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