Finding the Tone of a Thai Syllable

Finding the Tone of a Thai Syllable

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

Tones Thai syllables…

Thai children can apply the tone rules long before they can explain them. This is because they learn words in groups with similar characteristics. For instance, the group of words ending in “p” (บ, ป, พ, ภ) and starting with a low class consonant. When they meet a new word, they automatically know the correct group and therefor will know the tones to use.

Knowing Thai tone rules is important if you intend to speak Thai clearly. Sometimes reading through the rules helps, but for others charts make more sense. I’ve included both in this post.

In Thai there are three kinds of consonants:

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  1. low class: ค,ฅ,ฆ,ง,ช,ซ,ฌ,ญ,ฑ,ฒ,ณ,ท,ธ,น,พ,ฟ,ภ,ม,ย,ร,ล,ว,ฬ,ฮ
  2. mid class: ก,จ,ฎ,ฏ,ด,ต,บ,ป,อ
  3. high class: ข,ฃ,ฉ,ฐ,ถ,ผ,ฝ,ศ,ษ,ส,ห

You best remember the mid and the high class consonants – the low class are all the rest.

In Thai there are two kinds of vowels:

  1. short vowels: -ั, -ิ, -ุ, -ึ and ฤ. And all vowels with ะ or -็ in them.
  2. long vowels: all the rest

In Thai there are two kinds of syllables:

  1. dead syllable: ends a short vowel or on a p t or k sound.
  2. live syllable: all the rest

In Thai there are four tones marks:

  1. -่ : normally indicates a low tone
  2. -้ : normally indicated a falling tone
  3. -๊ : normally indicates a high tone
  4. -๋ : normally indicates a rising tone

The Thai tone rules…

If the syllable has a tone mark:

  • follow the tone mark
    • exception: the first consonant is low class: take the next tone

If the syllable doesn’t have a tone mark:

  • and the syllable is a life syllable: mid tone
    • exception: the first consonant is high class: rising tone
  • and the syllable is dead: low tone
    • exception: the first consonant is low class
      • and the syllable has a short vowel: high tone
      • and the syllable has a long vowel: falling tone

Chart of the Thai tone rules…

Thai Tone Chart

Download pdf: Finding the Tone of a Thai Syllable
Download jpg: Thai Tone Chart

Kris Willems

27 comments
  1. I agree that different strategies work for different people. But this is how I do it.

    First I divided the rules. Part 1 is memorizing rules with tone marks and Part 2 is memorizing rules for those without tone marks.

    For Part 1 (with tone marks) – all with mai thrii is HIGH, all with mai chathawaa is RISING. Regardless of initial consonant class, these two tone marks will always produce their respective tones. Now here comes the tricky part. The remaining tone marks have tones that depend on initial consonant class. Mai aek is FALLING for low class consonants, and LOW for high and mid class consonants, mai toh is HIGH for low class consonants, and FALLING for high and mid class consonants.

    For Part 2 (without tone marks) – determine first if ending is dead or live. Then proceed to determine class of initial consonant (IC). If live ending, low and mid IC are all MID tone and high IC is always RISING tone. If dead ending, mid and high IC are always LOW tone. If dead ending AND low class IC, check vowel length – if short, tone is HIGH, and if long, tone is FALLING.

    So basically, I have this flowchart in my head.
    First, determine if there is a tone mark. This will let me know which set of rules I should “activate.”
    If Part 1, determine tone mark and then initial consonant class.
    If Part 2, determine if ending is live or dead, and then determine initial consonant class. If dead ending and low class, determine if vowel is short or long.

    I studied this logic for 1 hour or so and had took practice test in http://www.thai-language.com/id/798459. Got only 2 mistakes out of ~50 test syllables upon first take (because it is a bit difficult to apply rules for two combined initial consonants, but I was able to get the hang of it after a couple of tries).

    I would say that this method is effective for me.

  2. Kris . Thank you for your reply about the tone of Market – Ta Laad. I have not seen that rule explained anywhere else so your information was welcome.

  3. Hi Michael,

    When a low a (low class) sonorant follows a mid class of high class consonant (and there’s a hidden vowel อะ), the whole thing is technically (for the tone) looked upon as one syllable. So the ต defines the tone of the whole thing, which results in a low tone.

  4. Can anyone explain why, in the Thai word for Market, Ta Laad, the second syllable is low? The rules say low class consonant, long vowel, dead ending = falling tone. The thai work for Very- maak has a falling tone. (Sorry, I do not have access to Thai fonts.)

  5. Is there something funny about foreigners speaking Thai? Every time I try to test out my Thai in Isaan, I’m just getting laughed at. Maybe my pronunciation is laughable. I wish there was an effort to teach children English, in places like the Philippines they have got this down, everyone can speak English fluently. Why isn’t there such an effort in Thailand?

    1. Hi Ian. I’ve noticed that Thais laugh with me and usually when I do something incorrect with tones (sometimes resulting in colourful words). Have you asked them?

      I haven’t figured out the English situation in Thailand. I have theories but that’s about it.

    2. Yes this is true. Here in the Philippines, one of the subject taught in school is English. And it will be taught from elementary to college. That’s why most of us can speak English fluently. Not perfectly tho.
      But I think Thailand has its own reason why. 🙂

  6. Funny, this is exactly the same chart I just wrote an hour ago after finally learning all the rules, and I was checking online if there would be a better chart or if I made a mistake. I’m super happy that I got it right ! Thanks for the downloadable chart, I’ll keep that one instead of my own 🙂

  7. Incredible, it’s fixed. Twitter and Chrome core developers to the rescue!

    It should fallback to Tahoma (as the dedicated fallback font for USCRIPT_THAI) but do the non-Thai consonant it does not and instead goes all the way back to the last-resort (Arial) which doesn’t have the Thai glyph.

    A workaround while we fix this is to change the font-family to add Tahoma to the end.

    Thank you @KristoferA and @ericlaw and Chrome for all your help!

  8. The problem is that combining Thai fonts and roman fonts is not standardized, which leaves the rendering up the the designer of the browser. To avoid problems like this, we should use อ as a placeholder (which can lead to confusion, but I don’t know any real solution). By the way Catherine, the last four vowels in the comment you posted show up just fine in Chrome (but the original post does not).

  9. There seems to be a problem with the font in two of the sections at the top of the post. In the sections headed “In Thai there are two kinds of vowels:” and “In Thai there are four tones marks:” some symbols appear as empty square boxes.

    1. Thanks Phil. Apparently the new update of WordPress does not accept those special characters (it’s not the new theme/font, it’s inside WP). What a pain… I’ll see if I can find a workaround. Thanks again for pointing that out.

  10. Thank you for this chart. I am a fairly new reader and am slowly getting the basic rules in my head. I showed it to my classmates and then we used it to figure out the tones of some new words. Our teacher was very happy with how well this worked!
    Laurie

  11. Hi Hugh, there’s a “download jpg” link in the article under the picture. If you use that you get a better quality picture. Of course you may use the image.

    In the end the tone rules are nothing more than a tool for the beginning reader or writer (but a very useful tool). An advanced reader, like you, would just remember the tones of the words or derive them from similarly written words.

  12. BTW, if it is okay with you Kris one can right click on the chart and “save image as” to your computer and then use it as a reference.

    Thanks again.

  13. Kris,

    Great chart. Much easier to comprehend than a bunch of words – which is why I never learned the tone rules.

    Here has been my system: I hear the word and repeat it exactly how I hear it, or really I sing it back like I hear it.

    I learned to read Thai years after learning to speak so reading never helped me. I like to sing but I can’t read music. I sing it back like I heard it. Same with Thai.

    I am a good Thai reader now but reading doesn’t help me with the tones since I don’t know the rules. I just see the word and can hear it in my head and I know the tone. The trouble is when I come across a new word which I haven’t ever heard. Then I just guess at the tone – which my dear wife then corrects with a shake of her head and a rolling of her eyes.

    My wife says my tones basically suck, although I do get by fairly okay and I think she is being overly critical. But I don’t recommend my system to anyone.

    Thanks for the post. I might now even try to learn the tone rules. Who knows, maybe I can impress my wife.

  14. A tone chart for writers would look completely different and would be more complicated (The silent ห and อ that are used for changing the tone, would also come in the picture).

  15. That’s true Peter. It’s a chart intended for readers. So, assuming the word you’re reading is correctly written, you can find the pronunciation with this chart. If you start from an incorrectly written word, the chart will still give you an answer, which is also incorrect. I was aware of this but made this choice to keep the chart as small as possible (and I assume the words you’re putting into the chart are correctly written).

  16. The chart is very good but a small point: The tone marks ไม้ตรี (mai dri) and ไม้จัตวา (mai chatawa) cannot apply to high class initial consonants but the chart tends to imply that they can.

  17. Awesome chart. If the Thai letters for each class could be put on the chart under the decision points mentioning the class, then everything would be in one place.

  18. Interesting article Kris, and shows just how much trouble we foreigners go thru to learn how to tone thai words. Thaiz never have that problem because words were beaten into their heads one word at a time with the correct tone.

    I wrote this down a LONG time ago when I was learning how to tone thai words;

    Middle Class Consonants
    ก จ ฎ ฏ ด ต บ ป อ
    Live Syllable; Middle Tone
    Dead Syllable; Low Tone
    อ่-Low, อ้-Falling, อ๊-High, อ๋-Rising

    High Class Consonants
    ข ฃ ฉ ฐ ถ ผ ฝ ศ ษ ส ห
    Live Syllable; Rising
    Dead Syllable; Low
    อ่-Low, อ้-Falling

    Low Class Consonants
    ค ฅ ฆ ง ช ฌ ซ ฑ ท ธ ฒ ณ
    น พ ภ ฟ ม ย ญ ร ล ว ฬ ฮ
    Live Syllable; Middle
    Dead Syllable + Short Vowel; High
    Dead Syllable + Long Vowel; Falling
    อ่-Falling, อ้-High
    Note tone marks CHANGE for Low Class Consonants

    “Live Syllable” = ends with any long vowel and/or a Sonorant Final
    “Dead Syllable” = ends with any short vowel and/or Stop Final

    Note; the vowels; อำ, ไอ, ใอ & เอา are considered long vowels for toning purposes
    (Even if their pronunciation in spoken Thai varies)

    FWIW: I also learned to do it by remembering that high class consonants can NEVER have a high tone and low class consonants can NEVER have a low tone. I still can’t say the thai alphabet in order. I know it starts with a chicken; ก ไก่, ends with an owl ห นกฮูก and has 42 other consonants in between.

    However if you remember the mnemonics;
    A chicken pecked a child that died above the mouth of a water jug
    ไก่ จิก เด็ก ตาย บน ปาก โอ่ง you have the mid class consonants down
    And if you know
    A ghost entrusted with a bag of milled rice gave it to me
    ผี ฝาก ถุง ข้าวสาร ให้ ฉัน you have the high ones.

    If you want to test your ability to tone single syllable thai words; thai language dot com has an exercise where you can check how good you are. It’s under their “Lessons” heading then scroll down to “Quizzes” where they have “Listening for the Tone of One-Syllable Words”. You can either click the sound file and listen for it, or just look at the word and see if you can do it by sight..

    Good Luck…

  19. Gotta agree with this:

    “Thai children can apply the tone rules long before they can explain them. This is because they learn words in groups with similar characteristics.”

    One day I hope to do the same. 🙂

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