Thai Language

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Tones & Homonyms

Thai is a tonal language similar to Chinese. As was pointed out by the renowned Thai linguist and writer Phaya Anuman Rajadhon in his paper The Nature and Development of the Thai Language, published 1961 by the Fine Arts Department of the Thai government, there actually are hundreds of similar words in Thai and Chinese. Many of these words may be cultural borrowings, mostly by the Thais, after long and continual contact with the Chinese. On the other hand, there are certain classes of words which obviously were derived from common sources in ancient times. And more importantly, beyond the similarities of single words, the spoken Thai and the spoken Chinese language are structured much the same way (though when written, the two languages are completely different).

The Thai language originally is monosyllabic in its formation of words. It is a characteristic to be found also in Chinese and, more or less, in other languages of Southeast Asia. Each word is complete in itself and admits no modifications as do inflectional languages with their differences of case, gender, number, etc.

Furthermore, there is no hard and fast rule that makes Thai words belong to a particular part of speech. Any word may become a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, etc, simply through the position of the word in the sentence. Except for a number of words derived from Sanskrit each word stands distinctly and independently, and concedes no joining of sounds or assimilations between words.

Due to the limited number of combinations of sounds which the consonants admit (in original Thai there used to be only one vowel per word as original Thai was monosyllabic), there arises naturally a multitude of words with the same sound but with a difference in meaning (homonyms). To overcome this shortage, the Thai language, like Chinese, has invented various tones as a primary feature to differentiate meaning in homonymous words.

There are five tones in the standard Thai language, but in actual speech there may be six or even seven tones varying in certain dialect areas.

However, the fact that there is a large number of homonyms in the Thai language is often overly emphasized in Western publications, especially guide books. That Thai is a tonal language is not a barrier that cannot be overcome by any non-Thai with an interest in learning the language. For one thing, homonyms are not something uniquely found in Thai and other tonal languages such as Chinese. Even English has a large number of homonyms: plane, plain; to, too, two; there, their; and hundreds more.

While in the few cases given above, two words which are pronounced the same are spelled differently, there is a huge number of words spelled and spoken similar to each other. Nevertheless, the difference in pronunciation of two different words may in one locality be almost negligible if compared to different pronunciations of one and the same word in different parts of the world where English is the native language. A person from Oxford will often find it hard to understand a native of Newcastle, and the average Texas millionaire doesn't really sound like Prince Charles - even though both may rightfully claim to speak English.

Languages are living entities, not sets of mathematical formulae; primarily, they don't serve the purpose of being correct but of being understood. All languages are flexible, and Thai is no exception. Therefore, while there are pronunciation rules for similar words with different meanings, these pronunciation rules are not as strict as it is made to appear in many Western publications. Just like New Yorkers and Londoners pronounce English differently, Thais from Hat Yai and Thais from Udon Thani have very different pronunciations - and this encompasses tonal rules.

In Thai, like in English, it's often the context, in cases of doubt more than the pronunciation, that gives a clue as to how a certain word is to be understood.

In the preface to their book The Fundamentals of the Thai Language which even today is one of the best textbooks for foreigners who want to learn Thai, Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs wrote in 1956: "In the earlier books on Thai for foreigners... the tones are dealt with from the beginning but we have departed from precedent in this respect because we feel that it is only confusing the issue to try and deal with the tones until you have acquired something of a vocabulary... We do think that a study of the tones should be secondary to the acquisition of a vocabulary... In only relatively few cases will a wrong tone cause you to be misunderstood."

Going one step further, the Siamese King Rama VI, then the absolute monarch of the country, wrote in 1912 in a letter to the Siam Society on a proposed system for the Romanization of the Thai language: "I propose that the tone value of the Siamese consonants might be ignored altogether... since the context would always make clear the meaning... For similar reasons given above I think it would be best to ignore all Siamese tone accents." (Quoted from the preface of The Fundamentals of the Thai Language by Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs, 1957)

In a living language, there is no necessity to eradicate homonyms - and actually, any language of the world is full of cases in which words of different meaning are not only pronounced the same in spite of being spelled differently (there, their; to, two) but where words are pronounced and spelled the same but just have different meanings (a board can either be made of wood or be a board of directors; fine can either mean that something's just right, or that it's pulverized, or it's something one has to pay - and there are thousands of comparative cases in English; actually almost every word has different meanings).

As languages are understood by context, it can hardly be a surprise that even though differentiation of words by tones has been introduced into the Thai language, there is still a huge number of homonymous words, and unless the context of a phrase or a sentence shows otherwise, the meaning of the word may still be ambiguous. In such instances, some other word or words have to be introduced to clarify the meaning. As was summarized by Phaya Anuman Rajadhon in his paper The Nature and Development of the Thai Language, there are three devices for doing this.

The first option is by prefixing a meaningful word to indicate the class of objects to which the word belongs. For example: yang may mean a bird such as heron, egret or bittern; a tree such as a dipterocarpaceae, rubber tree; an oily and sticky substance such as resin, gum, latex, wood oil. If the word nok meaning bird is prefixed it becomes nok yang which means either a heron, an egret or a bittern. If the word don meaning a bole or a trunk of a tree is prefixed to the word yang in don yang it means a species of trees (Dipterocarpus alatus). The prefix words function as classifiers.

The second possibility is by juxtaposing two meaningful words of the same or allied meaning to clarify a certain word. For example: kah fan means to kill. The word kah has a number of meanings, and one of them is to kill. If kah is juxtaposed with the word fan meaning to slash with a weapon, kah cannot mean other than to kill only. The word fan serves to clarify the meaning of the word kah.

Some juxtaposed words have lost their individual independent meanings in current use and have become merely a device.

Sometimes two words of the same or allied meaning are juxtaposed to form a new meaning of an allied kind. For example: bahn muang means country or nation (bahn = village, muang = city or town). Sometimes four words are joined together to form a phrase but with a single meaning. For example: kao yak mak paeng means famine (kao = rice, yak = scarce, mak = fruit, paeng = dear).

In forming such words or phrases there is an unconscious selection of sounds. A word with a prominent or more musical sound is selected always as the second of the two words. In the joining of four words in the form of a phrase as cited above the two words between the first and last word are mostly rhymed. The juxtaposed words as described may be called synonymous compounds.

The third option to clarify in which sense an homonymous term is to be understood is by joining into a compound a simple verb to which is added the object logically inherent in it. For example: ying puen literally "fire gun" means to shoot, gin do literally "eat (on) table" means to dine at a table. Nhn sua literally "sleep (on a) mat" means lie down to sleep. The most common of these constructions is gin kao, literally "eat rice" which is used synonymously for "to eat".

Phaya Anuman Rajadhon pointed out that one is apt to recognize such compound words as a factor that creates Pidgin English. Karlgren in his book Sound and symbols in Chinese also lists such compound words in Chinese. He calls them elucidative compounds.


Thai, like Chinese and other languages of Southeast Asia, uses enumerative words when using numbers with nouns. There is a large number of this category of words for each appropriate noun.

If in some nouns no numeral descriptive noun can be appropriately used, or one cannot remember if there is such an appropriate one, the noun is repeated after the number.

For example kon see kon means "man four men"; mah sahm mah means "horse three horses". In this instance the appropriate numeral descriptive words is dua, so the correct expression would be mah sahm dua meaning "horse three bodies", but the former phrase mah sahm mah is also tolerated.

Dissyllabic Words, Euphonic Couplets

As has been pointed out by Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, there is a tendency for Thai monosyllabic words to become dissyllabic ones similar to those of Malay, but they differ fundamentally from Malay in that the Thai dissyllabic words are mostly just euphonic (ear pleasing) couplets.

They are sometimes created by variation of the vocalic sound in a word with vowels adjoining in articulation sequence. For example nhn meaning sleep has naen or noen as its couplet. The second word or syllable has no recognized meaning by itself; an omission of it would leave the meaning intact. There is a large number of this kind of dissyllabic words unconsciously uttered mostly in colloquial speech.

Phaya Anuman Rajadhon mentioned in his paper The Nature and Development of the Thai Language that these euphonic words or endings are sometimes found as actual words in certain dialects and also in some of the Thai languages outside Thailand. In fact some of these euphonic words remind of certain Chinese words. For example ngo means stupid in Thai and has ngau as its euphonic ending. In Cantonese a stupid or a dull fellow is ngau.

Among the Chinese dialects there is the same tendency to vowel mutation. Tooth in Cantonese is nga but becomes nge in the Swatow dialect. Nga is identical with the Thai nga meaning tusk, ivory.

Dissyllabic words are also created by varying the vowel of a word with its corresponding but not necessarily adjoining vowel sound. Such vowel sounds are au-ae, o-e, u-i. For example ngaun-ngan means infirm, unstable; tong-teng means to sway to and fro in a dangling position; chu-chi means peevish, fretful.

A word with a vowel-diphthong may also have a corresponding diphthong as its euphonic ending. For example yua-yia means swarming; mun-mai means intoxicated.

A great number of this class of euphonic endings are onomatopoetic words (imitations of a sound made by or associated with its referent, like cuckoo in English). With a few exceptions, neither the first word nor the second word or ending can be divorced from its combination without losing its particular meaning.

Furthermore, dissyllabic words are formed by changing words ending in non-explosive consonants g, t and p into their corresponding nasal endings ng, n and m, respectively. For example saek-saeng means intervene, interfere. Saek alone means insert, squeeze in, while saeng alone means interpose, insert. Tot-ton means remove. Tot alone means take off as a garment, dismiss, discharge while ton alone means pull out, root out. Yap-yam means contemptuous, insult. Yap alone is crude, rough while yam alone is revile, look down on. Each word in the couplets cited above has a slight shade of meaning if used independently.

To sum it up, even as Thai is basically a monosyllabic language, there are many types of dissyllabic words. The above types are quoted as certain examples only, and there are numerous others mostly in colloquial use. Many of these words have become part of the everyday speech of the people.

As the Thai language has no method of forming new words by means of additions to a word like the inflectional languages with their affixes and case endings, the various processes described above are evidently devices by which the Thai have formed derivatives and new words.


The arrangement of words in a sentence fundamentally is subject-action-object, with qualifying words, adjectives and adverbs following each appropriate word. As stated by Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, there is no hard and fast rule relating to parts of speech in the actual sense of the word. A word may be a noun, an adjective, a verb or an adverb only in relation to other words in a phrase or a sentence.

Hence the important thing in the Thai language is the word order. Grammatical words, such as articles, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. which in Western languages serve as a help to clarify the nouns and verbs in a sentence, are not necessary in Thai if the context is logically clear. In Thai, to say "a father and a son sit on chairs" is simply "father child sit chair".

As many words as desired, even all of the same part of speech, may be strung together, provided each word is in its logical position or, in the case of verbs, sequence of time. For example, "a big black dog chases a small white cat and bites it" is in Thai "dog black body big run chase bite cat white body small".

Frequently two or more words are combined to express one notion distinguished from each of the meanings of the combined words; the second and subsequent one stand in adjectival relationship to the first. For example fai fa literally is "fire sky" but means electricity. Mai kheet fai literally is "stick strikes fire" but just means a match or matches.

As already stated Thai words admit no modifications of case, number and gender. For example kon mah hah kao may mean a man (or men, woman, women) comes (or come, coming, came, has come, etc.) to see him (or her, it, them). If the meaning is not immediately clear "grammatical words" or "help words", as the Chinese call them, are introduced into the sentence.

For example "kon song kon cha mah hah kao" literally means man two men will come see him. The word kon in this case is men, and the word kao is him or them.


Cornelius B. Bradley stated in Some Features of the Siamese Speech and Writing, published 1923, that Thai "words are symbols of concept per se, being wholly devoid of inflectional apparatus to express and define their relations with other words in the sentence. They are, therefore, free to function in any syntactical relation not incompatible with their essential meaning".

Indeed, the Thai language has one of the simplest grammars of all languages, and many writers have claimed there is no grammar at all. However, in the judgement of Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, Thai has in the course of its historical and cultural development suffered at the hands of Thai grammarians who have introduced exotic rules and restrictions based on English, Sanskrit or Pali grammar.


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