This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
The five simple rules of Thai tones…
I just made big strides with reading tones/ tone markers and would like to share my findings with anyone interested. I’ve been a successful Piano and Music teacher and pride myself on finding how humans learn, and unveiling easier ways to understand concepts. The parallels of learning music and languages are staggering, so I’ve been reworking my approach of learning Thai from my musical practices.
I would first like to say that, initially, I tried to just memorize tone rules from the gate. I found that it got me nowhere fast. What works for me is reading Manee books (which thanks to Kruu Mia – Learn2SpeakThai – she has provided them WITH slow and fast audio… yes, amazing) and just jumped right in. After a few times recognizing a certain consonant with a tone marker (or lacking), it starts becoming ingrained without having to “memorize” any rules. It just becomes intuitive (which seems more along the natural path of how Thais learn it, and quite frankly, being a Piano teacher, is how most students of all ages learn).
So now that I’m revisiting “memorizing” a few of the rules, something really obvious stands out to me. I’m having flashbacks of resentment that I had when I grew up classically trained playing piano, and then found Jazz and Jazz theory. “Why were these extremely simple concepts left out of classical curriculum?” In other words, now that I see tone rules are easy, I am wondering why no one has explained it in any simple manner in all the teachings I find. So here is my attempt at making it easy!
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Out of 15 possible scenarios of tone rules, you really only need to memorize only a handful.
High and Rising tone markers will always produce high and rising tones, respectively. So you do NOT need to worry about them, or memorize anything. If you see them, you know the tone no matter what.
So now that leaves only Low and Falling tone markers to worry about. Low and Falling tone markers will always create Low and Falling tones respectively, except when they appear with… LOW CLASS.
I will count this as the first two tone rules you have to memorize, even though you only need to memorize only low class consonants.
[So Low Class with Low Tone Marker creates Falling tone, and Low Class with Falling Marker creates High tone]
Now that we’ve covered the tone markers, it leaves us with what to do in the absence of tone markers.
Live Syllables and Dead Syllables are easy to distinguish. If you assume all dead syllables with no tone markers create a low tone, you then only need to worry about dead syllables with short or long vowels when they’re….You guessed it: LOW CLASS.
[Low Class Dead Short Vowel is high and Low Class Long Vowel is Falling]
So now, with only memorizing LOW CLASS consonants, you have already learned 12 of the 15 tone scenarios.
That leaves us with only Live Syllables with no tone markers. If you assume all Live Syllables with no tone markers create a Mid tone, you’ll probably be correct most of the time. The only rule you need to remember is that High Class Live Syllables create a rising tone.
So with only memorizing Low Class Consonants, and realizing their rules change with Low Tone and Falling Tone Markers, you’ve almost mastered all the rules. Then you just realize that a High Class Live Syllable creates a rising tone, you’ve finished all the rules.
It’s worthy to point out that you never need to memorize Mid Class consonants, as when live, they’re mid, when dead, they’re low and with markers, follow the rules of the names of tone markers.
And you only need to memorize High Class for the purpose of the absence of tone markers.
It’s really the Low Class you need to memorize as Low Tone Marker changes it’s sound to Falling, and Falling Tone Marker changes it to High Tone. And of course with no Tone Marker, Dead Short Vowels are High Tones and Dead Long Vowels are Falling Tones. That’s a total of what? Five rules you need!?
That’s basically only memorizing five things, and (providing you can create the correct tones, with the correct vowel/consonant sounds) you’re on your way to mastering reading/speaking Thai!
With all that said, I encourage reading (especially the Manee books with audio method) and just trying to assimilate these “rules” in actual situations. Then use these simple five rules for reminders and verification.
As you can see, I’m very encouraged and inspired and hope that anything I provided can give you similar inspiration.