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Announcing: The Handbook of Thai Names

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Attapol Rutherford | อรรถพล ธำรงรัตนฤทธิ์

Chulalongkorn University, Professor

Jan. 30, 2022, 2:05 p.m.

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Whoa! How do you pronounce your name? Whoa! That's a crazy name. Being a Thai person, I am asked these questions many times in my life whenever I am abroad or meet another person from different countries. Do we have crazy names? For us, not really. For others, probably yes. But I will argue that Thai names do tell quite a lot about the person, and that is what makes Thai names sophisticated and fascinating. 

I am a computational linguist at Chulalongkorn University. Mondonomo challenged me to take on the project of helping the whole world (and computers!) understand how Thai names work and what's behind them. Thai people have at least three names that they use on a daily basis: first name, last name, and nickname. First names are used more in a setting where we interact with somebody that we do not know well. For example,  when we talk to a bank teller or a receptionist at a hotel. Nicknames are used quite frequently as the Thais are generally quite friendly and prefer to be addressed by nicknames. We can even use nicknames with people who are older if they want to be more casual. Thai last names are known to be unusually long when compared with other languages. Nobody is addressed by their last names. Thai last names are used when we fill out forms to complete some sort of formal or bureaucratic matter where the precise identity of a person is required. Thai last names pack quite a punch to it as they are usually composed of a few words in Pali or Sanskrit, so there are almost infinitely many Thai last names. If we see somebody with the same last name as us, we definitely raise our eyebrows and enjoy the possibility that we might actually be related.

While being fascinating in their own ways, the team at Mondonomo and I set out to investigate the staggering long list of Thai first names. First, we want to know when the two names are the same. Can we just look at how it is spelled in Thai script? Well, yes and no. For example, my name is อรรถพล (/attapon/). I have met another guy who might have the same name. But his name is อัตถพล. Yes, they are the same name, and they are pronounced the same way. The spelling is similar but not that similar. Well, not a lot of people in this world know how to read the Thai script anyway. Can we just look at how it is spelled in Roman alphabet? Attaphon for both spellings. Great! Problem solved? Not so fast. We combed through facebook users who are named Attaphon and saw many variations of the spelling e.g. Attapol (how I actually spell my name), Auttapon, Autthapon, Attapon, etc. It is not too difficult for a Thai to know which Thai name these variations refer to, but it is very difficult transcribe them back into Thai because there are more than one spellings in Thai! For thousands of expats who live in Thailand, they have almost no chance of knowing whether the two names are the same. 

How do we solve this 'name problem'? We are looking through the name data that Thai facebook users have on their profiles and run statistical analyses to find the factors that influence how the Thais choose the spelling for their names (although this kind of choice is a matter of personal preference) . This investigation will lead to an algorithm that can suggest a few good  romanized versions of Thai names and consequently help decide whether the two names are the same. The list of names that we have studied will be compiled into "the Thai book name." This book enumerates some of the popular Thai names and shows the proportion of males and females adopting these names.

This fascinating world of how people choose to call themselves leaves a whole lot more to discover. And we are very excited to share these findings with you. We are working hard on this book as we cannot wait the world to understand a bit more about how Thai people call each other and how the name reveals a bit of their life story.