Thailand is known for its unique cultures, stunning beaches, and delicious food among other things. While most of its history can be seen in museums and historical buildings, a fascinating part of Thai culture can be experienced in Thai people's names. Up until 100 years ago, people in Thailand were known by one name. After 1913, Thais and new Immigrants to the country had to adopt a unique family surname (following the Western form of family name last), which usually translates into a phrase that represents a positive virtue. The unique surname ensures that everyone who shares that name is related, and despite the apparent lengthiness of many Thai names when translated into Roman letters, new Thai family surnames are not allowed to exceed 10 Thai letters in length -- it is only due to the phonetic translation of Thai letters into Roman syllables that make the surnames appear long. Of course, indigenous Thais picked the shorter names.
Thai names follow the usual pattern of Western European names. A full name consists of a given name followed by a family name. This contrasts with the name patterns of Thailand's neighbors such as Cambodia, Vietnam, or China, where the family name comes before the first name. Most Thais are also given a nickname, which is used extensively in everyday life.
Given names are used in a more formal context. Thai people address each other by their given names when they contact a government office, talk to a teller at a bank, or negotiate business deals at a company. Thai people also use their given names when talking to people who are at a higher social rank than them such as older people, their bosses, or their teachers. This might be because Thai given names are optimized for meanings and therefore longer than one syllable. Traditionally, Thai given names convey specific positive characteristics of a person, so parents take great care into naming their children. For example, Nattakan (ณัฏฐกานต์) means a well-loved scholar. Or Pongdet (ปองเดช) means a person who aspires for power. Alternatively, Thai given names can also be chosen because they sound 'nice'. For example, Korakot (กรกฏ) means crab. Ulit (อุลิต) means watermelon. Thai given names typically have its etymological roots from Pali or Sanskrit, the two languages constitute a large portion of the Thai language vocabulary. Thai words with Pali or Sanskrit roots are perceived as more formal by Thai native speakers. So it sounds rather odd to use given names among friends.
Nicknames are used more often in an everyday context. When a foreigner visits Thailand and makes a Thai friend, they might be offered to address the Thai person by their nickname, as opposed to their given name. Thai people address each other by their nicknames among friends (unless the given names are also short and not so formally sounding). Colleagues who want to be more casual can also opt for nicknames in most contexts. This sometimes causes a headache to a new employee who just joins the team. They have to memorize both given names and nicknames for each person because they must address their colleagues by their given names when talking to the external clients, which constitute a formal setting. They must also memorize the nicknames for most internal conversations. In some contexts, using nicknames is not symmetrical. Parents address their children by their nicknames, but typically not the other way around. Teachers can also address their students by their nicknames if they choose to, and the students can address their teachers by their nicknames too if they are allowed. But they must also prefix a title kru (teacher) or ajan (professor) to the nickname. For example, a student might call his/her professor as ajan Mint. But it is never appropriate to drop ajan.
Thai nicknames can be just about anything and of any length although most Thai nicknames are monosyllabic. For most cases, they do not relate to the given names at all. Nicknames are not necessarily a shorter version of the given names. Thai nicknames are mostly chosen for their sound, and unlike given names, the meaning is secondary, if not entirely irrelevant. For example, Pom (ป้อม) means rounded, Nam (น้ำ) means water, or Tui (ตุ้ย) means plump. A lot of Thai nicknames are just random monosyllabic objects in English such as Bank, Ball, Mint, Pie, or Sky. Thai nicknames can also be multisyllabic as more parents want their children's nicknames to sound cool or more unique. For example, Ton-gla (ต้นกล้า) means seedling, Dao-Nuea (ดาวเหนือ) means north star, Atom (อะตอม) means atom, Woonsen (วุ้นเส้น) means mung bean vermicelli, Payu (พายุ) means storm, or Jaonai (เจ้านาย) means boss.
Thai surnames are known to be 'notoriously' long. Practically, the purpose of Thai surnames is to be used in conjunction with given names to uniquely identify a person. Thai people do not use the Western convention of addressing a person formally with a title followed by a last name such as Mr. Smith to address John Smith or Professor Doe to address Jane Doe. So when a Thai person does business in an international context, it is quite awkward to spell out the whole last on the meeting agenda or address a Thai person by their surname, which can be as long as seven syllables. Many Thai students run into this problem when taking standardized tests abroad. For example, when Thai students take a test in Japan, the test paper usually requires the test takers to write down their full names in a given box, which leaves room for just a few characters, enough for most Japanese surnames. Thai students have a hard time fitting the entire surnames into the forms that have a smaller surname box.
To answer this question, we have to look back at the origin of Thai surnames. In fact, Thai surnames have a relatively short history. Before the Surname Act of 1913, Thai people only had given names and no surnames. Many problems ensued when King Rama V started postal services within the nation. It was very difficult to specify the addressee of a letter because people had no surnames. The workaround introduced by the postal service was to instruct people to specify the addressee's father's name. But even so, the addressee cannot be uniquely identified because it also occurs that two people might have the same name, and so do their fathers. To further prevent this problem, the postal service had to require the sender to specify the addressee's job in addition to the addressee's father's name. The same problem persisted when the birth, death, and marriage registration system was instituted. King Vajiravudh (King Rama VI), who reigned 1910 - 1925, issued the Surname Act of 1913 to legally require all Thai citizens to have surnames to ease the process of registering every citizen.
The purpose of using surnames is not purely for this aforementioned practical reason. The Surname Act requires that each family must have a unique surname. This means if you meet another person with the same surname, the two people must share a common ancestor. Besides the practical benefits of surnames, the King envisions using surnames as a social bond. By sharing a surname with family members, people cannot act selfishly or individually anymore. They have to live up to the reputation of their family as a bad deed would blemish not only the person's own reputation but also all of their ancestors'. However, this new law caused a different kind of chaos and confusion to the citizens as people did not understand the point of having surnames or how to come up with a surname to begin with. It took a long time to register every citizen and assign a unique surname to each and every family in the nation all at once. King Rama VI along with other royal scholars composed 6432 surnames for aristocrats, merchants, and few other families that had ties to the royal family. Up until now, some of these surnames can still be recognized by Thai people as 'powerful' surnames since it shows that the surname is passed down through the most generations and actually tied to the royal family, which is the institution that a group of Thai people venerate. Thai surnames tell us about the social status and the origin of the family to which a person belongs. Many if not most of the surnames on this initial list are in fact as long as most surnames that we see today. We can say that this list of King-given surnames started the convention for what a Thai surname should mean or sound like. Immigrants who migrated into Thailand after the Surname Act was introduced must also choose a Thai surname for themselves. The government offices prepared a list of surnames for immigrants for simplicity, but people could also come up with their own surnames. These newer surnames follow the same convention of composing a surname found in the initial list. Why are Thai surnames so long? Because the first few ones are long, and people want to keep their surnames for social and familial reasons.
Thousands of languages are spoken around the world today, but only around 35 writing scripts are used today. The Thai language has its own unique writing script, which is unintelligible for most people in the world. Thai people spend a lot of their childhood mastering the complex system of the Thai writing script. Reading and writing the Thai script is regarded as the most difficult linguistic skill when learning the Thai language. As the world becomes globalized, everybody needs to romanize their name into the Latin alphabet as names are the signs that we use to call each other regardless of what language we speak.
by Attapol Rutherford | อรรถพล ธำรงรัตนฤทธิ์ Chulalongkorn University