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Approaching the Thai Language

by Tom Thompson

I was only going to be in Thailand for a first visit lasting a week or so. But I was determined to learn some of the language. I had known ahead of time only that Thai is uninflected, primarily monosylabic, and tonal.

But once in Bangkok, I was initially impressed with the simplest of greetings, and a language of its own, known as the Wai (ไหว้), which consists of a slight bow, with the the palms pressed together, with the fingers extended at chest level close to the body when bowing slightly. The higher the hands are placed, the more respect is shown. The word often spoken with the Wai is "Sawardee," (สวัสดี). (There's a grammatical suffix of -krap for a male, or -kah for a female speaker.)

Thai people learn the Wai from birth. It reflects the social status of the people greeting each other. That social status is taken very serioiusly, and the various positions and gestures can be graceful, and expressive, showing respect, authority, submissiveness, happiness, or obedience.

Foreigners aren't expected to understand this aspect of Thai cuilture in any detail. But for those of us who do make the effort, its a chance to open a window of respect for Thai culture and society. In fact, the Wai is common in Southesast Asia in the Buddist countries of Cambodia (called Sampeah) and Laos (called Nop). Perhaps the Wai has its origins in the Indian practice of "Namaste," a gestrure of respect, which also shows that neither individual has any weapons.

For an avid language learner, I found the Thai people whom I met to be incredilby patient and polite, almost to an extreme degree. People seemed to smile and laugh at odd times, which on reflection was clearly a way of releasing the tension of embarrassment or awkwardness, often my own. But clearly Thai culture does not encourage the outward expression of negative emotions.

All the better in a new language environment where literally everybody I met worked hard to help me learn even some basics. While Thai has a reputation for being difficult, core principles seemed straightforward, and I could measure my progress from day to day. Vowels are written above, below, before, and after consonants, so that they mostly modify consonants. There is no upper case, and the language includes no plurals or tenses. But a past tense or future tense is easily identified by extra words in a sentence.

The elegant characters of the Thai script are a fascinating mix of curved symbols. They may look like they are run together, but, in fact, they are all divisible. The Thai alphabet is based on Indian Pali, Sanskrit, and also includes a large number of Mon and Khmer words.

Back at home, I'm looking for a good language program that offers Thai!


Information about Thai | Thai phrases | Tower of Babel in Thai | Thai learning materials