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.
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.
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: