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.