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How to speak more politely in Thai Posted by on Mar 21, 2011 in Beginner, Culture

The next time you go to a Thai temple, I want you to listen in on the conversation between monks and the people asking for prayers. What you’ll notice visually is a complex set of cultural motions, and if you listen carefully, you’ll also notice something very interesting about the language too. You may or may not understand much of what they say depending on your fluency level, but you will however notice that the worshippers speak very slowly and clearly. If you have a good vocabulary, you’ll also notice them using very formal words spoken very softly and carefully.

This, my readers, is how to be polite (su2 paap3 สุภาพ) when speaking Thai.

The first part is easy – speaking slowly. Unless you’re an expert, chances are you couldn’t speak fast if you wanted to. When I first started learning Thai and I was told ‘speak slowly to be polite’, the first thing I thought was ‘I’m the slowest speaker in the country – this is going to be easy!’

The second part, of using formal language, is almost just as easy. It turns out that when Thais teach their language, they teach you what is called paa1saa5 suay5, or ภาษาสวย meaning ‘beautiful language’. This is how books in Thai are written, and it’s considered the grammatically correct way to read, write, and speak. It’s also the language of the educated/literate, so it closely matches the Bangkok dialect as well. If you were going to write a book, or speak to someone above you (ie monks, your wife’s parents, the King of Thailand, etc), this would be how you should speak. The disadvantage to this is that Thais do not speak ภาษาสวย in their daily life – and if you do, they will say something like ‘you talk like a book’.

There is actually one other part about speaking politely. Depending on the situation, there are different vocabulary sets you should use. But as this goes into the more intermediate and advanced Thai, I’m not going to go into it.

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