Honorifics are a class of words or grammatical morphemes that encode a wide variety of social relationships between interlocutors or between interlocutors and referents.[1] Honorific phenomena in Thai include honorific registers, honorific pronominals, and honorific particles.

Historical developmentEdit

Thai honorifics, although not as extensive as Japanese honorifics, date back to the Sukhothai Kingdom, a period which lasted from 1238 to 1420 CE[2] During the Sukhothai period, honorifics appeared in the form of kinship terms.[3] The Sukhothai period also saw the introduction of many Khmer and Pali loanwords to Thai. Later, in the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351 to 1767 CE), a new form of honorific speech evolved. While kinship terms continued to be used, a royal vocabulary known as "raja-sap" (Thai: ราชาศัพท์; RTGSRachasap) emerged.[4] The Raja-sap, an honorific register, was created as a way for commoners and aristocrats alike to talk to and about the king of Thailand. Soon after its creation, the use of royal vocabulary was extended to address all members of the royal family as well as aristocrats. At the same time, a clerical vocabulary used to talk to or about monks arose, very similar to the raja-sap. With the development of royal and clerical vocabularies, means for honorific speech increased significantly. The Bangkok period, from 1782 to the present, saw even greater expansion of the raja-sap as it became the formal, or polite, way to address all peoples or topics. Specifically, lexical items from honorific registers replaced native Thai pronouns, resulting in an entirely new set of pronominal forms. Kinship terms continued to be used as honorifics, and a new type of honorific emerged as well, polite particles.

Honorific registersEdit

The roots of Thai honorific registers lie in Khmer and Khmero-Indic (Pali or Sanskrit words borrowed first into Khmer, then from Khmer into Thai) loanwords.[2] Khmer and Khmero-Indic words were originally borrowed into Thai by an educated, Thai upper class, specifically kings and monks, in order to discuss Buddhism. When the need for honorific registers arose, the Thai people turned again to Khmer. Borrowing heavily from Khmer, the Thai constructed a royal vocabulary, a large lexicon of Khmer and Khmero-Indic words, appropriate for addressing the monarchy. At the same time, a clerical vocabulary emerged, much smaller but similar in function and origin to the royal vocabulary. The clerical vocabulary, also composed mainly of borrowings from Khmer, enabled the common people to communicate with and about monks. Lexical items from standard Thai, royal vocabulary, and clerical vocabulary are shown side by side in the table below:

English gloss Standard Thai Clerical vocabulary Royal vocabulary
'hand' mɯː (มือ) mɯː (มือ) pʰrá-hàt (พระหัตถ์)
'house' bâːn (บ้าน) kù-tì (กุฎิ) wāŋ (วัง)
'mother' mɛ̂ː (แม่) jōːm-mɛ̂ː (โยมแม่) pʰrá-tɕʰōn-ná-nīː (พระชนนี)
'to give' hâj (ให้) tʰà-wǎːj (ถวาย) tʰà-wǎːj (ถวาย)
'to speak' pʰûːt (พูด) pʰûːt (พูด) tràt (ตรัส)
'to sleep' nɔːn (นอน) tɕām-wàt (จำวัด) bān-tʰōm (บรรทม)

Honorific pronominalsEdit

Personal pronounsEdit

Personal pronouns are the most numerous and complex of pronominal forms in Thai. Personal pronouns may make the following semantic distinctions:[5]

  1. Number: singular, plural, ambiguous
  2. Person: first person, second person, third person, ambivalent
  3. Gender
    1. Primary distinctions are distinctions of gender that are inherent to pronouns: male, female
    2. Secondary distinctions are distinctions of gender that depend on the presence or absence of other semantic features like status, intimacy, or non-restraint: male orientation, female orientation, neutral orientation
  4. Age: absolute, relative
  5. Speaker-addressee-referent relationship
    1. Primary distinctions
      1. Status-the status of the speaker relative to an addressee or referent. Status may be determined by relative age (elders have higher status), rank (king>royalty>monks>government and military>professionals>white collar>blue collar), or non-intimacy (strangers are treated as at least equals)
      2. Intimacy - the kind and degree of close, day-by-day association
      3. Non-restraint
    2. Secondary distinctions
      1. Deference
      2. Politeness
      3. Assertiveness

Kinship termsEdit

Kinship terms are used pronominally to elevate or demonstrate solidarity with an addressee.[2] To address a listener as kin is, in effect, to confer the listener with the same status as the aforementioned kin. Generally, kinship terms contain both literal and displaced meanings.[5] Kinship terms are considered literal in cases of blood kin, affinal kin, and teknonymy. They are considered displaced when used with kinlike individuals: intimate friends of kin or kin of intimate friends. When using kinship terms, age is critical.[2] Speakers must estimate the age of an addressee to determine his or her generation and choose an appropriate kinship term. Kinship terms commonly used as honorific pronominals are summarized in the table below.[6]

English gloss Thai
'father' พ่อ /pʰɔ̂ː/
'mother' แม่ /mɛ̂ː/
'older brother/sister' พี่ /pʰîː/
'younger brother/sister' น้อง /nɔ́ːŋ/
'child' ลูก /lûːk/
'grandchild/niece/nephew' หลาน /lǎːn/
'great grandchild' เหลน /lěːn/
'great great grandchild' ลื่อ /lɯ̂ː/
'uncle (mother/father's older brother)' ลุง /lūŋ/
'aunt (mother/father's older sister)' ป้า /pâː/
'aunt/uncle (mother's younger brother/sister/cousin)' น้า /náː/
'aunt/uncle (father's younger brother/sister/cousin)' อา /ʔāː/
'grandfather (father's father)' ปู่ /pùː/
'grandmother (father's mother)' ย่า /jâː/
'grandfather (mother's father)' ตา /tāː/
'grandmother (mother's mother)' ยาย /jāːj/
'great grandparent' ทวด /tʰûa̯t/
'great great grandparent' เทียด /tʰîa̯t/

Speakers may demonstrate additional respect by adding the polite title khun before any kinship term. Kinship terms are commonly followed by personal names or nicknames.

Status termsEdit

Status terms denote referents in terms of occupation or status.[2] While some status terms are used as first, second, or third person pronouns, others are restricted to second and third person only. Many pronominal status terms are preceded by titles, such as khun or thân. Status terms may also be used as titles before given names.[3] A few status terms frequently used as pronominals are presented in the table below:[6]

Thai English gloss
อาจารย์ ʔāːtɕāːn 'teacher/professor'
ครู kʰrūː 'teacher'
หมอ mɔ̌ː 'doctor'
พยาบาล pʰájābāːn 'nurse'
กระเป๋า kràpǎw 'bus fare collector' (pocketbook)
สามล้อ sǎːmlɔ́ː 'pedicab driver' (tricycle)
แท็กซี่ tʰɛ́ksîː 'taxi driver' (taxicab)
ตุ๊ก ตุ๊ก túk túk 'motorized pedicab driver'
ท่านทูต tʰân tʰûːt 'Mister/Madame Ambassador'
ท่านอธิบดี tʰân àtʰíbɔdīː 'Mister/Madame Director General'
ท่านอธิการ tʰân àtʰíkāːn 'Mister/Madame Rector' (of university)
ท่านรัฐมนตรี tʰân ráttʰamōntrīː 'Mister/Madame Minister' (of state)
ท่านนายกรัฐมนตรี tʰân nāːjók ráttʰamōntrīː 'Mister/Madame Prime Minister'


In Thai, a person's full name consists of a given name followed by a surname or family name.[5] In addition, most individuals have a nickname. As pronominals, given names are used most frequently in second person form. Given names are often preceded by the courtesy title khun when addressing friends or acquaintances. Given names are sometimes truncated to convey mild informality. Nicknames, like given names, are used most often in second person. They generally do not take titles. Nicknames are a friendly, affectionate way to show intimacy between interlocuters.

Honorific particlesEdit

Honorific particles are added to the end of an utterance or clause to show respect to the addressee.[7] Honorific particles may exhibit the following semantic distinctions:

  1. Sex: male, female, neutral
  2. Status: superior, equal, inferior
  3. Social mood: a continuum ranging from formal at one end to extremely intimate at the other
  4. Illocutionary force: affirmative, imperative, interrogative

Polite particles are not used in conjunction with honorific registers or in written language.[2] Two commonly used polite particles[6] are summarized in the table below.

Thai Sex Status of addressee Social mood Illocutionary force
ครับ khráp male equal/superior formal affirmative/imperative/interrogative
ค่ะ khá female equal/superior formal affirmative/interrogative



Thao (ท้าว) "Lord" or "Lady", was formerly used as synonymous with Thai royal and noble title phraya, as made clear in expressions such as thao phraya (ท้าวพระยา) and pen thao pen phraya (เป็นท้าวเป็นพระยา).[3][8] For example, Thao Thepkrasattri, Thao Seesunthon, and Thao Suranaree are famous heroines in Thai history, but theirs is an honorific, not a feudal title. Pronounced with a high tone, it is similar in sound to falling tone thao (เฒ่า phonemic Thai /เท่า/), "elder".[9] The latter may be used as a pronoun when speaking to or about an elder, but should not be confused with the former.


Sri (ศรี) is pronounced Si and usually so transcribed. Sri and Si derive from the Sanskrit honorific Sri, but occur in Thai as a part of a personal name, such as Bun Si (บุญศรี); or as part of a place name such as Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Foley, William. Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Khanittanan, Wilaiwan. "An aspect of the origins and development of linguistic politeness in Thai". Broadening the horizon of linguistic politeness. Ed. Robin T. Lakoff and Sachiko Ide. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing, 2005. 315-335.
  3. ^ a b c Terwiel, Barend Jan (1983). "Ahom and the Study of Early Thai Society" (PDF). Journal of the Siam Society. Siamese Heritage Trust. 71.0 (digital): image 4–5. Retrieved March 7, 2013. Table 1 : Terms indicating rank, title or class from early Siamese sources.
  4. ^ "Royal Words". Internet resource for the Thai language. thai-language.com. October 9, 2013. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  5. ^ a b c Cooke, Joseph R. "Pronominal Reference in Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese." University of California Publications in Linguistics 52 (1968): 1-68.
  6. ^ a b c Smyth, David. Thai: An Essential Grammar. London: Routledge, 2002.
  7. ^ Kummer, Manfred. "Politeness in Thai". Politeness in Language: Studies in its History, Theory, and Practice. Ed. Richard J. Watts, Sachiko Ide, and Konrad Ehlich. Berlin: Moutun de Gruyter, 1992. 325-336.
  8. ^ RID 1999 select ท and enter ท้าว
  9. ^ Thai-language.com

External linksEdit