Thai Language Explained

The Thai language has its written origins in Hindi Sanskrit. Spoken Thai derives from Lao, Myanmar, China and Vietnam. There are four main dialects, central, north, northeastern and southern Thai – the central Thai dialect is the national language. The Thai language also has 44 consonants and 38 actual vowels, compared to the 5 vowels in English.

It is a simple language in terms of grammar structure, as many Thais will tell you, but for most foreigners the biggest difficulty is familiarizing themselves with the tones, as Thai, like many of its Asian counterparts is a tonal language

Thai Language Tones

There are five tones in Thai – rising, falling, mid, high and low tone. Many words look the same but when pronounced, mean something different. A favorite example in Thai phrase books and dictionaries is the word mai (pronounced ‘my’). This word can mean 5 different (unconnected) things depending on each of the five different tones. It can mean ‘new’, ‘not’, ‘silk’, ‘wood’ or ‘burn’, relative to the tone used.

‘Mai’ is a very common word in Thai as there is no actual word for ‘no’. To make a negative you use the word ‘not’ (mai) together with a verb, adjective or noun e.g. not come, not good, not expensive, not hot, not hotel.

Thai Grammar

There are very few fixed Thai grammar rules in comparison to the English language. Past and future tenses are denoted by ‘already’; or 'will' or by a word in content. E.g. I go beach today, I go beach yesterday, I go beach tomorrow. There are no articles (a, an, the), no verb endings and no plurals. There is also no punctuation, except for spaces between sentences and items in a list.

Polite Thai

Two of the most common words in the Thai are ‘ka’ (spoken by women) and ‘krup’ (spoken by men) These have no specific meaning in themselves but serve as multi-purpose words to denote politeness, and are added to the end of a phrase or sentence. Thais are a very respectful race and if talking to someone in a formal setting they will add ‘ka’ or ‘krup’ to almost every statement. Ka or krup are also often used in isolation to act as an exclamation of politeness and to show interest. Using ‘ka’ if you are female or ‘krup’ if you are male, soon becomes second nature. e.g. a simple ‘hello’ becomes ‘sawadee ka’ or ‘sawadee krup’

Telling the Time

One point of confusion for foreigners is how most Thai’s tell the time. Whilst ‘international’ Thai has been modernized to use the 24 hour clock (for business, tourism etc), most rural Thais, still view time in 4 different chunks of six hour time periods, dhee, mong chao, bai_mong and toom. Each denote a period of 6 hours beginning from 1am to midnight. e.g. 3am in the morning is ‘dhee saam’; 3 pm in the afternoon is ‘bai saam mong’ but 9am in the morning is ‘saam mong chao’ and 9 pm in the evening is ‘sam toom’. ‘saam’ represents the number ‘3’ in the Thai language.

Overall, learning a few Thai phrases and numbers will go a long way during your stay. The differences between English and Thai serve to make life interesting and you will find the locals are genuinely delighted if a foreigner makes an attempt to learn a little about the Thai language.

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