Thai political slang explained: ชั่ย or ‘yup’

From 21 February onward, Thailand saw some of the biggest demonstrations of this decade. Led by thousands of high school and college students, they said the military junta led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has stayed for too long. Many compare the student movement to its historical precedents: they may be able to overthrow an authoritarian government like in 1973 and 1992 or they may get killed like in 1976 or 2010. But every protest is unique in its own way. 

This one is unique in its use of language. If you paid a visit to a student protest in Thailand in the last two weeks, ชั่ย is the word which you would encounter the most often. ‘ชั่ย’ (chai) or ‘yup’ is a deviant spelling of the word ‘ใช่’ (chai) or ‘yes.’ It is everywhere in the protest signs and hashtags. Sometimes people call the student protesters ‘ชาวชั่ย’ (chao chai) or ‘yup-people’. One can argue that the use of this word is central to the identity of the student movement due to its deviant nature.   

ชั่ย is of unknown origin, but some attribute it to the sub-culture of Thai motopunks. There are separate Thai terms for motopunks of different gender. Male riders are 'เด็กแว้น' (dek van) or 'speed-kids.' ('van' refers to the loud noise motocycles make when they race on public streets.) Female pillion riders are called 'สก๊อย' (skoi). A particular way in which they communicate is called Skoy language for only god knows why. 

Although many of these are school dropouts, they are native to social media. Communicating in texts, they use every Thai word with a deviant spelling - the characteristic unique to Skoy. Some may question its seriousness, but Skoy language is quite well established. You can find an actual website dedicated to converting formal Thai words into Skoy. Even then, a native Thai can find it difficult to comprehend their texts. The deviant spelling is arguably an act of rebellion against Thai teachers, pundits, and grammar nazis.

On, a normal Thai sentence is converted into Skoy - the language even a native Thai finds it hard to understand.  

Thai society often treats the motopunks as a social problem, but now Thai citizens need to consult their wisdom to wage a political struggle. Those who can learn from them most easily are nerds and ordinary students in the high schools and universities native to social media. Since last December, we saw an upsurge of ‘ชั่ย’ in Facebook comment sections as users give supportive responses to Kai Meaw X’s political cartoons. This might explain the reason why the word has broken out of the sub-culture into the mass protests. Meanwhile, social media platforms are quite foreign to the older generation, so this word belongs to the young and is quite incomprehensible to the aged establishment. 

In fact, social media is not the only divide. Since the 1980s-1990s, one may assume the rise of postmodernism which separates the lives of the younger generation from the older generation. This might have changed the young generation’s understanding of language, causing both positive and negative impacts. Thai university professors often complain that the younger generation can no longer write an assignment. The inability to focus on a long read in the age of smartphones makes their papers incoherent, unsystematic, and incomprehensible.

But we can also see a positive impact. ‘ชั่ย’ has a postmodern character. Its meaning is fluid, open to any kind of interpretation. It therefore promotes inclusivity which the movement needs. When bad things done by the government pile up, this word encapsulates everything they want to say in their frustration: yup, our future is taken from us; yup, the junta has stayed for too long; yup, the economy is getting worse; yup, I hate the pro-government hypocrites; yup, I want to say something but it is prohibited under the lèse majesté law. 

It is understandable that these messages reflect the reactive nature of the movement. They can only respond to the government's initiatives because the costs imposed make it difficult for a civilian movement to make the first move. However, in the future 'ชั่ย' can encourage creative endeavours: yup, I want a constitutional amendment; yup, I want a genuine constitutional monarchy; yup, I want a solution to the traffic problems in Bangkok; yup, I want to restructure the economy; yup, I want a less oppressive version of Thai culture; yup, I want Thailand to play a regional and international role in combating climate change and promoting democratic justice.      

That still has a long way to go. But the other immediate function of this term is sarcasm. Suthep Thaugsuban, the leader of the protests which called for a military coup in 2014, echoed the establishment’s voice saying it is a mortal sin for masterminds to manipulate students and have them organize the protests. As if they were easily fooled like the pro-junta protesters. The students varied their responses in wake of such accusations. But one of them has been ‘ชั่ย’. In this context, it is a Thai way of saying “okay, boomer.” To apply research by my political science professor, here we see the power of satire as it exposes the absurdity of ageist accusations in the government’s propaganda. 

'ชั่ย (chai)' has many benefits. But in its entirety, the Skoy language can also be very helpful. Although not as smart as the Chinese government, the Thai authorities are getting smarter when it comes to surveilling and arresting the dissidents. Encrypting your communication using Skoy can make it more difficult for Thai authorities to search you online.  

When Ludwig Wittgenstein was proposing the notion of language-game, this may be what he was talking about. Depending on the context in which it is used, one word or sentence can mean many things. It can be an order, a request, a question, a statement, a sarcasm, a warning sign, a secret code, etc.  In this case, ‘ชั่ย’ means defiance, frustration, satire, inclusivity, and demands for a better future. Can 'ชาวชั่ย' or the yup-people bring about change for Thailand? We will have to wait and see.

About this section

Thailand is a country with one of the most complicated political systems in the world, and one way of understanding it is through Thai political slang, which for the uninitiated can be just as complicated. Perhaps as you read this section, you will see how crazy Thai politics is and be inspired to work as hard possible to avoid it from happening in your country.

The Bangkok Post has had a Learning English from the News for years and Prachatai English thought it might be a good idea to do something a little more advanced and cutting edge by explaining Thai political vocabulary to an international audience. If you like it, please subscribe or donate.

*The piece has been updated on 11.50 am to give more context for international readers. The basic information about motopunks' gender, Skoy language, and the possibility of using it for encrypting your communication has been added.   

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