Thai First-Person Personal Pronouns

Thai has a highly articulated first-person singular pronominal system. According to Palakornkul (1972), in addition to speaker gender there are seven social factors that underlie the choice of which first-person singular pronouns to use in any given interactional context: status, age, kinship, friendship, ethnic-religious affiliation, occupation, and genealogical distance. In addition to these social factors, pronoun choice also depends on nine aspects of role relationships of the interlocutors involved. These aspects include intimacy, respect, solidarity, formality, presence of children, presence of non-acquaintances and persons with status, length of time of acquaintance, condescension, and emotional manifestations in talk. Tables 10.1 and 10.2 schematically represent this very complex system. In these tables, the sixteen different determining factors of pronoun choice have been mapped onto a simpler system based on Brown & Levinson’s (1978) dimensions of Power, Distance, and Formality (see also Irvine 1979). Power here refers to differences of status between interlocutors, while Distance refers to speakers’ degree of acquaintance. Formality is a property of the speech context itself. Table 10.1 presents the system for feminine

TABLE 10.1

Thai feminine first-person pronouns






/dichan/ (/dichan/, /dian/, /dan/)















pronouns, while the system for masculine pronouns is in Table 10.2. Forms in parentheses are phonological variants of the more standard forms, and pronouns that appear in boldface type are those that are commonly used as epicene pronouns.

We see in Tables 10.1 and 10.2 that Power, Distance, and Formality frame how both feminine and masculine pronouns are used. These three dimensions, however, do not function in the same manner across the two systems. For feminine pronouns, the first consideration is whether or not the balance of power between interlocutors is reciprocal. In situations where it is not reciprocal, / nh:/ is used to signify a speaker’s humbleness, younger age, and lower seniority or social ranking. A second pronoun, /?ichan/, can also be used in these instances, though it is much less common. /?ichan/ is viewed as old-fashioned and normally only heard among elderly speakers. If, in contrast, the balance of power between speakers is reciprocal, pronoun choice for the feminine system then depends on the formality of the context. In formal situations, / dichan/, or one of its phonological variants, is the only option. In terms of variants, /dichan/ can be realized as /dichan/, or as the phonologically reduced forms /dian/ and /dan/. The two phonologically reduced forms are particularly marked among Thai speakers and are stereotypically associated with high social class. Finally, in cases where the balance of power between interlocutors is reciprocal and the situation is informal, social distance between speakers comes into play for feminine pronouns. When the level of intimacy between interlocutors is very high (e.g., as between romantic partners), /khaw/, which can also be realized as /khaw/, can be chosen. In non-intimate situations, / chan/, /chan/, or /raw/ can be used. Finally, to be impolite (including to engage in ritual insult and teasing with close friends), /ku:/ can be used. The system for masculine pronouns (Table 10.2) is much more straightforward. If there is a nonreciprocal relation of power between interlocutors, if the interlocutors are not intimately acquainted with one another, or if a situation is formal, /phom/ is used (Chirasombutti & Diller 1999). In other instances, the choice is among /chan/, /raw/, and /ku:/ forms, which are all also available in the system for feminine pronouns (though the situations which allow any of these pronouns to be used are more restricted).

Tables 10.1 and 10.2 do not provide an exhaustive list of the first-person pronouns available in Thai. Rather, the tables include those that are most

TABLE 10.2

Thai masculine first-person pronouns




/chan/ (/chan/)



commonly found in everyday conversation, and they do not list those pronouns that are rarely used or exclusively used in written language. It is important to note, moreover, that Tables 10.1 and 10.2 depict general patterns rather than definitive rules, and that Thai speakers have a fair amount of leeway in choosing which first-person pronouns to use. In addition, apart from personal pronouns, there are many other types of personal reference terms available in Thai, such as personal names, occupational titles, and kin terms (Iwasaki & Ingkaphirom 2005). Unlike in languages such as English, it is perfectly common in Thai for speakers to refer to themselves in the third person using their name or occupational title, rather than a first-person pronoun (e.g., Phrae mai kin ahan thale ‘I/Phrae don’t eat seafood’; khao bok khru wa khao mai sabai ‘He told me/teacher that he was sick’).1

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