Part 4: A Short Vowel

As we have seen, an important part of reading Thai texts is figuring out where words start and end, given that Thai iswrittenwithoutspacestodelimitwords.

One vowel that does this is ‘-am’ as in the word:

ดำ ‘dam’ black

Another one is the curious-looking vowel ‘ะ’ – two little curlicues which is pronounced as a very short ‘a’ sound, which has no equivalent in English. Imagine saying the word ‘jam’, but as well as cutting off the ‘m’ sound, the vowel sound is also chopped off very short, ending in what sounds like a glottal stop.

Easily the most common word in Thai spelt with this vowel is:

จะ ‘ja’ will, shall (the future tense marker). Hear it pronounced at: http://www.thai-language.com/id/131388.

One thing to note, and which we shall return to in a while, is that ‘ะ’ is classified as a ‘short’ vowel, unlike the other two vowels we have studied. So what? The answer is that it has implications for the tone that the syllable is spoken with.

As noted before, the Thai language has 5 tones, which apply to each spoken syllable, and the tones can be deduced from the way a syllable is written, according to numerous tone rules.

Listen to the pronunciation of จะ ‘ja’ again, and you may notice that it is spoken not at the mid-range of the speaker’s voice, but drops sharply away to the bottom of the speaker’s range – it is an example of the ‘low tone’ in Thai.

Later, we will examine the tone rules that cause จะ ‘ja’ to carry the low tone, but for now it is enough to note that different tones can be created even when there is no obvious tone mark written on the syllable.

Other common words which use this vowel include:

ระยะ ‘ra-ya’ distance, interval

พระ ‘pra’ monk

ระอา ‘ra-aa’ (note the silent consonant in the second syllable) bored, fed up

วาระ ‘waa-ra’ period; occasion; cycle

ชำระ ‘cham-ra’ to clean, rinse (or to pay off a debt)

As we shall see later on, ‘ะ’ makes up a part of several compound vowels or dipthongs; the important thing to remember is that it is always the final character in a syllable, and that any vowel containing ‘ะ’ is classified as a ‘short’ vowel.

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Part 3: Awk-ward

The second Thai vowel we are going to look at is ‘อ’, which is pronounced ‘-aw’ as in ‘saw’, ‘raw’.

We can construct the words

รอ ‘raw’ to wait

รอง ‘rawng’ to support

ปรองดอง  ‘bpraawng-daawng’ to reconcile

Again we see the consonant ‘ง’, the composite ‘-ng’ sound found in the word ‘sing’. In Thai, this consonant can appear at the start of a word, such as:

งอน ‘ngawn’ bent

This is quite a difficult consonant for some people to pronounce in the initial position, as it doesn’t appear there in English, or indeed most European languages. The excellent Stu Jay Raj has a video to help learn the pronunciation. http://vodpod.com/watch/4428579-how-to-pronounce-initial-ng-in-asian-languages-stuart-jay-raj

Complication

อ’ is a perfectly straightforward vowel, but unfortunately, this letter has another function which clouds the picture somewhat. As mentioned before, the Thai script is an abugida, where every syllable is built round a consonant.

How then, do we write a word like ‘India’, where the first syllable has no consonant, but goes straight into the vowel ‘I’?

Simple. The Thai script employs a ‘silent consonant’, which is written but not pronounced, so that all syllables can be based round a consonant. And you guessed it, the character used for the silent consonant is none other than ‘อ’.

Let’s look at a word we have already learned:

จาน ‘jaan’ a plate

Now suppose there is a word which is pronounced ‘aan’ – how do we write it? We swap out the ‘j’ consonant ‘จ’ and replace it with the silent consonant ‘อ’. Hence:

อาน ‘aan’ a saddle

The question then arises: how do we tell when ‘อ’ is being used as a consonant and when as a vowel? The short answer is ‘practice’, but there are a few clues. If it appears at the beginning of a word, it must be the consonant form (can’t be a solo vowel), and equally, if it appears at the end of a word, it must be the vowel form.

It’s less of a problem than it might seem, but there are one or two interesting consequences. For example, take a look at this common word:

ออก

What’s going on here? The first ‘อ’ must be the silent consonant, as it is at the beginning of the word. Equally, the second ‘อ’ must be the vowel (-aw) modifying that consonant.

So we have: silent consonant + -aw vowel + final consonant ‘ก’ which is pronounced here as ‘k’. The word is pronounced ‘awk’, meaning ‘to leave, go out, exit’ and is extremely common.

Combining it with a word we have already seen, we get the compound word:

ทางออก ‘thaang-awk’ way [to] go out, and which is used on signs to mark the exit from a building, train station or other place.

Reading Thai in the initial stages involves a lot of the kind of analysis that we did on the word ‘ออก’. The more reading you do, the more words you will instantly recognize, and the less analysis you will have to perform.

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Part 2: Um, an odd-looking vowel

One of the main problems of reading Thai is that the script does not place spaces between words, butrunsallthewordstogether, making it harder to decide where one word ends and the next begins.

Luckily, there are several clues we can use, mainly from the vowel component of a syllable or word. One of the most common of these is the vowel ‘um’ or ‘am’, which consists of  a circle above the consonant it modifies, followed by the same ‘า’ character we have already seen.

Yes, it’s a vowel, but it contains a consonant sound, the ‘m’. Luckily, it is the only Thai vowel to exhibit such behaviour, and really isn’t that confusing once you learn to distinguish it from ‘า’.

This vowel is quite common, and has the great benefit that when you see it, you know that you have arrived at the end of the syllable or word — nothing can follow it. The pronunciation is not as broad as ‘am’, perhaps half-way to ‘um’.

Among the common words which use this vowel are:

ดำ ‘dam’ black

รำ ‘ram’ to dance

คำ ‘kham’ a word

ลำ ‘lam’ the trunk of the body

จำนำ ‘jam-nam’ to pawn

One useful new vowel, and 2 new consonants:

ด=d

ล=l (Note how this consonant looks rather like the Greek letter ‘lambda’ (λ), which is also the ‘l’ in Greek.

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Part 1: Introduction to the Thai script

History
The Thai script belongs to a large family of scripts emanating from India, known as the Brahmic scripts. Most recently, it derives from the Khmer (Cambodian) script. Its closest relative is the Lao script (just as spoken Lao is the closest relative of spoken Thai). The Thai script dates from around the 13th Century.
Classification
The Thai script is an abugida, not an alphabet. Technically, this means that consonants are the core element of each syllable and vowels, though necessary, are of secondary importance. This is different from our ‘Roman’ alphabet, where consonants and vowels are of equal importance.
So, every Thai syllable must have a consonant. That consonant will be attached to a vowel, and there may optionally be a final consonant. As Thai is a tonal language, the script also contains tone marks.

First words

Let’s dive straight in. Many visitors to Bangkok will know of the nightlife area known as Nana, which now has its own BTS (light rail) station. The sign on the station reads ‘นานา’. This is obviously a duplication of the syllable ‘นา’ being pronounced as ‘na’.
Indeed it is. ‘น’ is the Thai consonant ‘n’. The vowel ‘า’ is pronounced ‘ah’ or ‘aa’ as in ‘cart, father, barge’.  นา actually means ‘field’, but whether this has any relation to the name of the area, I have no idea.
There are many words using this vowel:
มา, ‘maa’  to arrive, come
ราคา ‘raa-khaa’ the price
(Pronunciation note 1: Many Thais, perhaps most, pronounce ‘r’ more like an English ‘l’. Newsreaders get it right, but often, and certainly in the provinces, you are much more likely to hear ‘la-kha’)
ทา ‘thaa’  to apply (paint or cream)
ยา ‘yaa’ medicine
ชา ‘chaa’ tea
As mentioned, Thai syllables can have a final consonant, so we find the words:
ทาง ‘thaang’ road, way
วาน ‘waan’ to ask
จาน ‘jaan’ a plate
Thai also allows the use of ‘consonant clusters’, similar to the ‘p’ and ‘l’ at the beginning of the English word ‘plot’. So, we find the Thai words:
ปลา ‘bplaa’ fish. (Pronunciation note 2: The ‘bp’ sound is one not found in English. When we say the  letter ‘p’, we aspirate it; that is, we expel air as we say it. This Thai consonant is a ‘p’ without the aspiration, or you could say it is an unvoiced ‘b’, or even as halfway between ‘b’ and ‘p’.

(Pronunciation note 3: As with ‘r’ and ‘l’, the casual pronunciation of these consonant clusters differs from the spelling; the second consonant is basically dropped, so ปลา is often spoken as ‘bpaa’. The famous Thai fermented fish sauce, which should be spoken as ‘bplaa-ra’, often is heard as ‘bpaa-la’)

Other examples of consonant clusters include:
กวาง ‘gwaang’ a deer
คราง ‘khraang’ to whine
คลาน ‘khlaan’ to crawl
ตรา ‘dtraa’ a badge, brand, mark (Pronunciation note 4: Just as ป (‘bp’) is a ‘p’ without the aspiration, ‘dt’ is a ‘t’ without the aspiration, or a sound halfway between a ‘d’ and a ‘t’.)

Summary: We have only learned one vowel, ‘า’, but we have met the following consonants:
น=n
ม=m
ร=r
ค=kh
ย=y
ท=th
ช=ch
ว=w
จ=j
ป=bp
ล=l
ก=g
ว=w
ง=ng
ต=dt
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Easy Thai Reading

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Within a few days I shall begin to post a series of tutorials on how to master the reading of Thai script, from beginner level to advanced level.

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