Let’s Learn Thai! – part 5, in which we learn more about the Thai alphabet (UPDATED)

At my request, my teacher began to teach me to read and write Thai (rather than rely on a phonetic system of writing in English characters). Be careful what you wish for, may you live in interesting times, all of that.

It turns out that two of the reasons that Thai has so many consonants are that, for example, in addition to the aspirated consonants (“D” as in “dog”) and (“T” as in “Thai”), there is a “DT” sound, , which is its own letter. Some of the other consonants get similar treatments, for instance there is a sound between “B” and “P”. And then there are the final letters: a final “K” can be one of three characters, a final “N” can be one of five characters, a final “P” can be one of four characters, and a final “T” can be one of 15 characters. These typically are used in words that were borrowed from Sanskrit, Khmer and other area languages: when the Thais borrowed a word, they borrowed the letters that went with it, so in total, they ended up with 44 consonants.

The Thai keyboard on an iPhone (shift-key not depressed and depressed). It’s cleverly laid out: the middle columns are the vowel markers and diacriticals and oh my god I must be insane to be studying this language.

The way they are all told apart is that each letter has a different name. Every Thai consonant has a two part name: the “o” part that starts with the sound of the letter, and then a word that contains that letter. Imagine, for example, that you wanted to spell the word “tap.” If you used the regular alphabet, you’d say “T A P.” If you used the NATO phonetic alphabet, you’d say “Tango Alpha Papa.” The analogous way to do it in Thai would be, effectively, to say “T-tango A-alpha P-papa.” You could never say “T-tomato A-alpha P-papa”, even though it sounds the same, because the letter in this word is T-tango. However, the word “try” might correctly be spelled “T-tomato R-romeo Y-yankee,” in which case if you wrote it using the “T-tango” letter instead, someone would correct you.

The next trick to learn is that when Thai people write sentences, they run all the words together. In the top photo, some of the character strings are single words, and some of them are sentences. How do you know if a string of syllables is a word or a sentence? You have to know what each syllable is, because – with the exception of borrowed words – each syllable represents an individual word, and multisyllabic words are compounds of single-syllabic words. (For example, the two-syllable word for “river” comes from the one-syllable word for “mother” and the one-syllable word for “water,” which is quite poetic when you think about it.) Thus, if multiple syllables that are strung together don’t make a word, they compose a sentence.

Next: something else, please.

Let’s Learn Thai! – part 4, an introduction to the alphabet

The dog was sick all morning, throwing up on the Persian rugs (due to a bad reaction to a pain medication we gave him for his arthritis), so I stayed home from Thai class and did a little self-study. My lessons don’t include reading and writing yet, but I want to get a jump on the topic. As it happens, when I learned we were going to Thailand last October, I bought a self-study book on Amazon which I used for three days before putting it away on the shelf. It made no sense to me at the time, but I’m more comfortable with it now, so I picked it up and turned to the writing section.

Thai has 44 consonants and 32 vowels. For reasons I will surely learn later, many of the consonants are different symbols for the same sound, while many of the vowels are diphthongs, but it still seems like too many for any one alphabet.* Thai vowels are written as symbols on the “base” of the consonant they are modifying (rather than standing alone as written symbols, like A-E-I-O-U), so one of the consonants is silent, serving only to “carry” the vowel when the word starts with a vowel sound. This consonant is , simply called “o” (since the consonants are named no, bo, lo, ro, etc., the initial letter of each corresponding to the sound of the consonant).

Now, here’s the tricky part: the placement of the vowel marks depends on the vowel, for example (as I’ve learned so far):

 อา  อี  อู เอ โอ ไอ เอา
 long a long i  long u long e long o ai ao

If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that the vowel symbols for long “a” and long “e”, when combined, don’t make “ae”, but “ao.”

*In Albanian, consonant diphthongs such as “dh”, “gj”, “rr”, and “xh” were also considered individual letters, but there are only nine of them.

Spirit houses 1

Spirit houses, which one sees in front of many houses and businesses in Thailand, are the local version of the Greek proskinitaria that I documented in my book (copies of which, ahem, are still available). Unlike proskinitaria, however, spirit houses, or san pra phum, are intended to provide a home for spirits that could otherwise create trouble for the property owners if they are not cared for and given offerings of flowers or food. Although the Thais are predominantly Buddhist, their culture still reflects an earlier time when animism played an active role in people’s thinking. Hence, every place has spirits that need to be appeased to maintain good fortune. A local tour guide explained that, for example, if someone has an argument with a co-worker at the office, he might go to the san pra phum outside and ask the spirits to stop stirring up trouble.

Spirit houses are generally in the form of a miniature temple, and are sometimes peopled with miniature worshippers and animals. They are placed on a dais or pillar in an auspicious location, usually one chosen in consultation with a Brahmin priest. (There is a separate type of structure called a san ta yai, literally “grandfather-grandmother house,” for the spirits of the people who used to live at the site. They have four legs rather that one, and stand lower than the san pra phum.)

Opulent or plain, there’s a spirit house to fit the budget of every spirit.
A san pra phum and a san ta yai stand side-by-side. Detail on the spirit house figurines. Larger ones have more people and animals.

There are many articles, such as this one, that provide more information on spirit houses: for example, the property owner has to choose the right date during only certain moon phases to invite the spirits into their house, and the type of protection that the spirit house offers depends on the type of wood used in its construction. I also read that the bottles of strawberry Fanta that one sees in front of some spirit houses is a modern-day replacement for the blood of animals that people used to sacrifice to the spirits. Others say that the spirits are vegetarians and don’t want blood, but they do like sweets, and red is a lucky color. I’ll avoid taking sides in this debate; personally, I prefer grape Fanta. But I digress.

Left side: a substitute for animal sacrifice. Right side: not so much.

Spirit houses are photographed and written about by every tourist who comes to Bangkok, so I won’t add to the supply of spirit house-related pixels available on the internet, as such; however, I haven’t seen much about where spirit houses come from, so I’m going to look at that.

Next(-ish): part 2

Muay Thai gym 2

The next gym I visited was located beneath an overpass near the National Stadium. This gym is named Poolsawat. The master is named Nan (uncle) Dam, and he was a fighter back in the day, and a local champion. As with Sit Chaansing, there are ten students (here, aged 8-20) that Nan Dam has selected to train, and the students don’t pay. Poolsawat is obviously better furnished than Sit Chaansing; the club is sponsored by a local Chinese-Thai businessman who wants to make his name as a philanthropist for young people. Nan Dam has been training students for 28 years, the last four of them at Poolsawat.

The two best fighters are two half-brothers, nicknamed Fais and First, both aged 20, whose father owns the boxing club. (Fais also had the most interesting tattoos.) As I did with Sit Chaansing, I sent the photographs to my contact and asked him to give me the names of various students and trainers, but I couldn’t connect all the names with the images, so I don’t have complete captions (but I do have a lesson learned: get the information you need when you’re there).​

The training area, located under the overpass. Nan Dam applies an analgesic ointment to First’s hand; Fais’ tattoo; a poster advertising First’s appearance as flyweight champion at the local arena.
Khun Poom, one of the trainers, works with a younger student as two others grapple with each another; that student later lands a solid kick against his practice partner. Fais spars (gently) with the other student later, to help train him, while First delivers a kick of his own.
Nan Dam works with one of the students outside the ring; more training between students and trainers. There was some glove work while I was there, but most of the days’ activities seemed to be focused on legwork.

Let’s learn Thai! – part 3: sounds like “cow”

khâaw – rice
khǎaw – white
khàaw – news
khaaw – the bad smell that comes from rotten fish or blood (seriously)
khâw – enter
khǎw – mountain
kháw – he or she
khàw – knee

There’s also, with more of a “gk” sound,

kǎw – slang term for skilled
kàw – old
kaw – to scratch

This reminds me of the Ogden Nash poem:

The one-l lama,
He’s a priest.
The two-l llama,
He’s a beast.
And I will bet
A silk pajama
There isn’t any
Three-l lllama.