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Grokking the Thai Writing System Part 1: Consonants

Luke Cassady-Dorion

Grokking the writing system by doing things youʼre not supposed to…

Iʼve seen a lot of posts on this site about how learning the writing system is essential if you want to pronounce Thai correctly (it is) and how itʼs really not that hard (itʼs not), but what seems to be missing is a good tutorial on how to make sounds pop out of your mouth that youʼre not used to.

Stu Jay Raj once pointed out to me that the Thai alphabet (like that of many Indic languages) maps directly to the human mouth (brilliant), but for someone who isnʼt used to thinking about his mouth, nose, throat and tongue this can be tricky.

I had a singer friend come visit for a week once and he was one of the few people who could perfectly pronounce Thai words after hearing them only once or twice. The thing is singers are used to thinking about the mouth as an instrument but the rest of us arenʼt. If you want to pronounce this language correctly, you need to spend some time making sure that you are pronouncing each letter correctly. Sounds are the basic building blocks of a language, you assemble them first into words and then into sentences. Since Thaiʼs grammar is pretty simple, once you know a bunch of words they can easily be combined into sentences. No need to deal with verb conjugations or noun declensions.

It is likely true that if you approach Thai using (one of the many) Romanization methods, that you will get down some basic vocabulary faster than a student studying the Thai alphabet first. Unfortunately, your chances of being understand are not very good. Sure people can probably figure out what you are saying if you say “Hi” “Bye” How are you?”, but this is often based on guesswork. Once you try to broaden your vocabulary and talk about anything of substance, you will likely be met with confused stares.

Another major downside to Romanized Thai is that there is no one accepted method. When Bangkokʼs new Suvarnabhumi airport opened back in 2006, there was a big hullabaloo because within the airport itself the name was romanized using more than one method.

Aside from the visual representation of the language, new students to Thai are likely intimidated by the idea of having to make tones come out of their mouth. Some will even go as far as to say that they are tone-deaf and incapable of getting their body to make the proper sounds. The thing is (as anyone who has spent time in a Thai karaoke bar will attest to) there are tons of tone-deaf Thais who are able to speak their own language perfectly. The tones are more a side-product of learning to control the throat, tongue and nose properly. Something that most of us arenʼt used to doing, but possible to pull off with a little work.

If youʼve spent much time in Thailand, you have likely met Thais who pronounce English words in a strange fashion; square becomes sa-quare, happy becomes hap-pii, and victory becomes wictory. These mispronunciations have roots in learning of English using the Thai letters, or a continued understanding of English backed by Thai phonetics. When learning a new language, itʼs very important to sit down and figure out how to make your mouth reproduce the sounds required before digging into the vocabulary. The upside of Thai is that each letter and vowel has (generally) only one corresponding sound. There are some exceptions when consonants change their pronunciation at the end of a word, but this is all laid out in easy-to-remember rules. There are some unfortunate non-standard pronunciations that have worked their way into the language over time, but they are much fewer than in English where even simple words like “go” and “do” have totally different vowel sounds.

Given an hour or two per day, the writing system can be sufficiently mastered in a week. Of course that doesnʼt mean that you could wiz through Thai literature, but you will have little problem figuring out what menus say. Then as you add more and more vocabulary to your repertoire, youʼll find that the words are generally understood.

As you approach Thai phonetics having to think about the position of the tongue, lips, throat and mouth you may get the feeling that it will be totally impossible to speak this language with any form of speed close to which you speak English. It is true that at first your words will come out slowly (albeit correctly), but the thought process behind it all will eventually fade away. Work with the system and over time, you will find that your mouth just does what itʼs supposed to do, you no longer have to will it into action.

The Thai language is composed of 21 distinct consonant sounds which are represented by 44 different characters. Vowels are constructed using 16 different symbols, for a total of 9 single-vowels, 12 double-vowels (diphthongs) and 3 triple-vowels (triphthongs).

Consonants…

The following chart breaks down the consonants based on where in the mouth you need to make the sound in order for it to come out. Donʼt rush through it, you may be happy just learning one row per week or so. Remember this part of the language is critical.

OK, so hereʼs the thing that every guidebook tells you not to do …. find a native speaker who speaks clearly and touch his head as he says the consonants. As foreigners when we learn Thai, we need to really think about which sounds exist in the throat, the lips and nose; we also need to be aware of which sounds require air to be expelled from the mouth (aspirated) and which donʼt. The deal with these sounds is that at first our ears will have a hard time differentiating the subtle differences between a correct and incorrect sound. Further complicating matters is that most native speakers will just tell you that youʼre saying it wrong, but are so far removed from the learning process that they will not be able to tell you what exactly is wrong. Until your ear becomes accustomed to these sounds, using your sense of touch adds another layer via which you can fully understand whatʼs happening.

People seem to respond in one of two ways to information organized in charts, they either bubble with excitement or just glaze over and try to move on. If youʼre the type to be turned-on by information organized neatly in columns and rows, then you can probably dive right in. For those of you who feel intimidated by information in this fashion, stop for a moment and familiarize yourself with what it all means. It may seem like a lot of hard-to-digest information is being thrown at you, but approaching the Thai writing system is really important as it helps you to get the sounds down.

Voiced vs Unvoiced…

Luke Cassady-DorionThe difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants lies in whatʼs happening with your vocal cords. Voiced consonants cause the vocal cords to vibrate, while unvoiced ones donʼt. To fully understand this difference, lightly place your index finger at the base of a Thai personʼs throat while he reads over the third and fourth rows. Try the same thing with your own throat while going over the consonants. If you donʼt notice the change in your vocal cords between the voiced and unvoiced ones, you are saying them incorrectly.

Aspirated vs Unaspirated…

Luke Cassady-DorionAspirated sounds require that air be softly expelled from the mouth and non-aspirated ones require that air not be expelled from the mouth. Try this experiment as you look at the first row in the table. First have a Thai friend say the five consonants in the row and as he does try to repeat each sound only once. For the second round hold one palm about two inches from his mouth and your other palm two inches from your mouth. Note which sounds cause air to be softly expelled and make sure that you mouth does the same thing.

Nasal…

Luke Cassady-DorionNasal sounds require that there be some sensation happening in the nose caused when the sounds make their way out. I donʼt mean a huge rush of air, itʼs much more subtle than that. Iʼm not sure if you want to stick your finger up your friendʼs nose to get a feel for this one, but if youʼre struggling, you may want to place the tip of your pinky finger inside your own nose. You should feel the nose vibrate slightly when you say ง.

Semi-Vowel…

A semi-vowel exists in that nether-world between a vowel and a consonant. Growing up in USA, we were told that Y was sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant but rarely got much more of an explanation as to what that means. Linguistically, the difference between consonants and vowels lies in your throat. Vowels are pronounced with an open throat while consonants require the throat to be constricted some. When pronouncing a semi-vowel, the throat is only semi-obstructed. This may all seem a little confusing (it is), but try not to stress over that. As you work with the letters and become familiar with your mouth and throat it will make more sense.

Fricative…

A fricative is created when the air is pressed through a narrow channel created in the mouth. The letters, ซ ศ ษ ส, are a subset of fricative called sibilants which are similar to the S sound in English. They are formed as the air is pushed out through the teeth.

Lateral…

Lateral consonants are formed when air escapes along one or both sides of the tongue. In Thai, the ล and ฬ sounds are similar to L in English and are formed when the tongue hits the teeth and the air escapes around it.

Flap…

Flap consonants are produced with a single contraction of muscles, basically this means that the tongue is thrown against itself. Admittedly this may seem really hard to grok, but as with other tricky aspects just try to understand the basics and then slowly return to it as you work on this letter.

Another important thing to notice about the chart is that each row groups the sounds by the part of the body which needs to make the sound. In the first row, the throat needs to be activated in order to get the proper sound out. The reason that I said to go through this one row at a time is that most people arenʼt used to thinking about these parts of the body and you should really take time to make sure that youʼre getting the sounds down. If you put in the effort to master these sound-building blocks now, youʼll be very happy with the results when you actually start to assemble them into words. What youʼll notice is that in addition to grouping sounds by the location they occur in the mouth, the rows also group similar sounds together. The first row has sounds roughly similar to the English K/G, the second row has sounds similar to J/CH/Y. The reason that these sounds are similar is that they occur in a similar part of the mouth, this also provides yet-another memory device that you can use in memorizing the letters.

Velar…

Velar consonants are pronounced with the back of the tongue near the soft palate, which is the fleshy, flexible part of the mouth near the back of roof of the mouth. Take a moment to play around with the four consonants in this group and really start to think about the things that are happening with your tongue.

Palatal…

In working with the Palatal consonants, the tip of the tongue moves towards the hard palate which is located at the front of the roof of the mouth (but not all the way up to the teeth). Each of the five consonants in this group require that the tongue move up and make soft contact with the hard palate. The first consonant in this group can be especially tricky to get down, due to its similarity in sound to the English letter J. Notice what happens with your tongue when you say the English word “jazz”, it rests towards the bottom of your mouth. When many people approach Thai, they assume that จ is pronounced similar to the J in jazz, when in fact it requires that the tongue be moved to a different location. Work through this column slowly, make sure that your tongue is going to the correct place for every letter.

Dental…

The dental consonants are the biggest grouping and will provide the greatest challenge for you when writing out the letters. While visually different, they are phonetically very similar. Each of the seven groupings has only a single sound, the broad variation in letters is use to give coverage to all the tones and to deal with words of Sanskrit and Pali origin.

Labial…

As you can probably guess from the name, labial consonants happen out towards the lips. This one you can experience with your eyes more than your fingers, focus on your friendʼs lips as he works through this row.

Laryngeals…

This category is a little tricker since thereʼs not much you can do to see or feel it. The sound is made in the larynx with the vocal cords partly closed and partly vibrating. Try to think about this part of your body as you say these letters.

Consonants graph

Ok, so spend some time on those. Work with a native speaker to get them down. Putting the time and energy into getting them down will make a huge difference when you start learning vocabulary.

Luke Cassady-Dorion
Goldenland Polygot
luke.org

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20 Comments

  1. This is a fantastic article! Great information that’s easy to read and understand. Thanks for this.

  2. Hi Josh. Agreed. Luke indeed has a wonderful way with words!

  3. This is really a fantastic article but with all the great info I do have a problem with this bit.

    “Given an hour or two per day, the writing system can be sufficiently mastered in a week. Of course that doesnʼt mean that you could wiz through Thai literature, but you will have little problem figuring out what menus say.”

    I really think that is an over generalization. Sure, there may be some people that could do this but I think most people wouldn’t be able to sufficiently master the Thai writing system in a week..even enough to read a bathroom sign.

  4. Talen, going with personal experience using 60 Minutes Thai Alphabet, if you apply yourself you can indeed learn the alphabet in a week. But unless you were totally dedicated during that same time (or have an amazing memory), being able to read a menu might depend on your existing vocabulary.

    A number of people don’t start learning how to read and write until they’ve acquired a bit of Thai, so in that sense it is indeed possible. I’m guessing that you have a working Thai vocabulary already (enough to order a basic Thai menu and choose fish, chicken, rice, veg and such) so it would work in the same way for you. Maybe not everything on the menu, but enough that you would not starve.

  5. Cat, no doubt someone could learn the alphabet pretty well in a week but turning that into reading a menu is no small feet. I can read some words in Thai but only because I have memorized them. I don’t know the alphabet well yet only because I have concentrated on speaking over writing an reading for now.

    I wouldn’t starve any way because I know how to say chicken, rice and beer…the staples as it were :)

  6. See? I knew you wouldn’t starve. Thai is great in that it’s not difficult to make out basic words (unlike in English, which can be a nightmare). So when you finally do sit down with your Thai alphabet and a menu, you are going to have so many ‘Ah Hah!’ moments, you’ll scare the waitress. Trust me on this…

  7. This is really a great article and well written too. Luke’s point about Thais speaking English using Thai sounds is spot on. The strangeness in Thai-style pronunciation of English is also in the butchering of language (in both directions). Try to find Thais who say the word “program” correctly – you’d be lucky to find a few by next week. It’s almost always “po-gam” or “pro-gam” because even though the Thai version of the word is correctly spelled as โปรแกรม, many Thais have dropped the “r” ร in the double initial consonants.

    Good point also about singers’ better tuned to pronunciation. When I started learning English (seriously in high school and university) I also relied a lot on singing English songs or reading out loud.
    .-= kaewmala´s last blog ..“Play” in Thai Idioms – Part 2: Bad & Dangerous Play =-.

  8. Credit where credit is due: the Thai alphabet maps to the mouth because that’s how the ancient Indian linguists organized their writing system. I’m sure Stu, brilliant though he is, wouldn’t want to take credit for that. :)

    Thai (with its idiosyncratic exceptions) has inherited this tradition. So Thai shares the same basic alphabetical structure with Sanskrit, Pali, Mon, Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Shan, Tamil, Hindi, and many other languages and scripts.

  9. Kaewmala, I’m also interested in Thai songs but I haven’t really found my absolute Thai niche yet. I dabble on YouTube and with the odd CD, and some do catch my ear, but that’s all. Nothing has stuck for long, so suggestions are indeed welcome :-)

  10. Rikker, Ah, yes. Stu was the first to lead me down that route, so I find it easy to forget long dead linguists and talk about Stu instead. Also, he’s often more interesting (especially on FaceBook ;-)

  11. Talen, I am new to all of this and way behind most in learning Thai and have certainly not read through all the the great posts you and Cat have yet. I am confused though about your level of Thai……for some reason I thought you were quite fluent. Your comment surprised me…”I can read SOME words in Thai but only because I have memorized them.” And here I thought you were reading,writing and chattering away. Truth be told, it makes me feel better to know that not everyone is reading and chattering away and while I am still learning numbers and the alphabet. I will need to read more on your site so I will be more informed. That said, it did make me feel a little less behind than the rest of you. Cat, I have found that singing Thai is very helpful. I was able to order a couple of Thai CDs and found singing seemed to help a lot. Not that I had a clue as to what I was singing but it does help me to practice the sounds. I love Benjawan Poomsan Becker’s Thai Hits Vol. 1.

  12. Hi Sophie, I do have a collection of Thai songs but no one performer has me humming all day long. Actually, I believe this calls for a post on Thai songs to outline the different singers, songwriters, etc. Now if I could just find that certain someone to write a post…

  13. it took me a year to get my basic Thai reading going, like, not trying to recall letters one by one, straining my memory, but really reading words and chunks. and I was in a classroom full of 5-year-old Thai kids who were doing the same.
    and then another year until I was comfortable reading all sorts of fancy fonts on menus, signs, etc.
    I am a linguist and a teacher, have been studying a bunch of different languages, teach reading and writing to 6-year-olds, I have good visual memory, and still.
    I think anyone who says they learnt to read Thai in a week must be superhuman.

  14. Luke Cassady-Dorion

    June 20, 2010 at 8:11 am

    @Riker: Thanks for pointing that out, I should have been more clear in my article …

    I still do believe that with 2-3 hours per day, that you can get this alphabet down in a week. Of course, what you will be limited by is your knowledge of vocabulary. Much like if I went to Germany, I could probably learn how their pronounce the roman alphabet in a day or so, but that doesn’t mean that I could actually understand the words that I read. The thing is, that when you learn this Thai writing system first (before any vocabulary), then you are constantly reinforcing it as you do learn words and sentences.

  15. Hi Betti, I agree. Learning to read Thai at a reasonable level does take time (and don’t get me started on the signs with all the oddness :-) But I also agree with Luke in that learning the Thai alphabet can be quick.

    I struggled with kindergarten posters before I found 60 Minutes Thai. Then I just gobbled the alphabet. Using the method, I learned Thai numbers in about 5 minutes. It might not work for everyone, but I’m a visual person so it did for me.

  16. I looked at “60 minutes Thai” and I am positively refusing to have anything to do with a teaching site that cannot write in proper English. I am a little stubborn when it comes to these things. Thankfully, I don’t need to find a “miracle method” anymore so it is irrelevant.
    Kindergarten is a lot more than posters. There were games and cards and tracing and all sorts of funny activities. I think it gave me a solid base to build on.

  17. Cat, in terms of songs/singers I’d suggest going with good vocalists – whatever genre you might fancy. If at all possible *avoid* the BKK bubblegum music in which Thai pronunciation is customarily and horrendously butchered (bubblegum singers tend to mix the ch/j/sh/ sounds and much more – I can’t stand them myself).

    Generally country singers, jazz & easy listening singers are the clearest pronouncers of Thai. I like the duo “Sumet & the Punk” สุเมธแอนด์เดอะปั๋ง(jazzy, easy listening) – their music is very soft and they sound very pleasant and urbane Thai. You might want to check out the Album “Gallery.”

    A female Jazz singer “นรีกระจ่าง คันธมาส”, an extremely talented vocalist, also sings very clearly. She has a very powerful voice. If you can sing along with Whitney Houston you might like singing along with her. :) She’s not very active now, but check for old albums by the band named “Coco Jazz” – she’s their lead singer.
    .-= kaewmala´s last blog ..“Play” in Thai Idioms – Part 2: Bad & Dangerous Play =-.

  18. Thanks Kaewmala! I do like Jazz. Sumet & the Punk’s Gallery is not on YouTube (that I could find) so I’ll check around town. I especially like Coco Jazz, and I hope my neighbours do as well :-D

  19. Cat, Oh yes, please, will you do a post on Thai music? I have found my Thai music mostly from songs I have found on the internet. I would love to hear suggestions along with a little description of the singer or group. It would certainly help narrow down my search.

  20. Sophie, I’m not the one to write the post but I can certainly ask around (Kaewmala?)

    A couple of months ago I found a Thai band from the 80’s that I liked. I drove all around town looking for a cd but couldn’t locate one.

    Ah, and I just remembered where else I saw Thai music I liked… On Rikker’s blog… http://rikker.blogspot.com/search/label/music

    And it’s his post on 80’s music that grabbed my fancy: Fun with YouTube: 80s Thai music videos

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