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!


Writing systems | Language and languages | Language learning | Pronunciation | Learning vocabulary | Language acquisition | Motivation and reasons to learn languages | Arabic | Basque | Celtic languages | Chinese | English | Esperanto | French | German | Greek | Hebrew | Indonesian | Italian | Japanese | Korean | Latin | Portuguese | Russian | Sign Languages | Spanish | Swedish | Other languages | Minority and endangered languages | Constructed languages (conlangs) | Reviews of language courses and books | Language learning apps | Teaching languages | Languages and careers | Being and becoming bilingual | Language and culture | Language development and disorders | Translation and interpreting | Multilingual websites, databases and coding | History | Travel | Food | Other topics | Spoof articles | How to submit an article

Information about Thai | Phrases | Numbers | Family words | Tower of Babel | Books about Thai on: and [affilate links]


Green Web Hosting - Kualo

Why not share this page:

If you like this site and find it useful, you can support it by making a donation via PayPal or Patreon, or by contributing in other ways. Omniglot is how I make my living.


Note: all links on this site to, and are affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you click on any of them and buy something. So by clicking on these links you can help to support this site.

Get a 30-day Free Trial of Amazon Prime (UK)