Thai Particles of Endearment

This post is a sequel to the previous post on how to call your Thai sweetheart. As I was writing the last post, it occurred to me that expression of endearment in Thai language is not only in the terms of address themselves, but is also indicated by the various levels of intimacy in a choice of word said at the end of the expression or sentence like คะ /khá/, ครับ /khráp/, ขา /khǎa/, จ๊ะ /já/, จ๋า /jǎa/. Linguists call these little words “particles.”

No, these “particles” have nothing to do with physics. My esteemed linguist pal Rikker Dockum (aka @thai101 on Twitter) assured me that. He told me there are all kinds of particles with very nerdish names. I don’t want to put you in snooze mode, so let’s just focus on the few important ones that will take you to another level in Thai language of endearment. Rikker said, the proper term for the Thai words mentioned above is “vocative particles”—don’t worry, I won’t mention any more of these (even if I wanted to because I can’t remember them). I asked Rikker if I could call some of these particles (จ๊ะ /já/, จ๋า /jǎa/, ขา /khǎa/) “particles of endearment.” Forgot to ask Rikker whether such is among the terms recognized by linguists, but what matters is Rikker approved. I could use the term.

A particle of intimacy—จ๋า /jǎa/

The first Thai particle of endearment that you should know is จ๋า /jǎa/. It can be used by anyone of any age or any sex, with anyone in an intimate relationship (sexual and non-sexual). In can be thought of as a general “particle of intimacy” (another term I came up with). Even when already using an endearing term of address, this /jǎa/ particle will top it up with sweet intimacy. For example, look at the different nuance between adding /jǎa/ at the end of ที่รัก /tîi rák/ (dear, darling, love) and /tîi rák/ with the standard particles ค่ะ /khá/, ครับ /khráp/.

ที่รักจ๋า /tîi rák jǎa/ (unisex)

When this is used (instead of just plain ที่รัก /tîi rák/), it suggests that the speaker is feeling intimate, amorous or playful with his/her lover at the moment.

ที่รักคะ /tîi rák khá/ (female speaker)
ที่รักครับ /tîi rák khráp/ (male speaker)

When a lover uses a term of endearment like ที่รัก /tîi rák/ with the standard, polite particle คะ /khá/ or ครับ /khráp/, it suggests that, while the couple may be in a loving relationship, the speaker may not necessarily feel very intimate or amorous at the moment. The คะ /khá/, ครับ /khráp/ choice of particle adds some formality to the address; the speaker—if not naturally reserved—may have something serious to say or needs full attention. He or she is unlikely to be in a particularly playful mood.

The “particle of intimacy” จ๋า /jǎa/ is used in other terms of address in intimate relationship. For example:

พ่อจ๋า /phÔO jǎa/ = dear papa, dear daddy
แม่จ๋า /mÊE jǎa/ = dear mama, dear mommy
พี่จ๋า /phîi jǎa/ = dear older brother/sister; dear (male lover)
น้องจ๋า /nÓOng jǎa/* = dear younger brother/sister; dear (female lover)

*Some of you may have used or heard this phrase used to call a waitress or waiter, or a serving person. That’s correct, it is also used in that non-intimate context, just like some old-fashioned people would call a waitress in English “love,” “sweetheart.” Different but same same. 🙂

Folksy terms of endearment for unpretentious couples

For married couples, there are basic terms of address used with the ‘intimate particle’ จ๋า /jǎa/. However, there are cultural and gender considerations to be aware of.

เมียจ๋า /miiaa jǎa/ = dear wife
ผัวจ๋า /phǔa jǎa/ = dear husband

In the old days I imagine amorous husbands and wives called each other by these. But as it happens, these plain old terms now sound rather old-fashioned if not slightly vulgar (to genteel urbane ears). This is especially true with the term for husband, ผัว /phǔa/. (Note though, that the sensibility may be different among the younger generations who may even refer to girlfriends/boyfriends by these terms presumably because they aren’t so “proper.”)

In any case, I can be wrong but I think to most Thai women (folksy or urbane) เมียจ๋า /miiaa jǎa/ sounds very intimate and loving—maybe a bit ticklish to some demure Thai ladies but there’s no question about intimacy. Interestingly, the matter is not quite the same with ผัวจ๋า /phǔa jǎa/. Many sweet-talking Thai husbands may call their wives /miiaa jǎa/ without anyone raising their eyebrows (provided they don’t do it while giving a speech at a company function or the like). Yet, there’ll likely be some eyebrow raising, even tongue wagging if a sweet-talking Thai wife is caught whispering “phǔa jǎa” in her hubby. I imagine quite a few square Thai men may not like their wives using such an unladylike term of endearment either. It shouldn’t be this way but it is. Riap-roy (proper) Thai ladies aren’t supposed to use “vulgar” language. As to how the basic Thai term “husband” /phǔa/ has became vulgar while “wife” /miiaa/ hasn’t, deserves a blog post of its own.

One test a foreign husband/lover can use to check to what extent his Thai lady is a riap-roy demure lady is to see whether she is willing or able to utter the word ผัว /phǔa/ in his or anyone’s presence. If she is, does she blush profusely or does she use it like it has a sensitivity of the word “noodles”?

Given the sensitivity unevenly loaded to the authentic Thai terms ผัว /phǔa/ and เมีย /miiaa/, you are more likely to hear the borrowed terms with a Sanskrit root สามี /sǎa mii/ and ภรรยา /pan-rá-yaa/ used in polite Thai society. But while many urbane Thais may wince at the unglamorous word ผัว /phǔa/, ordinary Thai folks (those with less money and less glamor) and Thais with less aspiration to appear “refined” see little to blush about either people using ผัว /phǔa/ or เมีย /miiaa/.

… and for the refined couples?

You might wonder if “refined” Thai husbands and wives in an amorous mood might call one another สามีจ๋า /sǎa mii jǎa/ and ภรรยาจ๋า /pan-rá-yaa jǎa/. I can’t confirm one way or the other because I haven’t heard anyone use them. But then I haven’t been spying on refined Thai couples on the verge of lovemaking either (not that they’d make it easy for spies). Perhaps some do. If they do, it won’t sound terribly strange—or terribly intimately romantic. But don’t take my word for it, I can’t say I’m terribly “refined” myself.

So then, what terms of endearment do “refined” urbane couples use if not the above? My guess is that they use the more modern terms like ที่รัก /tîi rák/ or the borrowed English terms like ดาหลิง /daa-lǐng/ ด่าลิ้ง /dàa-líng/ (darling), or one of the terms I wrote about in the last post. (Any refined Thai couples out there, please correct me if I’m wrong.)

More particles of intimacy—จ๊ะ /já/ and ขา /khǎa/

As I said at the beginning of this post, endearment isn’t just in the terms of address but in the particles as well. We’ve looked at the intimate particle จ๋า /jǎa/. Now, let’s move to two other ones that are similarly intimate: จ๊ะ /já/ and ขา /khǎa/. Again, see the nuances and intimacy with ที่รัก /tîi rák/.

ที่รักจ๊ะ /tîi rák já/ (unisex) – high intimacy, seeking attention/acknowledgment
ที่รักขา /tîi rák khǎa/ (female speaker) – high intimacy, ingratiating, seeking attention and response

Like จ๋า /jǎa/, the particle จ๊ะ /já/ can be used by both sexes. In the old days men and boys would use both probably almost as much as women and girls, I gather from old literature and such. However, I believe both particles, especially the latter จ๊ะ /já/, have become somewhat feminine language. Also, these intimate and not so intimate particles, คะ /khá/, ขา / khǎa/, จ๊ะ /já/, จ๋า /jǎa/, are used mostly in standard Thai. You will rarely hear speakers of Isan, Northern Thai and, I believe, Southern Thai “dialects” use them (unless they are speaking standard Thai, of course, but even then they’ll less likely use them than native standard Thai speakers).

จ๊ะ /já/ and ขา /khǎa/ are used when addressing people in intimate family relationship, such as mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, etc., close friends and neighbors, and of course with the beloved.

As I noted above, the particle ขา /khǎa/ has an ingratiating tone. When thinking of this particle, I can’t help thinking of ป๋าขา /pǎa khǎa/, “daddy love,” uttered by young women. The “daddy” in this case isn’t likely the daddy who fathered the young lady calling him “(sugar) daddy love.” Given the usual tone (and form) in which this particle is delivered, one can be pretty sure that the young lady involved will get the attention and response that she’s seeking. 🙂

8 responses to “Thai Particles of Endearment

  1. I guess it’s in the tones?

    Hi, interesting stuff, as usual Keawmala!
    I often hear my girlfriend use ‘jaa’ as a term of agreement either with me, or with her friends, with a ‘low’ tone, if memory serves me correctly, which it often doesn’t I might add!

    Also at the end of our many ‘phone conversations (sadly we are separated by thousands of miles at the moment), after the goodbye’s she will say “ja ja jaa” She is, originally, from Nakhon Ratchasima but uses Central Thai, as far as my reasonably untrained ear can tell!

    These situations are not particularly intimate, (those which are will remain so!) and I was wondering if you could expand a little on the uses of these particles?
    It’s a part of the Thai language that fascinates me, liberal sprinklings of ‘na’ ‘le’ ‘nia’ ‘ngia’ ( I do love a ‘ngor ngoo!) and multiple variations of those and other particles add something very special which is, understandably perhaps, difficult for foreign ears/minds to comprehend.

    This one, in particular, (ja, jaa with the accompanying different tones) when used alone or at the end of a phrase, is very endearing but something of a mystery to me.

    I look forward to your reply. 🙂

    • Hi Biff,
      I’m not an expert but I’ll do my best. The particle /ja/ comes in many tones and have slightly different functions as follows:
      1 จ้ะ /jâ/ (short-vowel, falling tone) = affirmative (“yes”)
      2 จ้า /jâa/ (long-vowel, falling tone) = also affirmative (“yessss”, “yes dear”)
      3 จ๊ะ /já/(short-vowel, high tone) = mildly inquisitive/seeking attention in a gentle, affectionate way
      4 จ๋า /jǎa/ (long-vowel, rising tone) = seeking attention in an intimate, affectionate way; giving a response in same way
      I’ve heard these, or variations of these, ja, jaa particles used in Khmer as well. Interestingly enough, in Lao and Northern Thai it is เจ้า /jaw/ (somewhat long vowel, between Thai falling and high tones). In Northern Thai /jaw/ is a feminine particle but unisex in Lao.

      Yes, there are other interesting particles (or whatever they are) like น่ะ นะ นะเนี่ย เงี้ยะ ง่ะ อ่ะ some of which seem to me like newly concocted contractions like “innit” “ain’t it” – quite above my pay grade to dissect for you. (Let’s hope Rikker will come to the rescue.)

  2. Very interesting stuff. And a really great blog.

    “As to how the basic Thai term “husband” /phǔa/ has became vulgar while “wife” /miiaa/ hasn’t, deserves a blog post of its own.”

    Yes, please!

  3. @Dan Thanks. As for the husband-wife blog post, I’ll have to do more homework. So can’t promise at this point. Suspect there will be lots of gender values to wade through to get to the bottom of that one. 🙂

    @Cat Do let us know how it turns out with K. Pissout. But wait, he’s a man. I’m not sure how exactly you intend to make him blush. The test is for women only. (Not gender difference)

  4. Thanks for that Keawmala 🙂
    yes there are many particles ( I think we’ll go with that term, I didn’t ever foresee I’d be using linguistic terms, but this one seems to kind of make sense!)
    It has made me think about similar terms in my own language. Although we, here in London, aren’t the masters/mistresses of ‘The Queens English by any stretch of the imagination, we certainly do ‘garnish’ our speech with little phrases and terms that could, I suppose, be called particles. Very hard for non-native speakers to analyse and use themselves.
    I think it’s something that just has to be picked up as you go along. Our use of tones in English is something I wasn’t really aware of until I started to learn Thai. We do use them, but for emphasis more than a different meaning altogether. Having said that, the inflection, certainly in English English (our cousin’s across the water in the US, I’m sure, have a different slant on it!) does completely change the meaning of a sentence, if not an actual word.
    Just the word ‘yeah’ for instance, can be disbelieving (actually meaning ‘no way I don’t believe you’) a question, or a non-committal response depending on it’s length and tone (low and short, long and rising, mid-toned and long) Something that, if you asked a native speaker about, they probably wouldn’t realise!

    I’ll continue my journey into the Thai particles, thanks for your insights!


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