Discover Thai Language: An Introduction to the Beautiful Thai Language

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Thai Language: An Introduction for Beginners

Learn the basics of Thai language with our comprehensive introduction. Discover essential vocabulary, grammar rules, pronunciation tips, and cultural insights to help you communicate effectively in Thai. Start your language learning journey today and immerse yourself in the rich and vibrant world of Thailand through its language.

Here is some basic information on the Thai language to get you familiar with it’s nuances.

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Index

Personal Pronouns – Basic Thai Syntax: Negation, Questions & Answers – Plural (Classifiers) –  Past Tense, Present & Future – Time Specification In Thai (Traditional Method)

Introduction To Thai Language: Basic Grammar & Syntax

Modern Thai is a member of the Tai group of the Tai-Kadai language family, which originates from Southern Chinese territory, where the ethnic group of Thai people has developed before migrating to modern Thai territory. Historically, Thai is linked to Sino-Tibetan languages and vaguely related to Chinese and Khmer. In many aspects – both script and spoken language – Thai corresponds to Lao language, which is closely related to the dialect spoken in Thailand’s North-Eastern region of Isaan but has developed a slightly different simplified alphabet that has adjusted the official script to spoken language.

In Thai language, there are many references to the ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali, evident mostly in scientific and political terms, whereas modern Thai vocabulary has been heavily influenced by English language; e.g. check bin, bia (“beer”), tow-wer etc.

Except for words of foreign origin, most Thai words are mono-syllabic and consist of one syllable. Only a few exceptions may consist of two syllables (“compound words”). Combinations of mono-

syllables, however, can further specify the meaning. For example, the verb rak on its own means “to love”; kwaam rak (kwaam indicates a certain group of nouns) has the meaning “love” (noun).

Probably the most complicated feature of Thai language (for Western learners), is Thai phonology with its unique tonal system that does not exist in most Western languages. In English language for example, it’s possible to pronounce one word with different intonations, however, this does not modify its meaning. But in Thai, a certain intonation of a given word has the function of specifying a completely new meaning.

There are 5 different tones that specify the meaning of a word, and four signs in the alphabet that indicate the intonation of a word: standard tone, deep tone, falling tone, rising tone and high tone.

This means that two seemingly similar words, depending on their intonation, can have two totally different meanings. A famous example is the syllable mai which can have such diverse meanings as “new”, “wood”, “silk” or “to burn,” but is also used for negations (“no”,”not”) and as marker at the end of a sentence in order to signalize a question.

As these multiple possible English translations also demonstrate Thai words aren’t automatically categorized into nouns, verbs or adjectives!

Sounds complicated? It definitely is. So, if you want to learn to speak Thai from scratch or “like a Thai,” your best option is to attend a professional language school here in Thailand. If your aim is only to learn some basic Thai, however, you may as well ignore the complicated tonal system as most people will understand you correctly from the context of your utterance anyway, even if you have used a wrong tone to pronounce a certain word.

There are many regional dialects and varieties of standard Thai language, e.g. the Lao-influenced version of Thai language that your girlfriend from Udon Thani may speak, or the Khmer-influenced variety of her friend from Buriram near the Cambodian border, which probably sound a bit different from the “Oxford-style” standard Thai that actors speak on Thai television.

The most apparent difference is probably the pronunciation of certain letters. To give an example, the Thai alphabet features a letter for the R-sound and also combinations of consonants, e.g. PL or KR, which are pretty common in written Thai.

In opposition to a Thai actor on television, however, the average Thai speaker tends to realize “R” as “L” at the beginning of a syllable, and he/she would simply delete it if the “R” followed another consonant as in KR.

For example, the North-eastern province of “khoRaat” is usually pronounced as “khoLaat” by the locals, and “sawat-dee kRap” (“hello” for male speakers) is simplified to “sawat-dee k_ap”.

Some consonants, however, have two official realizations – one if it appears at the beginning, and an alternative one if it appears at the ending of a syllable, e.g. “CH” = CH/T; “F” = F/P; “J” = J/T; “L” = L/N; “R” = R/N; S = S/T. This means the Thai letter for the consonant “S” is realized as “T” at the end of a word.

In many cases this weird feature of Thai letters has an irritating effect on the English transcription of Thai words. Two prominent examples are Thailand’s King Bhumiphol Adulyadeth, whose name is actually pronounced “PoomipoN AdooNyadet,” or the province of “Chonburi” (where Pattaya is situated), which is sometimes written “Cholburi” on street signs. The reason is that in the original Thai writing, “choN” is actually written “choL” – with the Thai letter for “L”. But as the “L” appears at the end of the syllable, “choL” is correctly pronounced “choN” (hence, “ChoNburi” is the more suitable transcription.)

Other sounds may be completely neglected at the ending of a syllable, i.e. even though the letter is actually written. Typically this applies to words which originate from foreign languages such as the English word “townhouse” which is correctly realized as tow-how – without “N” and “S” at the endings of the syllables – in spoken Thai.

Strangely, Thai script even has a sign which indicates that a certain letter is not being spoken …

Regardless of the numerous regional dialects, standard Thai (including a standard Thai alphabet) is Thailand’s official language and is being studied by students and understood in all parts of the country.

There are different levels of speech – “slang”, “standard”, “polite” and “very polite”. By selecting a certain vocabulary, a Thai speaker indicates his self-perception and rating of his dialogue partner. Accordingly, special vocabulary is being used when addressing Buddhist monks, or when talking about (or with) members of the Royal Family.

On a polite level of speech (which is recommended for foreign speakers of Thai), male and female speakers use different personal pronouns. The two frequently used particles “krab” (for male) and “kha” (for female speakers) are actually meaningless and, when used on their own, could roughly be translated as “yes”. When placed at the ending of a sentence, however, they indicate a polite level of speech and signalize respect for the conversational partner.

The Thai alphabet with its 44 consonants, 21 vowels, 10 diphthongs, triphthongs and a number of auxiliary signs – indicating different tones – will not be a subject of this introduction; instead I’ll try to use a suitable English transcription, which comes as close to the original sounds as possible.

The complicated Thai tonal system which, in order to learn it correctly, needs intensive speaking practice, will therefore also be ignored in the following sections. The basics of Thai grammar and syntax, however, are easy enough for a short description …

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On a most fundamental level, Thai grammar is very simple, especially when compared with more complicated European languages, such as French or German. For example, verbs don’t inflect in Thai, but each lexical unit (word) always stays the same. There is no declination either, no plural forms of nouns and no conjugation of verbs. Moreover, no distinctive verb forms are being used in order to signalize distinctive time levels (past tense, present, future).

While in English, the verb “to have”, depending on the speaker, time etc. is modified each time (I have, she has, we had), the equivalent Thai verb mee (“to have”) always stays mee, regardless of what context it is being used in.

There is no morphological distinction between classes of words such as nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Instead of different categories, certain combinations of words define the current usage of a word.

To give a simple example, by simply doubling the adjective reo (“quick”) it’s turned into an adverb (reo reo = “quickly”), whereas adding the prefix kwaam turns adjectives into nouns (kwaam reo = “speed”). There are no articles in Thai language, and much less prepositions are being used.

Basic Thai syntax is also incredibly simple, every sentence is structured by an “S-P-O” pattern: Subject – Predicate – Object.

Questions and negations are signalized by addition of meaningful particles to a sentence without destroying its basic structure. Also – if the meaning of an utterance isn’t diminished, both subject and predicate can be deleted as well.

Personal pronouns (e.g. “I”, “you”) that refer to a 1st- or 2nd-person speaker, or subjects/objects that have been mentioned previously, can simply be deleted without diminishing the meaning of a sentence (examples below).

As words do not inflect in Thai, and the fundamental structure of a sentence always represents a simple pattern, it is very easy just to learn some basic vocabulary and start building phrases and sentences.

This basic simplicity of Thai grammar, however, does not mean that Thai is a “primitive” or a less precise language than its “complicated” Western counterparts. In order to exemplify some basic patterns of Thai grammar and demonstrate a few more complicated features of the language, let’s learn a few new words first!

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Personal Pronouns

Depending on the “level of speech,” there are different personal pronouns in use. The ones listed are the most commonly used personal pronouns. In Thai, there are no reflexive or other personal pronouns.

Singular
Ipom (male)
chan (female)
youkhun, tur
he/ shekhao
itman (speak "mun")
Plural
werao
theypuak khao
bpaito go
mai (falling tone)expresses negation ("not")
mai (rising tone)signalizes a question
hiu khaohungry
kin khaoto eat
poo yingwoman/ women
suaibeautiful. pretty
reo ("leo")fast, quick
saamthree
bpento be
yaibig, large
leksmall, little
aahaan taithai food
took wanevery day
(maa) tuengto arrive
bpeeyear
nateeminute

Basic Thai Syntax

Negation, Questions & Answers

As mentioned above, in Thai language every sentence is fundamentally structured by an “S-P-O” pattern: Subject – Predicate – Object. For example, pom bpai pattaya = I go (to) Pattaya.

Negation can be expressed by simply placing the word mai (with falling tone!) in front of the verb:

pom mai bpai pattaya = I do not go to Pattaya.

Questions can be signalized by adding the word mai – with rising tone – at the end of a sentence:

For example, khun bpai pattaya = You go to Pattaya.

khun bpai pattaya mai? = Do you go to Pattaya?

“rue bplao” in a question has the same function as mai but a slightly different meaning (“or not”):

khun bpai pattaya rue bplao? = Do you go to Pattaya (or not)?

“(laew) rue yang” which roughly translates as “already or not yet,” is being used in order to add a temporal aspect to a question, for example:

khun kin khao (laew) rue yang? = Have you already eaten (or not yet)?

The correct Yes-answer is kin laew = I (have) eat(en) already. The correct No-answer is yang mai kin or simply yang = not yet.

As mentioned above, in certain cases subject and object (or either of them) can be deleted when the reference is obvious.

Question: khun bpai pattaya mai?

Answer: (pom) mai bpai (pattaya) = (I do) not go (to Pattaya).

The same rule applies when a 1st-person speaker makes a reference to him/herself or addresses a conversational partner. For example, when uttered by a first person speaker,“hiu khao” has the same meaning as pom/chan hiu khao = I am hungry. Accordingly, the phrase hiu khao mai? has the same meaning as khun hiu khao mai? = Are you hungry?

hiu (krab) instead of pom hiu khao would be fully sufficient as answer and could be translated as “yes” in this case.

This example also demonstrates a common “informal” method of replying to questions in spoken Thai. For a Yes-answer, one simply repeats the “most important” word of a question (usually the verb); for a No-answer one simply places mai in front of the most important word of the question: Question: hiu khao mai? Answer: mai hiu.

Question words are generally placed in front of the S-P-O structure. For example: tam-mai khun hiu khao = Why are you hungry? (tam-mai = why). The only exception is arai = what.

Adjectives always follow the noun which they describe, for example: poo ying tai suai (poo ying = woman, suai = beautiful.) Literally translated, this means “woman/women thai beautiful,” or “Thai women are beautiful.”

Other than in English and most Western European languages, no equivalent of “to be” is required to link nouns and adjectives, i.e. adjectives immediately follow a noun.

Comparative forms are built with kwaa, e.g. suai kwaa = more beautiful (than).

poo ying tai suai kwaa poo ying yoo-rop = women Thai beautiful more than women Europe (“Thai women are more beautiful than European women.”)

Superlative forms are built with tee soot, e.g. suai tee soot = most beautiful.

poo ying tai suai tee soot = women Thai beautiful most (“Thai women are the most beautiful.”)

The “too-form” of an adjective, e.g. too expensive, is indicated by the particles koe:n bpai, which follow the adjective. For example, paeng = expensive, paeng koe:n bpai = too expensive.

Adverbs can be easily created by simply doubling an adjective. For example, reo = quick, reo reo = quickly.

As exemplified by the sentence poo ying thai suai, the Thai equivalent of “to be” can be deleted if an adjective is used to describe a noun, however, not if another noun is used to further describe a subject.

It is: somsak bpen khon tai = “Somsak is a Thai (man)”, but poo ying tai suai (without pen). poo ying tai pen suai would be incorrect Thai.

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Plural Forms and Classifiers

Basically, no plural forms of nouns exist in Thai language. poo ying can mean both “woman” and “women.” Unless the context clarifies the usage of a word, or to make a more precise statement, so-called classifiers must be used following the noun. In total, there are 12 different classifiers for different classes of nouns being used in Thai.

For example, khon is the classifier for human beings:

poo ying saam khon = “three women (literally translated, “women three people”)

In a few exceptional cases, plural forms can be created by simply doubling the respective noun; for example, dek = child, dek dek = children.

Genitive Forms can be expressed with kho:ng that roughly translates as “of.” For example, baan kho:ng pom (“house of me”) has the meaning “my house”. [o:] signalizes a “long” O-sound as in morning. In spoken language, kho:ng can also be deleted if the meaning is sufficiently clear. For example, baan pom (“house I”) has the same meaning as baan kho:ng pom (“my house”).

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Time Levels

Past Tense, Present & Future

Verbs do not inflect in Thai. There is no conjugation, and no distinctive verb forms are being used in order to signalize distinctive time levels. Time levels, however, can be clarified by using certain adverbs and conjunctions.

Present

In general, no additional adverbs or conjunctions are needed to express an action taking place in the present. However, the adverb kamlang, placed between subject and predicate, signalizes an action that is currently going on and can be compared to the “Present continuous” in English.

pom kin khao = I eat

pom kamlang kin khao = I am eating (right now).

Dtorn nee, diao nee and khana nee have an equivalent meaning as “now” and emphasize that an action takes place “now.” For example: diao nee pom kin khao = I eat now.

(nai) bpat-joo-ban nee has the meaning as “now, nowadays” (as opposed to before, in the past):

bpat-joo-ban nee pattaya bpen mueang yai = nowadays (these days) Pattaya is a big city (in the past it was just a fishing village).

wee-laa (“way-laa”), dtorn tee and khana tee are temporal conjunctions with a similar meaning as “when,” e.g. wee-laa pom yoo tee pattaya pom kin aahaan tai took wan = When I stay in Pattaya I eat Thai food every day.

Future

ja (or cha, with a short a-sound) signalizes an action that is going to take place in the future and has the same function as “to be going to” or “will” in English. (proong nee = tomorrow)

proong nee pom ja bpai pattaya = Tomorrow I will go to Pattaya.

The conjunction diao … ja, placed around the subject, signalizes an action that will happen in the immediate future, e.g. diao pom ja kin khao = I am going to eat (right now).

The conjunction eek … ja adds a precise time information to an action that is going to happen in the future, e.g.: eek saam bpee pom ja bpai pattaya = In two years I will visit (go to) Pattaya.

Past Tense

There are no distinctive verb forms in Thai to signalize that an action has taken place in the past. Past tense, however, can be expressed by adding certain adverbs and conjunctions.

phoeng signalizes an action that has just taken place: pom phoeng (maa) tueng pattaya = I have just arrived in Pattaya.

The conjunctions … korn or muea … tee laew  indicate that an action has taken place in the past and correspond with “ago” or “before”. They must be combined with a precise indication of time.

saam bpee korn = three years ago (before)

muea saam bpee tee laew = three years ago

muea korn indicates a previous state and can be translated as “before”, “previously,” and “in the past”. (mueang = city)

muea korn pattaya bpen mueang lek = In the past, Pattaya used to be (was) a small town.

muea or dtorn tee signalize actions that have taken place in the past. They can be translated as “when”.

dtorn tee pom maa tueng pattaya = When I arrived in Pattaya …

muea pom maa tueng pattaya = When I arrived in Pattaya …

Temporal When-clauses are correctly built with the temporal conjunction we-laawe-laa originally has the meaning “time” but can be translated as “when” in this case. For example:

wee-laa pom yoo pattaya pom kin aahaan tai took wan = When I stay in Pattaya, I eat Thai food every day.

Conditional If-clauses are built with taa that has an equivalent meaning as “if” in English. It is not obligatory yet possible to extend the main clause with the future particle ja. For example:

taa pom bpai pattaya pom (ja) kin aahaan thai took wan = If I go to Pattaya, I (will) eat Thai food every day.

There are much less prepositions in Thai than there are in English. The one used most frequently and that can be used either as a preposition or a relative pronoun is tee. When used as a relative pronoun, tee can mean both “who” or “which/that”. For example:

tee pattaya = In Pattaya (preposition)

poo ying tee suai = women who (that) are beautiful (relative pronoun)

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Time Specification

There are several methods of time specification in Thai. The most traditional method splits up the day (24 hours) into 4×6 hours, i.e. four six-hour cycles. Within each cycle, the hours are counted roughly from 1 to 6. For Thai numbers, please see our Basic Thai Vocabulary page.

dtee … specifies hours between 0.00h and 6.00h.

… mo:hng chao specifies hours from 6.00h to 12.00h.

bai … mo:hng specifies hours from 12.00h to 18.00h.

… toom specifies hours from 19.00h to 24.00h.

khrueng signalizes half hours, e.g. 21.30h = saam toom khrueng.

All other time specifications are made by hours + minutes, e.g. 21.10h = saam toom sip natee.

For the last quarter of an hour eek can be used, e.g. 19.50h = eek sip natee song toom.

0.00h (midnight)tiang khuen
1.00hdtee nueng
2.00hdtee so:ng
3.00hdtee saam
......
6.00hhok mo:hng chao
7.00hnueng mo:hng chao
8.00hso:ng mo:hng chao
......
12.00htiang wan
13.00hbai nueng mo:hng
14.00hbai so:ng (mo:hng)
......
18.00hhok mo:hng yen
19.00hnueng toom
20.00hso:ng toom
......

For some basic Thai vocabulary and useful Thai phrases, or in order to turn grammatical theory into conversational practice, please visit our Basic Thai Vocabulary page.

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