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Krup & Kah, or features of Thai

Week 34, Episode 67

After every word was properly spotted in lines of Thai words with no gaps that create sentences and every tone for each syllable was identified according to the parameters described earlier, now it's time to understand the logic that brought these exact words in this exact order together—in other words, the grammar. And this journey is not going to be easy-breezy, either.

Although, some grammar pecularities make learning this language easier:

  • There are no articles (like a/an, the in English).
  • Verbs don't conjugate (don't change their form depending on person, number, or gender) and don't have different forms for tenses.
  • Nouns don't change by number or gender.
  • Adjectives and adverbs often take the same form.

A very specific feature of the Thai language is particles. There are polite particles, question particles, and even mood particles that show attitude toward a situation or listener. In most cases, they're untranslatable, yet using and understanding them is crucial for mantaining a fully-fledged conversation in Thai.

Polite particles we've already met in Hindi, Tagalog and Vietnamese. For the Thai language those differ when the speaker is a man—ครับ (krúp)—or a woman—คะ/คะ (kâh/káh). Male speakers use ครับ (krúp) at the end of both statements and questions, while females use คะ (kâh) at the end of statements and คะ (káh) after questions (1 minute):

For the record, polite particles are not the only way to convey respect. Many words in Thai have synonyms, one more polite than the other. So to sound more courteous, besides those ครับ (krúp) and คะ/คะ (kâh/káh) particles, you can also navigate through your word choice.

One striking difference between Thai and English is the way nouns and numbers are combined. If you're in need to count uncountable nouns in English, like water or rice, you'd use containers: two bottles of water, five bags of rice. Same is true for Thai, just the word order is different—noun + number + container: น้ำขวดสอง (náhm song kùat), or literally "water-two-bottle".

When counting countable nouns in Thai, say, pillows, the same word order is preserved, but that last container part is replaced by a classifier which is a specific word for each type of nouns. The classifier for pillows is ใบ (bai), and thus "three pillows" becomes หมอนสามใบ (mawn sahm bai), or literally "pillows-three-classifier".

The list of classifiers in the Thai language is rather immense, but this is something you'd want to get right if speaking proper Thai is your goal.

Question: how do you understand a tense of a verb if, as mentioned at the beginning, verbs don't have specific tense forms? Well, in most cases, the tense is understood from the context. Another hint is adverbs and expressions of time, like "usually", "yesterday", or "next year", etc.

For the future tense, however, there is one more word that can help you out: จะ (jah). Put right before the main word, จะ (jah), like English "will", makes an action happening in the future: ชั้นจะทำอาหาร (chán jà tam ah-hăn​) "I will cook".

Speaking about the pronoun "I", it has different forms for males and females. The version presented above—ชั้น (chán)—is used by females talking to close friends. Men are going to say ผม (pŏm) for "I". But the whole subject is more complicated and there are other ways to say "I" in the Thai language which are worth checking out.

In the same way, there is no single word for "Yes" and "No" in Thai. The form of positive and negative answers depends on the words used in the question: question particles and verbs. For example, if the question particle châi mái? is tagged onto the end of a statement, the latter transforms into a confirmation-seeking question. In this case, answer "Châi" for "Yes" and "Mái châi" for "No".

Similar to châi mái?, the question particle lěr? seeks for confirmation, often with a sense of surprise or disappointment. To agree, use the polite particles ครับ (krúp) and คะ (kâh) according to your gender. To disagree, say "Bplào krúp" or "Bplào kâh".

Neutral Yes/No questions normally end with mái? To answer "Yes" to a mái? question, the verb in the question is repeated; to answer "No", the pattern mâi+verb is used. Don't confuse question word mái, pronounced with a high tone, and negative mâi with a falling tone.

The question particle na? invites agreement with a preceeding statement. It is used commomnly when initiating a conversation. Again, ครับ (krúp) and คะ (kâh) are the words to say "Yes". "No" is created by mâi+verb+krúp or mâi+verb+kâh.

Sentences that contain the word เป็น (bpen), similar to English "is/are", are answered "Bpen" as "Yes" and "Mâi bpen" as "No"; sentences with ต้อง (dtawng), or "must", use "Dtawng" as a positive answer and "Mâi dtawng" as a negative one; etc. I guess, you can see the pattern there.

With all this kind of nuances and rules and quite a specific script, Thai is spoken by about 60 million people (in Thailand, mainly) and, while visiting that exotic country, it might be a good idea to learn some phrases and words in Thai for, even if pronounced clumsy, the effort will be quite appreciated.

My personal favorite is "Snake snake fish fish", but this is a story for the next episode.

เจอกัน! (Jee gun!) See you!

" Great article, châi mái? Châi! Like and share, kâh! "

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