Thai Language Thai Culture: Why Thai is Not a Monosyllabic Language

Thai Language

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Thai is Not a Monosyllabic Language…

I read lots of Thai language blogs and sometimes I come across comments about learning Thai that personally, I believe are way off the mark. They are often written by people who are just beginning to learn Thai or by others who have reached a level they are comfortable with, but are still less than fluent.

A little knowledge can be dangerous. Some of the comments I’ve read recently are:

  • Thai is a monosyllabic language.
  • Tones aren’t important; Thais will figure out what you mean through context.
  • You have to read to get the tones right.
  • Thai has no grammar.

I disagree with all of these and I feel that a discussion will help us in our learning Thai. Let’s start with the first item on the list.

Thai is a monosyllabic language…

I’ve heard Thai described as a language made up of simple one syllable words. One of the possible results of this kind of thinking is that a person believing this can begin to believe that because the language is so simple and unsophisticated (primitive?) then the people who speak it must also be simple and unsophisticated (primitive?). The Thai language as well as the Thai people are more complicated than that though.

A Google search on the question “Is Thai a monosyllabic language?” returns thousands of results, many of which define Thai as basically made up of monosyllabic words but with polysyllabic influences from the borrowing from Sanskrit, Pali, Kamer, English, et al. Many of the articles have the exact same wording which probably means that they are quoting (without attribution) from the same origin and not really doing the thinking on their own. The real answer depends on what your definition of “word” is.

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Dictionary.com defines “word” as a morpheme (sound), or a combination of morphemes, that carry a meaning. It gives the example of the words “black” and “bird” having meanings all by themselves but they also combine to form the single (polysyllabic) word “blackbird”. Given this definition, it would seem that Thai is not a monosyllabic language; examples to follow.

But here’s the good news. Lots of long Thai words can be broken down into their constituent parts (just like “blackbird”). For learners of Thai, that would mean that if we know the individual parts that make up these longer “words” then we have a head start on figuring out what they mean.

Although long Thai words can be looked at as single items they can also be looked at as descriptions of what the item or concept is. This also happens in English. For example, the word “thermometer” is a nice long English word but we can break it down into “therm” meaning “heat”, and “meter” meaning “to measure”. So a “thermometer” is “a thing that measures heat”. Lots of long Thai words are built in a similar fashion.

Here are some examples I came up with by randomly leafing through a Thai/English dictionary looking for long words. For the purposes of this post I have used the Three Way Thai-English English-Thai Dictionary, thai-language.com and thai2English.com as my dictionary resources.

You’ll see that for someone who has never seen a word before, the Thai is sometimes easier to decipher than the English is. In the first example below a student could only guess at the meaning of the English word “audition”, especially if it wasn’t heard in context. But it wouldn’t be difficult to know what the Thai word meant if you knew what made up the different parts.

To audition: ทดสอบการแสดง /tót-sòp-gaan-sà-daeng/
– to test: ทดสอบ /tót-sòp/
– to perform/to show: แสดง /sà-daeng/
– performance (show/play): การแสดง /gaan-sà-daeng/

“Audition” in Thai is a “test of one’s ability to perform (in a show or play)”. Another Thai word for “audition” is ออดิชั่น /or-dì-chân/ – a loan word from English.

If you know the English word “tyranny” then you can make out the meaning of the word “tyrannize”. It is similar in Thai.

To tyrannize: ปกครองแบบกดขี่ /bpòk-krong-bàep-gòt-kèe/
– to rule/govern: ปกครอง /bpòk-krong/
– type/style: แบบ /bàep/
– to oppress: กดขี่ /gòt-kèe/

So in Thai the word “to tyrannize” is broken down into “to govern oppressively”. Another Thai word for “tyrannize” is บีบรัด /bèep-rát/ – “to squeeze and tie up”.

Here is one where the English word can almost be figured out, but you would still have to guess from the context in which it was used. The Thai word is quite clear.

Soundtrack: ดนตรีประกอบภาพยนตร์ /don-dtree-bprà-gòp-pâap-pá-yon/
– music: ดนตรี /don-dtree/
– attach: ประกอบ /bprà-gòp/
– picture: ภาพ /pâap/
– machine: ยนตร์ /yon/
– movie/film: ภาพยนตร์ /pâap-pá-yon/

So in Thai a “soundtrack” is “music attached to a movie”. Another Thai word for “soundtrack” is เสียงในฟิล์ม /sǐang-nai-feem/ – “sound inside a film”, the last word borrowed from English of course.

I am not sure that knowing the meaning of “civil” could tell you what the English words “civil war” means. (A war of civilizations maybe?) It’s easier to guess the meaning of the Thai word though.

Civil war: สงครามกลางเมือง /sǒng-kraam-glaang-meuang/
– war: สงคราม /sǒng-kraam/
– center/middle: กลาง /glaang/
– country (also city, town): เมือง /meuang/

In Thai, “war in the middle of a country” is a “civil war”.

No way one could figure out the meaning of “to elaborate” if you had never heard it before. The Thai word is quite simple.

To elaborate: อธิบายเพิ่มเติม /à-tí-baai-pêrm-dterm/
– to explain: อธิบาย /à-tí-baai/
– to add to, augment: เพิ่ม /pêrm/
– add on: ติม /dterm/
– extra, additional: เพิ่มเติม /pêrm-dterm/

“To elaborate” in Thai is “to explain by adding some more (information)”. อธิบายเพิ่มเติม can also mean “to footnote” as in a report or article. Another Thai word for “to elaborate” is ประดิดประดอย /bprà-di bprà-doi/ – “invent and embellish”

Here’s a word that is a whole sentence in itself. But it is quite easy to understand once we break it down.

To decomtaminate: ขจัดพิษออกจาก /kà-jàt-pít-òk-jàak/
– remove, get rid of: ขจัด /kà-jàt/
– toxin, poison: พิษ /pít/
– expel: ออก /òk/
– from: จาก /jàak/

“Decontaminate”, “to remove or expel toxin from”. Another word for “to decontaminate” is ขจัดสิ่งปนเปื้อน /kà-jàt sìng-bpon-bpêuan/ – “to remove the dirty thing”.

So is Thai a simple, unsophisticated language? Of course not. Is it a language made up of monosyllabic words? Depends on your definition of a “word”. Many of Thai’s big words are built using lots of little ones. Because of the way Thai vocabulary is structured, learning new Thai vocabulary is less of a guessing game than it is a puzzle to be solved.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
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