Thai language guide - tones and sounds

Tones are the toughest part of Thai for foreigners

Tones form the main characteristic and are indeed the most challenging part of Thai language for most learners. Those who speak a Latin-based language will usually have difficulty mastering the subtle changes of voice. However, think about the use of rising tones in English to express moods (eg: the rising tone that children add to ‘why’ when they don’t understand something) and you have an idea of the pitch change.

There are five tones in Thai language - low, middle, high, rising and falling. Most words carry a middle or a low tone. A complex set of tonal rules sorts all consonants into low, middle and high, and the final tone of the syllable is determined by its relationship to the following vowel (be it short or long) or the aspiration ending the sound. However, the occasional tone mark might override this. But mastering all this is only useful if you read Thai script and most beginners learn the correct pronunciation of each word individually.

A word can have several meanings depending on the tones; for example, the sentence mai mai mai mai mai (with varying tones), can mean the ‘new wood doesn’t burn does it?’. This is where the confusion sets in, such as the word kii, which could mean ‘ride’ or ‘shit’ depending on which way you say it. Even worse is the similarity between glai, where only a falling tone differentiates the meaning from ‘near’ and ‘far’.

Early learners shouldn’t get too fussed about tones, for the listener should be able to distinguish the true meaning from the context of your sentence, but listening requires more effort. In due course, from mimicking others, it should come naturally, in the same way as ‘where’ and ‘we’re’.

In our vocabulary- and sentence-building sections, we have tried to simplify the transliteration by changing the spelling to try and mimic the correct tone pronunciation. If you defer to proper tutorial books, you will have the benefit of tone marks to offer more accurate interpretations.

Sounds when speaking Thai

The Thai alphabet is somewhat antiquated, with 46 consonants and 32 vowels. Before you give up in fear, we’ll point out that many of the consonants represent the same sound (as many as five times), but each falls into a different consonant group, allowing for different tones. Some are also nearly obsolete. The 32 vowels are mostly long and short versions of the same sounds.

Unlike English, Thai language has a vowel for every sound, as well as some diphthongs. It makes it more accurate to pronounce words. The advantage of learning to read Thai is that you can correctly pronounce certain sounds that aren’t expressed in English and are difficult to write down.

To help with the transliteration, here is a basic guide:

i (short)

as in ‘it’

ii/ee (long)

as in ‘eat’

a (short)

as in ‘abut’

aa (long)

as in ‘art’

a (short)

as in ‘an’

aa (long)

as in ‘acne’

e (short)

as in ‘exam;

eh (long)

as in ‘air’

u (short)

as in ‘ute’

uu (long)

as in ‘Luke’

o (short)

as in ‘oh!’

oo (long)

as in ‘owner’

ai (common)

as in ‘Thai’

er (long)

as in ‘erstwhile’


as in ‘awkward’

ow (long)

as in ‘owl’

eu (short)

as in ‘neutered’

eu (long)

as in ‘sue’

(this last one is tricky and unfamiliar, but try keeping your teeth clenched and smiling when saying this one).

Some common dipthongs that creep into words are:

ia (short and long)

as in ‘bier’

ua (short)

as in ‘tour’

uay (long)

as in ‘ooh aye!’

eue (short and long)

as in ‘sewer’

(again, this last one is tricky and unfamiliar, but try keeping your teeth clenched and smiling when attempting this one).

There are a few other anomalies that sometimes cause confusion, especially with the official signage that insists on exact letters rather than common sound translations.

• Ph and Kh – the ‘h’ is used to emphasise a hard sound; therefore Phuket would be pronounced as ‘Pooket’, not ‘Fooket’.
• B and P – there is a letter in the Thai alphabet that is placed between these two sounds, which is used for Phuket, making it sound more like ‘Boo-ket’ when pronounced by a Thai.
• Although ‘R’ often follows an opening consonant, it’s often not sounded, as in Krabi, which Thais called ‘Gabi’ (K and G sounds similar in Thai pronunciation).
• Words ending in the letter ‘j’ are ended with the sound ‘t’ and words ending in an ‘l’ are ended with the sound ‘n’, which is why Thais called soccer ‘footbon’.

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