Learn To Read Thai - Tutorial 16
An Important Vowel
I want to cover some important vowels in this tutorial and they are all based around one vowel character that can be used alone or with combinations of other vowels.
I've kept things simple so far so as not to frighten people away, but this lesson will introduce another degree of difficulty. I said that written Thai is a lot more consistent than English (phonetically) - and it is - but some of these vowel sounds are inconsistent.
Inconsistency makes learning more difficult but in this respect it is far more difficult for Thais learning English than foreigners learning Thai.
This vowel symbol (sara ay) is used in lots of vowel combinations but I won't cover them all today. Here it is and it is always written before the initial consonant:
On its own it can make an 'ay' sound as in 'way' or an 'e' sound as in the man's name 'Len'. Here are some examples:
The word is pronounced Consonant-Vowel-Consonant but written Vowel-Consonant-Consonant.
You should recognise the initial and final consonants as being 'l' and 'n' sounds. Both of these consonants were covered in Tutorial 8 so I shouldn't need to explain again. If you don't recognise them, then you aren't following these tutorials as I had intended.
In this word, the vowel makes an 'e' sound, and not an 'ay' sound. The sound of the word is len, and not lane. This is a favourite Thai activity, the Thai verb for play.
Tone: Low-class initial consonant and first tone mark = Falling tone (Tutorial 14)
Again, you should recognise the two consonants used in this word if you have been following these tutorials correctly. One is the same as used in the example above and the other was covered in Tutorial 9. You should also see two vowels at each end of the word.
If you remember what I said in Tutorial 7 you will know that these two vowels can combine to make an 'ao' sound. When they do that they are written either side of the consonant or consonant cluster.
However, in this example the two consonants 'w' and 'l' ARE NOT a consonant cluster and therefore the word is two syllables.
The first syllable is the 'w' consonant and the 'ay' vowel but it is written Vowel-Consonant. The second syllable is the 'l' initial consonant followed by the 'aa' long vowel. This vowel is written after the consonant just like written English.
The Thai word way-laa means time.
Tone: Both syllables use a low-class initial consonant and are live because they have long vowels, therefore both = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)
Now compare the following word with the one above:
You will see that the vowel symbols at the beginning and end of the word are exactly the same. With this word though, the two consonants used ARE a consonant cluster. We have the 'bp' character and the 'l' character so we get the consonant cluster 'bpl'.
In such a case, the two vowel symbols combine to make an 'ao' sound. The Thai word bplao has several meanings. See below for more details.
Tone: Mid-class initial consonant and first tone mark = Low tone (Tutorial 14)
You will have noticed that Thai vowels have a long and short version. Sometimes though, a special symbol is used above the initial consonant to change a long vowel to a short vowel. It is the same symbol as the Thai numeral eight.
When you see this used in conjunction with (sara ay), you know it is a 'e' sound as in 'fed' or 'ten'.
You can see that the vowel is used in conjunction with the vowel shortener symbol so the sound is a simple 'e' as in 'them'.
The Thai word dtem means to be full (a thing and not a person's stomach).
Used in conjunction with another vowel we have already covered, the sound changes again.
You will remember from Tutorial 6 that this vowel (written here above the zero consonant) makes a simple 'i' sound as in 'lid' or 'bin'. However, when used in conjunction with sara ay, the sound changes to 'er' as in 'pert'.
This vowel combination is only used when there is a final consonant.
You should recognise the initial consonant as the unaspirated 'p' or 'bp' sound (Tutorial 3). The final consonant is dor dek which is pronounced as an unreleased 't' sound when used as a final consonant (Tutorial 6).
The vowel is a simple 'i' so the word is bpit which is the Thai verb to close or the adjective to be closed.
Tone: Mid-class initial consonant, dead syllable, short vowel = Low tone (Tutorial 14)
This word is similar to the one above except you will see sara ay used as well. This vowel combination makes an 'er' sound so the word is bpert which is the Thai verb to open or the adjective to be open.
Tone: Mid-class initial consonant, dead syllable, long vowel = Low tone (Tutorial 14)
When reading signs you also need to familiarise yourself with some common Thai abbreviations.
7-Eleven stores in Thailand are alway open 24 hours a day - bpert yee-sip see chua mong
But this store will open on the 24th February - bpert yee-sip see guum-paa-pun
If we want an 'er' sound but there is no final consonant, we need to use sara ay in conjunction with the zero consonant. This vowel combination is written either side of the initial consonant. Here's an example:
You should recognise the only consonant used as being one of the 't' sounds from the last tutorial (Tutorial 15).
Thai has many different personal pronouns and ter is the informal pronoun for 'you' used often in Thai pop songs when the singer is declaring his or her love for someone. When listening to Thai pop music, it won't be long before you hear ruk ter.
Tone: Low-class initial consonant, live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)
Another Thai vowel consists of two sara ay characters written together but it is a vowel in its own right. It is known as sara air. Like many Thai sounds, it is impossible to write accurately in English.
The English word 'hair' almost has two syllables - 'hair-er' - but this Thai vowel just has one and you leave your mouth open when saying it. The end of the syllable is a breathy 'h' rather than a rolled 'r'.
You should recognise the consonant used (Tutorial 8). The Thai word mair means mother, and no other person is more important to Thais than their mother.
Tone: Low-class initial consonant + first tone mark (mai ayk) = Falling tone (Tutorial 14)
This Thai vowel is usually transliterated as 'ae' so this word would be mae in most phrase books.
However, I can't think of an English word where an 'ae' combination makes this sound. My theory is that standard transliteration systems have a lot of German influence. It is because of this type of thing that transliteration systems are hellishly confusing and inaccurate, and thus should be avoided at all times.
More Complicated Vowel Combinations
The Thai Word 'bplao'
One of the big problems when translating from Thai into English is that Thai words can have many meanings in English. Some meanings are similar, but some are completely different. You find the word in your Thai dictionary hoping that there will be a straightforward definition, but instead there are lots of different definitions and then you have to try to decide which one is appropriate.
The meaning of a word can change depending on the context of a sentence and the particular words that it is used with. Let's consider the word 'bplao'.
This word comes up in restaurants when you ask for rice (kaaw) and water (naam). At first I thought that 'bplao' was an adjective for 'plain', as did a reader. If you ask for 'kaaw bplao' or 'naam bplao' you get plain rice or water.
However, my Thai dictionaries do not include 'plain' as a definition.
My Domnern Sathienpong Thai dictionary defines bplao as:
"empty, void, no, free, for nothing, alone."
In the context of a restaurant situation, it could mean 'alone', with nothing else, or it could mean free/for nothing/no charge. It's a bit ambiguous. Drinking water is normally free of charge in restaurants and the restaurant could provide free rice when you pay for the other food. It's a possibility.
My Se-ed Thai dictionary gives the following definition:
Adverb: for nothing, in vain; free of charge.
Adjective: single, unmarried, empty, vacant, hollow, blank, bare, naked.
There is no mention of 'plain' unless 'blank' means plain. When I asked my wife if the plain carpet in my office could be described as 'prom bplao', she said no. It therefore doesn't seem to be a general adjective for plain.
For 'plain' as a general adjective, Thais would probably use:
ธรรมดา - tum-muh-daa (ordinary)
ไม่มีอะไร - mai mee arai (nothing)
My wife told me that ice cream without all the toppings that Thais normally add could also be described as 'bplao'. Thais wouldn't be giving away free ice cream and therefore the definition can't be 'free' or 'no charge'.
When 'bplao' is used with water, rice or ice cream it seems to mean 'alone' with nothing else.
With other things, apart from water, rice and ice cream, the word 'yaang diaow' is normally used to mean 'alone' without anything else.
Let's look at another way that 'bplao' is used. One definition of 'bplao' is 'not' and used with 'or' it can form the question tag, "... or not?"
ไปหรือเปล่า - bpai reu bplao? (Are you going, or not?)
If you're not going, you can just answer, "bplao."
Thai uses the same words for many different meanings, and different words for the same meaning. The language includes quite a few fixed expressions and phrases, which all Thais know and use. They use them, but when you ask them to explain why they use them, they have great difficulty telling you. My wife starts to get cross when I interrogate her about Thai. Obviously she can speak Thai, but I don't think she knows the answers to many of my questions.
Just because you are a native speaker, it doesn't mean that you understand much about your own language. I found this out myself when I embarked on a TEFL course many years ago and had to study English. It was tough and there were many things that I didn't know.
If you go to a Thai restaurant and want rice or water with nothing else, use 'bplao'. If you then go to the market after your meal and look at some trousers and a bag, but you only wish to buy the bag and not the trousers, you tell the vendor, "gruh-bpao yaang diaow".
You have now changed your vocabulary because you are talking about something other than rice, water or ice cream.
I'm still not 100% sure about this. When I'm not sure I look at my books, dictionaries, and ask Thais. Sometimes, as in this case, none of these resources is able to give me a definitive answer. If you can throw some more light on the subject, please send me an e-mail.
If you go back to the top of the page you should now be able to read the sign in the photo. The difficulty here is the fancy fonts that Thais use but I have now covered all the vowels and consonants used in this sign so theoretically you should be able to read it.
If you work out that it says something like wun dek you are making good progress.
I think that's enough for today. As I said above, this vowel is used in lots of other vowel combinations but some are quite complex and I don't want to cover them yet. Learn to walk before you attempt to run.
What you should also have realised is that remembering what has been taught previously is very important. The structure of these tutorials is such that each one builds on previously taught material.
If you skip something because you think it is boring or unimportant you will then have a problem later. Don't be impatient. Learning to read Thai cannot be hurried. Just make sure you understand everything fully - and can remember everything - before moving to the next tutorial.
If something isn't clear, or if you are confused, don't give up. Maybe I haven't explained something very well. In that case, drop me an e-mail and I will try to explain more clearly.
Questions And Feedback
If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, feel free to contact me. Your feedback will help me to improve these pages.
The best way to remember the various characters used in Thai script is by writing them down on paper. In addition to improving your writing skills, the very act of writing the characters on paper will commit them to memory.
This is how Thai children learn and it is a very effective approach. The best way to practice your writing is by using the same worksheets that Thai children use. They are available everywhere in Thailand, but a lot more difficult to find outside of Thailand.
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Living In Thailand
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
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