Transcribing one language into the writing system of another is notoriously hard. Getting Thai into the Roman alphabet is a bear.
I made up an unlikely phrase to show some of the problems. “Phai Thai,” chai mai? would mean something like “You said ‘Thai bamboo,’ right?” It might conceivably come up in a conversation in which one person didn’t quite hear the other, or couldn’t quite make out a foreigner’s pronunciation. (Also, unless the people were good friends in an informal setting, the speaker would add some sort of courtesy word at the end.)
But how do you get the pronunciation—or at least an approximation—across in the English writing system? In this instance you could line up English words with similar sounds: pie, tie, chai (spiced tea), my. But this clearly won’t work universally because for many other Thai words there will be no usable English word with a similar pronunciation.
So, the diphthong at the end of all four words is rendered as “ai,” and we just have to get used to it. The “ph” isn’t an f sound, but a sound like ordinary English p. So why not spell the first word “pai?’ Well, Thai has “p” in both aspirated and unaspirated versions, and this difference can distinguish one word from another, so the words have to be differentiated when representing Thai pronunciation in our alphabet. (American English too has both versions—the different p sounds in “pat” and “spat”—but the difference isn’t meaningful, and we’re not usually aware of it.)
What about “Thai?” The language has words pronounced both tai, with an unaspirated t, and thai, with an aspirated one, and so the word “Thai,” which has an aspirated t, has to be transcribed with the “h” even though it is pronounced like “tie.” (Neither of the two sounds represented in English by “th” [the sounds at the beginnings of thigh and thy,] exists at all in Thai.)
It’s confusing. Here are a few tips:
The best we can do is to pronounce
“p” and “ph” both like English “p”
“t” and “th” both like English “t”
“k” and “kh” both like English “k”
“ch” like English “ch,” even though it represents both the sounds of j and ch, and the difference is important. In specialized writing, the j sound would be rendered “čh” (you and I didn’t design the system, unfortunately) but nobody goes so far in ordinary writing.
You may want to stop reading now. If you are a diehard, continue:
There are a few more nearly unsolvable challenges. Predictably, there are Thai sounds that don’t exist in English at all. Nothing to do about them at a casual level except ignore them and move on.
Then there are the issues of vowel length and of tones (pitches). Our phai, meaning “bamboo,” has a short vowel and a low tone. Other words, which are spelled differently in the Thai writing system, but all come out “phai” in English transcription, have long vowels and different tones, and have entirely different meanings. To see some of these words and hear them pronounced, click on
Then go to the box titled SEARCH REVERSE PHONEMIC TRANSCRIPTION, type in phai, and click “GO.” (By the way, the whole thai-language.com site is great, and filled with useful information. Note, though—we don’t want this to be too easy—that it uses a different transcription system from the one I’ve been talking about.)
Finally, for the diehard’s diehard:
There’s the issue of Thai spelling in the Thai writing system, and the challenges it presents. Many Thai words have silent letters. Any English user who has ever tried to explain why “thought” and “through” are spelled as they are will sympathize. What to do with silent letters when transcribing Thai into the English writing system? For general purposes, all we can do is pretend they don’t exist.
But—just as if we simplified the spelling of the English word “knave” to “nave,” some interesting information is lost (e.g., that “knave” is related to German knabe, “boy”). Would we recognize that the Thai word tham, meaning “dharma” is in fact related to the Sanskrit word dharma? Well, maybe, if we spelled it as it is spelled (but not pronounced) in Thai: dharrm.
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