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Pinguins & Snakes—Thai script

Week 33, Episode 66

Looking at the Thai script, all I can see is pinguins and snakes. Well, it is not that far from the truth, as every letter in the Thai alphabet is referred to by its own name—horse, snake, monkey, tiger, etc.

The Thai alphabet technically is not an alphabet, but abugida—like the one in Hindi—that consists of 44 consonant letters and 15 vowel symbols. These symbols are placed above, below, to the left, to the right of the corresponding consonant, or even in a combination of positions. This way of organizing letters is what abugida stands for.

Two of the consonants—ฃ (kho khuat, or "bottle") and ฅ (kho khon, or "person") are not used nowadays. The former is substituted by the letter ข (kho khai, or "egg") and the latter by ค (kho khwai, or "buffalo"). They do look similar, don't they? 

These two letters fell out of use in 1896, when the first Thai script typewriters were brought to Thailand. There was no space for all the Thai characters and "the lot fell" on ฃ (kho khuat) and ฅ (kho khon) to be let go of. Anyway, both letters are still included on alphabet charts to preserve the traditional count of 44 Thai consonants.

In the names of the letters—ฃ (kho khuat), ฅ (kho khon), ข (kho khai), ค (kho khwai)—the first word is the pronunciation of the sound the letter represents with an inherent "oh" and the rest is that specific name a letter gets, like "bufallo" or "egg". So yes, all four make the same sound—kh—and this is not the only example when several Thai letters make one sound.

Originally each letter represented separate sound, but over the years the distinction between those sounds was lost and the letters were used instead to indicate tones.

Additionally, a consonant may sound differently at the beginning and at the end of a syllable, that is why there are 21 initial consonant sounds and 6 final consonant sounds (made by 44 letters?!). A word will normally end with k, m, n, ng, p, or t.

One consonant—อ (o ang, or "basin")—acts also as a vowel. At the beginning of a word it has no sound whatsoever and is used to write words that start with a vowel.

Before all the Thai letters will start making sense to you, you'd probably go through a process where its symbols look like this: 

But the letters have their own names and maybe the associations can help you remember them better (4 minutes):

I wonder if the Thai language holds the answer to that eternal dilemma of which came first, the chicken or the egg—in the order of its letters :)

And what about vowels? They can be either long or short which is important to know since the length of a sound not only distinguishes the meaning of similar words, but also the tone. Just like in Hindi, vowel symbols are "dancing" all around the consonant "core":

The similarity of the Thai abugida system to that of Hindi is not coincidential. Both are coming long way from the same origins—the Brahmi script.

It is worth mentioning that along with the Arabic numbers the Thai numbers are used:

Some of these symbols appear above letters for certain purposes. For example, the symbol for 8 (๘)—I call it "squirrel"—is used above consonants and in conjunction with the vowel symbols เ- and เเ-, changing the vowel sounds from long to short. When put above the letter ก (goh), it creates the word ก็ (gaw) that has, oh, so many meanings! The symbol for numbers 7 (๗) is used for the high tone mark.

Speaking of tones, there are 5 of them in Thai:

  • middle tone
  • low tone
  • falling tone
  • high tone
  • rising tone

The tones, in most cases, are not marked, though there are 4 signs (since the middle tone is considered to be normally pitched tone and has no sign for it) which are placed over the consonants. However, the rules to identify which tone a syllable has are much more complicated.

It seems we've got close enough to Thai to be able to dive into it and get to know this language much closer.

ตามฉันมา! (Dtum chăn mah!) Follow me!

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