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Thai 101 Learners Series: Finding Your Voice

Thai 101 Learners Series

Thai is both voiced and voiceless…

In my previous column, I explained “contrasting” and “non-contrasting” sounds as well as aspirated and unaspirated sounds in Thai. This week, we’ll discuss another important distinction in Thai: “voiced” and “voiceless” sounds.

To briefly recap, those sounds we consciously distinguish are called contrasting sounds. Other times, there are multiple sounds that our brains automatically group together as one “sound”. That is, our brains aren’t trained to hear the difference. These are called “non-contrasting” sounds.

An example that illustrates the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds is “th” – the scourge of all non-native speakers trying to master English. “Th” can be one of two sounds, as in “this” and “thin”. Pay close attention to the first sound of each word. When pronouncing “this”, your vocal cords vibrate, but when pronouncing “thin”, your vocal cords don’t vibrate.

You can even feel the difference when you place your fingers on your neck while you make these sounds. Don’t be fooled by the vowel “i” immediately following the th-sound. One of the characteristics of all vowels is that making them always causes the vocal cords vibrate. Focus only on the initial consonant sounds, you can tell the difference.

Other words that begin with voiced-th are that, there, then, and though. For voiceless-th, we have words such as think, three, thimble and through. Proper English pronunciation requires you to distinguish the two. It just so happens that for native speakers, it’s a subconscious distinction.

There are many voicedvoiceless pairs in English. Many of them are contrasting sounds, so we don’t even realize that the only difference between the two sounds is the vibration of the vocal cords. These include s and z (“sit” and “zit”), f and v (“fan” and “van”), and ch and j (“chain” and “Jane”). Your pronunciation may vary slightly, depending on your dialect.

Thai 101 Learners SeriesIn Thai, there are only two voiced sounds, but they confuse many people: b and d. Combined with aspirated and unaspirated consonants, they make a threeway contrast in Thai. English has only two.

Where English has pet and bet, in Thai, there are เผ็ด /phèt/ “spicy”, เป็ด /pèt/ “duck” and เบ็ด /bèt/ “fishhook”.

Similarly, consider ที /thii/ “time, instance”, ตี /tii/ “hit, strike” and ดี /dii/ “good”.

The table to the left will help you sort out the difference.

One sound not found in Thai is the English sound “g”. Many phrasebooks use g to spell Thai words, but this is one of those misleading downsides of Romanized Thai.

The first letter of the Thai alphabet is ก ไก่ /kor kài/. It is a “voiceless” sound. In English, g is voiced. It’s a subtle distinction, but it is there.

The correct sound of ก ไก่ is one of those non-contrasting sounds in English, only found in words such as sky and ski. In that context, our brain groups it with k. In Thai, since there is no English g sound, it’s tempting to just let g fill in that gap, rather than learning to say the ก sound properly.

If you pronounce ก ไก่ like English g, it’ll sound wrong to Thais, even if they can’t explain why. Think of, say, Dracula. It’s like you’re saying, “I vant vun order of chicken fried rice.. mua ha ha”. Only no Dracula laugh.

Then again, maybe that’s why they put all that garlic in the food.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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6 Comments

  1. Ah! Light goes on in my head at last!

    This has taught me much about English that I hadn’t realised. And I’m happy to finally understand the pesky d/t,p/b thing in Thai. I’ve read a few explanations, but this is the best.

    One of the other articles I’ve read on this site said that many Thais don’t know how they make certain sounds & can’t explain it when we get it wrong. Now I can understand why given how little I knew about how we say things.

  2. It’s always great when that ‘ah ha’ happens, yes? :-)

    Rikker does have a clear way of explaining the Thai that confuses us. And that ก g/k was always a confusing pain for me.

  3. Glad it’s making sense, Jeff. It was making these connections that made Thai click for me, too.

    I was lucky to have taken an introductory linguistics course in college not long before I began learning Thai. In that class I learned about glottal stops, consonant voicing, aspiration, the difference between contrasting and non-contrasting sounds, and so forth.

    So even though I didn’t really have anyone explaining Thai to me in these terms, I was empowered to draw these connections myself, and many things clicked right from the start, that many folks seem to still be struggling with years into learning Thai.

    I think it would be great if basic linguistic concepts like these were taught to kids early and universally. It makes learning *any* language easier, I’d argue. The Spanish I took in high school would have been a lot easier, at least.

  4. I’d be interested in an introductory linguistics course. I wonder if there are any available online? Now off to google…

  5. Rikker Dockum

    August 22, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    MIT has many courses online. I just checked, and while you don’t get the actual course textbook, it has a lot: lecture notes, assigned readings, problem sets, quizzes and exams (with solutions):

    ocw.mit.edu … (no longer live)

    This is a great resource. I should review it myself!

  6. Catherine Wentworth

    August 22, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    Excellent! I’ve downloaded everything and I’m looking forward to reading your review.

    The Teaching Company (Great Courses) has Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language.

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