About Thai Language
The Thai writing system has its source in the Devanagari script of India, forms of which are used to write the Pali and Sanskrit language. The Thai script is thus of Indian origin, modified by Cambodian through which it passed enroute to the Thais and by the structure it is used to represent. The script, adapted to Thai, first made its appearance in 1283, instituted by King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukothai. Although the shapes of the letters have changed somewhat through the centuries, the overall system is the same today as it was in the 13th century.
The Thai writing system, unlike a system such as English, is quite regular. There are many general rules that have wide application. Naturally, as the Thai language has changed over the years, and as words have been borrowed from other languages, exceptions to the rules have appeared. Many of the exceptions, however, fall into their own patterns and can be covered by developing minor or restricted rules. It is thus possible to read a great deal of the Thai writing system relatively quickly. One may not understand all the vocabulary and grammer of the material, but it can be read aloud with a fair degree of accuracy, a feat that would be impossible in English within the same short time frame.
There are 44 consonant symbols in Thai used to represent 21 sounds. Two of the symbols are now obsolete. The consonants are divided into three classes called Low Class, High Class and Mid Class. In the Thai script, tones are associated with these three classes of consonants and tone marks are written over consonant symbols.
Vowel symbols are written in various positions relative to a consonant: before, after, above or below a consonant, or even in several combinations of these four positions. Although this might appear to be quite difficult at first, after a short period of familiarization, learning the Thai script is not particularly difficult at all.
A Tonal Language
You might already have heard that Thai is a “tonal” language and, we know from experience, some students find this a little intimidating at first. This, however, need not be so. The Thai language uses five tones namely; Normal , Low, Falling, High and Rising. In Thai the tone in which a syllable is pronounced determines its meaning. For example, to a foreigner, the Thai words for ‘white’, ‘rice’, ‘enter’ and ‘she/her or he/him’ sound if not exactly the same then, certainly, very similar. This is true also for many other words. For example, if we were to choose the sound “Maa” in Thai, determined by one of three tones we use, we could be saying ‘Horse’, ‘Come’, or ‘Dog’.
From day one of module one we integrate learning the correct tones and recognition of the tone sounds with our teaching of vocabulary and everyday expressions. As there is no universally adopted phonetic system for transcribing the Thai language in English (as students will know from observing the variety of spellings on street signs, maps and in dictionaries) we adopt a dual approach of using English and phonetic vocabulary lists in our beginners’ course materials. As students progress through our modules, learning to read and write Thai, the need for phonetic transliterations reduces and in our advanced courses all materials use only Thai script.