ประเทศไทย or [prà.thê:t.thai] (Thailand) is probably one of the first words a student of Thai would memorize. In this post, I explore the ประ [prà] and เทศ [thê:t] of Thailand.
เทศ by itself derives from Sanskrit deśa (देश) which means something like municipality, province or district. In English, deśa is rendered as desh as in Bangladesh (lit.: district of Bengal) or Uttar Pradesh (lit.: great Northern province).
What’s very interesting is that in Thai, although the historical meaning of deśa suggests something local, in modern usage, desh also means “foreign,” especially when used to describe flora and fauna. Examples:
มะเขือเทศ [mà.khɯ̌a:thê:t] – tomato (lit.: foriegn aubergine)
นกกระจอกเทศ [nók.krà.tɕɔ:k.thê:t] – ostrich (lit.: foreign sparrow)
The [prà] in ประเทศ is a derivational prefix meaning “great,” making [prà.thê:t] to mean “great locality,” or “country,” the most common gloss. In addition, if we back-transcribe [prà.thê:t.thai], perhaps more “historically,” we would call Thailand by the name Thai Pradesh. The alternative of Pradesh Thai could also work, but disagrees with Sanskrit morphology. Sanskirt pradeśa is found as a derviational suffix rather than a prefix as manifested in Thai.