persons spoken to. These are further complicated in the royal language, not to mention a large vocabulary of royal words. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

According to thai-language.com: 1) the “low:” tone is spoken in a constant or slightly falling lower pitch, starting at a pitch lower than your normal vocal range. 2) the “mid” tone is spoken in a constant pitch in your normal vocal range. Do not vary the pitch as the syllable is pronounced.. 3) The “high” tone is spoken at the top of your normal vocal range, producing a somewhat stressed sound. 4) The “rising” tone is a rising sound, as in a question spoken in English. 5) The “falling” tone starts slightly above comfortable speaking range, rise just a little before falling below the starting point.

Status, Rank and Language in Thailand

According to the blog Thai World View: “Thai society is very hierarchal and stratified. In the Thai language many words are used to to say "I" or "YOU". The ways of saying "I" or "YOU" depends on your status, on the status of the person in front of you. That is why when Thais meet people for the first time, they always ask about age, family, job and wages: they do to size up your status and rank and thus know how to address you and which words to use when talking to you. [Source: Thai World View

“Here are the most common words to say "I" or "YOU". Their use depends on the interlocutor. 1) "CHAN" means "I" with family, wife, husband. "THEU" means "YOU" with family, wife, husband. 2) "PHOM" means "I" (masculine) with friends, person of higher status. 3) "DICHAN" means "I" (feminine) with friends, person of higher status. 4) "KHUN" means "YOU" with friends, person of higher status. 5) "THAN" means "YOU" with person of really higher status. 6) "RAO" means "I" (feminine) among the young generations. 7) "KAE" means "YOU" with close friends, servants, parents to children or elders to youth. 8) "KHA PHRA PHUTA CHAO" means "YOU" when talking to the King. 9) "KU" means "I" used by person of really lower status. 10) "MEUNG" means "YOU" used by person of really lower status. Foreigners shouldn’t use the two last words as they are not polite at all. If foreigners use them with a Thai people, they loose a friend forever. There is also many different words when talking with sons of the king, daughters of the king. Different words for five generations. Since King Rama V, people lost their royal ranking status after five generations. [Ibid]

The end of the sentence is also very important. When speaking with unknown persons, end of sentence particle shall be used to show politeness. With closed friends it is not necessary at all. Like words to say "I" or "YOU" there is many end of sentence particles. Here are the most common. 1) "KHRAP" is used by masculine person with person of same status. is used by men to say hello. 2) "KHRAPHOM" is used by masculine person with person of higher status. 3) "KHA" used by feminine person with persons of all status for affirmative sentences. is used by ladies to say hello. 4) "KHA" used by feminine person with persons of all status for interrogative sentences. Thai society is an image of Thai family. Relations elder-younger are part of Thai society. The following example shows the relationship between the village chief and the villagers. 1) The village chief is called "PHO BAAN" or (father - house); 2) The villagers are called "LOOK BAAN" or (children - house). [Ibid]

Vocabulary used when speaking with a monk is not the same as everyday vocabulary. Monks deserve respect. Depending on the age of the monk different words are used when talking to a monk. 1) "LUANG PHI" means "YOU" with a monk that could be a brother. 2) "LUANG PHO" means "YOU" with a monk that could be a father. 3) "LUANG PU" means "YOU" with an old renowned monk. 4) "LUANG TA" ( often a man that did become a monk when he was quite old ) is less respectful that "LUANG PHO". 5) "LUANG THERA" is a Thai word used for a man being a monk for 10 years. [Ibid]

A boy has to be seven years old at least in order to ordain ("BANPHACHA" - ) and become a Buddhist novice. A person who has spent a Lent in monkhood is called "THIT" meaning a cultivated person who is mature enough to have a family of his own. Even for monks, the rank and status appear in Buddhist ceremonies. When a group of monks go for their morning alms walk, the monk with the highest rank and age is at the front of the line while the youngest monk is at the end. [Ibid]

Written Thai

The Thai alphabet was created by Khmer scholars using South Indian scripts as models. The romanized spelling of Thai names, places and words sometimes varies. This is because the Thai script is quite different from western Roman writing and the way Thai sounds are interpreted can be a judgment call or a matter of opinion.

A Thai alphabet, with 44 consonants and 32 vowels, came into wide use and was standardized during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai (Rama the Great, ruled 1279–98) and is an adaptation of Mon and Khmer scripts derived from Indian Devanagari.

The moern Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants, 18 vowels, and 4 diphthong (tonal) notations. Learning to read Thai can be more complicated than learning to speak it as the pronunciation of written words does not follow a straightforward progression of letters and written Thai does not place spaces in between words. Fortunately, road signs are written in both Thai and English, and many tourist areas provide maps, menus, and other literature in both Thai and various other foreign languages.

Romanization and Transliteration of Written Thai

Romanization of Thai words is mostly done using the Thai Royal Academy's system, with the goal of approximating the original pronunciation (without the intonation) while maintaining the readability of the text for readers unfamiliar with the transliteration system. In general, the spelling of Sanskrit-, Pali-, or English-derived vocabulary prefers the reflection of its Thai pronunciation over the etymological origin. Aspirated consonants p, t, and k are represented by ph, th, and kh. For example, phii is pronounced “pee,” not “fee,” and the th, as in kathoey, is pronounced as the t in the words “to” or “ten,” not as the th in “than” or “think.” Proper nouns are represented in romanization with an initial capital letter. Romanization of personal names follows the individual's preference or the spelling in English-language print, and ranks or degrees are, with few exceptions, omitted.

One problem that does occur for foreigners trying to pronounce Thai words correctly is caused by the transliteration of Thai words into Romanized characters. An obvious example would be the island of Phuket, pronounced “poo-ket” rather than “foo-ket” as it would be pronounced in English. Furthermore, there is no official standard for the transliteration of words and thus many Thai words are spelled differently on different maps or street signs (i.e. Even the BTS Skytrain features both Chitlom and Chidlom stations). One reason for this is that many Thai words (especially people and place names) have Sanskrit and Pali spelling but the actual pronunciation bear little relation to the spelling.

Regional Dialects in Thailand

While most Thai’s speak and understand the central Thai dialect, there are various regional dialects, including those of Southern Thailand and Northeastern Thailand, The latter is essentially just the Lao language (as most of the population is of Lao descent). In northern Thailand, which had been the independent kingdoms of Lan Na and Chiang Mai from 1259-1939, a distinctive form of Thai is still spoken by the local inhabitants, all of whom can also speak central Thai. All variants of Thai use the same alphabet. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

The charm of Thai dialects, apart from serving as an exclusive means of communication in the same locality, also binds the community through custom and tradition, particularly in folk performances such as mo lam of the Northeast and nora of the South, in which local dialects are the main components and provide much of the color. The dialect of each locality varies in tones and words in accordance with ethnicity, lifestyle, and geographical features. Yet the difference is not so great from locality to locality, but is noticeable only from region to region.

The central region, with different local dialects, communicates at ease with Bangkok and between communities, as the dialects are close to the standard Thai used as the official language and in teaching and learning. The only difference from standard Thai may be a simplified form of speech and words, with some tonal variations that can be identified with certain locales. The northern region has a generic name for its several dialects, calling them kham mueang, or the language of khon mueang – the local people – which is melodious and gentle. The northern dialects evolved from the ancient Lan Na Kingdom. The speech is divided into western Lan Na dialects, spoken in Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Mae Hong Son, and eastern Lan Na dialects, spoken in Chiang Rai, Phayao, Lampang, Uttaradit, Phrae, and Nan.

People in the northeastern region have their unique dialect, known as Thai Isan or the Isan language, which bears a close similarity to the Lao language. The Isan language represents the people of the Northeast with its colorful style, wit, and straightforward expressions. It is classified as one of the six Lao dialects, namely Vientiane Lao, found in Chaiyaphum, Nong Bua Lamphu, Nong Khai, Khon Kaen, Yasothon, and Udon Thani; northern Lao, spoken in Loei, Uttaradit, Phetchabun, Khon Kaen, Chaiyaphum, Phitsanulok, Nong Khai, and Udon Thani; northeastern Lao, spoken in Udon Thani, Sakon Nakhon, and Nong Khai; central Lao, used mostly in Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Nong Khai, and Mukdahan; southern Lao, spoken in Ubon Ratchathani, Amnat Charoen, Si Sa Ket, and Yasothon; and western Lao, the dialect of Roi Et, Kalasin, and Maha Sarakham. Moreover, some Thais in southern Isan use Khmer, the Cambodian language, in their daily life.

Dialects in the South have more distinctive differences between them than dialects in other regions have, especially with their heavy intonation and the use of words, some from the official vocabulary, such as laeng, for speech, as in the term laeng tai (spoken southern language), which is the eroded form of thalaeng – to narrate or to inform. The southerners tend to be terse and quick in speech and maintain a strong accent. Southern Thai dialects are classified as the eastern dialect, spoken along the east coast, covering Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung, Songkhla, Pattani, Trang, and Satun; western dialect, used mostly in Krabi, Phang-nga, Phuket, Ranong, Surat Thani, and Chumphon; Songkhla accent dialect, spoken in Songkhla; and che hae accent dialect, found in Narathiwat, Pattani, and down to Kelantan in Malaysia, spoken in combination with an old Malay dialect.

Tinglish and English in Thailand

English is taught in schools and colleges and is also used in academia, commerce, and government. Not surprisingly English is widely spoken in Thailand in the tourist industry. Guides and hotel and restaurant employee often speak English in varying degrees of fluency. Off the beaten track few people speak English well. More people are leaning English all the time and those who speak it well enough to engage in a conversation relish the opportunity to speak it with native English speakers.

English is the secondary language among the well educated and is widely understood in in Bangkok and other large urban areas, where it is a major language of business. According to the Tourist Authority of Thailand: “While the Thai language is the official language of Thailand, one could say English is its unofficial second language. As tourist and business visitors from around the world have traveled to Thailand, English naturally has become the common linguistic “currency” even while many of those visitors learned how to speak Thai. Consequently, population centers that host many foreigners, such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the islands have many people who can speak both Thai and English quite well.

English is regarded as both a key to and barometer of success. One English-language newspaper in Thailand adopted an informal policy of regarding government officials or business leader who don’t speak English as not high ranking or worthy enough to be considered worth interviewing.

Common mistakes made by Thais speaking English include: 1) having difficulty pronouncing two consonants in a row: 2) inserting vowels between consonants; 3) mispronouncing the w sound so it sounds like like v sound; 4) mispronouncing the t or th sound so they sound like s ; 5) omitting pronouns and the verb “be”; 6) using the present tense + "already" instead of the past tense.

Young people are criticized for combining Thai and English words. Tinglish (also Thaiglish, Thailish) refers Thai-English hybrid words and expressions.

A sign in a Bangkok temple read: “It is forbidden to enter a women even a foreigners if dressed as a man. A Thai donkey ride advertisement read: Would you like to ride your own ass? A Bangkok Claners advised: “Drop your trousers here for best results.

Huay is a popular, all-encompassing derogatory word that means “it sucks.”

English Education in Thailand

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has encouraged Thais to learn English. All Thai schools offer English but not many teachers speak it well so the students don’t learn it very well. Many educated Thais have studied abroad, gone to private schools with decent English classes or studied English outside of regular school and thus can speak it pretty well.

South Korea, China, Thailand and Taiwan have all incorporated English into their primary school curriculum. In 1996, learning English was made compulsory in grades one through 12 in Thailand. Under the new rules students aged seven to 17 are required to attend English classes each day for at least 55 minutes. After the requirements were initiated scores on standardized English tests did not improve all that much. This was thought to have been the result of the poor quality of English teaching. Around 80,000 teachers in public schools and 220,000 in private schools were required to teach people but many of them were elementary school teachers who taught other subjects and lacked good English skills themselves. In 2002, 90 percent of the elementary school teachers who took a test to measure their English skills scored poorly on it. At that point there were virtually no English training sessions for teachers. [Source: The Nation, December 2004]

In 2004, training programs form 15,000 teachers were introduced into 30 provinces that welcomed tourists. At the beginning of the programs teachers took a test. About 75 percent scored poorly on it. Those that scored poorly were given 60 hours of instruction. Those that scored in the intermediate range were given 120 hours of instruction. A budget of $9 million was allocated for these people. Teachers that finished the 120 hour program were asked to prepare tourist materials. An English instruction program was also introduced for hotel employees, shopkeepers, tourist guides and taxi drivers. [Source: The Nation, December 2004]

Studying Chinese in Thailand

These days more and Thai children are studying Chinese. Studying Chinese has also become very fashionable elsewhere in Asia, particularly in South Korea and Malaysia, places whose future is tied most closely to China. These areas have traditionally viewed China with some suspicion but now they realize it is time to get on the bus or be left behind.

Michael Vatikiotis wrote in the International Herald Tribune: InThailand in the 1980s “if you wanted to learn Chinese in Thailand, there were very few legal options available. Access to education in the mother tongue was restricted even for Thailand's sizable Chinese community because of a fear of Communist influence. A Thai-Chinese friend of mine remembers learning Chinese in secret under the dining room table. You could, if you liked, attend a sizable Chinese language school run by the 93rd regiment of the Kuomintang who retreated from China after 1949 and settled in the remote hills of Northern Thailand. At one time in the 1980s, the Mae Salong Chinese school was the only educational institution legally offering a secondary school Chinese curriculum in the entire country. [Source: Michael Vatikiotis, International Herald Tribune, January 19, 2006]

The end of the Cold War and China's rise has changed all this. Today you can wander along the crowded streets of Chiang Mai or Bangkok and find Chinese language schools as easily as internet cafes - tiny classrooms tucked away in a row of shop houses. "Chiang Mai Language School" just off Chiang Mai's Changklarn Road is typical. There I met a teacher, Jiang Jiew Moe, who hails from Taiwan. "The school just gets bigger every year," he said. Last year there were 100 students. This year 150 have enrolled. Last year 19 of Jiang's students passed the standard proficiency set by an examination board in China. "My students are mostly young, in their 20's. They come because parents think of their future and want them to learn the language." [Ibid]

Thailand is taking the Chinese language seriously, so seriously that the government has asked China to send teachers. In of January 2006, China's deputy education minister...was in Bangkok to sign an agreement to help train 1,000 Mandarin language teachers every year for Thailand. China will also offer 100 scholarships for Thai students to study in China, and send 500 young volunteers to teach Chinese in Thailand. Meanwhile, the Thai Education Ministry aims to promote the Chinese language alongside compulsory English and hopes that one third of high school students will be proficient in Chinese within five years. [Ibid]

Lending impetus to this move are China's other efforts to promote Chinese language education overseas. Beijing recently established the Confucius Institute, modelled on the British Council and German Goethe Institute, as a nonprofit outfit with the stated mission of "promoting Chinese language and culture and supporting local Chinese teaching."...China's national office for teaching Chinese as a foreign language, which runs the Confucius Institutes, will provide textbooks for schools in Southeast Asia with the catchy title "Happy Chinese." [Ibid]

All of this is a sign of expanding Chinese soft power. But what are the implications of the spread of Chinese language and culture? It's a more important question in a region like Southeast Asia where as many as half the people living in urban areas like Bangkok are of Chinese descent. Many of the young students who attend Jiang's class in the Chiang Mai school have Chinese roots — their fathers and grandfathers came from China. Learning Chinese has deeper implications than the earlier fad in the 1980s of learning Japanese. For one thing, it's hard to become a Japanese citizen. I asked my friends in Chiang Mai, Angsana and Anirut Thongchai, both of whom are of Chinese descent, whether they were pushing their children to learn Chinese. Their elder daughter Prang is into Japanese comics in a big way. Neither she nor her brother has learned Chinese. "It would be a good idea, but we're not pushing them," said Angsana, a teacher at Chiang Mai University. [Ibid]

There's certainly a reason in business circles to learn Chinese; Thailand has already signed a bilateral free-trade agreement with China and more two million Chinese tourists visit Thailand each year, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Jiang cites another and perhaps less obvious incentive for learning Chinese. "It is well known that there are more men than women in Chinese society. We can expect a lot of Chinese men to come looking for brides in Thailand," he predicts in a matter of fact way. "Already the majority of my students are women. They are preparing themselves for Chinese suitors." [Ibid]

Really Long Thai Names

Many Thais have really long names—like Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon, Pornthip Rojanasunand, Yongyut Tiyapairat. Chavarong Limpattamapanese. Yaowapa Boorapolchai, Surapak Puchaisaeng, Chiranuch Premchaiporn Vichairachanon Khadpo, Daranee Charnchoengsilapakul and Boonsong Chaisingkananont— that Westerners don’t even to try pronounce.

Many of these names are tongue-twisting combinations of two or three words that intended to bring good luck rather than describe some ones ancestry. The surname of Industry Minister Suriya Juengrungraungkij means “Jueng family is prosperous in very thing they do.” The surname of radio station owner Witthaya Suphaphonopha means “Prosperity gifted from heaven.” If someone has a short name there is a good chance they are of Chinese descent.

Family names have traditionally not been very important in Thailand. Most Thai didn’t have one until King Rama VI introduced them a royal decree in 1913. It is not unusual for Thais to dump their family names and adopt new ones which they think are pretty, will bring them good fortune or are associated with nobles.

King Rama VI selected the first 6,000 names as part of the Surname Act in 1913, which was created to address legal and administrative problems because people didn’t have names. Many people have unique surnames. Each year the government dreams up new ones and offers them on a first come first serve basis. According to government statistic there were 689,943 different family names in 2000.

Thais generally address one another both formally and informally by their first names. Many people have nicknames. When written down the family name is first, the given name second. Women have lobbied for the right to keep their maiden names.

Thai Nicknames and Western Influences on Them

Virtually every Thai has a nickname. Once you get to know Thai people well, they will encourage you to call them by their nickname instead of their first name. Most Thai nicknames are single syllable words they are given from birth and can be Thai or English words, colors, fruits, or short versions of their first name. Many bear no resemblance to their given names or family names. The most common Thai nicknames have traditionally been Lek (small), Ng (one) and Mai (new). King Bhumibol was known to family members by his nickname “Lek,” meaning little brother. The nickname of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is Khun Poo, or Pu for short.

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “America has Tom, Dick and Harry. Thailand has Pig, Money and Fat. For as long as people here can remember, children have been given playful nicknames — classics include Shrimp, Chubby and Crab — that are carried into adulthood. But now, to the consternation of some nickname purists, children are being given such offbeat English-language nicknames as Mafia or Seven — as in 7-Eleven, the convenience store. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, August 29, 2007]

“The spread of foreign names mirrors a rapidly urbanizing society that has absorbed any number of influences, including Hollywood, fast-food chains and English Premier League soccer. The trend worries Vira Rojpojchanarat, the permanent secretary of the Thai Ministry of Culture. Mr. Vira, whose nickname is the relatively unimaginative Ra, is embarking on a campaign to revive the simple and often more pastoral nicknames of yore. “It’s important because it’s about the usage of the Thai language,” Mr. Vira, an architect by training, said in his office decorated with Thai theatrical masks and a small Buddhist altar. “We worry that Thai culture will vanish.” [Ibid]

With help from language experts at the Royal Institute, the official arbiter of the Thai language, Mr. Vira plans to produce by the end of the year a collection of thousands of old-fashioned nicknames, listed by such wholesome categories as colors, animals and fruit and including simple favorites like Yaay (big), Ouan (fat) and Dam (black). Published in a small booklet, the names will be distributed to the news media and libraries, and posted on the Internet. “We can’t force people,” Mr. Vira said. “It’s their right to have their own ideas. But what we can do is give them options by producing this handbook.”

Thais told about the nickname campaign were skeptical. “I don’t agree with this; it’s unnecessary,” said Manthanee Akaracharanrya, a 29-year-old real estate contractor. Ms. Manthanee, whose nickname is Money, says having an English name is practical because it is easier for foreigners to pronounce, unlike Thai names, which are tonal and can include sounds alien to non-Thai speakers. Her name has meaning, Ms. Manthanee said. Her father chose Money because she was born on Nov. 29, around the time his paycheck landed. Her elder brother is named Bonus because he was born on Chinese New Year, when some companies hand out extra cash. And her younger brother is called Bank, because it fit the theme.

Korakoad Wongsinchai, an English teacher at a private primary school in Bangkok, is also not sure whether the Culture Ministry’s campaign will stem the tide of English names. “Parents think they are modern names,” Ms. Korakoad said of the foreign nicknames. “Thai names are from 20 years ago.” More than half of her students have English names, she said, offering this sampling: Tomcruise, Elizabeth, Army, Kiwi, Charlie and God. One apparently gourmand family named their child Gateaux, the French word for cakes. “I think a lot of parents get the names from television or magazines,” she said. Ms. Korakoad, 30, carries the nickname Moo (Pig), a traditional name that Mr. Vira approves of and says will be in the booklet.

After years of hearing about the spread of foreign nicknames, Mr. Vira says he was spurred into action when he saw the results of a survey of almost 3,000 students in and around the city of Khon Khaen, in northeastern Thailand. In one classroom there were three children nicknamed Bank. To tell them apart, fellow pupils had renamed the children Big Bank, Medium Bank and Small Bank. Forty percent of secondary students and 56 percent of primary students had English nicknames, the survey showed, compared with just 6 percent of university students, indicating a clear trend among the youngest Thais, Mr. Vira said. Ball was the most popular English nickname — possibly because it is the nickname of a well-known Thai tennis star, Paradorn Srichaphan — followed by Oil and Bank.

Mr. Vira, who is the most senior civil servant in the Culture Ministry, says his mission is to preserve what he calls Thai-ness: “not only the Thai language but Thai dress, Thai food — everything that shows Thai identity.” The year 2007 (2550 according to Thailand’s Buddhist calendar) has been proclaimed the Year of Promoting Correct Thai Usage, he said, and the nickname campaign is part of that effort. From a purely practical point of view, Mr. Vira added, having a foreign name like Apple or Bank may be cute for a child, “but once you’re an old man with no teeth, it doesn’t match with the name.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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