For most foreigners, their first impression of the Thai language is often one of intimidation. But first impressions can be false. Learning Thai is not nearly as formidable as one might expect.
Let’s start with the alphabet. It’s not as hard as it might appear.
What do you mean, doesn’t Thai have 44 consonants and
almost as many vowels?
Yes, that’s true but let’s take a quick look at the English alphabet. We claim to have only 26 letters but is that really true?
There are: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z but
wait there is also: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
only 13 look like the upper-case version. So, in order
to read English, one needs to learn at least 39 letters. Plus the letters a, g and q seem to have variations especially in formal print. To complicate matters even further, we then toss in hand-written script which has its own
variations on these letters. This brings the total number of unique forms of letters to about 75.
Indeed the formal Thai alphabet has 44 consonants but there is only one form of each – no upper and lower case. Written Thai is really printing with
no different written script, so bottom-line, Thai and English have about the same number of distinct characters to learn in order to read it. Of those 44 consonants, there are actually two that are obsolete and never used in modern Thai and 7 which are
rarely used since they occur in only a few words of special origin. So you can read most Thai knowing only 35 consonants – we’ll get to the vowels a bit later.
Newcomers to the Thai language, however, generally have a long way to go before trying
to learn to read. It is usually a better idea to build up a bit of a vocabulary before one starts to try to read in Thai. Otherwise, you can make interesting sounds but have no idea what you are saying!
The other thing that makes Thai an easier
language than English is that it has rules and actually follows them. Mainly due to the fact that modern English has borrowed words from so many different languages, the letters we use are often pronounced in many different ways. A c, for example,
has a hard sound like a k much of the time and a soft, s-like sound at other times. We also combine letters like ph or gh and make them sound like an f! Thai does only a little of this. English breaks every rule that it
claims to have. I offer as just one example the letters ‘ear’ and the way they sound when used to describe a part of the body (ear), an animal (bear) or a time (early). No consistency what so ever.
In Thai, some letters have more than one sound
and different characters are used to represent the same sound. Thai has four letters that make the S sound and three that sound like a P . But that just complicates the spelling more so than the reading. Also in Thai, certain letters
change their sound depending on where they are in the word or syllable. An S at the end is pronounced as a T and an L as an N . This can complicate the process of moving between the two languages. But Thai is consistent in its
rules, unlike English.
There are two ways in which one can cross-over from Thai to English (technically this is known as transliteration rather than
translation since the alphabets are not the same.)
Some who transliterate from Thai do so in a way that reproduces the correct sounds when the word in English script is read back. Others will simply reproduce the Thai, letter for letter, in
English script. This can cause some strange outcomes. Is that L pronounced like an L or an N?
The science of Linguistics also has an explanation for some of the variations on the way to transliterate Thai to English.
(see Royal Thai General System of Transcription ) Some of the Thai
letters are clearly what are known as aspirants : a. The speech sound represented by English h. b. The puff of air accompanying the release of a stop consonant. c. A speech sound followed by a puff of breath. This explains
some of the rather strange spelling one occasionally sees like PHATHAYA for Pattaya. The author of PHATHAYA wants the reader to “push air” with both the P and the T in Pattaya. This is to distinguish those letters from other letters in Thai
that have similar sounds but without the “push”. Not a bad idea, but it can make for some unusual spellings if the reader is not in tune with author’s intentions. For one thing, readers of English would be tempted to turn that ph into an f -sound.
One universal problem when reading any Thai word that is written in the English alphabet is that the reader never knows which of the two theories (sound or letter) the writer believes in. So the sound of the word as the English reader pronounces
it may or may not be as the Thai listener expects to hear it. There really is no good solution to this issue unless the Thais mandate one system over the other.
the most formidable obstacle to learning to speak Thai properly is the tones. The Thai language has 5 tones = high, low, middle, rising and falling. That means that what we’d expect to be the same word can be 5 different words depending on the way you
say it. For example, what can be written as kow (cow) can mean white/ rice/ news or enter/ mountain/ knee. Each group of three words is spelt with the same letters in Thai but with a tone marker. So to a Thai, they are clearly six different
words but the pronunciation can be as subtle as when we say “I can put it in the can.” Going back to the aspirant consonants above, the word for mountain is often transliterated as khao to distinguish it from rice ( kow) .
English, we use tones all the time, but usually to express emphasis or emotion. When we ask a question, we usually end the sentence in a rising tone. Technically, the way one spells the word in Thai script automatically sets the tone, but the exact way
that this happens is far beyond the scope of this discussion.
Once again there is an “out” for the farang trying to communicate in spoken Thai. The context of the discussion will most often allow the listener to understand which of the tonal
words you want to use even if you get the tone wrong. You wouldn’t be complaining about a pain in your mountain!
Going from Thai to English, there is an aspect of the Thai language that can make the Thai speaker’s pronunciation of an English word
hard to understand. Thais do not pay much attention to the ending sound of a word in their own language. So English words like knee and need come out sounding a lot alike. Then, of course, there is the universal Asia issue of L and
R . Like all Asians, Thais have trouble with right and light . Of course, then we throw in words like write or rite just to confuse things further.
While we are on the subject of pronunciation, the Thai language
has no comparable sound to SH nor does it have a V . The TH that we use in the and that are also foreign to the Thais. There is one particular sound in Thai that foreigners struggle with the most and almost always get it
wrong. One of the Thai letters has the sound of NG . It is a very nasal sound that we have no exact equivalent for in western languages. It is not so bad when that NG letter is used within a word; it sort of has the sound we use for lung
or tongue . But a few Thai words use it as the opening sound as in the word for snake ( ngu) , money (ngeun ) or quiet (nge-ip ). Our farang tongue (there’s two of those ng words!) just can’t do it justice! About
the closest we can come is the KN -sound as we use for knee. So quiet would be like knee-hip.
One of the easier things about the Thai language is
that it is rather like speaking in short hand. English tends to use a lot of words to express an idea. Thai just goes to the heart of the matter. Many sentences are one word long! As to structure, the Thais use words in pretty much the same order as
we do in English, except the subject or pronoun is often omitted. A sentence like “Do you want to go?” would be simply “buy rue plow” = “go or not?” No need for any pronouns.
The Thai language has tenses for past, present and future. The Thais
just tend not to use them. They expect that the listener will know which is in play.
Another simplifying thing about the Thai language is the way one can change a verb to a noun. This is done by adding a ‘qualifying’ word. Len is Thai for
play; kong len is literally a plaything or toy. Kwam is the other such converting qualifier. Ra-pi-chaup = the verb to be responsible, therefore, kwam ra-pi-chaup = responsibility. Many verbs can be converted using these two
qualifiers. It is a fast way to expand your vocabulary.
The word kwa is used like we use the – er in English; yai is big then yai kwa = bigger. Lek is small or little; lek kw a is smaller.
The Thai Alphabet
Every English speaker learns to recite – or rather sing – the alphabet to that catchy tune. AB CD EFG HI JK LMNOP… Thai children learn their alphabet in an entirely
different way. Here it is:
Every letter has its name and a word associated with it. Thai children learn to sing it with the letter name and the word as a pair. The first letter is a g-sound with the word for chicken and is learned as gaw / gai or G
/ chicken . This is necessary because of the multiple letters with the same basic sound. So Taw / tahan is distinguishable from Taw / tong (t / soldier versus t / flag) only by the word used to describe it.
are multiple s-sounds: Saw / so [s / chain]; [look at the pictures in the insert to see the Thai letter in question.] Saw / sala [s / small building]; Saw / reu-Si [s / wise man / hermit] Saw / seua [s / tiger].
letter of the Thai alphabet is a strange little letter in that the Thais will often use it to represent the K-sound in an English word as well as the G-sound. The second and fourth letters in the top row are both K-sounds in Thai, but the first letter (
Gaw / gai or G / chicken ) is often used as a K-sound when transliterating to English. I have never figured that one out. Thais don’t seem to differentiate too well between K and G nor between D and T . One letter the
Dtaw / dow (turtle) is actually pronounced somewhere between a d and a t . The word for eye = Da and may very well be seem written as Dta .
Looking at the letters in the insert above, there are a couple of key features to look for to identify the letters. First is the LOOP found on most of them. The loop either points out or in. The fourth letter Kaw / kwai
(buffalo) has the loop in. Daw / dek (child) and Dtaw / dow (turtle) both have their loops out. Faw / fa (lid) and Faw / faan (tooth) are identical except for the opposite loops. Fortunately both are the F sound. Another
example are the Maw / maah (m / horse) and the Naw / nu (n / mouse). The M has the outward loop on the first stroke and the N an inward loop on the last. These bring us to the next pertinent feature = HEIGHT . The two F-letters
have a long final stroke or leg. The letters on either side of Faw / fa (lid) are both are p-sounds; one with a loop out and one in. Both have a shorter leg than the F’s. . Next is WIDTH . Kaw / kai (egg) [the second letter] is
very narrow. The 26th letter is Baw / bai mai (leaf). It looks very much the same except Baw / bai mai (leaf) is wider. Now look at the middle S-letter Saw / reu-Si (wise man). It is exactly the same as Baw / bai mai (leaf) but with a little
TAIL . This is exactly how English turns an O into a Q! The three latter S-letters as listed above are carbon copies of other letters except with a tail. Lastly are the DIPS or indents. Saw / so [s / chain] is almost the same as
the letter that precedes it = Chaw / chang (ch / elephant) except for the little dip after the loop. Similarly, the difference between Daw / dek (child) and the next letter Dtaw / dow (turtle) is the tiny dip at the top of Dtaw /
dow (turtle). So one needs to learn loops, height, width, tails and dips to read the Thai characters.
One More Thing
There is one other aspect of Thai that makes it a
bit of a chore to read. King Ram-kam-hang who invented the Thai script was a bit miserly about space. He must have thought that separating the words was a big time and space waster, so he simply strung all the letters together without word breaks. Nor
was there any punctuation. In English, most of us read by the word and sometimes whole phrases. Thai is read more letter-by-letter since you cannot be certain where the word ends.
As noted there are almost as many vowels in the Thai language as there are
consonants. Four of the consonants are included in that list. For foreigners, the placement of Thai vowels can also seem problematic, but we have some such strange uses in English as well. We toss an ‘e’ at the end of words and expect the reader to see
it far to the right and change the sound of the vowel that precedes it somewhere in the word!
I like to describe the Thai vowels as over, under, around and through when referring to where they are written. The majority
of Thai words –even those with many syllables – are written as consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel. There are only a few double-letter combinations and one double vowel.
For the most part, the Thai vowels are written after the
consonant, but two are written under the main line of writing and a few over it. Some vowels are a series of characters that are written before, above and after ( around ) the consonant that they are linked to. Some of them aren’t
there AT ALL! For example, the word for street (thanon) is written in Thai with no vowels at all = TNN. Similarly, the word for cake (khanom) is written as KNM. The Thais seem to know instinctively when and which (O or A) vowel to insert.
This pattern also explains why when reading or speaking English, the Thais tend to toss in an extra A-sound between double letters. Street, for example, is pronounced a
sa-treet with an ‘a’ where they think it should belong.
End of the Line
At this point, I’m not sure if I have enhanced your understanding of the idiosyncrasies of Thai
and they way they relate to English. I have written this without resorting to the use of Thai fonts because chances are anyone outside of Thailand would not have that font on their computer and the characters would show up as gibberish anyway. I
would like to think that you now have a better understanding of the inner workings of the Thai language as seen by a farang. The good news is that once you learn the basic sounds of the letters and the variations that come with placement (L as an N), the
rules are generally uniformly obeyed. So build up your vocabulary, then try to learn to read. Writing will lag behind since deciding which of the multiple letters with the same sound is the one used in spelling any given word is a monumental chore.