Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Personal pronouns

In the place I live, it is common to mock politicians. There is not such a thing as a king, but you can see on TV sketches about the president and presidents of other countries. But be careful to say something like that about King Bhumibol Adulyadej (ภูมิพลอดุลยเดช) if you are visiting Thailand. This could happen to you! [As a side comment, the BBC deleted the original note they had when I decided to write about this! Now they only have the one I am linking to and this other one. Wierd!]
Cultural differences can be seen in the use of personal pronouns.
Personal pronouns are pronouns often used as substitutes for proper or common nouns.
English has seven personal pronouns: I, we , you, he, she, it and they. And each of these can take different forms:
  • a subjective case form (I, we, etc.), used when it's the subject of a finite verb
  • an objective case form (me, us, etc.), used when it's the object of verb or of a preposition
  • two possessive case forms (my, our, etc. and mine, ours, etc.), used when it's the possessor of another noun (one that's used as a determiner, and one that's used as a pronoun or a predicate adjective)
  • a reflexive form (myself, ourselves, etc.), which replaces the objective-case form in referring to the same entity as the subject
You can see the table with all English pronouns here.
But many other languages, Thai among them, are not as simple as that. Not, at least in what it has to do about personal pronouns.
I, in Thai, could be either ฉัน, ผม, ดิฉัน, ข้าพเจ้า or , depending on what you mean and who uses it. ฉัน is used by both males and females when speaking to intimates, servants or children. ผม has the same meaning as ฉัน, but is a more “polite” word and is generally used when talking with equals or superiors but it can only be used by males. ดิฉัน is the feminine counterpart of ผม. ข้าพเจ้า is very formal and may be used by either males or females but is seldom met with except in writing (mostly come across it in official documents). is used to a really intimate friend as a very informal and friendly word, but in any other situation, it is an insulting word. But there are more! ี่ literally means older brother / sister, this is quite a common word that can be used for I when you are speaking to someone younger than you. น้อง is the opposite of พ, younger brother / sister. กระผม is another word used only by men, and it's used to show respect when talking to people perceived to be of 'higher status' than you. เรา, confusingly, is the normal word for we/us but it is also used by both men and women as an informal word for I/me. หนู litterally means mouse, this is used by women when speaking to people much older. อั้ว is used only by Chinese Thais. ใต้เท้า literally meaning under your feet, this is a respectful word similar to กระผม. And ข้าพพระพุทธเจ้า is a Royal Thai word, and is only used by those in conversation with the Thai King or another member of the Royal family (it's not a word you're likely to hear often, except at the cinema where it's the first word of the royal anthem played before every film. Literally translated, it means The servant of the Lord Buddha).

All this might look crazy! But that's the way it is. And, of course, for the second person, there is a similar amount of words. คุณ is a very common one. And you guessed right, there is one used only when adressing the Thai king or queen: ใต้ฝ่าละอองธุลีพระบาท.
No wonder why some say you see the world through the language you speak!

You can read more about all these pronouns in the blog entry And you thought 'thee' and 'thou' was hard, in learningthai.com and the most complete one is into-asia.com. You might want to check all the other words for
you there.

1 comment:

chumly said...

Languages are wonderous to me. I can't understand most of them but the writings are beautiful to look at.