|Introduction of Thai Tone Rules|
Thai is a tonal language which makes it very different to Westerrn languages. Each syllable has a choice between five distinct tones: low, mid, rising, high and falling. To a foreign student, it would seem that the Thai language is made up of groups of words that change in meaning depending on their tone. A famous tongue twister which illustrates this very well is "new wood doesn't burn, does it?" or "mai mai mai mai mai" in Thai.
To a foreigner studying Thai for the first time, there is only one word in the above example, "mai", and its meaning changes with different tones. However, to a Thai person, these are five distinct words that are not only spelled differently but are pronounced differently. Most foreign students make the mistake of relying too much on transliteration when learning Thai. If you are to master the tones, you must put this behind you and learn how to read properly.
The five tones are:
THE HIGH TONE - เสียงตรี
This is a uniform tone pitched well above the level of the speaker’s normal voice and is similar to the tone used in English to denote alarm.
e.g. “keep away”
THE RISING TONE - เสียงจัตวา
This as the name implies has a rising inflection and is something like the tone used in English to denote surprise or a question.
e.g. “Are you going home now?”
THE MID TONE - เสียงสามัญ
This is spoken in the speaker’s ordinary tone of voice without any inflection. It is the tone used in English for ordinary conversation.
THE LOW TONE - เสียงเอก
This is a level tone with no inflection but lower in pitch than common tone.
THE FALLING TONE - เสียงโท
This is an emphatic and heavily accented tone with a falling inflection and is similar to the tone used in English to denote emphasis.
e.g. “I told you not to go there”
It should be noted that the tone applies to a syllable only so that in a polysyllabic word each syllable may and often does have a different tone.
You may find it difficult at first to pronounce all of the syllables of a polysyllabic word in the correct tone but luckily there are very few words of more than two syllables where tonal values of the syllables vary.
By far the best way to learn the tones at the beginning is the way a Thai child does, i.e. by copying a natural Thai speaker. You can do this by listening to us on this web site.
In Thai writing the tones are quite clearly indicated by the use of Tone Marks coupled with a rather complicated set of rules. If you are ready, we will now proceed to teach you these rules.
Information based on: "The Fundamentals of the Thai Language" by Campbell and Shaweevongs.
The following are the books on our "essential reading" list.