In English there is really only one word to refer to yourself, ‘I’. Thai, however, has as many words for ‘I’ as the Eskimos have words for snow. I will list them in order, starting from the beginner level, and working up to more intermediate words.
The first and most common is the word ผม, which sounds like ‘pom’ with a rising tone. This is the default way for guys to refer to themselves, and it’s fairly polite too. Also, just like the word ‘krap’ ครับ, women occasionally use this word to refer to themselves.
The next most common is ฉัน, which sounds like ‘chan’ with a rising tone. This is the default way for women to refer to themselves, and it’s also fairly polite. This is similar to ดิฉัน (de chan), which is much more polite.
‘row’ is an interesting word. It actually means ‘we’, but it’s always used as ‘I’. Picture the British queen saying ‘We are not amused!’, where she uses ‘we’ to refer to herself. Only women use this word.
กู , pronounced goo, is a very rude way of referring to yourself. If you’ve seen the movie Tom Yum Goong starring Tony Jaa, then you’ve heard this word. Towards the end of the movie, when he is trying to find his beloved elephant, he repeatedly yells out ช้างกูอยู่ไหน, which roughly translates to ‘where the f&%$ is my elephant?’
You probably are familiar with these two words to me ‘he’, and sometimes ‘they’. It can also mean ‘I’. It’s very rare to hear the word used as ‘I’, but when it is, it can be very confusing.
This word technically means ‘mouse’. But it’s also a word that Thai girls like to use to refer to themselves when trying to sound a little cute, such as when talking to their mother/father or boyfriend.
Koy (falling tone) means ‘I’ in the regional dialect of Isaan. It’s fairly common, and not rude or too polite.
ไอ, pronounced ‘I’, is tapsap, meaning it was taken directly from English. In Thailand, it’s used by people who are trying to sound fancy by using English words mixed with Thai. They don’t actually speak English, but they like to pretend they do. Using this word in Thailand will annoy most people. In the US, the word ไอ is much more common. I’d say a good 20% of all Thais here use it. I often use it, although it’s less polite than ผม. I even know a monk in the US who uses it to refer to himself.
Adtama, meaning ‘I’, is only used by monks. If you are a monk, you just use this word.
[your name here]
Thai women often like to use their name instead of I. For example, Lek says, ‘Lek wants to go eat.’
‘Kaa pa jao’ isn’t used very often. It’s a fancy polite old-fashioned way of referring to yourself. You’ll also sometimes just hear ข้า. In the old days ข้า was a polite way to refer to yourself, so you’ll hear it often in the Thai historical movies – but spoken today it’s actually quite rude. The meaning changed over time.
In terms of politeness, it fits in between ฉัน and ดิฉัน. It’s rarely used, as the speaker who says it is trying to sound posh.
This word, ‘eang’, is rarely used, as it’s both rude and marks you as very uneducated. I’ve only seen it a few times in children’s story books.