How Thai language reinforces hierarchy and perpetuates social divides

Despite having never really been educated in a Thai educational system, Thanyarat (not her real name) grew up believing she was a proper and proud Thai — born and raised.

That belief, however, was soon challenged on the first week of her college orientation.

Pleated skirt, white shoes, hair tied, wide-eyed and sitting among a throng of similarly dressed freshmen – or freshies, as Thai university members call them – she was introduced to an entirely new version of Thainess during the opening of her rub nong (welcoming freshmen) event.

“This kana (faculty) is a family” the greeting voice of a sophomore echoed along the open hall. “And in this family, we take care of one another. The roon pii’s (senior/older students) will take care of you and help guide you along this new path.”

Unbeknown to her at the time, along with that welcoming statement came another – and perhaps more important – rule, one that Thanyarat would find herself struggling to come to terms with for the next four years.

“In that family, the young had to respect the old.” Thanyarat recalled. “That meant that I was expected to always greet every senior I came across on campus with a wai and refer to them as pii (older brother/sister), even when some weren’t even a year older than me”.

To some, this may seem like another unique, age-old tradition that was somehow kept for its members to perform. To Thanyarat, this was a breach of boundaries that allowed a group of young strangers to force authority over her when they have “done nothing to earn it.”

“In those first couple weeks of rub nong, it was like I came in to get screamed at by kids not much older than me”, said Thanyarat. “They were trying to tell me what to do and convince me to love the kana, wai them, respect them and call them pii just because they got there before I did.”

“I found it all so unnecessary and annoying, It made no sense to me at all. Everyone to me is equal, and that is that. I was judged for thinking differently and not wanting to follow that protocol.”

This is a situation every Thai-speaking person knows just a little too well. It is written everywhere, from the intimate dining tables in our homes, the halls of our schools, the shops and restaurants we enter, what we see and hear on the media, to the dominant narrative prevalent in the country today — the pronouns we use to address ourselves and others is something all Thais have to learn and appropriately navigate, whether they like it or not.

A complicated family in a rigid society

“This reference to kinship, that the members in society [in Thailand] are your relatives is a tradition that is very old.” said Rikker Dockum, a Thai/Tai linguistics expert and visiting professor at Swarthmore College. “Historically and naturally, and as with any other culture, the more structured a society gets over time, the more hierarchical and complicated their social relationships become.”

Thai citizens are socially categorised into hierarchically ordered social groups and classes, determined by characteristics such as age, gender, family lineage, social class or status, and occupational rank. In this hierarchy, social and cultural rules play an important role in governing Thai people’s codes of social behaviour, relationship dynamic, and verbal interaction.

“When you are born into a Thai family, you are absolutely given the role of the youngest member,” said Tuptim Malakul Lane, a Thai author and social commentator. “You are told by your elders that this is your uncle, this is your auntie, and that you should address them as such.”

In Thai kinship, for example, age is equated with status and power. And similarly to other collectivist cultures prevalent throughout Asia, the older you are, the more superiority, seniority, and authority you have over others, especially the young.

Thais must therefore learn, from a very young age, about these social differences and levels that exist between individuals. They must learn how to navigate this complex system of social labels, codes and behaviours in order to understand their place in society and conduct themselves accordingly, whether in the hierarchy of home, school, office, or community.

And as Thai society became more hierarchical, so did its language.

“Part of the reason why some words become impolite is because as society changed and became more structured over time, you had different levels of politeness that came in depending on who you needed to talk to.” said Dockum.

The higher in status you are perceived to be, the more polite and respectful words are used to describe you. On the other hand, implications that you are lower in status require lower and more impolite terms. This is where Thai pronouns become nuanced, open-ended, and complicated.

“Pronouns in Thai are different. When you are meeting someone, you are navigating social distance. You have to be constantly thinking about — am I older, younger, higher, or lower in status?”

Mastering the language itself is insufficient. Thai speakers must also be able to analyse their given situation and consider what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and to whom they are speaking. There lies a very thin line between what is deemed as appropriate or disrespectful.

Pronouns of the patriarchy and inequality

One can learn a lot about the social inequality that exists in Thai society by looking at its pronouns.

Pronouns in Thai have been manifested to elevate and marginalise certain groups of people. Whether deliberately or unintentionally, Thai pronouns can lift you, or lower you, and that all depends on where you fall in the hierarchy.

In a lot of cases, Thai pronouns are strictly gendered.

The word phom, in Thai, can be used to describe two different things. It acts as a pronoun for Thai men to address themselves and also a noun that describes hair.

“And that is not a coincidence,” said Dockum. “Phom refers to the hairs on the top of the head and as an exalted part of the body.”

On the other hand, Thai women face a wider set of pronouns navigate through, from di-chan, chan, rao, nhoo, to even addressing their own names.

Let’s look at di-chan as one example. It is a pronoun Thai women often use to refer to themselves, but most Thai women and Thais alike are likely unaware of its origins.

Di-chan is a pronoun that has been eroded over time, but it originally came from the word de-raj-chan, which means a beast or animal.

Another somewhat endearing term, nhoo, has a more direct and straightforward meaning. When you are referring to yourself as nhoo, you are basically calling yourself a mouse.

“Why condone oneself to such a level? You are not a mouse, no matter how sweet or endearing it is. It is incorrect and truly offensive,” Tuptim said.

“It comes from an infantilisation of women and of keeping them youthful,” explains Dockum, “I remember I saw a woman in her 40s talking to a man in his 60s and calling herself nhoo. She was basically saying ‘I am a child in this position in relation to you,’ and therefore treating him with respect.”

When you are navigating Thai pronouns, you are also navigating your own identity, worth, and power  — where you ultimately stand in society.

Perpetuating an unequal society?

“It is probably not a coincidence that women, men, young, old, are not on equal footing,” Dockum said. “And it definitely has reinforcing effects on the hierarchy.”

Thailand’s social hierarchy has created interwoven complex word structures its speakers have to navigate through. At the same time, it is also this very language itself that is now reinforcing and perpetuating Thailand’s deeply hierarchical culture. It works in a loop that is quite difficult to break and impossible to avoid.

Different outlooks, different outcomes

“Language is contextual,” said Kaewmala, a Thai feminist author, thought leader, and social commentator. “It happens because it does.”

There is always going to be a certain level of expectation and appropriateness required in everything we do.

“And when we put it that way, everything becomes relative.”

“Language is a cultural artifact and tool. It is not my place to tell others on how to conduct themselves — it is up to us to choose words to use in a way that we see fit.” Kaewmala reflects, “I think you always have the power to choose how you want to exercise it, to what extent and level, and how you would like to see it influence society in a certain way.”

Thai language – just like its culture – is something that will continue to shift and change along with the ticking and forces of time. It is probably already changing as we speak.

“We teach Thai as if it is a real thing, but in reality it itself is a construct,” said Dockum, “Language is social. It is always the consensus of how people should use it.”

Change in society is not always linear, but change will always somehow happen.

“When you get older, you understand the complexities of things and realise that there are lots of things that may or may not happen, but that doesn’t mean that you should become a doormat.” explains Kaewmala.

“Language can be frustrating. When you understand it at that certain level, you can still do your best to be engaged, behave in a certain way, express your opinion, and influence change.”

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