We have started to teach ourselves Thai. As usual, Alan is way ahead of me in our book, Thai for Beginners by Benjawan Poomsan Becker. He tends to focus for longer periods and study more often than I do. The good thing about this is that I can ask him about things that are confusing me.
A few days ago, Alan told me, “You know, Chapter 2 doesn’t teach you any more consonants, only vowels. And sometimes the vowels can actually be consonants.”
“No!” I said. “Don’t tell me this. I don’t want to know yet.”
“Want to hear something else? There are live and dead syllables, too.”
I felt slightly hysterical. “Are there upward and downward syllables? Yin and yang vowels? Sun and moon letters?”
Nonetheless, I have buckled down for the past few days and memorized the new vowels. Now I’ve moved on to the new consonants in Chapter 3. My method for memorizing is pretty simple: Write the stuff over and over and over and over again.
I start by writing each new vowel with every consonant I know, pronouncing each syllable as I write. Then I take each new consonant and write it with every vowel. Then I go back through all the vowels one by one, writing each vowel with every consonant.
I give the vowels this extra pass because they’re far more complex than the consonants. Many vowels use multiple characters to make a single sound, and while there are patterns for forming these vowels, Thai breaks its own patterns now and then, just to keep me on my toes.
Thai also has complex vowels that actually consist of two vowel sounds, one sliding into the next. These also require multiple characters. I’ve illustrated this at left. The three characters that don’t have descriptions together make up the single vowel sound iaa – you pronounce it “eeaah.” The first consonant is b and the second is r. The punctuation mark over the r is something I don’t understand yet, but I think it has something to do with the r being more or less silent. The word, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is biaa, or “beer.”
Thai is considered to be a pretty complex and difficult language for native English speakers to learn. Like Hindi, which we undertook for a few months last year, Thai is a Category 4 language. This means the People Who Know think it should take 1100 hours (44 weeks @ 25 hours/week) to learn the language to a general level of proficiency for both speaking and reading. For comparison, Arabic, which Alan studied for a number of years, is reckoned as a Category 5 language, meaning it will take 2200 hours – twice as long – to learn. And going the other way, French, which I studied years ago in school, is reckoned to take 575-600 hours to reach the same proficiency level.
Here are a few examples of what’s so complex about Thai. To start, the language has 44 consonants and 28 vowel forms that draw on 15 vowel characters. There are short and long vowels, too. Yes, other languages certainly have long and short vowel sounds, and if you mix them up – as English learners sometimes do – you can sound a little weird. But you don’t change the actual meaning of the word. In Thai, the length of the vowel most certainly can change the meaning of the word. Example: The word du, which you pronounce like the English “do” (as in “I do that”), means fierce. If you lengthen the vowel, duu, the word means “to watch.”
We haven’t even discussed tones yet. There are five tones in Thai, with four tonal marks to indicate the low tone, rising tone, high tone and falling tone. The middle tone doesn’t get a mark. I think we’re now up to 63 distinct shapes you have to learn to read and write Thai.
Tones are really difficult for someone who’s never learned a tonal language (that would be me – Alan has previous experience with Thai from when he traveled in Thailand as a very young man.) We do use tones in English, of course. An example: You might lift the tone of the word really to indicate surprise, and if you pronounce it with a rising tone, you can indicate even greater surprise, or a question. A mid-tone (or flat tone) can mean “Noted.” Drop the tone, and your really sounds like you’re bored. A falling tone can mean you’re using the word in its ubiquitous “I’m just providing filler here” role – “It was REAL-ly hot and I was REAL-ly sweating.” But across all these tones, the actual meaning of the word doesn’t truly shift, even though its usage does.
Thai tones are a completely different thing. You can have two words with the same basic sounds, even the same spelling, and it’s the tone that indicates the meaning. The classic example of this is the Thai sentence “Mai mai mai mai mai?” which means, “Does new wood burn?”
As you’ll notice if you look carefully at the Thai characters, all the instance of “mai” are not spelled the same, so in writing, you can see the differences. But in speech, it’s the tones that tell you what each word, and thus the whole sentence, means.
I haven’t yet mentioned that as I embark on more consonants, I’m aware I need to learn five Ks, five Ts, four Ses, three Ps and two Ls. Wish me luck.