Grokking the Thai Writing System Part 1: Consonants

Luke Cassady-Dorion

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Grokking the writing system by doing things youʼre not supposed to…

Iʼve seen a lot of posts on this site about how learning the writing system is essential if you want to pronounce Thai correctly (it is) and how itʼs really not that hard (itʼs not), but what seems to be missing is a good tutorial on how to make sounds pop out of your mouth that youʼre not used to.

Stu Jay Raj once pointed out to me that the Thai alphabet (like that of many Indic languages) maps directly to the human mouth (brilliant), but for someone who isnʼt used to thinking about his mouth, nose, throat and tongue this can be tricky.

I had a singer friend come visit for a week once and he was one of the few people who could perfectly pronounce Thai words after hearing them only once or twice. The thing is singers are used to thinking about the mouth as an instrument but the rest of us arenʼt. If you want to pronounce this language correctly, you need to spend some time making sure that you are pronouncing each letter correctly. Sounds are the basic building blocks of a language, you assemble them first into words and then into sentences. Since Thaiʼs grammar is pretty simple, once you know a bunch of words they can easily be combined into sentences. No need to deal with verb conjugations or noun declensions.

It is likely true that if you approach Thai using (one of the many) Romanization methods, that you will get down some basic vocabulary faster than a student studying the Thai alphabet first. Unfortunately, your chances of being understand are not very good. Sure people can probably figure out what you are saying if you say “Hi” “Bye” How are you?”, but this is often based on guesswork. Once you try to broaden your vocabulary and talk about anything of substance, you will likely be met with confused stares.

Another major downside to Romanized Thai is that there is no one accepted method. When Bangkokʼs new Suvarnabhumi airport opened back in 2006, there was a big hullabaloo because within the airport itself the name was romanized using more than one method.

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Aside from the visual representation of the language, new students to Thai are likely intimidated by the idea of having to make tones come out of their mouth. Some will even go as far as to say that they are tone-deaf and incapable of getting their body to make the proper sounds. The thing is (as anyone who has spent time in a Thai karaoke bar will attest to) there are tons of tone-deaf Thais who are able to speak their own language perfectly. The tones are more a side-product of learning to control the throat, tongue and nose properly. Something that most of us arenʼt used to doing, but possible to pull off with a little work.

If youʼve spent much time in Thailand, you have likely met Thais who pronounce English words in a strange fashion; square becomes sa-quare, happy becomes hap-pii, and victory becomes wictory. These mispronunciations have roots in learning of English using the Thai letters, or a continued understanding of English backed by Thai phonetics. When learning a new language, itʼs very important to sit down and figure out how to make your mouth reproduce the sounds required before digging into the vocabulary. The upside of Thai is that each letter and vowel has (generally) only one corresponding sound. There are some exceptions when consonants change their pronunciation at the end of a word, but this is all laid out in easy-to-remember rules. There are some unfortunate non-standard pronunciations that have worked their way into the language over time, but they are much fewer than in English where even simple words like “go” and “do” have totally different vowel sounds.

Given an hour or two per day, the writing system can be sufficiently mastered in a week. Of course that doesnʼt mean that you could wiz through Thai literature, but you will have little problem figuring out what menus say. Then as you add more and more vocabulary to your repertoire, youʼll find that the words are generally understood.

As you approach Thai phonetics having to think about the position of the tongue, lips, throat and mouth you may get the feeling that it will be totally impossible to speak this language with any form of speed close to which you speak English. It is true that at first your words will come out slowly (albeit correctly), but the thought process behind it all will eventually fade away. Work with the system and over time, you will find that your mouth just does what itʼs supposed to do, you no longer have to will it into action.

The Thai language is composed of 21 distinct consonant sounds which are represented by 44 different characters. Vowels are constructed using 16 different symbols, for a total of 9 single-vowels, 12 double-vowels (diphthongs) and 3 triple-vowels (triphthongs).

Consonants…

The following chart breaks down the consonants based on where in the mouth you need to make the sound in order for it to come out. Donʼt rush through it, you may be happy just learning one row per week or so. Remember this part of the language is critical.

OK, so hereʼs the thing that every guidebook tells you not to do …. find a native speaker who speaks clearly and touch his head as he says the consonants. As foreigners when we learn Thai, we need to really think about which sounds exist in the throat, the lips and nose; we also need to be aware of which sounds require air to be expelled from the mouth (aspirated) and which donʼt. The deal with these sounds is that at first our ears will have a hard time differentiating the subtle differences between a correct and incorrect sound. Further complicating matters is that most native speakers will just tell you that youʼre saying it wrong, but are so far removed from the learning process that they will not be able to tell you what exactly is wrong. Until your ear becomes accustomed to these sounds, using your sense of touch adds another layer via which you can fully understand whatʼs happening.

People seem to respond in one of two ways to information organized in charts, they either bubble with excitement or just glaze over and try to move on. If youʼre the type to be turned-on by information organized neatly in columns and rows, then you can probably dive right in. For those of you who feel intimidated by information in this fashion, stop for a moment and familiarize yourself with what it all means. It may seem like a lot of hard-to-digest information is being thrown at you, but approaching the Thai writing system is really important as it helps you to get the sounds down.

Voiced vs Unvoiced…

Luke Cassady-Dorion The difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants lies in whatʼs happening with your vocal cords. Voiced consonants cause the vocal cords to vibrate, while unvoiced ones donʼt. To fully understand this difference, lightly place your index finger at the base of a Thai personʼs throat while he reads over the third and fourth rows. Try the same thing with your own throat while going over the consonants. If you donʼt notice the change in your vocal cords between the voiced and unvoiced ones, you are saying them incorrectly.

Aspirated vs Unaspirated…

Luke Cassady-Dorion Aspirated sounds require that air be softly expelled from the mouth and non-aspirated ones require that air not be expelled from the mouth. Try this experiment as you look at the first row in the table. First have a Thai friend say the five consonants in the row and as he does try to repeat each sound only once. For the second round hold one palm about two inches from his mouth and your other palm two inches from your mouth. Note which sounds cause air to be softly expelled and make sure that you mouth does the same thing.

Nasal…

Luke Cassady-Dorion Nasal sounds require that there be some sensation happening in the nose caused when the sounds make their way out. I donʼt mean a huge rush of air, itʼs much more subtle than that. Iʼm not sure if you want to stick your finger up your friendʼs nose to get a feel for this one, but if youʼre struggling, you may want to place the tip of your pinky finger inside your own nose. You should feel the nose vibrate slightly when you say ง.

Semi-Vowel…

A semi-vowel exists in that nether-world between a vowel and a consonant. Growing up in USA, we were told that Y was sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant but rarely got much more of an explanation as to what that means. Linguistically, the difference between consonants and vowels lies in your throat. Vowels are pronounced with an open throat while consonants require the throat to be constricted some. When pronouncing a semi-vowel, the throat is only semi-obstructed. This may all seem a little confusing (it is), but try not to stress over that. As you work with the letters and become familiar with your mouth and throat it will make more sense.

Fricative…

A fricative is created when the air is pressed through a narrow channel created in the mouth. The letters, ซ ศ ษ ส, are a subset of fricative called sibilants which are similar to the S sound in English. They are formed as the air is pushed out through the teeth.

Lateral…

Lateral consonants are formed when air escapes along one or both sides of the tongue. In Thai, the ล and ฬ sounds are similar to L in English and are formed when the tongue hits the teeth and the air escapes around it.

Flap…

Flap consonants are produced with a single contraction of muscles, basically this means that the tongue is thrown against itself. Admittedly this may seem really hard to grok, but as with other tricky aspects just try to understand the basics and then slowly return to it as you work on this letter.

Another important thing to notice about the chart is that each row groups the sounds by the part of the body which needs to make the sound. In the first row, the throat needs to be activated in order to get the proper sound out. The reason that I said to go through this one row at a time is that most people arenʼt used to thinking about these parts of the body and you should really take time to make sure that youʼre getting the sounds down. If you put in the effort to master these sound-building blocks now, youʼll be very happy with the results when you actually start to assemble them into words. What youʼll notice is that in addition to grouping sounds by the location they occur in the mouth, the rows also group similar sounds together. The first row has sounds roughly similar to the English K/G, the second row has sounds similar to J/CH/Y. The reason that these sounds are similar is that they occur in a similar part of the mouth, this also provides yet-another memory device that you can use in memorizing the letters.

Velar…

Velar consonants are pronounced with the back of the tongue near the soft palate, which is the fleshy, flexible part of the mouth near the back of roof of the mouth. Take a moment to play around with the four consonants in this group and really start to think about the things that are happening with your tongue.

Palatal…

In working with the Palatal consonants, the tip of the tongue moves towards the hard palate which is located at the front of the roof of the mouth (but not all the way up to the teeth). Each of the five consonants in this group require that the tongue move up and make soft contact with the hard palate. The first consonant in this group can be especially tricky to get down, due to its similarity in sound to the English letter J. Notice what happens with your tongue when you say the English word “jazz”, it rests towards the bottom of your mouth. When many people approach Thai, they assume that จ is pronounced similar to the J in jazz, when in fact it requires that the tongue be moved to a different location. Work through this column slowly, make sure that your tongue is going to the correct place for every letter.

Dental…

The dental consonants are the biggest grouping and will provide the greatest challenge for you when writing out the letters. While visually different, they are phonetically very similar. Each of the seven groupings has only a single sound, the broad variation in letters is use to give coverage to all the tones and to deal with words of Sanskrit and Pali origin.

Labial…

As you can probably guess from the name, labial consonants happen out towards the lips. This one you can experience with your eyes more than your fingers, focus on your friendʼs lips as he works through this row.

Laryngeals…

This category is a little tricker since thereʼs not much you can do to see or feel it. The sound is made in the larynx with the vocal cords partly closed and partly vibrating. Try to think about this part of your body as you say these letters.

Consonants graph

Ok, so spend some time on those. Work with a native speaker to get them down. Putting the time and energy into getting them down will make a huge difference when you start learning vocabulary.

Luke Cassady-Dorion
Goldenland Polygot
luke.org

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