Thai Language Thai Culture: Looking for Rhymes in all the Wrong Places

Thai Language

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A while ago I was reading one of those Thai expat blogs. You know, the kind that answers all your questions about visas, and has all those complainers whining about Thailand, its people and culture. One person said he thought Thai music was the worst in the world and that he couldn’t stand it, especially the karaoke music that is so popular. I have a feeling he listens to Thai music through the fog of many karaoke-bar beers.

Thai has more than just karaoke music. It has a plethora of musical styles from the classical, to country, to folk, to popular, and much more. And when you add the fact that each region of Thailand has its own influence on each style, and the many kinds of Thai music generated as a result, I wonder which one the complainer was talking about.

But Thai music can sometimes be a little inaccessible. There are basically two roadblocks to foreigners learning to appreciate Thai music and because of this, it will take a bit of effort on your part to learn to enjoy it in full.

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Roadblock number one…

The first of these of course is the language. Thai songs are usually sung quite fast for our ears, making lyrics difficult to decipher. The tones get changed around too. Also, Thai songs are full of slang, idioms, and word play, and sometimes sung in the local dialect, making for difficult listening.

Ironically for our complaining friend, karaoke music, especially videos with both Thai and transcribed English subtitles (which can be paused and repeated as often as need be), makes for great Thai language study material, especially for common, idiomatic speech.

In fact, music can be such a great language teacher that Khun Benjawan Becker of Paiboon Publishing has recently come out with a book and CD/VCD called Thai Hit Songs Vol 1. In it she has lots of original songs and music written especially with the Thai learner in mind. You can follow along with the songs in Thai or phonetics and English translations. If you want a preview, check out and search for “Paiboon Publishing” or “Thai Fever”.

Roadblock number two…

The second roadblock to appreciating Thai songs is more subtle. It has to do with Thai culture and how Thais view rhyming schemes. Thai songs don’t just place rhymes (สัมผัส /săm-pàt/) where we expect them to be.

Most westerners assume that the last word in one line rhymes with the last word in another. Mind you, Thais songs sometimes have this too. But the first time listener listening to many Thai songs might think, “this is just a bunch of scrambled words – nothing rhymes here.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. With their use of additional rhyming patterns, Thai lyrics are quite sophisticated.

Knowing where the rhyme is supposed to be probably lies somewhere in the deep recesses of our brains, the place that linguist Noam Chomsky calls the “Deep Structure”. It is where we know what is a grammatically correct sentence without ever having studied grammar, where we know it is “one dog” and “two dogs” but “one fish” and “two fish”, and how we know that it is a “big red ball” instead of a “red big ball”. How do we know these things? We just do. But each language has its own Deep Structure and if we didn’t grow up immersed in that culture and language we will just have to learn it from scratch, including grammar, and plurals, and adjective order. And rhymes.

Although the Thai language has dozens of ways in which poems, limericks, proverbs, and songs can take on rhymes, we’ll take a look at just a few here. By the way, once you are aware of Thai rhyming schemes you’ll probably see rhymes everywhere: on signs, billboards, brochures.

The full Thai name of Bangkok, the longest place name in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records, is a perfect example of Thai rhyming. Check out the full name of Bangkok put to music below. You’ll hear and see the rhymes right away. The best way to become familiar with Thai rhymes is to look at some real examples.

Thai Alphabet Rhyme…

This is a rhyme that all Thai children will learn in order to memorize the Thai alphabet (consonants only). Most first time listeners will not see any rhyming here at all. But Thai children will hear and love the rhymes just as English speaking children hear the rhyme in “Little Miss Muffet/Sat on a Tuffet”. Here are the first couple of letters.

This is a rhyme that Thai children learn in order to memorize the Thai alphabet (consonants only). Most first time listeners will not see any rhyming at all. But Thai children will hear and love the rhymes just as English speaking children hear the rhyme in “Little Miss Muffet/Sat on a Tuffet”. Below are the first couple of letters.

ก เอ๋ย ก ไก่
gor er-ee gor gài
K oh, K Chicken.

ข ไข่ ใน เล้า
kor kài nai láo
Kh egg, in the coop.

ฃ ขวด ของ เรา
kor kuat kŏng rao
Kh, bottle, it’s ours.

ค ควาย เข้า นา
kor kwaai kâo naa
Kh, buffalo, goes to the field

Rhyming pattern:

Last syllable of the 1st line rhymes with the 2nd syllable of the 2nd line.
Last syllable of the 2nd line rhymes with the last syllable of the 3rd line.
Last syllable of the 3rd line rhymes with the 3rd syllable of the 4th line.

See a complete discussion of the Alphabet rhyme here.

The Loy Krathong song…

ลอย ลอย กระทง
loi loi grà-tong

In November of each year (really the first full moon day of the 12th lunar month) the Thais celebrate Loy Krathong, the lantern festival where they float lanterns down the rivers, and glowing hot air balloons in the skies. They also sing this song over and over again.

wan pen deuan sìp sŏng
The full moon day of the 12th month,

náam gôr nong dtem dtà-lìng
The water at flood level, up to the top of the banks.

rao táng lăai chaai yĭng
All of us girls and boys,

สนุกกันจริง วันลอยกระทง
sà-nùk gan jing wan-loi-grà-tong
Are having great fun on Loy Krathong Day.

Rhyming pattern:

Last syllable of 1st line rhymes with the 3rd syllable of the 2nd line
Last syllable of the 2nd line rhymes with the last syllable of the 3rd line
Last syllable of the 3rd line rhymes with the 4th syllable of the 4th line.

A lôok tûng song from Issan…

หนุ่มตำลาว สาวตำไทย
nùm dtam laao, săao dtam tai
The Boy makes Lao Style Somtum, the girl makes it Thai Style

A song from the โจนัส/คริสตี (Jonas and Kristy) VCD, is a Jonas and Kristy duet about two competing market vendors who make ส้มตำ /sôm-dtam/ (Thai raw papaya salad). Jonas and Kristy are two westerners who have made it big singing ลูกทุ่ง /lôok-tûng/ style songs from the อีสาน /ee-săan/ (Issan) region of Thailand. This music is very reminiscent of American country music with lots of sexual tension (like this song), love, adultery, drinking; all the good stuff. The word ลูกทุ่ง /lôok-tûng/ means “children of the fields”.

In this song, sung in the call and response form, one market vendor makes Lao style ส้มตำ /sôm-dtam/ and the other makes it Thai style, competing and at the same time being very seductive with each other.

nêe pôr dtam laao
Pop makes Lao Somtum.

já mâe nóng săao dtam tai
And Little-Sister-Mom makes it Thai style.

mee à-rai ao waa maa waa maa
What do you have to say.

bpai dtam tee eun
Go make it somewhere else.

dtam tee eun dâi măi ká
Can’t you make it somewhere else?

Rhyming pattern:

The song title
Last syllable in 1st line rhymes with the 1st syllable in the 2nd line.

The song
Last syllable in 1st line rhymes with the 4th syllable in the 2nd line.
Last syllable in the 2nd line rhymes with the 3rd syllable in the 2nd line.
Last syllable in the 4th line rhymes with the 3rd syllable in the 5th line.

So as you can see there are many rhymes where at first you didn’t hear any at all. As if Thai culture wasn’t hard enough to navigate through! But next time you hear karaoke blasting, or when you practice reading a billboard or a bumper sticker, look for the rhyme. When you start noticing the underlying “Thai rhythm”, many things about Thailand and its culture will fall into place.

To hear short clips of 4 types of Thai music, and to read a discussion of the different kinds of Thai music, click here. I’ll bet you’ll jump up and dance to the Luktung music and maybe start doing aerobics to the Bong Lang.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog

  1. Martyn and Talen, I too love this post. Music (to me) has such a close connection with learning Thai tones. I read Hugh’s well-written post several times of pure enjoyment.

  2. Hugh, Have to agree with Martyn….excellent post I also enjoyed the alphabet rhyme and got it straight off too.

    I love Thai music from the karaoke bars to the country music you hear a lot in Issan. I also like a lot of the pop and hard rock Thai music. I’ve never been put off by the rhyming or the sometimes fast singing.

    Listening to western music I am very closed about what I like to hear but Thai music has a certain rhythm that seems to cascade through all the different styles of music that just speaks to me.

  3. Hugh and Catherine – What a fabulous post that must have taken ages to put together, I know I have been on here for at least 15 minutes, it must have taken you hours to write and research it.

    The Thai alphabet rhyme, short and sweet but neat. I understood the format straight away.

    I love the Loy Krathong song and the Thai dancers were amazing. The hand movements always captivate me, they look so simple to do but we all know it’s a skill and art that is only accomplished with years of practice.

    Jonas and Christy, what can I say. Great song, superb video and an obvious chemistry is apparent between them. Not even the garish pink jacket Jonas was wearing could spoil it for me. 10 out of 10 and definite X Factor.

    An excellent post which proves music is indeed a great tool to aid the learning of a new language.

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