Family Names and Titles
I remember watching a Thai film with no subtitles waaaaay back when I was first starting to study Thai. The girlfriend in the movie called her boyfriend “พี่” (pee) 99% of the time and the boyfriend called himself “พี่” in return. I knew what the word พี่ meant but I had never seen it used like a first and second person pronoun before. I remember asking myself “What is the matter here?!” Heh, heh. I was very confused indeed. But it’s actually not that hard to understand. If you hang around Thais, younger kids, siblings and friends will most likely call you พี่ instead of คุณ (khun). If you are a youngster, a น้อง (nawg), your older friends, relatives and acquaintances will probably call you น้อง in place of คุณ or, even more commonly, call you by your name. (See the next section.)
Family names like พ่อ paw, แม่ mae, พี่ pee, น้อง nawg, ปู่ bpoo, ตา taa, ย่า yaa, and ยาย yai can all be used in place of personal pronouns. For all three persons no less!
Some vocational titles are also used in place of personal pronounces. These are words such as ครู kroo for a teacher or หมอ maw for a doctor.
If you watch a Thai movie with a classroom scene, you’re likely to hear the students call the teacher ครู in place of “you” and the teacher will in turn use ครู in place of “I” or “me”. The same goes with a doctor. You’ll often hear people refer to the doctor as คุณหมอ (translates to something like Mr./Ms. Doctor). This is simply a show of added respect. But the doctor will not use the “คุณ” part in his response. คุณ is one personal pronoun that is always used when speaking to or about someone. It’s never used by the speaker in reference to himself.
Family names used in society- outside the family:
If you took the Thai family names (like พี่, น้อง, ลุง etc.) literally, you might think that everyone in Thailand is related. But these titles are used outside the family for friends, co-workers and members of society as well. So, though you call your younger best friend น้อง or the elder taxi cab driver น้า this doesn’t mean you’re related to these folks at all. Thai society is like a big family. Everyone has their place in the family and calls others accordingly. If you think about it, it’s a very friendly idea isn’t it?
One thing that is very different from English is the use of one’s name in place of a personal pronoun. In English, if your name is Joe and if someone asked you; “What does Joe want to do today?” You would probably think they were crazy and avoid them for the rest of the day. And if you answered “Joe wants to go eat pizza,” they in turn would probably suggest you go see shrink. But if you, Joe, are Thai and are talking with another Thai person then the above question and answer will make perfect sense. Thai allows the speaker to refer to himself by name and other people to use your name instead of a pronoun for “you”.
Showing Extra Respect:
Showing respect for the religious and figures of authority is very, very important in Thailand. For monks, you should use ท่าน thaan in place of คุณ. ท่าน is a step-up from คุณ where respect is concerned. It is used for people of great respect or esteem as well as for monks and the religious.
Ninety-nine percent of the time คุณ is an all-around polite term that fits everyone. But, if you really want to show some manners, use ท่าน with the religious and people of authority or importance. (Think of how we call judges “your honor” or preachers “reverend” in English.)
If you go to Thailand, you’ll probably hear it pretty regularly in public announcements. Then it is used a polite, formal version of “you”, when referring to the population.