By: Kate Wiley and Melissa Palmer
Thai, Central Thai, or Siamese is the national and official language of Thailand. It is a tonal and analytic language, spoken by over 20 million people. The language is broken up regionally into different dialects or “different kinds of Thai.” There are multiple (9) offshoot languages spoken in Southeast Asia. Additionally there are different forms of Thai such as:
- Street or Common is the informal version of the language
- Elegant or Formal Thai is the official version
- Rhetorical Thai is used for public speaking
- Religious Thai is used for discussing Buddhism or talking to monks. Religious thai is the most original form of the language
- Royal Thai is used when addressing members of the royal family or talking about their activities.
Most Thai people can speak and understand all of these as they are taught in schools, but street and elegant Thai are the basis for all conversations. Finally there are two distinctions of Thai, old vs. new. This is due to the significant evolution of pronunciations.
The Thai Writing System:
The Thai writing system has been around since 1283, well before the existence of modern Thailand. At this point in history, the geographic area was inhabited by large numbers of kingdoms, however the largest kingdom was the Sukhothai Kingdom. This group was ruled by a man named Ram Khamhaeng who is generally credited with the creation of Thai script, that is the written form of the Thai language. Interestingly, he also was the king that established Buddhism as the state religion, which is still practiced by 95% of Thai’s today.
Due to this focus he had on both religion and language, it is guessed that this influenced the choices made regarding the creation of the alphabet and similar linguistic aspects. Thai seems to have drawn heavily from both Sanskrit and Pali, languages of early Buddhist texts, borrowing words and using special letters/characters for exclusively borrowed Pali words.
These special characters used for loaned Pali words means that in the Thai language there are multiple pairs of duplicate letters that make identical sounds (one for Pali influences and the other Thai), however these used to make different sounds before time passed and the pronunciation of Pali morphed to be more identical to the sounds made when speaking Thai. Currently, due to this change in pronunciation, the Thai alphabet has 42 consonant letters, but only 21 unique sounds.
Features of the Thai script:
The Thai alphabet is notoriously difficult for English speakers to learn, partially due to the large amount of characters. As mentioned, the language has 42 consonants, but there are an additional 32 vowels and 4 tone marks which can affect the the tone of any syllable. These tone marks are especially notable because historians believe Thai to be the first written language to use these marks in order to indicate tone differences.
Consonant letters are grouped into three different classes (low, middle, and high class) while vowels are grouped into two categories based on their length (long vs short). The class and length determine the sound and tone that is used and therefore the meaning of the overall word.
Additionally, there are five tones in the language: low, middle, high, rising, falling. These tones describe the pitch of a syllable as they are pronounced by the speaker. The mid-tone is a nearly constant pitch at the middle of a vocal range for the whole syllable and is the hardest for English speakers. Below that is the low tone which begins just before the mid-tone and lowers as it progresses, while just above the mid-tone is the high tone, which rises as it progresses. An example of the high-tone is short interjections in English, like “huh?”.
Rising and falling tones are slightly different, as rising tones start just below the mid tone and rises to a high pitch at the end. This is similar to an exaggeration of when English speakers have a lilt at the end of a sentence when asking a question. Falling, on the other hand, starts above the mid-level and then drops to a lower pitch at the end, like when a speaker yells “Hey!” to get someone’s attention.
However, there are no irregularities in the Thai written language so once a letter’s sound is learned it can be used in any word, anywhere as it does not depend on the surrounding letters. The only example otherwise is that some letters will make a new sound when they are put at the beginning of the word vs the end and vise versa. This is generally most of the middle class consonants.
The Thai language is complex but also very predictable once the basics are learnt. For help, YouTube is a great resource and remember to watch your tone when speaking to others. You never know what you’ll end up saying!