It’s important that one knows one’s place in society. To that end Thailand must have one of the more comprehensive system of titles. The following is vastly simplified.

At the top of society is HM The King and his wife, and then his children who bear the title Jao Faa (เจ้าฟ้า).

The grandchildren of a King can bear the title Phra Ong Jao (พระองค์เจ้า).

The next generation: Mom Jao (หม่อมเจ้า).

And then: Mom Raatchawong (หม่อมราชวงศ์).

And finally, at the 5th generation, Mom Luang (หม่อมหลวง).

The child of a Mom Luang is a commoner, but can append “Na Ayutthaya” (ณ อยุธยา) to his surname to indicate royal descent.

Thus, for example, one knows that a former Prime Minister, M.R. Kukrit Pramoj, (M.R. being Mom Raatchawong), was a fourth generation descendant of one of the Kings of Thailand (in his case, King Rama II).

Before the 1932 revolution there were a lot of other titles designating aristocracy, but all were abolished, except for two titles for women – Khunying (คุณหญิง) and Thaanphuuying (ท่านผู้หญิง) – both of which are non-hereditary. However, rather than honouring the woman’s achievements they usually honour her husband. Thus the Prime Minister’s wife will usually become a Khunying (provided her husband stay in office long enough!). The wives of the top members of the military are similarly honoured. Such an honour is apparently not available for the wives of the country’s greatest scientists, academics, sportsmen, writers et al.. It seems that only the wife of a military man has the necessary aristocratic credentials.

The Police and the Military have a host of other titles but, unlike in other countries, the titles are kept after leaving service, so the newspapers still refer to Police Lieutenant Colonel Thaksin Shinawatra, even though he quit the police force more than 22 years ago. This isn’t a particularly high rank, but the question of its being stripped on account of his alleged behaviour remains very controversial.

Every interchange in Thailand requires a conscious decision about the relative status of speaker and listener. It dictates the choice of every pronoun. Am I superior or inferior to the person to whom I’m speaking?

When Indonesia was seeking a language to unite its speakers of a myriad of mutually unintelligible languages it considered Javanese, which had the greatest number of native speakers. However, it rejected Javanese because it has a system of pronouns which denotes relative status. It chose a language which was more democratic, Malay, despite the lack of native speakers. Thus, just as the English language united the Indian subcontinent, so Bahasa Indonesia (as it became to be known) united the Indonesian archipeligo.

Much as we in the West reinforce sexual roles by selecting “he” or “she”, “his” or “her”, in Thailand the language reinforces social status and perhaps, just perhaps, is part of a barrier against social mobility and against social equality.


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