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.