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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About macleanjstorer

Novelist, writer and journalist
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