I'll start with a confession
: I'm a language freak
I speak English, Finnish, Japanese, French and Spanish with
various degrees of fluency, and I'm working on adding Mandarin
to this list. My Russian's getting a little rusty but I can
still decipher Cyrillic.
Without any formal lessons I've picked up survival-level German,
Swedish and Malay. The Hebrew and Arabic alphabets I
learned just for yucks, although I can't really speak either language.
And I can recite a few poems in Slovene by heart,
quote subway announcements in Czech, and puzzle out Malti
So what do I think is the most difficult language I've encountered so
far? No doubt about it: Thai.
Pronouncing Thai correctly is very tricky for the average Westerner
First, you have the 5 tones
(mid, low, falling, high, rising),
which differentiate otherwise identical-sounding syllables
and can mean the difference between "near
, mid-tone) and
Second, you have a slew of consonants to deal with. Every
guide to the language proclaims that there are 44 of the little
buggers, but it's not quite that bad: yes, there are 44 letters
(more on that later), but only around 20 distinct sounds. Thai
consonants have one distinction difficult for the English speaker,
namely that between aspirated (with-a-puff-of-air) and unaspirated
(without-a-puff) consonants. The aspirated ones match those
normally used in English, and are usually transcribed as ph, kh, and th
despite being pronounced "p", "k" and "t"; the unaspirated ones are
found in English combinations like "spat" and "skip", and are usually
transcribed p, k, t despite being pronounced something akin
to "bp", "g" (hard), and "dt" respectively.
Still there? Then we have the vowels, and (if we count diphthongs)
there are no less than 28 of them. Actually, English does feature
most of them, but the average native speaker has never been taught
to distinguish the front 'a' of man (ae in Thai)
with the back 'a' of car (aa in Thai), and in Thai
vowel length is also important. And then you have just weird
sounds like the oei of kàthoei (transvestite),
helpfully described as "as the u sound in hut, only more closed, plus i"
by one of my guidebooks.
The Thai writing system is basically alphabetic
, to be
precise), so it doesn't quite match
in sheer complexity, but for an alphabet it's
remarkably difficult to read and write.
First of all, there are 44 consonants, 32 vowel signs and 4 tone marks
to learn. Vowel signs are scattered before, above and after consonants;
often several are required for a single vowel sound. Conversely,
if the sound is a long O, no sign at all is needed.
sounds have multiple letters, choosing the one to use depends on
the etymology of the word and the tone of the syllable.
For example, to write "tîo" (เตี่ยว)
you write เ (E) + ต (T) + ย (EI) + ว (W),
then slap a bar with notch on top ี of the T to indicate
there's a long I sound too, and finish with a little dot ่ to note
the tone. And don't forget to choose the right one from the 8 different
letters all pronounced "T" (2 unaspirated, 6 aspirated).
But this was at least phonetic. Many Thai words, especially those
imported from Pali, retain archaic spellings that no longer
correspond to their pronunciation. And then the cruelest blow of all:
Thai does not use spaces between words.
A sentence or name will be an uninterrupted flow of Thai characters,
figuring out where one word ends and the next begins is left to the
Survival Thai: Phrases
! While learning fluent Thai is a formidable
learning enough to get by is quite achievable. In strictly limited
contexts, you'll be understood even if you mangle your pronunciation
and tones. Learn the following by heart and you're off to a good start.
But first let's lay down the rules. I'm using Lonely Planet
transcription system, which is the same as the common
Royal Thai General System of Transcription
with the following
- 'o' as in 'bone', 'aw' as in 'saw'
- 'ch' as in 'church', 'j' as the 't' of 'rapture'
Long vowels are doubled. Aspirated
consonants are written with
"h", so thai
is "tai", not "thigh" and phom
not "fom". Tone
s are denoted as follows:
- a -- mid
- à -- low
- â -- falling
- á -- high
- ã -- rising
Of course, to get these down pat (or even approximate) you'll need
to hear a native Thai pronounce them, but mâi pen rai
- Good day.
- kháwp khun
- Thank you.
- mâi pen rai
- No problem.
Not my problem.
- laa kàwn
All of the above can and should be postfixed with khráp
you're male and khâ
if you're female. The gender of
the person you're speaking to does not matter!
Generally speaking, Bangkok
cabbies don't speak a single
word of English, so knowledge of the following three phrases will
make your life much easier.
- trong pai
- Go straight.
- liaw khwãa / sáai
- Turn right / left.
- jáwt thîi nîi
- Stop here.
Most any shop accustomed to dealing with farang
s will have
a calculator on hand for tapping out prices... but if you want the
best price, you'll have to haggle in Thai.
- kíi báat?
- How much?
Most Thai numbers bear a marked resemblance to the Chinese numbers
(marked in parentheses).
They're also built up in the same logical way,
so that "69" is "six-ten-nine" (hók-sìp-kâo
). The only
irregularities are that 11, 21, etc end in -ét
and that 20 is yîi-sìp
3 sãam (saam)
4 sìi (say)
6 hók (lok)
7 jét (chat)
8 páet (bart)
9 kâo (gow)
10 sìp (sup)
Note that Thai also has its own set of digits for writing, but
(fortunately) these are very rarely used.
Survival Thai: Grammar
Enough rote memorization
! Despite the formidable
phonetics and writing
system, Thai grammar
is surprisingly simple, and with the following
you can be grunting your very own phrases of Tarzan Thai
no time at all.
is an SVO
language. As in Japanese
, the subject can
often be omitted. Adjectives follow nouns: kaeng daeng
, chaa yen
is tea cold
. Two basic particles that are very useful are mãi
- X mãi?
- Do (you) X?
- mâi X
- (I) do not X
- X na khrap/khâ
- No real meaning, but makes you sound polite (always a good thing)
and like you've been around the block a few times (reducing the risk
of being ripped off).
Thai verbs do not conjugate
, just plunk them into a sentence.
s and mode
s can be indicated with particles
, but other than
the basics listed above we won't get into that here.
- "to yes"
First an oddball
: the Thai word for yes
) acts like
a verb. mâi jai
("not yes") means no, and jai mãi?
("yes?") means "isn't it?". Other Thai verbs are more like their
- to have
- to go
- to be able to (can)
- to want
- to like
Note that, again like Chinese, a question ending in a verb
should be answered with the same verb. Alternatively, khráp
alone are polite affirmatives, along the lines
of the Japanese hai
Putting It All Together
The management takes no responsibility for the results
if you try to use these.
- mâi ao
- I don't want.
- mâi ao na khráp
- No thank you.
- châwp lady thai mãi?
- Do you like Thai women?
- châwp mâak
- I like very much.
- pai Patpong, dai mãi?
- Can you go to Patpong?
- khun süay mâak-mâak! kii baat?
- You're very beautiful! How much?
Lonely Planet Thai phrasebook
3 months in Bangkok