When first learning Thai, it can seem as if the Thais don't care for much politeness. The words a Thai dictionary would translate as 'please' (such as ga-ru-nah and bproht) are rarely heard in normal speech, while the 'softer' phrasing sometimes used in English to be polite is also normally dispensed with (e.g. where an English speaker might say 'I would like to have...please', a Thai would simply say ao, meaning 'I want', instead).
This is somewhat deceptive though. Thai uses a complex system which ensures that just the right amount of politeness can be used in any situation, mainly done through a variety of 'particles' that are added on to the end of sentences.
The most important ones to know of these are kráp (for men) or kâ (for women), which should be said at the end of almost every sentence in order to be polite. For instance, if you bump into someone on the street it would be slightly rude to just say kor toht ('sorry/excuse me') on it's own, while saying kor toht kráp/kâ would be perfectly polite. The same goes when saying sawat-dee ('hello/hi'), korp khun ('thank you'), mâi bpen rai ('never mind / you're welcome') and pretty much anything else. If you get into conversation, you can usually drop the kráp/kâ at after a few sentences and just use it occasionally. However, if you are talking with someone important (an immigration official, say) you are probably best to keep saying it frequently. If you're not sure, take your cue from how often the Thai person you're talking to do is saying kráp/kâ and do likewise yourself. It is generally not too difficult, and most people find that it becomes second nature very quickly.
In everyday speech, the 'r' sound is kráp is very often dropped so it sounds more like káp. It's not uncommon either to hear the short 'a' sound in kâ dragged out to a longer 'ah' sound, or even changed to sound like hâ. Both kráp/kâ are used frequently on their on own as a polite way of saying 'yes'.
Though kráp/kâ are the most important things to remember, unfortunately that's not quite all there is to it. Along with the huge range of pronouns that have to be used appropriately, another difficulty is the fact that where in English there might be just one word for something, Thai will have a significant array of words of varying politeness. If you wanted to translate the word 'eat' into Thai, for instance, you would have a choice of using:
- gin (everyday word, slightly informal)
- tahn (everyday word, slightly formal)
- rap-bpra-tahn (very formal)
- dairk (very informal, often offensive)
- chan (when talking about monks)
- savoey (when talking about the King and the royal family)
In addition, the politeness levels of the pronoun (if used) and the word used should match up. So while saying pom chorp gin ah-ahn tai ('I like eating Thai food') would not exactly be wrong, pom chorp tahn ah-ahn tai would be better.
What do they mean?
The polite particles ครับ kráp and ค่ะ /คะ kâ / ká are amongst the most commonly used words in the Thai language, but they are virtually untranslatable in English. kráp is used by male speakers, kâ / ká by female speakers, and they are added to the end of a sentence to make it more polite and show respect to the listener. While male speakers always use kráp, females use kâ at the end of statements and ká after questions. kráp and kâ / ká are most commonly used when talking to people you've just met , when talking to people of high status or pretty much anytime you want to be polite.
How often to use kráp and kâ / ká very much depends on who you're talking to. If talking to someone you've just met who you expect to talk to for only a few sentences at most - e.g. waiters, shop staff, taxi drivers, receptionists - you should use a polite particle after pretty much every sentence (and they will likely do the same). Not to do so in this kind of situation would sound a bit abrupt and somewhat lacking in respect, and so would verge on being impolite. In a longer conversation, it's appropriate to use a polite particle when asking or answering a question but it's not necessary to do so every single sentence. Close friends don't usually use kráp kâ / ká very much when talking to each other, as they can be quite formal sounding if said very often.
kráp and kâ can be used by themselves, as a polite way to answer "yes" to a question. When they're used alone in response to a statement, they don't really mean anything except to signify you've heard and understood the statement and are still listening. This is a common response for an employee when receiving orders from the boss, or a waiter from a customer for instance.
Although they're not directly equivalent , kráp and kâ / ká can sometimes be used to translate "please" and (to a lesser degree) "thank you" too. In particular, "Yes, please" is just kráp / kâ and "No, thank you" ไม่ mâi (meaning "no ; not") kráp / kâ - you do not need an additional direct translation for "please" or "thank you" for that type of response. They can also be used directly after someone's name or title to attract their attention, in which case you could consider them equivalent to "Excuse me".
Some common conversation examples with kráp and kâ
/ ká are shown below:
|Hello, how are you ?
สวัสดี ครับ / ค่ะ สบายดีไหม ครับ / คะ sà-wàt-dee kráp / kâ sà-baai dee măi kráp / ká
hello - ครับ / ค่ะ - are fine - ไหม - ครับ / ค่ะ
I'm fine thanks, and you ?
สบายดี ครับ / ค่ะ แล้ว คุณ ล่ะ ครับ / คะ sà-baai dee kráp / kâ láew kun lâ kráp / ká
am fine - ครับ / ค่ะ -and - you - ล่ะ - ครับ / คะ
| Is there anything I can help you with ?
มี อะไร ให้ ช่วย ไหม ครับ / คะ mee a-rai hâi chûay măi kráp / ká
have - anything - let - help - ไหม - ครับ / ค่ะ
No there isn't thanks, I'm just looking.
ไม่มี ครับ / ค่ะ แค่ ดู อยู่ ครับ / ค่ะ mâi mee kráp / kâ kâe doo yòo kráp / kâ
not have -ครับ / ค่ะ - just - looking - ครับ / ค่ะ
| Do you have this one in a large size ?
มี ตัวนี้ เป็น ขนาดใหญ่ ไหม ครับ / คะ mee dtua née bpen kà-nàat yài măi kráp / ká
have - one - this - in - size - big - ไหม - ครับ / คะ
This one, right ?Yes, please.
ตัวนี้ ใช่ไหม ครับ / คะ dtua née châi măi kráp / ká
one - this - yes - ไหม - ครับ / คะ
ครับ / ค่ะ kráp / kâ
Sure, just a moment please.
ครับ / ค่ะ รอ สักครู่ ครับ / ค่ะ kráp / kâ ror sàk krôo kráp / kâ
ครับ / ค่ะ - wait - just - moment - ครับ / ค่ะ
There is a lot of variety in pronunciation and spelling of these polite particles. Perhaps most notable is that kráp is almost always pronounced as คับ káp throughout most of Thailand, with the southern provinces being the exception. kráp is the formally correct pronunciation, and so is what you'll hear on TV and radio where the presenters must speak correctly, but in common speech the ร sound is something of an endangered species and is increasingly rarely heard. Less commonly, the vowel can lengthened to คร๊าบ kráap / ค๊าบ káap, which gives it more informal and friendly tone. It's most commonly heard this way when calling someone's name to get their attention, or after short, common statements like ขอบคุณ kòp kun ("thank you"), สวัสดี sà-wàt-dee ("hello") or บาย baai ("bye").
The vowel of kâ is very commonly lengthened in a similar way , giving it ค่า kâa sound. As with káap , this has the same effect of making it sound more friendly and less formal. When used after someone's name to call their attention, or as a one word response to your name being called, the tone is changed from a falling tone to a rising tone ขา kăa which gives it a nicer, sweet sound. Some female speakers substitute an ฮ sound in for the ค instead, making it a ฮ่ะ hâ or ฮ่า hâa sound , which has the same effect of making it more informal.
Men and women occasionally use each others polite particle when talking to young children or foreigners of the opposite gender. The logic here is that someone still learning the language is likely to repeat what they hear, and so they're helping teach the learner the correct way to speak. Some women also regularly like to use kráp instead of kâ out of habit, fashion or individuality. It's quite a bit rarer for male speakers to do the equivalent, though some occasionally say kâ to try and sound 'sweeter' or use the similar sounding ฮ่ะ hâ as an informal alternative to kráp . kâ or hâ when pronounced by male speakers are always pronounced with a short vowel sound, the longer kâa or hâa sounds are always used only by women.