Learn To Read Thai - Tutorial 22
I have touched briefly on this already, but now I want to do a bit more on the very tricky subject of vowels that are pronounced but not written. Written English doesn't have this concept and it is still the biggest problem for me with Thai words that I'm not familiar with.
I don't fully understand the rules (I'm not even sure if there are rules) but as I find out more I will update this page. I will give a few examples which will enable you to read some words that have implied vowels.
I was interested to come across a book of Thai names in a local supermarket. The book explained the meanings of real Thai names, as opposed to the nicknames that Thais use in everyday life.
I am guessing that some of the names were unusual and therefore unfamiliar to Thais. It was all in Thai and along with the official spelling of every name there was also a phonetic spelling of the name that included the missing implied vowels. Aha ...
I found this interesting because it told me that implied vowels aren't always obvious to Thais, either. Obviously, Thais don't have a problem with words that they are familiar with, but with unfamiliar words and names, Thais themselves need to be told if there are implied vowels.
When I went on a trip to a province near Bangkok, I heard two different pronunciations for the name of the province and wanted to know which one was correct. I was told by Thais that both are correct. In her book 'Thai for Intermediate Learners', Benjawan Poomsan Becker also provides both versions (p.18).
One version includes an implied vowel, and one doesn't. The one that has an implied vowel requires an initial consonant for the second syllable and uses the final consonant from the first syllable (chor chaang). This consonant sound changes because in one syllable it is a final consonant (t) and in the other syllable it is an initial consonant (ch).
This province name also contains a ror reua that isn't voiced and neither does it have a gaa-run symbol to indicate it isn't voiced. So, reading Thai is easy, is it? Not always, unfortunately. Sometimes it's impossible if you are not familiar with the word you are trying to read. This is the same in English and the reason why American tourists mispronounce certain English place names. The pronunciation simply doesn't follow the spelling.
If I wasn't familiar with this province name, which I am now, my attempt at pronunciation would probably be pay‑chorn‑buu‑ree. I would be completely wrong, but I don't think it would necessarily be my fault. How would I know that the ror reua in this word is redundant?
Pet-cha-buu-ree (four syllables) or Pet-buu-ree (three syllables) both seem to be acceptable. The official transliteration includes the confusing 'h' after the 'p' which is supposed to indicate that the initial 'p' sound is aspirated. This may lead some English speakers to believe that the name of the province starts with an 'f' sound. Do you remember the 'funny' joke about the pronunciation of Phuket?
Many single syllable Thai words consist of just two consonants. When you see this you need to insert an 'o' sound in the middle. That's quite a simple thing to remember.
The word therefore starts with an 'l' sound and finishes with an unreleased 't' sound. There is no written vowel so you add an implied 'o'.
The Thai word lot means to reduce, to decrease, to discount. This is a word that you see often in shops, often followed by a percentage.
Tone: Low-class initial consonant, dead syllable, short vowel = High tone (Tutorial 14)
Sometimes you will see words with three consonants and no vowels. In that case you add a short 'uh' between consonants 1 and 2, and an 'o' between consonants 2 and 3.
The Thai word kanom is a very generic word for sweet, dessert, snack, confectionery.
The next word is similar:
We have 't n n' and as there are no written vowels we need to add 'uh' and 'o'. We therefore get tuh-non which is Thai for street or road. The photo below shows a real life example.
Some words have no written vowel in the first syllable but include a written vowel for the second syllable. In that case you add a short 'uh' for the first syllable.
There is no written vowel between the first two consonants but there is a written vowel in the second syllable. We therefore add 'uh' in the first syllable.
The Thai word suh-naam is a generic word for field or course.
The Thai word bin is the verb 'to fly'. When these two words are combined the meaning is 'airport'.
Some words are pronounced with three syllables but only have a written vowel in the final syllable. We discovered earlier on that short vowels written at the end of words are often unpronounced, but sometimes they are pronounced.
As a written language, I usually find that Thai is far less confusing than English, however, there are certain aspects of written Thai that are very confusing.
The first syllable starts with a 'bp' sound and finishes with an unreleased 'k' sound. There is no written vowel so we add 'o' to get bpok. Bear in mind that the unreleased 'k' sound is barely audible.
The second syllable uses the final consonant of the first syllable as a starting consonant. This time gor gai makes a hard 'g' sound. The final consonant is dtor dtao and so it is pronounced as an unreleased 't' sound. Again, there is no written vowel so we add an 'uh'.
The final syllable has a written vowel. The initial consonant of the third syllable is the final consonant from the second syllable which makes a 'dt' sound and the vowel is a short 'i'.
The word sounds something like bpok-gut-dti and means 'normal' or 'normally' in Thai.
If I didn't know the following word, I wouldn't be able to pronounce it properly. There are many words like this. You just need to learn and remember them.
The consonants 'tor tuh-haan' and 'ror reua' can form a consonant cluster that makes an 's' sound as in, for example, the Thai word for 'sand'. However, in this word they do not form a consonant cluster.
At the end of the word you can see another tor tuh-haan but you should have spotted gaa-run above it meaning we can ignore this consonant (Tutorial 21).
The Thai word toh-ruh-sup means telephone.
Here's a real sign. For the other words in the sign, see Tutorial 27
Some words, even longer than the examples above, have no written vowels. With a word that consists of four consonants we add an 'o' between consonants 1 and 2, and 3 and 4. We add an 'uh' between consonants 2 and 3.
This sounds really confusing but with enough practice it starts to become clearer.
This word consists of chor chaang (Tutorial 19), nor noo (Tutorial 8), bor bai mai (Tutorial 3), and tor tuh-haan (Tutorial 15). It's a three syllable word but it is written simply with four consonants and no vowels.
Using the above rule, we get chon-nuh-bot which is Thai for countryside.
Remember that when one consonant is used to end a syllable and start the next, the sound of the consonant can change.
We use the final consonant of syllable 1 as the initial consonant of syllable 2. As an initial consonant lor ling has an 'l' sound. We now need to add an 'uh' between the first and third syllables so we get luh.
When we put all this together we get pon-luh-mai which is Thai for fruit.
Quite a few Thai words begin with these three letters: bor bai mai, ror reua and sara i. However, the first two consonants do not form a consonant cluster so we do not get the prefix 'bri'.
When you see this combination you need to add an 'o' between the consonants so that it becomes bori.
We know that the first part of this word is bori. The second part consists of gor gai (Tutorial 1), the long 'aa' vowel (Tutorial 7) and ror reua which, as a final consonant makes an 'n' sound (Tutorial 2).
We therefore get borigaan which means service in Thai. The photo below shows a real-life example but notice how ror reua is written like an English 's'. This is extremely common with fonts used to write signs in Thailand.
The word before service is:
This means 'open' in Thai (Tutorial 16). The sign means 'open for service'.
We therefore get borisut which means 'company' in Thai (as in a firm or organisation).
There are no spaces between words in Thai but once you start to familiarise yourself with the written language you can see where words begin and end. There are three words in this sign.
The first word dtoo is a general word for cabinet/cupboard/enclosure - dtoo yen (cold cupboard) = fridge, dtoo seu-uh paa (clothes cupboard) = wardrobe, etc.
The Thai word rup has many meanings but in this context it means 'to receive'.
The third word is one of the bori- words, in this case borijaak which means 'to donate' in Thai. The word can be used for money, goods or blood.
This is a cupboard to receive donations, in other words a donation box.
This next sign isn't related to this tutoral but because of its similarity to the photo above I have included it here for reading practice. It's another box to receive something. But what?
The Thai prefix kwaam turns a verb or adjective into a noun. Sometimes the prefix garn is used for the same thing. For example, roo is the verb 'to know' and kwaam-roo is 'knowledge'.
kit is 'to think' and hen is 'to see'. Sometimes Thai is a bit clumsy and instead of a simple, single word the word is really a definition consisting of several words. This is a suggestion box.
Hopefully, your pronunciation was something like dtoo rup kwaam kit hen
This word starts the same way - boriwane - and it means zone, area, region, vicinity, etc.
haam (don't) ting (throw away) ka-ya (rubbish) boriwane nee (in this area)
Here's another sign with haam (don't do something) and boriwane (area). After boriwane comes wut (temple), so the sign is telling people not to do something in the vicinity of the temple. What?
A vowel has fallen off the sign. Can you see what and where it should be? The Thai word look is the prefix for 'offspring'. look-maa offspring of a dog is a puppy and look-maew is a kitten.
The Thai word bploy means 'to release'. The sign is telling people not to release unwanted puppies and kittens at the temple.
Thais have strange attitudes towards animals. They believe it is a sin to sterilise animals and therefore dogs and cats breed unchecked. No one wants to take care of them but the animals are pitied at the same time.
The Thai solution is just to dump unwanted animals at the local temple where the monks and other people will feed them. This causes big problems for the temples so many temples have signs telling people not to do it.
Hopefully, you should be able to fully translate this sign using the information in these tutorials. There is enough information if you look and have enough motivation to learn.
If you really get stuck, send me an e-mail.
Unfortunately, there are times when it gets a lot worse than the examples I've given above! I will try to explain.
A Thai word might be pronounced: consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. In English it would be written the same way, so no problem.
In Thai some of the vowels consists of three separate characters and these can surround both consonants but they only make one vowel sound which is voiced after the second consonant.
In between the two consonants is a vowel sound but (just to simplify things for foreigners learning to read Thai) it is implied so it isn't written!
The following word is an example:
เฉพาะ (especially, particularly, restricted)
If the implied vowel was written it would be quite a straightforward word to read:
ฉะเพาะ (this is the phonetic spelling but it's not how the word is written)
See Tutorial 24 for this vowel combination.
There's not much you can do about this kind of spelling. You learn the same way you learn English words that are pronounced completely differently to how they are written.
Don't worry. If you can follow what I am trying to explain in this example you are doing very well. When I first encountered this word I didn't know how to pronounce it so I asked my girlfriend at the time.
Living in Thailand I read signs constantly and I still run into words that I'm not sure how to pronounce. When I do so I ask my wife. I'm not ashamed to ask and neither should you be. Thais love foreigners taking an interest in their language and they love to help.
Here's the word in a real sign. The Thai word jao-naa-tee means 'person in charge'. Room 2 is restricted to the person in charge and therefore off-limits to everyone else.
With unwritten vowels used between consonants it is important to know which pairs of consonants form initial consonant clusters because these consonant clusters don't have an implied vowel in between.
When working out the tone of words that use an intial consonant cluster, use the first consonant of the cluster to work out the tone rule, but write any tone marks above the second consonant of the cluster.
There is no 'st' consonant cluster in Thai. This is why Thais add an extra syllable to English words that use 'st', such as, steak, star and mister.
Correctly, they use an unaspirated dtor dtao after the 's' but they add an extra 'uh' between the two consonants:
List Of Consonant Clusters
If you don't know which letters form consonant clusters, certain words will give you a problem. Here's an example:
Is the word pronounced pay-lin or plern? The first two consonants form an initial consonant cluster and therefore the pronunciation is plern.
With any language rule in any language there will always be exceptions. The following is the Thai word for dangerous:
If I didn't know this word, I would say that it has two syllables. The first syllable is a simple un. The second part of the second syllable is aay. The first part of the second syllable looks like the dtor dtao and ror reua consonant cluster (see table above). It would seem that the word should be pronounced un-dtraay.
However, when you hear this word spoken it definitely has three syllables. There is an implied vowel between the two consonants that first appear to be a consonant cluster: un-dtuh-raay.
Thai isn't always easy and the implied (unwritten) vowels can make it very difficult to pronounce unfamiliar words correctly. On the other hand, spare a thought for foreign students of English when they encounter the group of letters: ough.
Is this the same sound as in the word rough or cough or bough or dough or thought or through or hiccough? It's probably more difficult for a non-English speaker to learn English than it is for an English speaker to learn Thai.
Written Thai is both easy and difficult. The previous tutorials were easy to write and - I think - easy to follow. It's actually very logical most of the time and a lot less ambiguous than written English.
However, the subject today is one of those areas where written Thai starts to get difficult. As I was writing I realised that I didn't fully understand implied vowels. I know enough most of the time but unfamiliar words can still catch me out.
I am constantly trying to plug the gaps in my knowledge so when (or if) I get more information about this I will make some updates. However, what I have written above should be enough for you to get by with many words that you see.
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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