THAI LANGUAGE LESSONS
L32 - Farang and Other People
If there is one Thai word that is sure to raise a debate amongst expats and tourists alike, it is 'farang'. There is no other Thai word that I have heard debated about so much. Perhaps it is not surprising since we hear it used about ourselves so often. There are three subjects that are always discussed. Firstly, what exactly does the word mean? Secondly, what is the derivation of the word? Thirdly, is it insulting or derogatory towards us?
Well let's see if we can help clear up these issues a little and also look at the other ways that Thais refer to people and nationalities.
There is a common misconception that 'farang' is just a general term for foreigner. In fact, it specifically refers to people from a western ancestry (Americas, Europe and Australasia). Thais do sometimes umbrella black and asian people from western countries under the farang label but generally the word is specifically used for white skinned people. Black people may be called farang dum (black farang).
We hear the word farang so often that it is easy to assume they are always talking about us. The word is used in other contexts. It is also the Thai word for the guava fruit. mahk farang is the Thai word for chewing gum. man farang is the Thai word for potato. Note they are all items that were introduced to Thailand from the west.
Derivation of the word Farang
I lose count of the number of times I have been chatting with friends and someone will confidently explain where the word farang was derived.
One common explanation of the word’s derivation is that it is a simple contraction of the western word 'foreigner'.
Another explanation is that we are named after the guava fruit, rather than the other way around. Guavas are actually native to Central America so it is not quite clear how this could have happened before we had brought the fruit here.
Another commonly given explanation is that the first westerners the Thais met were the French and that 'farang' is a contraction of the Thai word for France - fa-rang-set. The big hole in this explanation is that the first westerners in Thailand were actually the Portuguese.
In fact, nobody is exactly sure of the word’s derivation but probably none of the above is right. Linguists generally believe the word is derived from the Arabic word 'frank', meaning foreigner. This does make sense as the way the Thai alphabet works would actually encourage Thais to add an inherent 'a' after the 'f' and to change the 'nk' at the end to 'ng', giving 'fa-rang'.
Is Farang Derogatory?
This is the question that causes the most debate. I have heard westerners get extremely indignant about the use of the word, claiming that it is intrinsically insulting and racist. They claim that the word itself has negative connotations and cannot be used in anything but a derogatory manner.
For me, the giveaway in this debate is that there seems to be a clear divide as to who thinks the word is insulting and who thinks it is just a descriptive moniker. It is invariably the people who cannot speak Thai who swear that the word is insulting. It is invariably the people who can speak Thai who say that it is just a general moniker for western people and any connotations depend on the context in which the word is used.
You would think that if the people who can speak Thai and can understand the context in which the word is being used are saying that it is not an insulting word, then that would be a fairly conclusive end to the debate. Strangely, it just does not seem to convince those who are determined to feel insulted.
So really, believe me, the word 'farang' is not in itself insulting. My own wife uses it about me as a matter of course and I would be rather surprised if she meant it in a bad way.
That is not to say that 'farang' is actually a polite word. It may not be an insulting word but it is what we might consider to be casual or common language. It is a little like calling someone a Brit rather than British, an Aussie rather than Australian or a Yank rather than American. They are not actually insulting monikers in themselves but they are casual terms that encourage the feel that they may be used in either an affectionate or derogatory manner.
I think this is what has really cultivated the myth that farang is an insulting word. It is not that it is an insulting word but more that it is lower class language.
People and Nationalities
If farang is common language then what are the polite ways to refer to nationality or ancestry?
Let's start with a few country names. Some of them give quite a nice insight into the oddities of transliterating western words into Thai and the reason for their odd pronounciation.
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Remember the Thai language does not generally change the form of words. So they do not do the equivalent of calling the country America and the people American. Instead they use add on words:
For example, if you were referring to China the country you would say pra-tayt jeen. If you were referring to a Chinese person or group of people you would say kon jeen. If you were referring to the general Chinese population you would say chao jeen. If you were referring to the Chinese language you would say pah-sah jeen.
There are two common ways to say abroad, i.e. outside Thailand:
dtahng is way or route. chaht is nation. pra-tayt as we have already seen is country. So both terms mean on route from the country. A foreigner is therefore either kon dtahng chaht or sometimes kon dtahng pra-tayt.
Finally, if you want to specifically refer to westerners without using what we are saying is the common term farang, how should you do it? Well 'west' is dtawan dtok, literally 'sun falls'. So a western person is kon dtawan dtok and western people are chao dtawan dtok.
But believe us, Thais will understand you better if you just say farang.