I decided to go back to language lessons after a six-week hiatus, since I began forgetting everything I’d learned. I’m enjoying the new school, although it is a bit like drinking from a firehose. Every day is something new.
Today, my teacher explained the structure “nʉ̀ng nai” (หนึ่งใน), which means “one of”, as in “one of the things I hate about Thai is how difficult it is.” The “ʉ” is pronounced like you would pronounce “uhh” while grinning from ear to ear (which is why Thailand is called the Land of Smiles; you have to stretch your mouth to pronounce some of the vowels).
I kept pronouncing it “nɔɔ̌ng nai (หนองใน) – the “ɔɔ” sounds like the “o” in “chop” – which made my teacher laugh. “nɔɔ̌ng nai” means “gonorrhea.”
Thai has three types of consonants: “middle” consonants, which are simply regular consonants; “high” consonants, which follow certain rules; and “low” consonants, which follow certain other rules. Within the low consonant class, there are “single” low consonants and “paired” low consonants. Paired low consonants match the high consonants, so we start with these. For simplicity’s sake, I am including in the below table only the primary consonant, rather than (for example) all the different ways one can make the “s” sound. “kh,” “th” and “ph” are aspirated k, t and p, respectively.
To make it more confusing, high consonants can only have low, falling, and rising tones, while low consonants can only have no, falling, or high tones, and the tone markers for the low consonants are effectively “one off” from the tone markers used for high and middle consonants – i.e., a falling-tone high or middle consonant and a high-tone low consonant get the same tone marker. In some respects, this makes things easy: if you hear a word beginning with “kh” that has a high tone, you know that you have to spell it with the ค and not the ข – but it would be easier still just to have one set of letters and one set of rules.
My teacher tells me that grammar school students learn this over the course of four years.
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 ด (“D” as in “dog”) and ท (“T” as in “Thai”), there is a “DT” sound, ต, 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 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.
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 อ, 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):
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.
I had an eye-opening (or ear-opening) language lesson today with one of the teachers whom I normally don’t have. She explained that Thai has a spoken rhythm that is pretty much unvarying across speakers (as well as the rules about tones), unlike in English where rhythm and intonation are more idiosyncratic to the speaker. English speakers aren’t used to these rhythms, so it is hard for us to pick out the important words in a sentence. We also have difficulties understanding spoken Thai because we/learn/to/say/each/Thai/word/in·di·vid·u·al·ly/and/pre·cise·ly insteaddalearningthemthuhwaytheyrackshallypronounstinnasentence.