A Northern Thai Primer

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 22, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

In every respect -- cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious -- Asia is probably the most heterogeneous place in the world. India alone has 16 major languages, about 1700 dialects, more than 2000 castes, and tens of thousands of gods. Even Thailand has several ethnic groups, and there are times when speaking the Thai you learned from a textbook may not get you very far.

In Chiang Mai and northern Thailand (a.k.a. pahk neua), locals can often be heard to use words you are unlikely to hear in Bangkok. They are speaking what is called northern dialect, or kham muang, some of whose peculiarities overlap with those of the Lao language and the dialect of Thailand's northeast, Isan. In addition to the five tones of central or standard Thai -- middle, low, high, rising, and falling - northern Thai has a sixth. In what follows I will indicate tone using the first initial of the name of each tone, except in the case of middle tones, which are left blank. None of the words below, however, use the sixth tone.

One of the most common words you'll hear up north is sao, which is the same as central Thai's yee-sip, meaning twenty. You hear this a lot because a dish of food at your local food stall generally costs twenty baht. The Thai word rai, which appears in the famous Thai phrase mai bpen rai (or "never mind"), becomes yahng(r) in northern Thai. A-rai, meaning "what", becomes a-yahng. And because ba(l) corresponds to mai, "nevermind" in northern Thai is ba bpen yahng. Roo, central Thai for "know", becomes hoo(h). Hence ba hoo means "I don't know". But gor(l) can also replace mai, so that the standard Thai greeting sabai dee mai ("are you well?") will come out as sabai dee gor.

The last is an instance of a more general rule about initial consonant sounds. The initial r-sound of central Thai becomes an h-sound up north. A ch-sound becomes a j-sound, and a p-sound becomes a bp-sound. So pee, the central Thai word for elder sibling (used to address anyone old enough to be an elder sibling but not old enough to be your parents' siblings), becomes bpee(f). But there appears to be one exception to these rules: the standard Thai word chorp, meaning "to like", becomes sorp(f). This may be a Lao import, as the ch-sound of Thai becomes an x- or s-sound in Lao.

Gin kao rue bplao? You hear this plaintive question over and over again, everywhere in the kingdom. It means, roughly, "You eat or not?" and, along with sawatdee and gin kao rue yung ("Have you eaten yet?"), acts as a standard greeting or the beginning of small talk. But in the north rue bplao is replaced with gor, and you will hear this slightly guttural word tagged on to any number of questions likely to be followed by "or not" or "or what" in English.

And though a woman from Bangkok would say sawatdee kha by way of saying hello, a woman from Chiang Mai (especially old women from Chiang Mai) would say sawatdee jao(f). (Male American friends of mine sometimes say this in a sibilant falsetto just to be silly.) Oddly, though, the female first-person pronoun (chun in everyday Thai) becomes kha jao in the hills, though it should be said that Thai women, girls especially, sometimes use their nicknames in place of "I". Happily, the male first-person pronoun is ai(f) in northern Thai.

Another common question tag in central Thai is chai mai, roughly translatable as "isn't it?", or "aren't you?", etc. Chai becomes jai(f), of course, but mai becomes gor(l). (The mai which means "not" and the mai which is a question tag have different tones, and thus different meanings.) The question word na of central Thai, meaning "okay?" or "right?", becomes ner(f). Sa-nook, the culturally critical Thai word for "fun", is replaced with meuan(f) in northern dialect. If you want to wish someone to have a good time in central Thai, you'd say kor hai sa-nook na, literally, "I would like to give you fun, okay?" So up north this becomes kor hai meuan ner.

I know a Chiang Mai girl named dtaa(r). This means "true" up north, and it corresponds to the central Thai word ching, the name of one of my former female students. And Chiang Mai's most august mountain, home to the guardian spirits of the city, is Doi Suthep, doi being northern Thai for mountain. Doi Inthanon is Thailand's tallest.

To round out this short collection, here are a few more northern Thai words, followed by their central Thai equivalents and their meanings in English.

jaht(f) nuk(h) = mahk = much, many, a lot
nyia(h) = tham = do, make
haem(r) = eek = more, another
kum(r) = dtalok = joke
oo(f) = poot = talk, speak
pai(r) = krai = who
sa-lee = tieng = bed

So a typical thing to say in northern Thai might be: Ai sorp oo kham muang jaht nuk. Meuan jai gor? Or: "I like speaking northern Thai a lot. It's fun, isn't it?"

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