Introduction to Thai language

Thai language has a very simple grammar, but the pronunciation is not easy to master, as it is a tonal language. The vocabulary is usually not difficult to remember, as there are many monosyllabic words, but there is no official transcription system in “our” alphabet, so if you are serious about learning Thai, you should definitely learn how to read and write.

Presentation of Thai language

Alphabet

Thai language is written horizontally, from left to right, usually without separating the words and without using any punctuation mark. However, pauses are marked by a blank space, and reading is facilitated by the fact that many Thai words have only one syllable. Thai letters are neither minuscule nor majuscule. Diacritics are also used to give information (or rather part of information) on the tones.

There are 44 consonants. 2 of them are obsolete, and 6 or 7 of them are quite rare. If you want to learn to read Thai, it makes sense to learn the most common consonants first. The consonants are divided into three classes – low, middle and high – which determine the tone of the following vowel.

Vowels can be arranged before, after, below or above the consonant.
Vowels can be arranged before, after, below or above the consonant

Vowels are arranged before, after, below or above the consonant. For instance the “oo” (as in “too”) is under the consonant, the “ee” (as in “see”) is above, the “aa” (as in “father”) is after, and the “ay” (as in “thai”) is before. Diphtongues are created by a combination of vowels.

There isn’t any official way to transcribe Thai alphabet into romanized (Latin) characters (or rather there is one, but it is not well known and not practical to use). That is why there are so many ways to transcribe, most of them being based on the mother tongue of the person: an English speaker may transcribe “yawm” (for ยอม, which means yield), but a French speaker would rather transcribe “yom”. Thai people are not used to reading romanized transcriptions anyway, so instead of losing time trying to figure out what is the best transcription system, we recommend that you learn the Thai alphabet.

Thai has its own set of Thai numerals, but Arabic numerals are commonly used. In fact it’s quite rare to see the Thai numerals nowadays, but they come handy at the entrance of touristic places where there is a double price policy: the “Farang” price is written in Arabic numerals, while the Thai price is written in Thai numerals. So don’t forget to learn the Thai numerals, so you can ask for the local price. 😉 To practise Thai numerals, you can test yourself by trying to read the numbers on the back of the mototaxis’ orange vest.

Tones

Thai is a tonal language. There are five tones: middle, low, high, rising and falling. The context can help to make oneself understand, but it is very important to learn how to pronounce the tones. If you pronounce them wrong the Thais will not understand, or, worse, they may misunderstand. Difference between short vowels and long vowels is also crucial.

Tones are realised in the vowels, but indicated in the script by a combination of the class of the initial consonant (high, mid or low), vowel length (long or short), closing consonant (unvoiced/plosive or voiced/sonorant) and sometimes one of four tone marks.

Grammar

Thai grammar is quite simple. Compared to a language like French, it’s even a piece of cake!

The word order in Thai language is Subject Verb Object, although the subject is often omitted. Verbs do not inflect (i.e. do not change with person or tense) nor are there any participles. Tense is conveyed by tense markers before or after the verb. Negation is indicated by placing “mai” (not) before the verb.

There are no articles, and nouns are uninflected and have no gender. Plurals are usually expressed by adding classifiers. For example, to say “four children”, you say “child four person”.

Duplication conveys the idea of intensity (much much = very much, often often = very often… you get the idea).

The Thai pronominal system varies according to the sex of the speaker, and to the relative status (age, position) of speaker and audience. Most time subject pronouns are just omitted, or nicknames are used where English would use a pronoun. “Pee” is a friendly way to address a person who is older than you, or to refer to yourself (I) when talking with a younger person. A child can refer to himself as “noo” (mouse), which is a cute word.

There are a lot of particles in Thai. The particles are those small untranslatable words at the end of sentences. The two most important ones are “krap” for a male speaker and “kha” for a female speaker. They are for politeness, and can be used basically at the end of any sentence.

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