Here is a bit of an interesting topic: how do names work in Thai? As odd as this may seem, Thai naming conventions actually have quite a unique and interesting history. Beyond that, the idea of nicknames also offer a different perspective into Thai culture. For the purposes of learning Thai, having some idea of how names in Thai work can be helpful in understand how communication works and how to address people correctly. We have talked previously of how to be polite in Thai, and this topic can play a part in that. So, for today, let’s have a glimpse at names in Thai.
A Quick History Of Names In Thai
As you would expect, people have been given names pretty much since we have been able to talk. The same is true in Thailand, as people have had names for most if not all of its history. However, the idea of surnames or family names in Thai are relatively new in the kingdom. Only since the 20th century have Thai people used surnames for themselves.
Previously, Thai people were referred to by their first name or given name, or possibly some information such as where they are from. Middle names were not and are still not used. It wasn’t until around 1913 that the King declared that surnames be given and recorded across the kingdom, for the purposes of a new registration system. Interestingly, this followed the Western name convention where the first name is written before the surname. This differs from some neighboring countries like China where the surname comes first.
The introduction of these naming conventions led to some interesting situations. As people were not supposed to share a surname if they are not related, people had to go to great lengths (literally) to make sure their surname was unique. This meant that surnames were made to be longer and more complex, closer to phrases than words. Ultimately, this ensured that no two names were the same. This is how nicknames became common for referring to people, as it is much easier.
Due to the nature and length of Thai names, it is not uncommon for people to have their own nicknames. These are shorter names that people are given to them and used frequently. They can sometimes be used more often than their real names. You may even find that people don’t know their friends’ or coworkers’ ‘real’ names.
Nicknames are given at birth by the parents and may not necessarily relate to their real name in any way, instead relating to their physical features, behavior, or desirable things. Sometimes, they can be completely random choices but have a particular symbolism like welath or knowledge. You may find people with interesting nicknames that are not traditionally used as names for this reason.
Also, when speaking with foreigners, Thai people may choose an alternative, English name to save the difficulty of pronunciation with their Thai name. However, Thai nicknames are often English words or are Thai words that are short enough and easy to pronounce.
Honorifics For Thai Names
Honorifics refer to the titles placed before the name of a person and generally denote the relationship with the person. In English, we use mister (Mr) and miss (Ms), for example. These also exist in Thai, though they behave slightly differently. An equivalent for mister or miss would be ‘khun’ (คุณ). This is often used for official purposes and for politeness.
Thai honorifics can be quite complex, especially when it comes to pronouns. These are affected by things such as age, gender, relationship, politeness, and more. This of course makes choosing the right word difficult. However, kinship terms are slightly easier to understand.
Kinship terms are words used to show your relationship with another person. They go before the persons name. These include words like older brother/sister, known as ‘pii’ (พี่) in Thai. It doesn’t necessarily have to be used in a literal sense, as people also use these words for people they are close with.
There are also some other titles that are placed before the first name/nickname of a person when you talk to them. These include things like teacher, known as ‘kruu’ (ครู), or doctor, known as ‘mah’ (หมอ).
Thai Naming Conventions
So, while this seems like a pretty boring topic, it does end up being quite useful and ultimately important for learning Thai. There are several things to be mindful of when speaking and addressing other people, such as the honorifics. All together, it makes for an interesting glimpse into the culture of Thailand, it’s history and how people communicate. It is better to start learning Thai naming conventions now so you are ready when it comes to talking with others.
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