Learn the Thai Alphabet in One Hour

Photo by Dada Clone Fly

Learning a language in a non-Roman script should be on everyone's bucket list. (Please disregard this statement if your own native language is in a non-Roman script.) It seems to me that people who haven't done this tend to see non-Roman scripts the way a non-swimmer looks at water—as a murky, alien environment with who-knows-what lurking beneath the surface. Take the plunge, though, and you may come to see every new script as a playground waiting to be explored.

I haven't "officially" started to study Thai as yet—it's still on my "someday" list. But I've noticed that students of Thai frequently complain about the time required to learn the alphabet. A particular stumbling block seems to be remembering the tone class for each consonant. See, Thai is a tonal language (like Chinese). The writing of a word makes the tone explicit (which is a good thing), by assigning one of three tone classes (high, mid, or low) to every consonant. Thus it happens that Thai may have a multiplicity of symbols roughly corresponding to a single English consonant—for example, T.

Another issue is that, even aside from tone, Thai makes some meaningful distinctions between consonants that English doesn't. Wikipedia puts it well: "Where English has only a distinction between the voiced, unaspirated /b/ and the unvoiced, aspirated /pʰ/, Thai distinguishes a third sound that is neither voiced nor aspirated, which occurs in English only as an allophone of /p/, approximately the sound of the p in 'spin'." "Aspirated" means followed by a strong puff of breath; "unaspirated" therefore means not so. Remember that remark about 'spin'—it will be significant later.

Thai consonants have interesting vivid Thai names. For example,  is called cho chang 'elephant.' This is excellent from the standpoint of cognitive efficiency. But it helps if one already understands the names, which doesn't apply to most foreign students (like me). I decided, as the first step in learning the Thai alphabet, to make up my own English names for each letter. The name for each letter shall be readily visualizable and shall encode the pronunciation, including the tone class.

(A caveat on what follows: don't take this as a general guide to Thai pronunciation, which I'm not qualified to explain anyway. For example, some consonants have altered [but predictable] pronunciation at the end of a syllable. Other complexities may pertain. This system is for the first pass of fixing the letters in the mind. Get a real Thai textbook for the rest.)

In this post I give the system (and the names) for the Thai consonants. Vowels will follow in the next post. There are seven rules covering the consonants. Most of them are based on common sense. Only Rules II and III are really non-obvious (and thus embody the creative aspects of the system), but both II and III are nevertheless simple and easily committed to memory.

The first few letters illustrate the basic principles:
All of the foregoing sound more like K than anything else in English but have three distinct values in Thai. Rules of the system are:

I. The first letter of the name indicates the sound of the consonant, with exceptions as noted in Rules III and IV below. Thus Kidney, King, and Kowtow are all pronounced like 'K'. (So, too, is Skate, as explained by Rule III.)

II. The first vowel of the word indicates the tone class: 'a' indicates 'mid' class, 'i' or 'e' indicate 'high' class, and 'o' or 'u' indicate 'low' class. Thus Skate is mid-class, Kidney and King are high-class, and Kowtow is low-class.

III. If the name starts with 'S' followed by 'k', 't', or 'p', the sound is an unaspirated version of the consonant following the 'S'. Thus Skate is pronounced as an unaspirated 'k'.

(As was mentioned above with regard to the word 'spin', Rule III reflects English phonology, but that's not really critical. Just remember that preceding 's' indicates lack of aspiration.) So Kidney and King are both aspirated high-class 'K', Kowtow is aspirated low-class 'K', but Skate is unaspirated mid-class 'K'.
Ungulate is a special case because no English word begins with the appropriate sound:

IV. Ungulate is pronounced like 'ng' in 'sing'.

The 'u' vowel indicates that Ungulate is a low-class consonant, in accordance with Rule II.
Jackknife is another special case, because no English word starts with 'S' followed by a 'ch' sound (although several words do begin with the letters 'sch'):

V. Jackknife is pronounced with an unaspirated 'ch' sound.

There is no potential for conflict here because Thai lacks the voiced 'j' sound. The 'a' as usual indicates a mid-class consonant. Chess, on the other hand, indicates a high-class aspirated 'chsound.
VI. If the name starts with 'S' followed directly by a vowel rather than another consonant, the sound is 's'.

As usual, the 'o' vowel indicates that Sorceror is a low-class consonant.

The next several consonants present no surprises.
By now I probably need not explain this, but Yolk is pronounced with a 'y' sound and Dart with a 'd' sound. Yolk is low-class and Dart is mid-class.
The foregoing are all entirely in line with the system. Star is an unaspirated 't' sound, mid-class. Telephone and the other consonants beginning with 'T' are all aspirated 't' sounds, with tone classes as specified by the following vowel. Nose and Noose, are both 'n' sounds, low-class.
You may have noticed a tendency for the order of the consonants to move from sounds produced in the back of the mouth to those produced in the front of the mouth. This is an venerable custom inherited from the Sanskrit grammarians (who were exceedingly systematic). The Thai script is an evolved form of the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit. 
Siamese cat  (no way I could pass this name up!)
Ace is an interesting letter, sort of like the "zero" of the consonant world. Thai vowels are always attached to the previous consonant—on top, below, left or right. (This might strike you as odd, but a lot of scripts, from Arabic to Tibetan, treat vowels similarly.) But what if a word begins with a vowel? Thai solves this problem by using the letter Ace, which essentially has no sound of it own, but provides a place to anchor a freestanding vowel. Ace does have a tone class of its own, namely mid-class (as the "A" shows).

And finally:
I created an Anki deck consisting of the 60-odd letters of the Thai alphabet, consonants and vowels both; and then at the easy pace of one new letter per day, spending an average of one minute per day reviewing, I memorized the entire alphabettone classes includedin about sixty days (and there's the "One Hour" of the post title). My next post will give the system, and the letter names, for the Thai vowels, after which I will upload my Anki deck for sharing (I want to get all the rules down so I can add them to the deck description).

A helpful hint: You will notice that even with the distinctions of aspirated versus non-aspirated, and three different tone classes, Thai still contains sometimes more than one letter with exactly the same sound, for example Kowtow and Koala. Thus you can not predict 100% the spelling of a word from the pronunciation (although the reverse is probably true). In such cases, the visual aspect of the name can help you recall which letter of the available options is used in a given word.

Another hint: The lexicographic order given here is not necessarily the most efficient order for learning the consonants. For example, if I had it to do over again, I would have learned Teabag and Potato earlier in the sequence, since they form components of some of the other symbols.

Yet another hint: Some creative visual association can help fix each symbol in the mind. For example, Skate resembles the tip of an ice-skate blade, Kidney is the bottom and right edge of an X-ray frame, showing the kidney with the ureter attached, and Kowtow is a front view of a bowing person, with the crown of the head and the shoulders visible. Good luck.