Marilyn Goes to Germany!

Marcus Pentzek has translated the Marilyn Method for memorizing the pronunciation of Chinese characters into German for his site Chinesisch Lernen Xuéxí Zhōngwén. Look for it also in a forthcoming issue of his eBook for Chinese learning.

Spelling Thai Tones, Simplified

What has the Scottish flag to do with tones in Thai? Read on.

In my extremely leisurely study of Thai, I have reached the point of wanting to learn the rules for expressing the tones in writing. Thai being a tonal language, each Thai syllable takes one of five possible tones. The written language does describe the tones unambiguously, according to arcane and seemingly sadistic rules.

(I indulge my curmudgeonly side here. I well appreciate that an English word like “fraught”—questions like what it means, why it is spelled that way, and what the equivalent present-tense verb is, for example—must be just as frustrating to the foreign-language student.)

In Thai, a given syllable’s tone is affected by several factors (all to be explained later on):

1. The “color” of the consonant—red, black, or blue. (“Color” is my term for these categories, which are generally called high, middle, or low class. Below I explain why the standard names are the worst possible descriptions of these categories.)

2. The type of syllable—“live”, “dead short”, or “dead long”.

3. One of four tone markers:  ,  ,  ,  . Or a syllable may have no marker, which as a mathematician I want to consider as a fifth “zero marker.”

So the total number of combinations amounts to 3×3×5 = 45.  Each of these combinations indicates one of the five tones. The trick is to remember which tone goes with each of the 45 syllable configurations. And at first glance, it’s pretty random. Okay, in practice some of these don’t occur, but there are still a lot of cases to distinguish. See, for example this helpful table from Wikipedia, with a mere 17 cases to memorize. The Wikipedia article uses a table, and a diagram and a flowchart to explain it, and I still think it’s pretty complicated.
After about a day of staring at the table rightway-round, upside-down, and inside-out, I think I’ve managed to pull out the essence. It comes down to just seven short rules, five rules for unmarked syllables and two for marked syllables.

Tones for unmarked syllables

Here are the rules for unmarked syllables:

Lions walk, but….
Red lions rise.
Dogs crawl, but….
Long blue dogs fall.
And short blue dogs fly.

Perhaps some explanation is in order…

First, the five tones themselves. These have descriptive names: mid, low, falling, high, and rising. I won’t be going into much detail on the tones as such; see this Wikipedia diagram for a graphic representation, or this nice video from Benny Lewis. As names go, these are pretty good, each being a rough description of the corresponding tone contour.

But for our purposes, it will be more useful to describe the tones with verbs than with adjectives. Falling and rising are already verbs. The other three tones get new names:


I presume these are self-explanatory.

Now to the “colors.” Thai consonants come in three categories, the main function of which appears to be giving clues as to tones. For example, we could think of ข and ค as two different versions of “K”, which impart different tones (not always the same) to the syllables they head. For example, ขา is pronounced something like “kah” with a mid tone and คา is pronounced exactly the same, except with a rising tone. Again, the “color” of the consonant is merely one of several factors determining the tone of the syllable.
Traditionally these three categories are called “high”, “mid”, and “low.” (Note that in the Wikipedia table, these are the headings of the three columns.) As mentioned before, these are in fact the worst possible names for the three categories. First of all, as “high”, “mid” and “low” are already used as names for three of the five tones, describing consonants by the same terms is a recipe for confusion. The exception would be if, for example, a “high” consonant always gave a syllable the “high” tone for example, but such is not the case. Check the “high” column of the table again. Note that the “high” tone is the only one which cannot occur with a “high” consonant. Similarly for “low” tones and “low” consonants.
So I’m dropping the “high”, “mid”, “low” terminology and using colors instead. Previously I used vowel sounds to help remember the consonant class. So-called “high” class consonants are given names with vowels E and I, so from now on I call these “rEd” consonants. So-called “low” class consonants are given names with vowels O and U, so from now on I call these “blUe” consonants. And so-called “mid” class consonants are given names with the vowels A, so from now on I call these “blAck” consonants. (It just happens that the “red” consonant column of the Wikipedia table is shaded red, and the “blue” column is shaded blue. Huh, fate.) For the record:

The blue consonants are: งณนมญยรลฬวคฅฆชฌฑฒทธพภฟซฮ
The red consonants are: ขฃฉฐถผฝศษส
The black consonants are:กจดฎฏตบปอ

And finally, the tone is affected by syllable type. “Live” syllables are distinguished from “dead.” The former end in a vowel or a “sonorant” (like M, N, etc.). The latter end in a “plosive” (like “K”. “T”, etc.). In short, if you can imaging singing the syllable, stretching it out indefinitely (like “Caaaaaaaannnnnnnn…”) then it’s a live syllable. If not (like “Caaaaaaat”—once you hit the “t” you are done) then it’s a dead syllable.
Among live syllables, it also makes a difference whether the vowel of the syllable is long or short.
For our purposes it will be more useful to describe syllable types with nouns. So live syllables are “lions” and dead syllables are “dogs.” (Live like a lion, or die like a dog.)
This is all the background needed for our five rules. To summarize:
Colors represent consonant classes.
Verbs (of motion) represent tones.
Animals represent syllable types.
Now let’s revisit our five rules for unmarked syllables.

Lions walk, but…. In other words, a live syllable gets a mid tone, with the exception that…

Red lions rise. A live syllable with a high-class consonant gets a rising tone.

Dogs crawl, but.… A dead syllable gets a low tone, with the exception that…

Long blue dogs fall. A long dead syllable with a low-class consonant gets a falling tone.

And short blue dogs fly. A short dead syllable with a low-class consonant gets a high tone.

That’s it. These five rules encompass all the information in the top three rows of the Wikipedia table. It can’t really get better than this, because you need at least one rule for each tone.

Tones for marked syllables.

Who invented the Thai script? It would have been so easy just to let a syllable’s tone be specified by the tone mark. And we could dispense with almost half the Thai alphabet. Oh, well….

We give each of the tone marks a name based on the tone it describes in most cases:


We then just need rules to handle the exceptions. Looking at the bottom four rows of the Wikipedia table, we see that syllable type (lion versus dog) is irrelevant. We also see that red and black syllables are always the same, except for the blank areas (which represent situations that never occur—so we need not worry about them). The only exceptions concern blue syllables. We use “bluejay” to represent such a syllable—dead or alive, but starting with a blue consonant.
Just two rules for two exceptions:
Crawling bluejays fall. (In other words, a syllable with a blue consonant and marked with ่ (crawl) gets a falling tone.
Falling bluejays fly. (In other words, a syllable with a blue consonant and marked with   (fall) gets a rising tone.

Did I say seven rules?

It turns out there are two loopholes described in the comments following the Wikipedia table. Both concern a consonant changing its color under certain conditions.
In the first case any of the consonants งญนมวยรล, which are normally blue, change to red when they follow an unadorned red or black consonant or a silent letter ห (H). These particular blue consonants have no red equivalents (for example, ญ and น are both blue “N”, but the Thai alphabet has no red “N”), so you can think of this as a way of improvising a red consonant.
In the second case, the letter ย, which is normally blue, changes to black when it is prefixed by อ. This rule is limited to four words which start with the sequence อย: อยาก, อย่า, อย่าง, and อยู่. It turns out all four words come out with low tones, the first because “(Black) dogs crawl”; the other three because they carry the “crawling” marker.

See also:

Learn the Thai Alphabet in One Hour  

...And Learn the Thai Vowels

Rome 2016

(click on any image for a larger version)

This being my second visit to Rome in three years, I had the opportunity to catch up on some sights I had missed the first time around. Herewith, as usual, some random observations:

(Above and below) sculpture groups at the Altare della Patria.

You of course know the story of the magically animated wooden puppet carved by Gepetto. It turns out this was only Phase I of his plan. In Phase II, the puppets are put to work in sweatshops carving more puppets to form an exponentially increasing army of frolicking puppets. I have some concern as to how Phase III will turn out:

Playfulness in architecture. I like the variety of structures employed on the corner of this building.

And more playfulness...

Humdrum view of the Roman forum:

The Palazzo dei Conservatori, housing part of the Capitoline Museum, is decorated with frescoes, many showing the Battle of... well I don't know what battle it was, but I expect the Romans won. The artist was particularly fond of depicting decapitations, etc., and in this little detail, the best classical painting I have seen showing a head squashed by the hoof of a horse:

More stuff in the Capitoline Museum:

I have never been interested in spectator sports. I simply lack the fandom spark. But I think I might make an exception for baby-fish wrestling:

Panorama of St. Peter's basilica:

Uncharacteristically Italian neatness in parking:

Pantheon, illuminated by the oculus in the center of the dome:

And now a side trip to Tivoli. The gardens at the Villa d'Este with their fountains are not to be missed. We all agreed they are far more beautiful (though less extensive) than the gardens at Versailles. I wish I knew whose inspiration it was to use the sloping site to power a thousand fountains by gravity. 

One of the thousand: 

Detail from another fountain. I don't know whether these snake people come from mythology or are merely a fancy of the artist.

And the villa building:

Inside the villa, a piece of trompe-l'oeil. In other words, the door you see is not real but painted on the wall, Road-Runner style. Such touches abound in the villa.

Also in Tivoli are the ruins of the villa belonging to Emperor Hadrian. The weather had turned moody and atmospheric by the time we reached the villa:

I hadn't realized it until pointed out by a tour guide, but this scrap of ruined floor indicates the scope of the Roman empire. The various colors of marble—rose, white, green—all come from different lands at different points of the compass.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, birds are resting in the Forum:

(Literal) high fashion on the Via dei Condotti:

View from the roof of our hotel:

Also on the roof:

I hope you enjoyed your visit to Rome!

Turks and Caicos Revisited

Revisited this archipelago recently. Herewith some random observations. Click on any photo for a larger version. Lots of panoramas in this set—it seems to be in the nature of the place.

Da Conch Shack, being a popular local eatery on the beach. Conch is the local specialty.

Creative use of conch shells for construction. I'm surprised this isn't done more often, as the shells are to be found in great heaps here and there. On the other hand, ground-up conch shells have been traditionally used as mortar for building.

Ornamentation on an otherwise modest building.

Upscale tourist building development in Grace Bay.

Back entrance to a Grace Bay restaurant. More elegant than the front entrance to anything in my home town.

Something new for me on this trip was a visit to the islands of North Caicos and Middle Caicos. This is the car we rented from North Caicos' premier car rental company. Previously I have noted the tendency for everything in the Caribbean to seem improvised. This company initially told us they had no cars available, but then one employee told the other, "Give them the blue car," whereupon they pulled out a set of keys and handed them over after blowing the dust off. Note the busted turn signal.  This company had one name on the brochure, a different name on the rental paperwork, a third name on the car sticker, a fourth name on the credit card slip, and then appeared with a fifth name on my credit card statement. The company motto should be "Always just one step ahead!"

When we pulled over to take a shot of this picturesque building, a man came out and informed us it is for sale. Any takers?

Caves on Middle Caicos. These are not as large as other caves I have visited but very scenic in their own way. They are also home to vampire bats.

Beaches in the Turks and Caicos are said to be the world's best, but the beach at Mudjin Harbor on Middle Caicos makes the others look sad and pathetic.

Interplay of surf with these rock formations at Mudjin Harbor provides perpetual entertainment for a meditative frame of mind.

This is Middle Caicos' second most luxurious resort, at Bambarra Beach on Middle Caicos. No, I am not kidding. The most luxurious resort, back at Mudjin Harbor, is much nicer.

This ramshackle house is the most elaborate structure we passed on the road to Bambarra Beach. 

Mnemonics for Chinese Tone Pairs

For many English-speaking students of Chinese, the fact that tone contours can make the difference in meaning between one Chinese word and another is a major stumbling block. A simple example:

鱼跃 yúyuè with 2nd/4th tones (rising, then falling) means “dive.”

预约 yùyuē with 4th/1st tones (falling, then high-level) means “reserve.”

So one must remember the tone contour of a word as well as the rest of the pronunciation or risk being misunderstood (sometimes disastrously).

My mnemonic system for Chinese character pronunciation includes the tone of the character as part of the system. Individual characters in Mandarin have one of four tones, which some grammarian creatively named 1st tone, 2nd tone, 3rd tone, and 4th tone. We’ll leave a description of the individual tones for another time, but note the diacritical marks used to mark each tone:

1st tone: ā
2nd tone: á
3rd tone: ă
4th tone: à

The diacritical shapes roughly represent the pitch contour of the respective tone (rising for 2nd, falling for 4th, etc.)
In an ideal world, remembering the tone for each individual character would allow you to predict the tone contours of compound words made of two or more characters. Unfortunately, the tones of Chinese syllables appear to mutate spontaneously when combined with other syllables. This does not happen every time, but it happens often enough to pose difficulty.

For example, in the word

当年 dāngnián “that year”,

the character is pronounced dāng, with a 1st (high level) tone, whereas in the word

当天 dàngtiān “that day”,

the character is pronounced dàng, with a 4th (falling) tone. (This is all assuming my dictionary knows what it’s talking about.) The function of the character appears to be identical in both words, so why the change? If there are rules controlling this, I haven’t figured them out yet.

So we need a way to remember the tone contours of words consisting of more than one syllable—particularly two-syllable words, which are the most common. I created a set of standard code words based on the Major system for memorizing numbers. In compound words, a syllable may have one of five tones, because certain syllables of compound words lose their normal tone, becoming a “neutral” tone. A neutral-tone syllable is pronounced quickly, with a pitch slightly lower than a preceding 1st or 2nd tone, and slightly higher than a preceding 3rd or 4th tone. The English word “basket” is normally pronounced with a fairly good approximation of 1st tone followed by neutral tone. In Pinyin the neutral tone is indicated by the absence of any diacritical mark. For example: duōme is 1st tone followed by neutral tone.

For the purpose of memorization, I assigned the digit 5 to neutral tone. The Major system uses a consonant sound to represent a single numerical digit. In particular:

t, d, or th represents 1;
n represents 2;
m represents 3;
r represents 4;
l represents 5.

Other consonant sounds (with the exception of w, h, y) represent other digits, but the foregoing is is all we need for this purpose. Vowels of a word represent no digit. Take as an example the word “root”. The r represents 4, the t represents 1, and the oo represents nothing; thus this word serves to encode the digit sequence 4-1.

The goal now is to choose a word representing each pair of digits describing the tone pattern of a Chinese disyllable. Take as an example the previously-mentioned yùyuē (tones 4-1). To represent this I need a word with the sequence of consonants r followed by t, d, or th; I choose “rawhide”. 

Why not the forementioned “root”? I prefer to use a two-syllable word and try to get used to pronouncing it with the particular tone contour that it represents:


As this sinks in, it eliminates one step of the decoding process: the word directly represents the given tone contour.

The code word is put to use by mentally linking it with the term that it applies to; recall that  yùyuē means “reserve”. I can use a sentence like:

I reserved one of the special rawhide plane seats.

And then henceforth I use “rawhide” whenever necessary to represent the tone contour of any word with a 1st/4th tone pattern, such as the previously mentioned dàngtiān “that day”:

That day we rode until our hides were raw.

This sentence then helps me recall that is pronounced with 4th and 1st tones.

Here, then, is the list of code words for all two-syllable contours (note that, as always, it is the sounds that encode digits rather than the written letters):

Mona (Lisa)

The principle can be extended to three or more syllables; for example, the tone contour 会员卡 huìyuánkă “membership card” can be encoded as digits 4th/2nd/3rd and the consonant sequence r-n-m, “uranium” for example. As the string of digits gets larger you will need to resort to phrases of two and more words. I haven’t tried to standardize the code words for more than two syllables at a time.

(A completely different approach: using the digits of the Major system is nothing more than a convenience which makes it easier to commit the system to memory. Once you've made the mental connection, any word can serve to represent any concept, although something concrete and visualizable is better. An alternate approach would be to choose for each tone contour a specific Chinese word exemplifying the pattern; for example, àā  could be represented by 师 mùshī  “pastor.”)