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Thai 101 Learners Series: The Long and Short of Thai Vowels

Thai 101 Learners Series

Long or short really does matter…

When it comes to Thai vowels, length really does matter. I remember in grade school that the teacher taught about “long” and “short” vowels in English, where the i in “bite” is long, but the i in “bit” is short. Or something like that.

This terminology has been around a long time, but in modern English there is nothing phonetically long or short about these vowels. These are just terms to differentiate two ways of pronouncing the same written vowel.

Thai 101 Learners SeriesIn Thai, on the other hand, vowel length refers to actual duration – the length of time it takes to pronounce the vowel.

In previous columns I’ve written about contrasting and non-contrasting sounds. Now I’m here to tell you that vowel length is contrasting in Thai.

That means two words that are the same in every respect except vowel length will mean two different things.

For example, หัด /hàt/ means “practice”, but หาด /hàat/ means “beach”.

This subject reminds me of something that happened to a Thai friend of mine. Like many small restaurant owners, he hired a Burmese fellow to help out around the kitchen.

Finding himself out of potatoes at a busy time, he sent the man off to the market with a couple hundred baht and instructions to buy as many potatoes /mun faràng/ as he could get.

His employee quickly returned, eager to please, with a big smile on his face and a sack in his hand filled with 40 packs of chewing gum /màak faràng/.

My friend felt like making him chew the whole lot at once.

There’s more to that mixup than just vowel length. Because Burmese has different contrasting sounds than Thai, it was hard for the well-meaning kitchen boy to tell the words apart. While this seems to us like a silly mistake, we often get into the same situation with pairs like b and p, or d and t.

When two words sound the same, often vowel length can help to pick out the difference.

Each Thai vowel has a long or short form. I won’t include every single possibility here, just some of the most common ones (see table above).

For a couple of these pairs, the tone of the two words is different. I did that so I could stick to more common words. But apart from tone, vowel length is the only difference.

There is one exception: the last pair. In normal speech, Thais don’t always distinguish between r and l, so it’s a common mistake for foreigners to say เลว /leew/ “vile” when they mean เร็ว /rew/ “fast”. Be careful, since เลว /leew/ is rather rude. It’s a misunderstanding waiting to happen.

Ask a Thai friend to read these words pairs aloud to you, and help you practice distinguishing between them.

You’re armed with the basics of vowel length now, so get out there and have a conversation.

If you come back with a black eye, though, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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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4 Comments

  1. Rikker and Catherine – I like this post because of its simplicity, it’s easy to understand. The Thai vowels are now much more distinguishable to me in terms of length and sound.

    ‘For example, หัด (hàt) means “practice”, but หาด (hàat) means “beach”.’ I can follow that no problem, well almost.

    My problem and I’m sure one that many others have too is that after a days work the lesson goes in one ear, rattles around and emerges out the other side. Retaining language lessons is hard in a working persons life.

    I have now got a new printer and would like to start learning to read and write Thai, could you suggest some simple lessons I can print to give me a start. I think having everything on paper for easy reference will make the retention part a lot easier for me. Thanks and I hope you can help.

  2. Catherine Wentworth

    August 22, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    Hi Martyn, apologies for coming in late. My Saturday morning has been back-to-back since I woke up.

    Simple lessons to print to start learning to read and write Thai…

    You’ll need to start with the alphabet. As you are having a difficult time, perhaps try 60 Minutes to Learn the Thai Alphabet. There you’ll use association to learn the sounds with high, medium and low class, as well as which ones change at the beginning and ending of a word.

    I struggled with the Thai alphabet until I found 60Min. What I did was print out the book, cut out each alphabet, then fold each to quiz myself (alphabet graphics on one side, info on the other). I still have the tattered remnants in a baggie somewhere.

    Chris Pirazzi has carefully designed Thai alphabet flashcards at his site, slice-of-thai.com. Be sure to choose your transliteration style of choice before downloading.

    WLT has a post with several resources mentioned: The Easy Way for Beginners to Read and Write Thai (forget ‘easy’ in the title, it should have been ‘easier’).

    Phil has Learn to read Thai Tutorials.

    Learning Thai the Easy Way and thai-language.com both have extensive information on learning how to read Thai.

    And there are a lot more resources on Learn Thai for FREE.

  3. Thanks Catherine I have just printed off 60 Minutes to Learn the Thai Alphabet. I will come back for the rest at a later date as I need to figure out how to switch my Canon printer from colour to black and white. I’m terrible when it comes to reading manuals. Cheers.

  4. Good luck Martyn. When you get 60 Min down, then you’ll need to get the sounds into your head too. I do have mentions on the subject dotted around WLT, but I should have a dedicated post up soon.

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