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Spottheword: the Thai language

Week 33, Episode 65

If in the previous language on this Langventure—Vietnamese—words are cut and written in separate syllables, in the Thai language the situation is exactly the opposite: there are no spaces or punctuation marks between the words! In fact, a gap indicates that there is a comma or a dot, depending on the context.

Yes, all the words are written in a certain order, dictated by the grammar, one right after another, no spaces. Is it an additional difficulty to get through when learning Thai? Certainly, it is. And not the only one.

The Thai language is written in specific Thai script that at first may seem as a set of pinguins and snakes. It gets easier with practice but, boy, you do need to practice a lot! Besides, there are 44 consonants in the Thai alphabet, plus additional 25 symbols for vowels and some other symbols: to make long vowels short, consonants silent, or repeat the previous word, etc.

There are also 4 symbols for tones. Yes, Thai is a tonal language, like Vietnamese. And though it has less tones—just 5—don't rush into a conclusion that the lesser amount of tones makes the whole language so much easier to learn. Just yet :)

You see, to understand which tone a vowel has, there are three things to establish first:

  1. whether the initial consonant is a low-class, mid-class, or high-class consonant,
  2. whether the vowel is a long vowel or a short vowel,
  3. whether a syllable is a "dead" syllable or a "live" syllable.

These three odd parameters define the tone. And the 4 tone marks? Those are only used, with few exceptions, in "live syllables", and even then the class of the initial consonant matters and affects which tone the tone mark indicates. Ah, overwhelmlingly confusing, isn't it? But keep reading.

Classes of the consonants have to be memorized. There are 11 consonants in the high class, 9 in the middle class, and 24 in the low class. No marks are provided in written texts to specify the class of a consonant. Which vowels are long and which ones are short has to be memorized, too. Once again, it's impossible to find it out any other way.

As for "liveliness" of syllables, it refers to the way a syllable ends. A "live" syllable can be prolonged in a droning voice, whereas it is physically impossible to do this with a "dead" syllable. In other words, a "dead" syllable ends either with a short vowel or p, t, k, otherwise it is a "live" syllable.

Based on the combination of these three "ingridients"—class of the initial consonant, length of a vowel, and "vivacity" of the syllable itself—the tone for that syllable is chosen (according to the existing rules that have to be memorized). Of course, with time you just get used to the way the language is spoken and you stop paying close attention to every detail of this mix of rules, so give it to yourself when learning Thai.

In some books the name Siamese is used instead of Thai for Thailand had been called Siam until May 1949. Thai has many dialects. But the language you're learning is the Standart Thai, or Central Thai, spoken and understood by the majority of the Thais.

The other regions of Thailand—Northeastern, Northern, and Southern—understand Central Thai, but between themselves they use their local dialect. People in Phuket, for example, speak the Southern dialect of Thai which is spoken rapidly and a lot of words are abbreviated. Northern Thai, on the other hand, sounds much slower.

One other thing to be aware of is many Thais do not like pronouncing the letter r. Most Thais can pronounce it, they just think it is more effort than it is worth. They will therefore often drop the r ("kúp" instead or "krúp") or change it to an l ("falang" instead of "farang", which is a generic Thai word for someone of European ancestry).

The letters, grammar, existence of tones in the Thai language, even the fact that the words are chained inonelonglinewithnobreaks do make the journey of learning this beautiful language harder. On the plus side, it is a good exercise to let go of perfection and focus on the process.

Speaking in Thai IS NOT IMPOSSIBLE, it is more than doable, but it will test your grit, persistence and your ability to spot the words :)

โชคดีค่ะ! (Chôk dee kâh!) Good luck!

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