Thai Crash Course Part 6: Question Words

Question words are an integral part of any language-learning experience. In Thai, they’re often placed at the end of the sentence. There are also some irregularities and idiosyncrasies I’ll do my best to explain. As always if anyone notices and errors in my explanations or translations please point them out to me!

1. Mai (ไหม)

“Yes/No” question particle

This one’s probably becoming a bit Old Hat by now… you’ve seen it formally addressed in the Questions post, the Adjectives post and the Verbs post. But it’s probably the most common question word and something I’d be remiss to overlook in this post! It’s essentially a verbal question mark put at the end of “yes/no” questions, similar to the “ma” found in Mandarin. I’m sure from an etymological perspective there are a few reasons the word came about, but a possible one that springs readily to mind for me is this: Thai doesn’t change word order to serve the purpose of asking a “yes/no” question as we do in English (“Can you come?” v. “You can come.”), nor is it really possible to indicate a question is being asked by rising the tone at the end of the sentence– as we also do in English– without changing the tones (and therefore, the meaning) of the words themselves. Having a specialized word seems like a logical solution.

This makes asking “yes/no” questions quite easy, once you get the hang of remembering to tack on the mai. We’ve already seen this happen with such questions as “Sabai dee mai?” for “How are you?” (but literally, “Are you well/relaxed/comfortable?”, where sabai dee on its own simply means “well/relaxed/comfortable.”), “Ron mai?” (“Are you hot?”– lit. “Hot yes-or-no?”), and “Pad thai mee mai?” (“Do you have pad thai?”– lit. “Pad thai have yes-or-no?”). It can obviously be applied to more complicated questions as well:

“Hen peun proong-ni mai?” = Did you see your friends yesterday? (Lit. “See friend yesterday yes-or-no?”)
“Ao pai gin kao gahp chan mai?” = Do you want to go eat with me? (Lit. “Want go have rice with me yes-or-no?” NOTE: Remember to replace chan with pom if you’re a man!)
“Wai nam dai mai?” = Can you swim? (Lit. “Swim can yes-or-no?”)

Oh, and for the sake of being thorough: “Chop chan mai?” = Do you like me? (Lit. “Like me yes-or-no?” Again, remember to replace chan with pom if you’re a man.)

2. A-rai (อะไร)

“What?”

Easily the next-most-common question word. As stated above, and contrary to what we’re used to in our native language, it should be placed at the end of a sentence. You’ve seen this already with “Cheu a-rai?” (“What’s your name?”– lit. “Name what?”)

“Chop gin a-rai?” = “What do [you] like to eat?” (Lit. “Like eat what?”)
“Mee a-rai?” = “What do [you] have?” (Lit. “Have what?”)
“Poot a-rai?” = “What did [you] say?” (Lit. “Say what?”)
“Tam a-rai?” = “What are [you] doing?” (Lit. “Do what?”)
Ma jahk pratet a-rai?” = “What country do [you] come from?” (Lit. “Come from country what?”)

If you haven’t properly heard what someone has said to you and need them to repeat it’s quite common to throw na (นะ) on the end of the word so it comes out as, “A-rai na?” Thai-language.com defines “na” as “a word added at the end of the sentence to soften it, make it polite, indicate pleading, disagreement, ordering, surprise, or emphasis,” similar to our “huh.” Basically it’s pretty widely used but I’ve personally only gotten into the habit of saying it in the phrase, “A-rai na?”

3. Nai (ไหน)

“Where?”

You’ve already seen this one as well: Pai nai? for “Where are you going?” (lit. “Go where?”), Pai nai ma? for “Where have you been?” or “Where are you coming from?”

Tee-nai (ที่ไหน) is often used when inquiring about location, but it is acceptable to leave out the “tee”.

“Ma jahk tee nai?” = “Where are [you] from?” (Lit. “Come from where?”)
“Satanee rot fai yoo [tee] nai?” = “Where’s the train station?” (Lit. “Station train is located where?”)
“Hong nam yoo [tee] nai?” = “Where’s the restroom?” (Lit. “Restroom is located where?”)
Koon/Rao yoo [tee] nai?” = “Where are you/we?” (Lit. “You/we are located where?”)
“Koon pahk yoo [tee] nai?” = “Where do you live?” (Lit. “You stay live where?”) (“Yoo” can mean both “live” and “to be located.” I find it helps to clarify the meaning by adding “pahk,” or “stay,” to the question.)

4. Kraai (ใคร)

“Who/Whom?”

Here’s an example of one that doesn’t always fall at the end. As a general rule I think as the subject of a sentence it goes at the beginning and as an object (“whom,” really) at the end, but don’t hold me to it. Also, just a pronunciation note: the “r” in this word is very, very soft; pronounced almost in your throat like a French “r”. This happens with many “kr”/”gr”/”kl”/”gl” combinations in Thai.

“Koon pai gahp kraai?” = “Who are you going with?” (Lit. “You go with whom?”)
“Koon rak kraai?” = “Who do you love?” (Lit. “You love whom?”)
“Kraai kaai kai gai?” = “Who sells chicken eggs?” (Haha… a tongue twister I just picked up from thai-language.com that I imagine requires a working knowledge of tones to successfully pull off.)

5. Meua-rai (เมื่อไร)

“When?”

“Ja pai tam-ngaan meu-rai?” = “When will [you] go to work?” (Lit. “[Future indicator] go work when?”
“Ao gin kao meu-rai?” = “When do [you] want to eat?” (Lit. “Want have rice when?”)
“Pai hen nang gahp chan dai meu-rai?” = “When can [you] go see a movie with me?” (Lit. “Go see movie with me can when?”)

Meua (เมื่อ) on its own can be a sort of past tense indicator; a way to say “before” as well. Meua-wan (lit. “before day”) means “yesterday,” for instance.

6. Tam-mai (ทำไม)

“Why?”

I feel more comfortable using this one at the beginnings of sentences, but I think it can go equally well at the end.

“Tam-mai mai chop gaeng som?” = “Why don’t you like gaeng som?” (A sour orange curry that people eat like crazy in the South of Thailand but that we… genuinely don’t really like. A potential answer: “Preu-wa kit wa pliu gern!” = “Because I think it’s too sour!”)

“Tam-mai mai bork wa ja pai Krung Thep?” = “Why didn’t you tell me you’re going to go to Bangkok?” (A likely question to be asked at my school, even if I’d told them, say, two times before. In this case I’d respond, “Bork sawng krang lay-o!” = “I’ve told you twice already!”)

“Tam-mai ma Muang-Thai?” = “Why did you come to Thailand?” (Potential answers: “Ao son pasa-Angrit tee nee.” = “I want(ed) to teach English here.”; “Kit wa ahaan Thai aroi maak!” = “I think Thai food’s very delicious!”; “Kit wa pu-ying Thai soo-ay maak!” = “I think Thai women are very beautiful!”)

7. Yang-rai (อย่างไร)

“How?”

So I’ll admit to almost never using this one but… it falls under the 5Ws+H order of questioning as we’re familiar so I suppose it must be included.

“Pai rong-ree-yin pai yang-rai?” = “How do you get to school?” (Lit. “Go school go* how?”)
*I never would have thought to put the 2nd “pai” in there but in thai-language.com I trust and they had it… They tell me it’s a “directional auxiliary meaning ‘away.'” Whatever that means.

“Chee-wit ben yang-rai?” = “How’s life?” (Lit. “Life is how?”)
“Tam kahp tom yum goong yang rai?” = “How do you cook tom yum goong?” (Lit. “Cook tom yum goong how?”)

Oh, I guess this is important too: one of the reasons I use “how” so infrequently here is that it’s not incorporated into the questions “How much?” and “How many?” These are as follows:

Tao-rai (เท่าไร)

“How much?”

“Nee tao-rai?” = “How much does this cost?” (Lit. “This how much?”)
“Ao tao-rai?” = “How much do you want?” (Lit. “Want how much?”)
“A-yoo tao-rai?” = “How old are [you]?” (Lit. “Age how much?”)
“Dong ror naan tao-rai?” = “How long do [we] have to wait?” (Lit. “Must wait long time how much?”)

Gee (กี่)

“How many?”

So tao-rai can actually be used for both but I think gee is more proper. It’s also useful in certain time expressions.

“Gee mohng lay-o?” = “What time is it?” (Lit. “How many hours already?”)
“Ja pai don gee mohng?” = “[You’re] going to go at what time?” (Lit. “[Future tense indicator] go at how many hours?”)
“Koon yoo tee-nee gee pee lay-o?” = “How many years have you lived here?” (Lit. “You live here how many years already?”)
“Koon ja yoo tee-nee gee pee?” = “How many years are you going to live here?” (Lit. “You [FT indicator] live here how many years?”)
“Mai roo gee kohn ja ma.” = “I don’t know how many people are coming.” (Lit. “Not know how many people [FT indicator] come.”)
“Ao gee kilo?” = “How many kilos do you want?” (Lit. “Want how many kilos?”)

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Also one more tiny thing… I’ve recently learned that the who/what/where/when/how question words also serve to mean “anyone/thing/where/time”. As in, “Mai mee a-rai,” for “There isn’t anything,” or “I don’t have anything.”

An especially useful way to use this is followed by “gor dai” as follows:

a-rai gor dai: “Whatever”/”Whatever you like”/”Anything’s cool” etc etc.
kraai gor dai: “Who(m)ever”
tee-nai gor dai: “Wherever”
meua-rai gor dai: “Whenever”
yang-rai gor dai: “However” (as in “any way you like”, not as a synonym for “But”).

Other lessons:

Thai Crash Course Part 1: 6 Useful Expressions | Thai Crash Course Part 2: 5 Useful Questions | Thai Crash Course Part 3: 7 Commonly Used Adjectives | Thai Crash Course Part 4: 5 Useful Verbs | Thai Crash Course Part 5: Numbers

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