Thai 101 Learners Series: When in Rome, Thai Doesn’t Sound the Same

Thai 101 Learners Series

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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The importance of learning the Thai script…

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big believer in learning the Thai script as a tool for learning the spoken language. Be warned, though, that there’s a major side effect of this learning method: it will improve your accent. Shocking, I know.

Why will this improve your accent?

The answer has to do with the multiplicity of ways to write Thai words with English letters. There is no single standard, so it’s hard to know which system is being used in a given sign, menu, or name. The odds are stacked against your guessing it right on the first, or even fifth, try.

The best away around this problem is learn the Thai script.

There are so many romanization systems because different things make sense to different people. If you buy three Thai phrase books, you can rest assured they’ll each use a different spelling for the same word.

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The only thing certain about it is the uncertainty – until you delve into learning the Thai writing system. While it looks intimidating, Thai is much more systematic than English. It is an obnoxious historical accident that in my American dialect, “sew” rhymes with no, while “dew” rhymes with too, while “few” is pronounced fyoo (not foo). And it’s different in a hundred other accents.

Regional accents exist in Thai, too, of course, but the written language is very well standardized and will act as a sanity check against the quixotic quest to represent Thai with roman letters.

Take the name of the new airport, Suvarnabhumi. In reality, Thais pronounce this, roughly, soo-wunna-poom. The bizarre English spelling has to do with the word’s origin. Suvarnabhumi is borrowed from Sanskrit, and means “Land of gold”. On a historical note, this appellation has long been used to refer to all of mainland Southeast Asia, not just the damp patch of land formerly known as nong ngoo haow, or “cobra swamp”.

The spelling in Thai retains features of the original language, helping Thai people recognize it as a borrowed word. So, when they spell it with English letters, they write it as if it were Sanskrit – even though the Thai pronunciation is very different. In fact, most proper names in Thai are from Sanskrit, so we end up with this situation all the time.

Retrain that mouth…

If you want to learn Thai, one of the unavoidable facts that you must accept is that you have to learn how to make new sounds. You must retrain your mouth. This is where romanization can be particularly misleading. It gives you the impression that you can just read it off the page and get it approximately right. Take a simple enough word like wan nii, which means “today”, or technically “this day”.

You might see this written wan nii, wan nee, wun ni, wun nee, and for all I know, “one knee”. There is, by contrast, just one way to write and read the word in Thai script, which was designed some 700 years ago specifically to write the Thai language, so it makes sense to use it.

In the meantime, though, there are other pitfalls for reading romanized Thai that you can easily avoid. Whenever you see th- or ph-, forget about how they’re pronounced in English. Just like in the name Thailand, thalways represents the sound in the English word “tie”. In the same vein, ph- is always the sound in the English word “pie”. Denizens of Phuket know this issue well, of course.

The recent Oscar-winning film Juno has a line where a character uses “Phuket, Thailand” as an exclamation, intended for comic effect. She pronounces it foo-ket, which is, of course, supposed to sound like the English expletive. This isn’t the first or last time we’ve heard this joke, but it’s based on a misunderstanding.

These sounds are written with the letter “h” in order to distinguish them from two other similar sounds that English doesn’t differentiate, but which are critically important for speaking understandable Thai.

For example, you may know that pai means “go”, but phai means “danger”. The nitty-gritty of how to make these different sounds is a topic for another column.

For now, get started with the writing system. Go to your local bookstore and get one of those primary school books with the dotted lines you can trace out to practice spelling letters. There’s also a nice set of free printable flashcards at slice-of-thai.com.

The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll begin to enjoy that side effect.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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