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Learn to read Thai - Tutorial 7

Page last updated: 27th August 2014

This tutorial is about increasing your knowledge of Thai consonants and vowels. The ones we have covered so far are essential, but we need more.

I am going to group together three vowels and two consonants. As you continue reading, it should be clear why I have done it this way.


This character is used as a vowel on its own, a vowel used in conjunction with other vowels, and a consonant. When used as a vowel it is referred to as sara or and when used as a consonant it is referred to as or aang.

Its use as a consonant is a little unusual. Just as hor heep is used as a silent vowel to change the class of certain initial consonants, or aang can be used as a silent vowel to change the class of 'yor yuk' from low class to mid class. See Tutorial 11 for more about its use as a consonant.

Some Thai vowels are written above or below a consonant and they can't be written without a consonant. They must have a consonant. If no consonant sound is required, then or aang (the zero consonant) is used. The same convention is used for all Thai vowels, even those that aren't written above or below consonants.

As a vowel used on its own, sara or makes a long 'or' sound.

หล่อ - lor (handsome)

หมอ - mor (doctor)

รอ - ror (to wait)


This vowel (sara aa) is a long 'aa' sound. It is also written in English as 'ar' or 'ah'. Any of these are OK - it's the kind of sound the doctor asks you to make if you have a bad throat. Just like written English, it is always written after the preceding consonant.


อำ

When you see something that looks like sara aa, make sure that there isn't a small disc above the preceding consonant. If there is, it isn't sara aa but sara um.

Thai vowels can be written above, below, after and before consonants. They can also be written using a combination of these positions and this is our first example. The vowel sara um is in two parts that are written above and after the consonant.

When I need a consonant to write vowels above or below, I will use the zero consonant.

It makes an 'um' sound as in 'yum'. Often, it is transliterated into English as 'am' but when you hear the Thai word for 'remember' you will hear that it sounds like 'jum' and not 'jam'. Jam is the stuff you put on toast in the mornings.

Because it ends with an 'm' sound it always ends a syllable or word and there is never a following consonant. It is a short vowel but as it ends with an 'm' sound the syllable is live. There is one anomaly in that when it is used in the Thai word for water/liquid it is pronounced as a long 'aa' - 'naam' and not 'num'.


เอา

Our third vowel today is one that is written before and after the consonant. It makes an 'ao' sound, sort of like 'cow'. Be aware that the first character in this vowel combination is also used on its own and also in many other vowel combinations so if you see it written before a consonant you need to look at what is written after or above the consonant. The first part of this vowel combination is known as sara ay and you can find out more about it in Tutorial 16.


Now on to a couple of new consonants.

Name in Thai: ย ยักษ์
Name in English: Yor Yuk (giant)
Initial: y
Final: y
Class: Low
Usage: Very common
Comments: This is a commonly used 'y' sound, both as an initial and final consonant.

Name in Thai: ญ ญิง
Name in English: Yor Ying (woman)
Initial: y
Final: n
Class: Low
Usage: Fairly common
Comments: I see this fairly often but it isn't as common as the other 'y' sound consonant.

Using today's newly learnt characters and combining them with previously learnt ones, let's do some more reading practice. From the previous tutorials you should know all of these characters and you should be able to read each word quite easily. Don't worry about tones and tone marks at the moment. Learn to read the basic sounds first and worry about tones later.


Some notes regarding Yor Yuk

As an initial consonant, yor yuk is the same as an English 'y'.

ยิง - ying (to shoot)

Tone: Low-class initial consonant and live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)

Also, keep in mind that yor yuk is one of the initial consonants that can be used in conjunction with a silent hor heep. The hor heep isn't voiced. Its only purpose is to change the class of the initial consonant for tone purposes. The initial consonant class of the word is now high instead of low.

หยิ่ง - ying (haughty, snobby, stuck up, conceited, vain, proud, aloof)

Tone: High-class initial consonant and first tone mark = Low tone (Tutorial 14)

As a final consonant, yor yuk in conjunction with 'sara or' preceding it functions the same as 'oy' in English.

บ่อย - boy (often). This word is usually repeated twice for emphasis, 'boy boy' meaning very often.

Tone: Mid-class initial consonant and first tone mark = Low tone (Tutorial 14)

ปล่อย - bploy (to free, to release).

This example uses a consonant that hasn't been formally introduced yet. It will be covered in the next tutorial (Tutorial 8).

- lor ling (monkey) makes an 'L' sound as an initial consonant and an 'N' sound as a final consonant.

Knowing how this character works in Thai will explain to you why the Thai pronunciation of English words such as ball, central, oriental, etc, ends with an 'N' sound.

Tone: Mid-class initial consonant and first tone mark = Low tone (Tutorial 14)

Yor yuk can be used as vowel combination with sara ay. Sara ay is written first, then the initial consonant or consonant cluster, and then yor yuk. When used this way, the vowel combination makes an ur-ee sound consisting of two syllables.

เนย - nur-ee (butter).

This example also uses a consonant that hasn't been formally introduced yet. It will be covered in the next tutorial (Tutorial 8).

- nor noo (mouse/rat) is one of the few Thai consonants that makes the same sound when used as an initial or final consonant. It makes an 'N' sound in both cases.

Tone: Low-class initial consonant and live syllable = Mid tone for both syllables (Tutorial 14)

กะเทย - guh-tur-ee (ladyboy, transvestite, transgender).

- tor tuh-haan (soldier) is one of the many 'T' sound Thai consonants. It makes a 'T' sound when used as an initial or final consonant. It will be covered more in tutorial (Tutorial 15).

Tone first syllable: Mid-class initial consonant, short vowel and dead syllable = Low tone (Tutorial 14)

Tone second and third syllables: Low-class initial consonant and live syllable = Mid tone for both syllables (Tutorial 14)

เคย - kur-ee (have, used to, accustomed to, ever).

Tone: Low-class initial consonant and live syllable = Mid tone for both syllables (Tutorial 14)

Kur-ee combined with the question particle 'mai' is the same as the English question, "Have you ever ...?" For example:

เคยไปเลยไหม - kur-ee bpai lur-ee mai?

(Lur-ee is a province in Thailand that is usually transliterated as Loei. I would suggest that the pronunciation of my transliteration is less ambiguous.)

If you teach English in Thailand and have some knowledge of Thai you will start to understand some of the common mistakes made by Thai students. They think in Thai and simply translate into English. "I have ever been to Chiang Mai," is bad English, but, "kur-ee bpai chiang mai" as an affirmation that you have been to Chiang Mai is perfectly OK in Thai.

As ever, be careful about words that have been transliterated into Thai from English. Thais will add letters in order to be faithful to the original spelling, but these letters are actually unnecessary in Thai. The gaa-run symbol is usually used to indicate this.

For example, if the English word 'gay' was transliterated into Thai, only two letters would be required.

เก

However, Thais would most likely add a yor yuk simply because the English word has a 'y' and there would probably be a gaarun to say ignore the yor yuk. If you missed the gaa-run you might think the word is gur-ee. It isn't.

เกย์


Reading practice

เก่า

As you look at this word you should notice that the only consonant is gor gai - the hard 'g' sound, and that it is surrounded by the 'ao' vowel. The word is gao which means 'old' in Thai when talking about things, not people.

Tone: Mid-class initial consonant and first tone mark = Low tone (Tutorial 14)


เอา

The 'ao' vowel on its own without a consonant - we are using the silent consonant here - is actually a word. The word ao means 'want' in Thai and you hear it a lot. It sounds rude to me, but Thais use 'ao' when ordering food or in shops. Nethertheless, saying that you 'want' something isn't interpreted as being rude in Thailand.

As a foreigner in Thailand, especially as a tourist, Thais will be trying to sell you things all the time. You can tell them 'mai ao' if you don't want something.

Tone: Mid-class initial consonant and live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)


ยา

A 'y' consonant followed by the long 'aa' vowel makes a 'yaa' sound, the Thai word for drug or medicine.

Tone: Low-class initial consonant and live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)


ยำ

This word looks similar at first to the one above but there is a small circle above the consonant. This vowel combination makes an 'um' sound so you get 'yum'. You will see this word a lot on Thai menus because 'Yum' is the famous spicy Thai salad from the Isaan region that is very popular all over Thailand.

Tone: Low-class initial consonant, live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)


เรา

Here's another example using the 'ao' vowel but this time it surrounds the 'r' consonant. The Thai word rao means 'we' or 'us'. There is no tone mark used this time.

Tone: Low-class initial consonant, live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)


ตา

The initial consonant is the sound that comes between an unaspirated 'd and an aspirated 't'. It is followed by the long 'aa' vowel. The Thai word dtaa means eye.

Tone: Mid-class initial consonant, live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)

You can see how easy this is. Who said that reading some basic Thai was difficult? There is more difficult material later but this level of reading can be learnt in a couple of weeks. This is why I can never understand why people who have been living in Thailand for many years can't read any Thai at all.


บ้า

Life in Thailand is often crazy. Many Thais seem to enjoy living on the edge of chaos, or some people refer to it as organised chaos. The Thai word for crazy is 'baa'.

Referring to a person as 'it' and calling them crazy, "mun baa" is really an insult but in the appropriate situation Thais doen't regard it as an insult and find it quite funny.

Tone: Mid-class initial consonant, second tone mark = Falling tone (Tutorial 14)


ติงต๊อง

This is another word using mostly consonants and vowels that we have covered already. Saying that someone is 'dting dtong' means that they are a little nutty or loopy, but not completely crazy.

Thais like people who are 'dting dtong'. They hate anyone being serious or looking stressed, and people described as 'dting dtong' are very rarely serious or stressed.

Tone first syllable: Mid-class initial consonant, live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)

Tone second syllable: Mid-class initial consonant, third tone mark = High tone (Tutorial 14)


ญาติ

The yor ying consonant does appear fairly regularly, but not often as an initial consonant. It's difficult to find examples because most words that use it also contain letters we haven't covered yet and I don't want to confuse you. For that reason, the word in this example is unusual. It's OK for the purpose of this exercise, though.

Special note: There are certain things about written Thai that don't seem to make any sense and this word gives us our first example! You should have noticed that this word ends with the short 'i' vowel.

However, this vowel isn't pronounced. There are other words in Thai that are the same; the vowel is written after the final consonant but not pronounced. Why?

Many words have entered the Thai language from other languages and the Thais have made an attempt to preserve the spelling of the original word even if it makes the pronunciation wrong if pronounced. Sometimes a special character (that we shall cover later) is used to indicate that the letter isn't voiced. But sometimes not. It's like English - some things don't make any sense but you just have to know.

When Thais transliterate English words into Thai script they also preserve unnecessary letters, for example, the final 'r' consonant. The 'r' isn't necessary but they will write the ror reua character and then put the special consonant killer symbol above it.

According to David Smyth's 'Thai - An essential grammar', silent short final vowels occur in Thai words because the word is of Indic origin.

The awful transliteration for the new international airport in Bangkok is another example. It has a redundant 'i' vowel at the end, but this isn't pronounced. However, this unnecessary vowel is included in the transliteration, thus causing every foreigner to make themselves sound stupid when saying the name.

Suvarnabhumi - no, no, no, there is no 'i' at the end and 'v' doesn't exist in Thai

Try Suu-wun-na-poom

While I'm at it, if you're in Patong beach and trying to impress the local bargirls, order 'bia sing'. Sing-ha will just make the girls go "ha ha ha." I'll talk about this later.

Now, back to my original example:

The first letter is yor ying, a 'y' sound, followed by the long 'aa' vowel. Next is the letter that as an initial consonant is 'dt' (dtor dtao). However, as a final consonant it just becomes 't'. As I have described already, the final short 'i' vowel can be ignored.

The Thai word yaat means relative or relation.

Tone: Low-class initial consonant, dead syllable, long vowel = Falling tone (Tutorial 14)


หญิง - ying (woman, girl, she, female, feminine)

Here's another silent hor heep, which is only there for tone purposes. The word begins with a 'y' sound because of the yor ying, but the initial consonant class is high because of the hor heep.

Tone: High-class initial consonant plus live syllable = Rising tone (Tutorial 14)

On this page I have included three words that make a basic 'ying' sound, but the meanings of the words are all different. When you start learning Thai you will discover many examples of this.

Words that sound basically the same have different meanings, and different words are used for the same thing. Is that dog over there a maa or a suu-nuk?

Many Thai consonants have the same sound and therefore the sound of a word can be the same, but the consonants used can be different. The spelling is thus different, and therefore the meaning is different.

In addition, four different tone marks can be used and, with certain initial consonants, silent hor heeps or or aangs can be used at the front of the word to change the initial consonant class, therefore changing the tone and changing the meaning.

Some aspects of Thai are more difficult than English, while other aspects are easier. In the example above about, "Have you ever ...?" questions, you need to explain to Thai students learning English that this is present-perfect sentence and therefore the past-participle of the verb should be used. Students learning English as a second language have to memorise three forms of each and every verb.

There are degrees of difficulty with Thai in that some verbs have different forms: a common form, a polite form, a formal form, and there will also be a different verb used in the royal vocabulary. However, for most verbs there is just one form of the verb and in this respect it is an easier language to learn than English.


ขาย

The initial consonant is one of the 'k' sounds (kor kai). It is followed by the long 'aa' vowel and the final consonant is yor yuk, a 'y' sound. There are short 'ai' vowels in Thai (that we haven't covered yet) but this one is a longer 'aay'.

The word kaay in Thai is the verb 'to sell' and is very commonly seen.

Tone: High-class initial consonant, live syllable = Rising tone (Tutorial 14)

When we combine 'kaay' and 'yaa' (sell drugs/medicine), this is the sign often seen outside of the many pharmacies in Thailand.

Kaay Yaa

Sometimes, instead of 'kaay yaa' you will see 'raan yaa'. Raan (with a high tone) is the Thai word for shop and the word order in Thai is noun-adjective so this is 'medicine shop'.

ร้าน

The initial consonant is an 'r' sound (Tutorial 2). It is followed by the long 'aa' vowel and the final consonant is nor noo (Tutorial 8).

Tone: Low-class initial consonant, second tone mark = High tone (Tutorial 14)

This next pharmacy owner wants to make sure that his medicine shop is seen as being firmly in the 21st century. By following these tutorials you should be able to read this sign easily.

Raan Yaa Dot Com

Raan Yaa Dot Com (but I doubt very much that he has a web site).


This next word is a little trickier but it demonstrates some good points. It's another unusual word but it only uses characters that we have already covered so you should be able to read it. The funny business with the final short vowel not being pronounced applies again. This must therefore be another word of Indic origin.

บัญญัติ

You should recognise the initial consonant as bor bai mai which has a 'b' sound, and above it is mai-hun-aagaat, the 'uh' sound (Tutorial 2). Next, we have two yor ying characters.

What is important to realise now is that the first yor ying ends the first syllable and so it has an 'n' sound, but the second yor ying begins the second syllable and so it has a 'y' sound. In Thai it is perfectly normal to have two identical characters together in the same word but they make a different sound.

Above the second yor ying is another mai-hun-aagaat and this is followed by dtor dtao which makes a 't' sound when used as a final consonant. Once again, we can ignore the short 'i' vowel at the end.

The Thai word bun-yut is defined by my Thai-English dictionary as meaning to prescribe, to provide, to decree, to enact, to ordain, to regulate. It can also be used as a noun - law, decree, ordinance, regulation, regal act, instruction, enactment, commandment. Take your pick.

With poly-syllabic words we need to work out the tone of each syllable separately. However, there is some confusion here as Benjawan Poomsan Becker says that with poly-syllabic words the tone of the first syllable is normally mid. If the tone is mid according to the tone rules it makes no difference. However, if the tone rules tell you something else it is probably safer just to use a mid-tone.

Tone first syllable: Mid-class initial consonant, live syllable = Mid tone (Tutorial 14)

Tone second syllable: Low-class initial consonant, dead syllable, short vowel = High tone (Tutorial 14)

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