Learning Thai is something I’ve tried to do since I got to Thailand and I’ve had varying degrees of success. I learnt some essential phrases like “Hello.” and “Thank you.” but sadly my listening skills are awful and I learn best when I see words written down. So I decided I was going to learn how to read Thai.
When I arrived in Thailand, the symbols on signs had a mystery and complexity to them that my brain just couldn’t deal with. So for a long time they were glanced at and filed under “cannot process; do ignore”.
But it’s important to persevere so I looked online for some help. A great resource for starting out is thai-language.com. It has has an excellent guide to the Thai alphabet and lots of reading exercises.
But that was boring.
So I moved on and tried to decipher some basic words I knew. I like puzzles and there’s nothing more puzzling than a Thai word. I mean, just look at this:
Just look at how puzzling that looks.
This happens to be the word for chicken. It’s pronounced gài (the à accent here is used to show it’s said with a Low tone).
This word is made up of three things: a consonant ก, a vowel ไ and a tone marker.
Sometimes Thai vowels are written before the consonant they’re attached to even though they’re said after it (gah!?). This vowel ไ is one of those sneaky fellows and has the sound –ai where “–” can be a consonant sound. For this word, the consonant ก has the hard g sound that is needed.
So what about the tone marker? Well, that little dash above the word is one of several tone markers that change the tone of a word. Thai is a tonal language and the tones are important. If I were to just write ไก, it would be said in a Mid tone and could mean something completely different or nothing at all without sufficient context.
For reasons I’ve yet to fully comprehend, when this tone marker is used with ก, it makes the tone of the word a Low one.
Hmm well that’s one puzzle down! Sort of. Solving puzzles seems to lead to more questions than answers! Why exactly does that tone marker do what it does? Is it the same for all consonants? Why not?
But this is all part of the appeal! I’ll keep going and maybe someday there won’t be any questions left to answer!