One of the main shocks awaiting the trepid traveler in Thailand is the Thai alphabet and language. After considering himself reasonably educated and capable of understanding the surrounding world, the traveler is instantly reduced into an analphabetic Marco Polo as soon as he sets his feet on Bangkok. The curly, elegant Thai letters convey to him only a pleasant aesthetic message, their content is lost.
Unwilling to surrender, I tried to decipher the code with the help of bilingual street signs; they became my Rosetta stone. However, soon it became clear the basic logic of the alphabet was not Roman; more than one letter was used for the same consonant sound and the vowels were a mess.
Additional efforts solved the riddle and enriched my Thai experience. In this entry are the very basic facts needed to begin understanding and studying Nit Noy Phasa Thai ("A bit of Thai").
Thai is an Abugida type of alphabet; that means letters represent a fixed consonant followed by a varying vowel, which is not always written. This fact is explained by its being a Brahmic type of scripture, which apparently was derived originally from the Aramaic.
King Ramkhamhaeng the Great modified the Khmer alphabet in 1283AC and created the Thai one. A close comparison would reveal many Thai letters are similar to the Khmer ones if the upper and lower parts of the last are removed. Since then, several redundant letters were removed, but essentially, Thai remained unchanged.
In Thai, words are written horizontally from left to right, with vowels arranged around the corresponding consonant. Traditionally there is no space between words, but this is rapidly changing.
The Thai alphabet has forty-four consonants representing twenty-one different sounds; luckily, there is only one set of letters, capital letters do not exist. Some of the identical consonants differentiate between words derived from Sanskrit or Pali.
The consonants are divided into three classes - low, middle and high according to the tone to be used for the following vowel; however, there are five additional tone marks: middle, low, high, rising and falling. Tone markers are placed above the initial consonant of a syllable or on the last consonant of an initial consonant cluster.
In addition, fifteen vowel symbols combine into twenty-eight vowel forms, written relative to a consonant and not as independent characters.
The Abugida characteristic means in Thai that when a consonant appears without an attached vowel, it gets an "A" sound after it if in an open syllable and an "O" if in a closed one.
Thai has its own numerals; nevertheless Hindu-Arabic numerals are the most common for commercial activities.
Despite the official Romanization system adopted by the Royal Thai Institute, in practice many different transliterations appear for the same word.
A related difficulty while trying to comprehend destinations lists is that where the transliterations read "Bangkok," the Thai reads "Krung Thep," which are the first two syllables of the city’s formal Thai name (the complete one has 144 syllables!). Similarly, Khorat and Nakhon Ratchasima are interchangeable and so on.
Certain Thai letters are very similar in shape; only the length of one of its lines or the location of a little bubble differentiates between them. Some of the groups to watch carefully at are:
บ (B) and ป (P),
จ (Ch), ฉ (Ch) and ง (Ng),
ฝ (F), ผ (Ph), พ (Ph) and ฬ (L),
ล (L) and ส (S),
ม (M), น (N) and
ก (K), ศ (S) and ถ (T).
The first thing to comprehend is that spoken Thai is tonal and related to other East Asian Languages; technically it is a member of the Tai-Kadai Language Family which originated in Southern China, the cradle of the Thai culture. However, its scripture was derived from the Sanskrit, through the Khmer. Hence, sometimes the pronunciation of a word is unrelated to its spelling.
The tones concept is hard to grasp at first for Westerners since we use tones to convey emotions and other collateral information. However, tone is an integral part of a word in Thai; regardless our mood or feelings, "Hello!" should always be pronounced the same way in Thai. Tones become blurred in the rapid Southern Thai dialect; learning the language elsewhere is recommended.
While addressing English speaking Thais in Thai, the tones problem does not exist since they do expect pronunciation errors from foreigners. However, in rural areas care should be taken since we can easily transform "mother" into "horse."
No Thai would refuse help to a foreigner trying to read Thai. However, most of them would be unable to explain accurately; they do not understand our difficulties with tones.
Even sounds we seem to recognize are not exactly parallel to the Indo-European ones. The Thai "B" is not equal to the English one; the result is startling; at the end of a syllable we would hear a "P," due to the changing aspiration level of the letter despite the Thai having pronounced the same letter. Similarly a "D" sounds as a "T" at such a position, a "G" would sound "K" and the "L" and "R" couple would sound like an "N." The result is confusing especially since there is no a universally used transliteration system of Thai into Roman letters; these letters are often interchangeable in written names.
The "R" is clearly pronounced only in Bangkok; in other areas it often sounds like an "L," especially if placed next to another consonant.
The "H" added after a consonant in many transliterations only indicates the consonant preceding it is aspirated (a bit of air is puffed out after it).
"Pho" should be pronounced as "P"+"h" (a small puff of air)+"oh," and similarly the "Th" in "Thai" is not the English "Th" sound.
Where a combination of consonants ends a written syllable, only the first is pronounced; possible closing consonant sounds are limited to "K," "M," "N," "Ng," "P" and "T".
Native English speakers should be careful; the single Latin vowels used in most transliterations closely follow Spanish conventions rather than English. However, diphthongs are closer to English conventions. The main thing to keep in mind is that vowels and diphthongs pronunciation is constant regardless the syllable they appear in.
A politeness particle – namely "kap" for men and "ka" for women – is usually added at the end of the sentence.
As it happens with other Asian languages, Thai verbs do not vary with person, tense, voice, mood, or number, making this aspect of the language one of the easiest to learn. Similarly, nouns have no gender, are not inflected and there are no articles.
A sometimes comic characteristic of the Thai is its use of repetitions; duplications intensify the meaning. Hence, when a Thai says in English "same, same" (which is a rather popular expression) he means "exactly the same thing."
Despite the initial shock, commanding Thai letters at a basic level is easy; learning them was an entertaining and valuable task during long trips. Moreover, more often than not, locals valued my efforts and consequently the travel experience was vastly improved.
Thailand is the tourism hub of South East Asia. A basic understanding of its language provides glimpses into Lao as well. Moreover, for those of us with a fine ear, its links with other languages in the area are clear; after all Phasa Thai is transformed into toneless Bahasa Melayu just across an imaginary line.