October 18, 2008

Titles in Thailand

What's in a title? That which we call a Ms. by any other title would smell as sweet.

Apologies to Shakespeare. I read an interesting Thai law the other day on the topic of titles for women.

As you may know, the basic titles for women in Thailand are นางสาว for a single woman (like Ms.), and นาง for a married woman (like Mrs.).

Only, that's not quite the case. A law issued on January 31 of this year states the following:
  • A woman aged fully 15 years or older, who has never been married, must use the title นางสาว (naang saao)
  • A married woman may use the title นาง (naang) or นางสาว (naang saao) according to her preference, by informing the local registrar.
  • A married woman whose marriage later comes to an end may use the title นาง (naang) or นางสาว (naang saao) according to her preference, by informing the local registrar.

There's an explanatory note at the end of the PDF linked above giving the logic behind this new law. The inability for a married woman to choose her title "ทำให้เกิดผลกระทบต่อหญิงดังกล่าวในการดำรงชีวิตประจำวัน อาทิ การประกอบอาชีพ การศึกษาของบุตร และการทำนิติกรรมต่าง ๆ ส่งผลให้การใช้คำนำหน้านามใน ลักษณะดังกล่าวของหญิงมีลักษณะเป็นการเลือกปฏิบัติโดยไม่เป็นธรรมต่อบุคคลเพราะเหตุแห่งความแตกต่างทางเพศ" (the former law "affected the daily lives of married and formerly married women, including their careers, the education of their children, and the carrying of various legal actions, which constitutes unjust sexual discrimination").

See, now that's interesting. As far as I know, the titles Mr., Ms. and Mrs. have no legal status in the United States (my บ้านเกิดเมืองนอน). I don't know when I've used the title Mr. for myself, except when doing things like applying for a visa to the Thai embassy. Funny how that is.

In Thailand, everyone has some kind of title.

Nowadays, all men (all commoners, anyway) are นาย (naai). Girls and boys under 15 are เด็กหญิง (dek ying) and เด็กชาย (dek chaai), respectively.

Royal titles are very complex, so I'm not going to get into them here. You can read about them, along with many obsolete historical titles, in this Wikipedia article.

Hereditary titles for descendants of royalty (not considered royal themselves) are still in use, too. These pass only through male lines. You'll see the titles หม่อมราชวงศ์ (mom ratchawong), who is the child of a หม่อมเจ้า (mom chao, the lowest tier of royalty), and หม่อมหลวง (mom luang), who is the child of a male หม่อมราชวงศ์ (mom ratchawong).

Children of a หม่อมหลวง (mom luang) receive no title, but can append ณ อยุธยา (Na Ayuthaya, meaning 'of Ayutthaya') to their name, indicating their royal lineage.

Honorific titles for woman of non-royal lineage are granted by His Majesty the King. They are ท่านผู้หญิง (than phuu ying, said to be equivalent to the British title Dame) and คุณหญิง (khun ying, said to be equivalent to the British title Lady). Honorific titles for non-royal men are no longer in use.

There is still a lot of prestige attached to any of the honorific or hereditary titles. But in modern Thai society, there are other titles which will also gain you much respect, and which are available to anyone: titles of education. In particular, ดร. (Doctor, for non-medical doctorate holders) and นพ./พญ. (naai phaet and phaet ying, for men and women medical doctors) hold a lot of cachet; but also professorial titles -- in descending order, ศ. (Professor), รศ. (Associate Professor), and ผศ. (Assistant Professor).

And let's not forget military and police titles. There are a large number of these, and they vary depending on the branch of the military (again, see Wikipedia).

It's not uncommon to stack up multiple titles, either. In an extreme case, you might see ผศ.ดร.พ.ต.ต. which unravels to Assistant Professor Doctor Police Major so-and-so. Quite the mouthful.

On the news, anchors always use a person's full title at least the first time they mention a person. When you have a prominent person with multiple titles, like Thaksin Shinawatra, they might say อดีตนายกรัฐมนตรี พันตำรวจโท ดอกเตอร์ ทักษิณ ชินวัตร "former prime minister Police Lieutenant General Doctor Thaksin Shinawatra". (Nevermind that he left the police force more than 20 years ago.)

All in all, titles are far more important in Thailand than they are in my homeland. In the U.S., some pompous ass might correct you with "that's Dr. so-and-so", because he wants you to know he has a degree. It's generally much less of a big deal, and (as in the case of the pompous ass) being overly showy with titles is tacky.

Back in Mother England they seem to be more important, though I have very little clue about the hierarchy involved in those. My mom says her side of the family has traced our genealogy back to Charlemagne. Probably me and 10 million other people. I don't think I'm going to inherit any titles any time soon.

Any readers have a title I should be aware of?

No comments:

Post a Comment