A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 25: Thai surnames

Image courtesy of Kumaravel on Flickr

Image courtesy of Kumaravel on Flickr

As part of a project that I’m working on, I’m constantly needing to come up with people’s names for example sentences. All of the names that come to my mind are very western sounding, David, Daniel, Mike, John, Paul, etc. While they might be easy to read (for me), I also want to include a bit of diversity too. So what I typically do is choose a country and then search for typical names from there. So far it’s been pretty easy. But then today I thought I’d use a Thai name. I’ve spent a grand total of 5 days in Thailand way back in 2006, and to be honest don’t remember anyone’s name.

In searching for names from countries that I don’t know much about, I’m striving to be as accurate as possible. Living in Korea, I know that a lot of Asian names begin with the family name and the given name comes at the end. In Googling for a Thai family name, I came across Wikipedia’s entry: List of most common surnames in Asia, which says this under Thailand:

There are no common Thai surnames. Surnames were largely introduced to Thai culture only by the 1913 Surname Act.

It of course piqued my interest, and work was put on hold while I procrastinated did some research. My first port of call when it comes to naming practices around the world is this handy free document (pdf). It’s called A Guide to Names and Naming Practicesand is a guide on the structure of names, and the rules for naming people in different countries. The front page says it “has been produced by the United Kingdom”, whatever that may mean(?) but is hosted on www.fbiic.gov, which is the site for The Financial and Banking Information Infrastructure Committee.

Here’s what I found out about Thai names from the naming guide:

  • Thai names are in the format given name + family name, just like they are in western cultures.
  • Thai people usually use their given name to identify themselves. Therefore, you address someone as Mr GivenName, and NOT Mr FamilyName as is done in the west.
  • Thai names are often very long.
  • Many Thai people have nicknames that are used in more informal situations. Nicknames are often just one syllable, and can come from English names.
  • “If two Thai individuals have the same family name, it is almost certain that they are related in some way.”

It was the last point that I found most interesting. Unfortunately, the naming guide, while good for giving to-the-point facts, doesn’t go into any explanation. So it was back to Google.

My first question was why is it “almost certain” that two Thai people with the same name are related? Well this is because Thai law does not allow two families to have the same surname. As the quote from Wikipedia (above) says, surnames in Thailand are relatively new, only becoming common at the beginning of the 20th century. So families in Thailand were left to choose their own family names. But if you can’t have the same name as another family, it’s pretty obvious that fairly soon most short names would be taken. And that’s what happened.

There are in fact many Thais who do have short (one or two syllable) family names, and almost always, these people will be descendants of ethnic Thai people. The longer names typically belong to Chinese-Thais whose families emigrated to Thailand in the last century. These families wanting to choose a unique family name had to choose quite a long name so as to ensure that there new family name was not a duplicate.

This page describes how a family wanting to apply for a Thai name has to submit five possibilities to the Thai government, who will then check to make sure that the name is not already taken.

Thai law allows names to be a maximum of ten characters. That’s ten Thai characters. The set of Thai characters is not the same as the English set of characters, what we know as an alphabet. The Thai set of characters is known as an abugida. An abugida is a segmental writing system, where consonant-vowel clusters are written as a single symbol. This means that while on paper a name written in Thai script might look shorter than it’s English transliteration.

For anyone interested in seeing some examples of Thai names, this Wikipedia page is a list of famous Thai people. And for anyone looking for a couple of other short introductions about Thai names, I found this page and this page helpful.

NOTE: I’ve tried my best to be as accurate as possible about Thai names, but am by no means an expert. It is, after all, something that I have just learned today 🙂

2 comments on “Day 25: Thai surnames

  1. Adi Rajan
    January 26, 2015

    I’d read somewhere that Chinese Thais had chosen their surnames but I didn’t realize it was true for all Thais and as recently as 1913. A lot of Thai surnames are of Sanskrit origin and although I don’t speak Sanskrit – I know enough Sanskrit lexis to translate a few of the names – and it’s astonishing how grandiose and pompous some names on that page sound – like Viravaidya (Hero physician).


    • David Harbinson
      January 27, 2015

      Hi Adi, thanks for the comment. That’s interesting about the meaning of the names. I did read yesterday about the names often having very positive meanings, but didn’t realise how pompous they might be. Thanks for sharing!


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This entry was posted on January 25, 2015 by in Language and tagged , , , , .


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