...And Learn the Thai Vowels

Photo by Songkran

(This is a continuation of my previous post on learning the Thai consonants. I recommend reading that before reading this.)

Even more than the Thai consonants, the vowels present a generous supply of opportunities for confusion. Let me point out that the term "vowel" can have at least three different meanings. For example, with respect to the English word "loud", we could use the word vowel to refer to each of the two symbols "o" and "u" that appear in the word; or to the single vowel sound that appears in the middle of the word, or even to the pair of letters "ou" as a unit that represent this single vowel sound. So if you go looking for a list of Thai "vowels", one person's list may be much longer than another's, depending on the meaning they have in mind. Thai, like English, combines vowels, or even vowels and consonants, to represent other varieties of vowel soundsin fact, Thai goes way beyond English in the number and variety of combinations.

My own intention is to focus on the individual written symbols. There are a few cases (like Gypsy) where I have assigned a name to a symbol that the Thais themselves regard as a combination of simpler symbols, but in such cases I followed the example of the Unicode coding for Thai.

The following no-nonsense video gives pronunciations for all the single vowels (as well as some of the combinations). I suggest referring to it while reading what follows.

First of all, I chose to start all vowel names with the letter "G". Because Thai lacks a "G" consonant, there is thus no chance of confusing a vowel name with a consonant name.

The first three rules account for almost all the vowel names. (I started numbering with VII because the consonants have six rules.)

VII. Short vowels have names starting with "G" followed directly by a vowel.

VIII. Long vowels have names starting with "Gl" followed by a vowel. Whether the vowel of the name is itself "long" or "short" is irrelevant.

IX. The leading vowel of the name indicates the base pronunciation, as per the International Phonetic Alphabet.

These first three rules are illustrated by the first three vowels:
According to Rules VII-IX, Gas and Gate are pronounced /a/, which is to say like a short "a" in "father", or like a Spanish "a" (NOT like "a" in "gas" or "gate"). Glass is pronounced /a:/, which is just like /a/ but prolonged.
Note that the  symbol here (and below) is not part of the vowel, but is the consonant I call Ace. One characteristic of the Thai script is that vowels are not free-standing but attached to the preceding consonantabove, below, left, or right (something like this is true in many non-European scripts). Ace is a consonant which basically has no sound of its own but provides a place to anchor a vowel at the beginning of a word, for example. Here it is irrelevantfocus all your attention on the vowel attached.

The same three rules suffice to explain the next four:

Gill and Glitter are both pronounced like the "i" in "machine" (again, not like "i" in "gill" or "glitter"); Gill is a short version of this sound and Glitter a long version. Gun and Gluteus are both pronounced like the "u" in "rule"; Gun is a short version of this sound and Gluteus a long version.

Rule X governs the next pair of vowels:

X. Leading vowel "y" indicates the IPA sound /ɯ/, long or short depending on whether preceded by "l".

The vowel denoted by /ɯ/ does not exist in English, something like /u/ but without rounding the lips. The closest sound in English might be the "oo" in "good." You can hear it both short and long starting at about the 0:12 point in the video above.

Three morecompletely in line with the foregoing rules:
All three are long vowels. Thai does have short versions of these vowels, but all are written with combinations of symbols, so you won't find them on this list. Gloss sounds much like the "o" in "gloss". Glee sounds like a stretched-out version of the "e" in "bed". Globe is the hardest to explain in English terms, like a stretched-out version of the "o" in Spanish "dos".

All the vowels listed to this point are "pure" in the sense that the sound is essentially uniform from beginning to endthe tongue and other parts of the mouth don't change position. Examples in English would be the "ee" in "keen" and the "oo" in "moon".  The next couple are diphthongs, meaning a shading from one vowel sound to another. English has lots of these: the "oy" in "boy", the "ow" in "cow". Or the "i" in "kite", which is much like the sound of the next two vowels (pronounced identically, so far as I can tell):
The last three symbols are "honorary" vowels: to us they seem like vowel/consonant combinations, but they function as vowels. I think their existence can be explained as a legacy from the Indian scripts from which the Thai script originated. These names are distinguished by an initial "Gr".

Also note: the final two vowel symbols are free-standingexceptions to the general rule that Thai vowels are written as appendages to the preceding consonant.
Griffin/rɯ/, /ri/
Grill /lɯ/
These can be codified with three special-purpose rules:

XI. Gram is pronounced /am/.

XII. Griffin is pronounced /rɯ/ or /ri/.

XIII. Grill is pronounced /lɯ/.

And that's all I have to say about that. Good luck, students of Thai.

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