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Thai is Not a Monosyllabic Language…

I read lots of Thai language blogs and sometimes I come across comments about learning Thai that personally, I believe are way off the mark. They are often written by people who are just beginning to learn Thai or by others who have reached a level they are comfortable with, but are still less than fluent.

A little knowledge can be dangerous. Some of the comments I’ve read recently are:

  • Thai is a monosyllabic language.
  • Tones aren’t important; Thais will figure out what you mean through context.
  • You have to read to get the tones right.
  • Thai has no grammar.

I disagree with all of these and I feel that a discussion will help us in our learning Thai. Let’s start with the first item on the list.

Thai is a monosyllabic language…

I’ve heard Thai described as a language made up of simple one syllable words. One of the possible results of this kind of thinking is that a person believing this can begin to believe that because the language is so simple and unsophisticated (primitive?) then the people who speak it must also be simple and unsophisticated (primitive?). The Thai language as well as the Thai people are more complicated than that though.

A Google search on the question “Is Thai a monosyllabic language?” returns thousands of results, many of which define Thai as basically made up of monosyllabic words but with polysyllabic influences from the borrowing from Sanskrit, Pali, Kamer, English, et al. Many of the articles have the exact same wording which probably means that they are quoting (without attribution) from the same origin and not really doing the thinking on their own. The real answer depends on what your definition of “word” is.

Dictionary.com defines “word” as a morpheme (sound), or a combination of morphemes, that carry a meaning. It gives the example of the words “black” and “bird” having meanings all by themselves but they also combine to form the single (polysyllabic) word “blackbird”. Given this definition, it would seem that Thai is not a monosyllabic language; examples to follow.

But here’s the good news. Lots of long Thai words can be broken down into their constituent parts (just like “blackbird”). For learners of Thai, that would mean that if we know the individual parts that make up these longer “words” then we have a head start on figuring out what they mean.

Although long Thai words can be looked at as single items they can also be looked at as descriptions of what the item or concept is. This also happens in English. For example, the word “thermometer” is a nice long English word but we can break it down into “therm” meaning “heat”, and “meter” meaning “to measure”. So a “thermometer” is “a thing that measures heat”. Lots of long Thai words are built in a similar fashion.

Here are some examples I came up with by randomly leafing through a Thai/English dictionary looking for long words. For the purposes of this post I have used the Three Way Thai-English English-Thai Dictionary, thai-language.com and thai2English.com as my dictionary resources.

You’ll see that for someone who has never seen a word before, the Thai is sometimes easier to decipher than the English is. In the first example below a student could only guess at the meaning of the English word “audition”, especially if it wasn’t heard in context. But it wouldn’t be difficult to know what the Thai word meant if you knew what made up the different parts.

To audition: ทดสอบการแสดง /tót-sòp-gaan-sà-daeng/
– to test: ทดสอบ /tót-sòp/
– to perform/to show: แสดง /sà-daeng/
– performance (show/play): การแสดง /gaan-sà-daeng/

“Audition” in Thai is a “test of one’s ability to perform (in a show or play)”. Another Thai word for “audition” is ออดิชั่น /or-dì-chân/ – a loan word from English.

If you know the English word “tyranny” then you can make out the meaning of the word “tyrannize”. It is similar in Thai.

To tyrannize: ปกครองแบบกดขี่ /bpòk-krong-bàep-gòt-kèe/
– to rule/govern: ปกครอง /bpòk-krong/
– type/style: แบบ /bàep/
– to oppress: กดขี่ /gòt-kèe/

So in Thai the word “to tyrannize” is broken down into “to govern oppressively”. Another Thai word for “tyrannize” is บีบรัด /bèep-rát/ – “to squeeze and tie up”.

Here is one where the English word can almost be figured out, but you would still have to guess from the context in which it was used. The Thai word is quite clear.

Soundtrack: ดนตรีประกอบภาพยนตร์ /don-dtree-bprà-gòp-pâap-pá-yon/
– music: ดนตรี /don-dtree/
– attach: ประกอบ /bprà-gòp/
– picture: ภาพ /pâap/
– machine: ยนตร์ /yon/
– movie/film: ภาพยนตร์ /pâap-pá-yon/

So in Thai a “soundtrack” is “music attached to a movie”. Another Thai word for “soundtrack” is เสียงในฟิล์ม /sǐang-nai-feem/ – “sound inside a film”, the last word borrowed from English of course.

I am not sure that knowing the meaning of “civil” could tell you what the English words “civil war” means. (A war of civilizations maybe?) It’s easier to guess the meaning of the Thai word though.

Civil war: สงครามกลางเมือง /sǒng-kraam-glaang-meuang/
– war: สงคราม /sǒng-kraam/
– center/middle: กลาง /glaang/
– country (also city, town): เมือง /meuang/

In Thai, “war in the middle of a country” is a “civil war”.

No way one could figure out the meaning of “to elaborate” if you had never heard it before. The Thai word is quite simple.

To elaborate: อธิบายเพิ่มเติม /à-tí-baai-pêrm-dterm/
– to explain: อธิบาย /à-tí-baai/
– to add to, augment: เพิ่ม /pêrm/
– add on: ติม /dterm/
– extra, additional: เพิ่มเติม /pêrm-dterm/

“To elaborate” in Thai is “to explain by adding some more (information)”. อธิบายเพิ่มเติม can also mean “to footnote” as in a report or article. Another Thai word for “to elaborate” is ประดิดประดอย /bprà-di bprà-doi/ – “invent and embellish”

Here’s a word that is a whole sentence in itself. But it is quite easy to understand once we break it down.

To decomtaminate: ขจัดพิษออกจาก /kà-jàt-pít-òk-jàak/
– remove, get rid of: ขจัด /kà-jàt/
– toxin, poison: พิษ /pít/
– expel: ออก /òk/
– from: จาก /jàak/

“Decontaminate”, “to remove or expel toxin from”. Another word for “to decontaminate” is ขจัดสิ่งปนเปื้อน /kà-jàt sìng-bpon-bpêuan/ – “to remove the dirty thing”.

So is Thai a simple, unsophisticated language? Of course not. Is it a language made up of monosyllabic words? Depends on your definition of a “word”. Many of Thai’s big words are built using lots of little ones. Because of the way Thai vocabulary is structured, learning new Thai vocabulary is less of a guessing game than it is a puzzle to be solved.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
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Hugh Leong loves explaining things. And during his 40 plus years of trying to learn Thai and its culture, he learned to love the cross-cultural aspect of living in a foreign country and speaking its language. His series, Thai Language Thai Culture, covers various aspects of learning Thai, and how the Thai culture influences how we say things.

27 Comments

  1. 555 :D Is it strange that I thought your recent findings were funny? Monosyllabic? Thai is not a series of grunts, shouts and noises and English is not a dull roar! Chai mai?

    I mean my Thai teacher the other day was throwing out – therefore. Seriously, I said? You are teaching me therefore? I am so not ready for that!!!!

  2. Thanks for giving me another example of a monosyllabic word Lani.

    Therefore: เพราะฉะนั้น /prór-chà~nán/

    เพราะ /prór/ – because (of)
    นั้น /nán/ – that

    In Thai “therefore” is broken down into “because of that”.

  3. Sorry Lani, meant “polysyllabic” of course. Just woke from a power nap and am not fully awake yet.

  4. Hugh, I have to agree with your four disagreements…however, I was kinda hoping the monosyllabic theory was a possibility ;)

  5. Certainly the use of tones allows for a greater number of single syllable words, as in the words เล่า [recount] and เหล้า [alcohol] which differ only in tone. But the word is นายกรัฐมนตรี [prime minister] was enough to convince me that Thai was not a monosyllabic language. :-)

    Another interesting claim I ran across on Wikipedia is that Thai does not have a “real” alphabet, but is rather an abugida, because the Thai “alphabet” is composed of only consonants. Thai vowels are thereby relegated to the status of mere diacritical marks. They sure look like vowels to me.

    Harking back to the word for prime minister, would a really bad one be a นรกรัฐมนตรี ?

    Thanks for an interesting article!

  6. Keith,

    The word for Prime Minister can be pretty daunting but if we break it down it because less scary.

    Prime Minister: นายกรัฐมนตรี /naa-yók-rát-tà~mon-dtree/

    นาย /naay / (boss, chief , master, owner, employer, Mr.)
    นายก /naa-yók / (chief, leader, chairman, president)
    รัฐ /rát/ (state)
    รัฐมนตรี /rát-tà~mon-dtree/ (minister, cabinet minister)

    And for those who didn’t get your joke

    นรก /ná~​rók/ (Hell)

    นรกรัฐมนตรี = minister from Hell.

    As the Thais say, “5555”, (ห้าห้าห้าห้า /hâa hâa hâa hâa/)

  7. Monosyllabic languages aren’t composed exclusively of monosyllabic words – just mainly composed of them. I think Thai pretty clearly falls into this category but that has no consequences for its linguistic complexity (itself a highly problematic idea.)

  8. As regards the other three, 2 (Tones aren’t important) & 3 (You need to read to get the tones) might or might not be true but it really depends on who you’re talking to (with regard to 2) and what you’re like (for 3). In my experience, most Thais (at least most Thais who I’ve met) are less adept at interpreting sub-standard Thai than English-speakers are with regard to equivalent non-native mangling of English but it’s not (or not always) the case that getting the tone(s) wrong results in complete incomprehension. As regards reading, I find that it helped enormously with my pronunciation but when I speak I tend to read off an internal script so I’m encoding the tones with the orthography and using that to reproduce it (I hope) correctly. Others will be different. Some people have a very good aural memory and will memorize the sound/tone directly but I don’t think there’s any hard-and-fast rule about this; it’s just a case of whatever floats your boat. As for 4 (Thai has no grammar), anyone who thinks that is an idiot. Being a language just is having a grammar. It’s like saying it’s a language without any words – a sentence which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

  9. Dan,

    Thanks for the comment. At first reading I was going to agree with you and say that Thai was “mainly” monosyllabic. But then I had an idea. Just because we think something is so doesn’t mean it is. So, I went to the dictionary (the Paiboon online one) and did a count. I took the words from “ก” and started counting (only looked at a list of a hundred or so) It turns out that the polysyllabic words outnumbered the monosyllabic words by about 3 to 1.

    Wow! That was a surprise. So I thought that maybe it was just with the “ก” words. So I looked at a list of “ด” words. They also were 3 to 1 in favor of multi-syllable words.

    I was surprised at the results of this very unscientific test. If anyone has the time to do a more in depth look maybe we can come up with some good number. Until then I will stick with my initial argument. And again, depending on our definition of “word”, Thai is definitely not a language made up of monosyllabic words. But I do agree that its polysyllabic words are “mainly” made up of combining monosyllabic words.

  10. Dan,

    Thanks again for you comments. They gave me some some ideas for the post on tones I have been thinking about. As to your opinion about people who think that Thai has no grammar, I agree 100%. The grammar isn’t difficult, but it is there to be sure.

  11. For some reason I am still surprised at how un-monosyllabic Thai is. So as a test I took one of my favorite English sentences and checked out the Thai translation. You can count the syllables yourself and see the results below.

    The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

    หมาจิ้งจอกรวดเร็วสีน้ำตาลกระโดดข้ามสุนัขขี้เกียจ
    /mǎa-jîng-jòk rûat-reo sěe-nám-dtaan grà~dòht kâam sù~nák kêe-gìat/

    หมาจิ้งจอก /mǎa-jîng-jòk/ (fox)
    รวดเร็ว /rûat-reo/ (quick)
    สีน้ำตาล /sěe-nám-dtaan/ (brown)
    กระโดด /grà~dòht/ (jump)
    ข้าม /kâam/ (over)
    สุนัข /sù~nák/ (dog – formal)
    ขี้เกียจ /kêe-gìat/ (lazy)

  12. I’m no expert but this is what those words look like to me:

    หมาจิ้งจอก – a composite of monosyllabic and a bisyllabic word
    รวดเร็ว – a composite of two monosyllables
    สีน้ำตาล – a composite of three monosyllables
    กระโดด – bisyllabic
    ข้าม – monosyllabic
    สุนัข – bisyllabic but it’s Pali
    ขี้เกียจ – a composite of two monosyllables

    From what I’ve read, Thai is regularly classified as a monosyllabic language and I think – since it’s a technical term in linguistics – I’d defer to the linguists on this. Or, if I weren’t doing that, be sure that I understood the term in exactly the same way as linguists do; I’m not sure exactly what the boundaries are for a ‘monosyllabic language’ but I suspect it’s not quite a matter of counting syllables in the dictionary. Perhaps it’s more a matter of where those units bottom out i.e. the smallest analyzable components of any randomly chosen word and in the example you gave, the majority of those are monosyllables. Or perhaps it’s the average syllabic length of words found in a general corpus. But I’m not a linguist so I honestly don’t know.

  13. Dan,

    You may be completely right. As I said “I do agree that its polysyllabic words are “mainly” made up of combining monosyllabic words.

    But in this case(remember this column is entitled Thai Language Thai Culture) I was not being a linguists but was responding to the idea that Thai, being monosyllabic, might be considered “simple and unsophisticated”, terms I have heard people use when talking about Thai (usually non linguists).

    That is why I always added “depending on our definition of ‘word'”. By giving the examples above I wanted to show how really cool Thai word building can be. Take for example the words above หมาจิ้งจอก /mǎa-jîng-jòk/ (fox). Isn’t it cool how the word for “fox” includes the Thai word for “dog” (หมา), showing that they are in the same family of animals? And that the word สีน้ำตาล /sěe-nám-dtaan/ “brown” tells us that this word refers to a color (สี), and that the word ขี้เกียจ /kêe-gìat/ (lazy) tells us that this is a negative personal quality (ขี้).

    My argument is not with whether we are talking about mono or poly syllables but with labels and especially labels that generalize. Your analysis above does not generalize but shows that you really gave this argument some thought. This is not the case with everyone.

    The great Thai Buddhist teacher Buddhadassa taught that we should avoid labels because when we use them we stop seeing the thing for what it really is and only see it for what we think the label tells us it is. Seeing how much work you put into thinking about Thai words, I think that this has been a very successful discussion.

  14. I was curious about this and asked on a linguistics forum about what qualifies a language as being monosyllabic. It seems that what counts are the smallest units into which a word can be analysable (as in the examples you gave.) You can see the (fairly short) exchange at http://www.lingforum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=24611 though, as you say, this is using the word in a semi-technical sense and most won’t be doing this.

  15. Dan,

    Thanks for the great link. Seems like syllables in Thai has been an ongoing discussion for a while. Wish I had read this before writing. I wouldn’t have changed the post but it would have given me lots more to think about. And I guess that is the point of both reading these and, in my case, writing them. Thanks again

  16. I’ve to agree with Dan.

    In English (and Dutch) there are a huge number of polysyllabic words that can’t be broken down into understandable monosyllabic parts. In Thai there are much less words of this type.

    English (and Dutch) sometimes also extends the word with an extra syllable to add extra grammatical information : for example jump – jumped (“ed” indicated past tense) . I can’t immediately find an example in Thai of doing something like this.

    So in many ways Thai is a monosyllabic language, it just depends on how you look at it.

  17. Many real polysyllabic words (that can’t be split down into understandable monosyllabic parts) in Thai are onomatopoeia. Another group might be the word starting with กระ- (not sure about this). There are further discussions possible, for instance: is แขนง a monosyllabic of polysyllabic word … If it’s a polysyllabic word, Thai has thousands of other real polysyllabic words.

  18. Kris,

    Good catch. There are lots of กระ- words. Below are examples of some more, usually using prefixes with -ระ or -ะ.

    กระ กระจก /grà~jòk/ (glass)
    ประ ประกอบ /bprà~gòp/ (to assemble)
    พระ พระเจ้า /prá-jâao/ (god)

    กะ กะทันหัน /gà~tan-hǎn/ (sudden)
    มะ มะกอก /má~gòk/ (olive)
    ตะ ตะกร้า /dtà~grâa/ (basket)
    อะ อะไร /à~rai/ (what)
    สะ สะดวก /sà~​dùak/ (convenient)
    ทะ ทะลึ่ง /tá~​lêung/ (cheeky)

  19. Right, I wonder why the “real polysyllabic” words (those that can’t be split in to meaningful monosyllabic parts) follow these patterns. Why are there only a few groups? The individual members of these groups are apparently unrelated (except for the มะ group which contains mainly fruit). What do the members of the กระ group or the ประ group have in common ….?

  20. Kris,

    Don’t know the answers to your question but gonna do some looking around. yes, the มะ group are mostly fruits and the พระ group are mostly religious and royal. I have been looking for other connections but don’t see any right off the bat. Maybe they’re from foreign influence. Any REAL linguists out thee who may know?

    As to why Thai words are built this way (combining monosyllabic words to make new words), I think it is the Thai-linguist-gods who are to blame. But…we also have to thank them since it sure makes understanding new complicated words more fun (if you like puzzle solving) and not merely guessing games.

  21. Harking back to one of Hugh’s original points that a monosyllabic language is thought by some to be a more primitive form of language …

    What if we turned the question around and referred to “polysyllabic” languages such as English as languages where individual syllables often have no meaning?

    We could give those languages a fancy name like vacuusyllabic (which I think might be employed to mean “empty syllables” in Latin) and speculate as to why their creators decided on such a wasteful practice when they could have employed tones to reduce the clutter. :-)

    ————–

    I was also wondering what the effect of Thai not having spaces between words has had on this.

    For example, กัด can mean to bite, and ถูก can be used to indicate the passive voice. So ถูกกัด means “was bitten,” which seems to me not dissimilar to adding “ed” to “jump” to extend the meaning.

    Perhaps some English polysyllabic words started as two or more monosyllables and altered over time so that their monosyllabic origins are no longer recognizable.

    ————–

    I think the basic problem for creators of languages must be how to clearly differentiate between words.

    Some options that come to mind are: consonants, vowels, tones, inflection, spelling, context, prefixes, suffixes, concatenation of sounds, concatenation or words, duplication of words, and even gestures (e.g., sign language), and touch (e.g., braille).

    The creators of Thai chose to use tones more often, and those of English perhaps relied more heavily on concatenation.

    ————–

    I was going to end this by saying it was my “two cents.” Granted, those are two words, but it’s an expression that is used like one word.

    That made me wonder about concatenating monosyllabic words into new polysyllabic words that have a meaning unrelated to their constituent parts.

  22. Keith,

    Wow! Lots to think about in your comments.

    Here’s one:

    If it were a Thai word then it would be “twocents”, an idiom meaning opinion (with a tone of self deprecation), and it would look like a two-syllable word. I can’t think of the Thai equivalent but there is something similar using small amounts of money.

    สามสลึง /sǎam sà~lěung/

    A salung (สลึง /sà~lěung/) is one of those tiny gold colored coins that you get as change at the supermarket that is worth 25 satang (สตางค์ /sà~dtaang/) – and that you can’t seem to use anywhere else. There being 100 satang to the baht a salung is one quarter of a baht (4 salung = 1 baht).

    The idiom สามสลึง /sǎam sà~lěung/ literally means “3 salung”, or ¾ of a baht (an incomplete baht), or the equivalent of the English term “not playing with a full deck”. It is something I hear a lot from my wife when I do something stupid.

    Historical note: When I first came to Thailand I could get a really good bowl of noodles for 6 salung.

    If you want to see how really fun Thai can get check out what they do with slang and idioms. Paiboon Publishing has a really good CD with lots of them (http://www.paiboonpublishing.com/details.php?prodId=56)

  23. Hugh,

    I’ve been to Thailand on vacation 4 times and never saw a สลึง much less a สตางค์. But then I didn’t spend much time in supermarkets (even though I love to see what markets in other countries are like).

    Thanks for teaching me สามสลึง. I know very little Thai slang, but what I’ve heard sounds fun. And I think knowing slang might help understand the culture better. I actually have the Slang and Idioms CD from Paiboon but figured maybe I should stick with basic Thai first. But now Ithink I will dig it out and start listening to it again.

    So … if สลึง is a quarter-baht, a quarter is two bits, and เลียง can mean an opinion … what do you think of เสียงสลึง (to, ahem, “coin” a phrase) ?

  24. Keith,

    Let’s make things even more interesting.

    A “baht” started life as a unit of measurement. In fact it is still in use as that is the way gold is measured. One baht of gold = 15.244 grams. And the price of gold shown in the Thai newspapers is given in baht (today: 25,074.64 baht per 1 baht of gold).

    Gold chains are sold by weight. If you were buying a gold chain you could buy a one baht chain, or if money was scarce, you could buy a 1 or 2 salung chain.

  25. Hugh,

    That is interesting. I did a little looking online and it seems the English pound was once a measurement of metal as well. I don’t think that is true of the dollar, although the U.S. dollar was at one time tied to the value of precious metals: I am old enough to remember “silver certificate” dollar bills, although they had long since become collectors’ items.

    My mom and her older brother had gold dollar coins that they were given as birthday presents. They surrendered them to the U.S. government during World War II for face value.

  26. While I have no illusions about my place or lack there of in the field of linguistics, after studying Thai I have disagree with all except possibly the first point you listed;

    Thai is a monosyllabic language;
    While anecdotal it’s really a bone of contention for cunning-linguists. About the only difference knowing this premise when studying Thai is in overcoming the “intimidation factor” when realizing big Thai words are most always made of smaller words you probably know already.

    Actually the more I study Thai the more I am in awe (did I really just say that?) of how complex ideas and emotions can be rendered in Thai so succinctly.

    Tones aren’t important;
    I’d wager, the people who say tones aren’t important (or that your “run-of-the-mill” Thai will understand by context), hasn’t spent a lotta time speaking off-toned Thai here. This is something I have many years of experience in here!! I have had Thais get that deer in the head-lites look many, many times, so I say this premise is patently false. Given in linguistic circles Thai is classified as a tonal language I’d imagine that tones would hafta rate up there pretty high (or it wouldn’t be classified that way). Quite honestly, my Thai is what I call “sporadically toned” (and heavily American accented too). I routinely “blur” the low-mid-high tones especially on words with short vowel sound words. I do try hard to hit either the falling or rising ones as those can really mess you up. The big problem native English speakers have is the totally dissimilar use of tones between Thai and English.

    In English we routinely use at least 3 of the 5 Thai tones when we speak. However, we use them to impart emotive or felt meaning to what we’re saying; rising tone for questions, falling tone to express dismay or regret, high tone to express surprise, or shock. Unfortunately this “mother-language-transfer” when speaking Thai gives very poor results.

    It is my experience native English speakers have much more problem mastering proper vowel length in Thai than the tones. I can draw out almost any vowel sound associated with a word in English and for the most part it’s totally understood; Heeeeeeello, Hellooooooo are the same word. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Thai; get the vowel length wrong and man you can go “off-script” awfully fast speaking Thai.

    You have to read to get the tones right;
    Whoever said that is trying to sell you a “pig in a poke”. I know plenty of non-native Thai speakers who speak far more fluid and better toned Thai than I do yet they can’t read a single character of Thai. If we follow this premise, I mean how can kids learn to speak well enunciated and toned Thai BEFORE they can read it?

    I was just the opposite and could read/comprehend written Thai a long time before I could even get remotely close to the correct intonation. It’s my opinion; reading ANY language is only word memorization. You have to recognize a series of characters and have that tied to a specific meaning inside your head. (BTW; those series of characters are called coincidentally enough; words). I learned what I call the “six common cow-words in Thai” just by their difference character-wise way before I could tone ’em correct when I spoke Thai because they’re written differently; ขาว (white), ข่าว (news), ข้าว (rice), เขา (he/him, she/her, they/them, mountain, animal horn), เข่า (knee), เข้า (enter).

    Thai has no grammar ;
    I hear this ALL the time at the Thai language schools from new learners of this language. Of course, that’s only until they see that speaking Thai words with English word sentence order yields unintelligible gibberish. The other one people spout off is “Thai has no tensing”. This is another “newbie” misunderstanding which arises because in Thai the verb is “static” or doesn’t conjugate to show tense. Of course, once again, after they see that there are other words used as aspect or time markers to denote past, present, future, on-going things, they change their tune.

    Interesting post Hugh, always enjoy reading your material. ..
    Sorry, as always, for the long reply. ..

  27. Todd,

    Thanks for the well-thought-out comment. I only covered the first point in this post and will elaborate on the others in future posts. As you can see, lots of views about the mono/poly syllable questions. I am guessing that there will be a similar controversy to my future posts. This is a good thing since in makes me, as well as the reader, give these questions some thought. And that is what helps us improve our language abilities – the purpose of these posts to begin with.

    Thanks again and looking forward to some comments when I cover the “how the he!! am I supposed to learn these $#%$&#* tones” piece.

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