I understand that in Thai language (and perhaps other Thai Kra-Dai languages) there is no such thing as what I can name default past pattern in common/daily conversation, such as:

I did or she did or he did

Instead, it seems to me that at least technically, in Thai, in conversation in general, sentences are said by what I can name a default present pattern:

ฉัน/ผม กำลัง ทำ X → I currently do X


ฉัน/ผม ทำ X อยู่ → I do X currently

Simply put, generally everything that is being said in common/daily conversation, which isn't future oriented, is being said in a "current" fashion, even if it was happened in the past (unless with the แล้ว exception or time mentioning exception[before X time]) and it should be understood from context if it is present or past.

The แล้ว exception is if a person "completed" a specific defined task "already" so this person would say:

ฉัน/ผม ทำ X แล้ว → I do(did) X already

While this by it self is wired to me, I understand that besides that, there is no common to say "I did" in Thai.

(I should do X, or I will do X are ฉัน/ผม ควร ทำ X or ฉัน/ผม จะ ทำ X respectively)

My problem

I think in an English / Semitic paradigm by which, as I understand or at least think should be → past is the default so I would patternly say I did x if I already did something.

Hence I have a problem understanding the logic of past in Thai → although it seems to me that in Thai, present is default →→ it might actually be past that is default →→→ and this should just be understood by context.

My question

Is it true to say that in Thai languages past is default or generally guessed from context (although the pattern is by default present)?

  • 2
    I think it's more complicated than that. It sounds like you are trying to read Thai verbs as if they have a tense but you can't tell what it is - if so, I think you're projecting concepts that belong to other languages onto it. Every sentence takes its meaning from the context anyway, so I'm not convinced there's much room / need for a default rule. I think if the context doesn't make it clear, it's just unclear. I'm not sure that happens all that often though. There are loads of aspect markers and although aspect and timeframe are conceptually distinct, in practice they tend to be linked...
    – JD2000
    Jan 20, 2020 at 17:51
  • ... plus, you can always specify the time (yesterday, after that, in a few days' time etc.)
    – JD2000
    Jan 20, 2020 at 17:52
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    In English, if verbs had no tenses, just adding "now" or "right now" or similar markers to present sentences would not add a lot of "overload", and for past sentence, if it cannot be understood to be past from remote context, adding obvious context like "before", "already", "yesterday" (so, either a completion marker or a time indication, which is something that's already done in likely a majority of sentence) would handle the issue. I don't know what Thai does, but I just know it's not big deal.
    – LjL
    Jan 20, 2020 at 18:09

1 Answer 1


No, the "default" is just the verb itself, without tense.

It is true that tense has to be generally inferred and that goes for present tense as well, but it would be a mistake to assume present tense if "yesterday" or "tomorrow" has already been specified in a conversation.

However, the concept of aspect is strong in the Thai language, and this has a bearing on how time is encoded in the language. แล้ว (láew) is an example of the perfective aspect.

Many languages in that area lack tense but have compulsory aspect marking. In fact แล้ว is a possible cognate of Mandarin Chinese (liǎo as a main verb, le as an aspect marker, and used similarly to Thai). Vietnamese đã has a similar job, although it apparently has less perfective force. Myanmar / Burmese has the perfective marker ပြီ pri, IPA: /pjì/ or /pì/, usually used with stative verbs.

There are certain expressions in Thai that would usually imply a time: the most consistent one would probably be the use of ไม่ได้ (mâi-dâi, literally "not-able") as the (usual) negator in the "past" in the pre-verbal position. E.g.


kaǒ mâi-dâi tam-ngaan

he/she not-able work

He/She did not go to work.

However, it also has other uses, such as its literal meaning "cannot".

An analogy: speakers of English generally do not consciously think about their lack of honorific and formality levels in their verbs when speaking, but they will adjust their speech, changing the vocabulary and even some aspects of phonology, if there is a need. Similarly, speakers of Thai will simply add the relevant time adverbs and aspect markers where it is felt necessary.

  • Hello ; I thank you for the answer --- I suggest to remove the comparison with Chinese as it is a radically different language often confused by people as "similar" to Thai. Beyond that --- I don't understand the analogy, or it's purpose - in all honesty, and in appreciation,
    – user24141
    Jan 21, 2020 at 12:56
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    English, Chinese, and Thai are all radically different languages yet I as a hobbyist linguist only manage to understand the analogy just fine. Some languages have tense and/or aspect. Some do not. Some which have them have inflection, some have particles, and some have both. English past has an inflection wheres future and continuous have particles. Chinese and Thai have no inflection so any and all such things that do have must be expressed using particles or plain old vocabulary. Jan 21, 2020 at 19:07

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