The Thai language is quite unique, as anyone who's ever tried to learn it has discovered.
Learning a new language is hard enough at the best of times and Thai is so different from English and the European languages that originate from Latin, that for a Farang (Westerner) learning Thai can seem a little overwhelming. Anyone wanting to stay in the country for more than a few months would be wise to pick up a few words, as mime and gesture can only get you so far – try miming ‘popcorn kernels’, without looking as though you’re having a fit.
The best way to learn Thai is to practice it and use it whenever possible by chatting to new Thai friends and ordering in restaurants – you’ll know when the food arrives if you got it right. But, as the structure of Thai is so different to English, a beginners’ course from a reputable language school is also advised in order to understand how the grammar differs as well as master pronunciation. You’ll discover sounds in the Thai language that don’t exist in English, such as words starting with the ‘ng’ sound. Thai is also a tonal language with five tones: low, mid, high, rising and falling, and the same word said in different tones could have a completely different meaning. For instance: ‘Sowai’ said with a rising tone means ‘beautiful’; but say it with a low tone, and it means unlucky. ‘Ma’ has several different meanings including dog, horse and come.
But tones aside, here’s a quick guide on how Thai grammar differs from English grammar:
Tenses: In English the verb changes according to tense – eat, ate, eaten. In Thai the verb remains the same no matter the tense, but other words are added to imply when something occurred such as ‘lao’ meaning already. This is why you would hear a Thai person say, ‘I eat already.’
Be: The verb ‘to be’ (am, is, are, was, were) isn’t used with adjectives. In English we say, ‘She IS beautiful.’ In Thai, ‘She beautiful.’ In English, ‘I AM hungry.’ In Thai, ‘I hungry.’
Articles: The articles (a, an, the) don’t exist in Thai.
Adjectives: In English, the adjectives usually come before the noun – red car. In Thai, the adjective follows the noun – car red.
Nouns: In Thai, there is no plural form of a noun. So it would be one pen, two pen, three pen etc.
You can see by this grammar structure above, that Thai is far simpler from a grammar perspective, but nonetheless difficult for Westerners because of the tones and pronunciation, as well as the addition of classifiers that we don’t have in English. If this all seems a little intimidating, an introductory Thai language course will most certainly help.
So if it doesn’t have Western roots, where did the Thai language originate? Today it’s the national language of Thailand, spoken by around 80% of the more than 65 million residents. Linguists describe it as an ‘uninflected, primarily monosyllabic, tonal language’ in the ‘Tai-Kadai family’. The spoken language is believed to have originated in the area which is now the border between Vietnam and China. This thought provides clues to the origin of the Thai people, a heavily debated topic. Linguistically, the language is related to languages spoken in eastern Burma (Myanmar), northern Vietnam, Yunnan, and Laos.
Early Thai settlers in the late Dvaravati period (6th to 13th centuries) gradually enlarged their Chinese-influenced, tonal, monosyllabic language by borrowing certain Mon and Khmer words. Later, the language absorbed polysyllabic Sanskrit (the classical language of Hindu India) and Pali words, as Brahmanism and Theraveda Buddhism were infused. As with all languages, Thai is constantly evolving by influence, and foreign traders and Chinese immigrants made minor additions in later centuries.
The written Thai Language was introduced by the third Sukhothai period king, Ramkhamhaeng, during his reign from 1279 to 1298. This writing system has undergone little change since its introduction, meaning that inscriptions from the Sukhothai era can be read by modern Thai scholars. The writing was based on Pali, Sanskrit, and Indian concepts, and many Mon and Khmer words entered the language. The inscription is considered to be a pivotal source of Sukhothai history.
Centuries later, now within Thailand you’ll find four major dialects, corresponding to the southern, northern (Yuan), north-eastern (close to Lao language), and central regions of the country; the latter is called Central Thai or Bangkok Thai and is taught in all schools, is used for most television broadcasts, and is widely understood in all regions. Nowadays, English is also taught in all public schools, as the country prepares itself for the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) community in 2015, when English will be the language of communication. A few minor Thai dialects such as Phuan and Lue, are also spoken by small populations, and also within Thailand, small ethnic minority groups, including the so-called hill tribes, account for around sixty languages which are not considered related to Thai.
To add to the confusion, the four primary dialects of Thai should not be confused with four different ‘languages’ used by Thais in different social circumstances; for example, certain words are used only by Thai royalty, creating a royal language. You’ll also find languages used for religious figures, polite everyday interactions, as well as gruff or crude communications.
Because Thai doesn’t use our alphabet, it makes it difficult to transcribe the language into a script understood by the West. This is the reason that you’ll find the same word written differently should you compare phrase books, as there is no standardised conversion. One of the reasons for this is because of the sounds that don’t exist in English, such as the sound in Thai, which is halfway between a T and a D sound, so you’ll see it sometimes translated with a T and other times with a D, depending on the book you’re using as reference. So while the English alphabet as 26 letters, the Thai language uses phonemic alphabet of 44 consonants and 15 basic vowel graphemes. The latter are assembled into about 32 vowel combinations.
Just like in English, in Thai writing, characters are horizontally written, left to right… but with no intervening spaces, to separate sentences. Vowel graphemes are written ‘attached’ above, below, before, or after the consonant they modify, although the consonant always sounds first when the syllable is spoken. The vowel graphemes (and a few consonants) can be combined in various ways to produce numerous compound vowels (diphthongs and triphthongs). Each syllable is pronounced in one of five lexical tones: mid, high, low, rising, or falling; as a result, speaking correctly creates pleasing melodic patterns which has led the language to sometimes be called a sing-song language by foreigners.
Phew! It all sounds a little too hard to grasp. But before you throw the idea of learning Thai out the window, know that many foreigners that live here have indeed mastered the art – some only the spoken word, but others also the written word. Not only is it a great sense of achievement when you do get it right, but you’ll most certainly gain the respect of your Thai friends and colleagues.
© Rosanne Turner (as written for the Samui Holiday Magazine)