“Check-bin” Please and Other English Words in Thai

Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We take it with us when we travel whether it be the slow migration of cultures moving from region to region or a backpacker hopping on a jet to explore the world for a year before settling down to life, language is our most essential baggage.

English has become the universal language of the world in the last half century and a lot of the reason for that is technology. Words like computer, hard drive, internet, and monitor entered the language simultaneously the world over and have needed no adaption. Others like hotel, taxi, hamburger, or telephone have been globally assimilated, taking on accents and pronunciation differences while still retaining a similarity to their origin. Hamburger becomes hamburguesa in spanish, hampurilainen in Finnish, and hamburgara in Swahili. 

So what’s going on here?

These are loan words and like everywhere else Thailand has taken plenty from English. English and Thai couldn’t be more different. Thai is a tonal language born of Sanskrit and Pali and unique to the country. A first encounter with it for an English speaker may sound like a cat fight. Remember Homer Simpson on the phone with Thailand, That’s some language you got there, you speak like that 24/7, huh? Even at first though if you listen closely you can pick up the tell tale loan words through the tweaked pronunciation.

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Both “Hello” and “Bye-bye” are widely used, especially on the telephone where hello is usually followed by the Thai Satwa Di, so hello – hello. You may go out for a beera (beer) and a Sateak (steak) with a side of fent fli (french fries) on the side. Maybe some icea cleam for dessert; you get the idea, English words with a Thai pronunciation but at the end of the meal someone asks for the checkbin. This is a loan blend, a word combing the English words check and bill into one word with a Thai pronunciation changing the L sound to an N.

The loan blend is prevalent in Thai, perhaps because Thai is largely an idiomatic language that tends to describe things as opposed to having specific words; refrigerator is a cold cabinet, shoe is a warm foot, and a train is a fire vehicle. Loan blends fill the linguistic void without being awkward for the borrowed language speaker. So we get si saplay (spray paint; si from Thai meaning color and Thai pronunciation of spray) or muek mai knock (helmet; using the Thai for hat and not, combined with English knock as in knock out) are so essentially assimilated that most Thai people don’t know they are blends of English.

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The list of borrowed English words in Thai is almost inexhaustible but each will have either been blended with Thai, or given a Thai pronunciation that will make it unrecognizable to most English speakers and vice versa. Thai people will not understand the borrowed word with an original pronunciation. When learning Thai it’s always worth a shot to use the English word with the lilting Thai pronunciation when at a loss; cO-ke will probably get you drink about half the time where as Coke will get you only nods and smiles.

This is just common language migration though. Every language has it and as people travel more frequently and further abroad it should increase worldwide as we share cultures. Where it gets fun though is when you delve a bit deeper into the slang that evolves from this sharing.

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An excellent example in Thai society today is Tom and Dee couples. Thailand is of course world famous for its acceptance of fluid sexuality. Ladyboys are everywhere (another sort of loan blend) but lesser known are lesbian couples where the masculine partner is a Tom (from tom boy), and the femme is a Dee (shortened from lady).

People can be Hi-So (high society) if they’re rich or pretend to be, or Lo-So (low society) if they’re poor or act slovenly.

A Superbomb is a beautiful woman while a cheap charley is a stingy man.

The most common way to convert English to Thai slang is to shorten the English word for it’s new meaning. Wer, from the English word over, meaning over the top or excessive. In becomes in the mood for, or causing a strong feeling. While out is simply out of style, or out of trend. If something, and that can be anything from sex to the a piece of cake, blows your mind then its fin, from finale. While if you want to confirm strongly then ex-ak, from exactly. 

Next time you travel with your language baggage, consider where you leave your words. Next thing you know they may just integrate themselves into the local language. For now, as they say in Thai, don’t be noid (paranoid) about slang; head for the beach and chew (chill out).

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