A Closer Look At The Thai Alphabet

Reading and writing Thai

The Thai alphabet, otherwise known as the Thai script, is the writing system used in Thailand. It is used to write out the Thai language.

Unlike the Vietnamese language, it looks completely different from what we use in English and so many of us will need to start from scratch. This is probably biggest hurdle for learning to read Thai, so it is a necessary step in mastering the language.

We have mentioned the Thai alphabet before. It is unique to Thailand, meaning that many of us have not had much exposure to it outside of our travels. However, we will have a closer look at what makes up the Thai script today.

Identifying Thai Writing

Have you ever seen Thai written out before? It can be best described as curved lines. Some have little circles and some have sharp edges. Then there are the little symbols and lines that seem to surround the main ‘letter’. You may be able to see some that look like a letter from the Latin alphabet we use in English. I can assure you, however, that they are pronounced very differently.

One issue that many people run into is the various fonts that are used to write out Thai. While we think we are ready to go out and test our skills, we find that the menu is written in a fancy font that differs just enough to make it difficult to read. This can be very disheartening. It can help to check out and expose yourself to a variety of different fonts in order to prepare for this situation. Otherwise, it should be easy to overcome this challenge.

The good news is that it is written horizontally from left to right, just like English and many other languages like Japanese.

What makes up the Thai Alphabet?

Thai Menu
Some foodstalls have the menu in English, while some do not.

Consonants

In the Thai alphabet, there are 44 consonants, although they only make a total of 21 distinct sounds. This is because some of these consonants are associated with an older version of Thai, or were derived from other related languages such as Sanskrit or Pali. A number of these are now obsolete. 

These consonants are split into three different groups: High, Mid, and Low. As you may expect, these are linked to the tones used in Thai. Their pronunciation can also change depending on which syllable they are placed in.

Vowels

Vowels are a little bit more complicated. They mostly take the form of ‘symbols’ rather than full letters like the consonants. They can be written on top of, to the right of, the left of, or even underneath the consonant. Some even use a combination of the locations. Learning to read and recognize vowels may take some time due to this.

There are some other reasons why vowels can become confusing. From your research, you may have found a range of different counts for the number of vowels in Thai. Some might say 32 while others might say 28. This is because there are a few ways to categorize vowels.

You may read that there are 32 vowels as this is the actual amount there are. However, this number contains 4 vowels that are generally not used in everyday language. They may appear in old books but not in typical speech. Therefore, there are said to be 28 ‘main vowels’ to learn.

Vowels can be split into short and long vowel sounds, with a third ‘irregular’ group too. The irregular group can be grouped with the long vowels but are called ‘irregular’ as they have the sound of consonants blended into their pronunciation. The changes in length can change the meaning of a word.

There are also cases where vowels are not written but still pronounced, but that is a lesson for another day.

Punctuation

The Thai language does not use punctuation like in English, but not to the same extent. While full stops/periods can be used to signify the end of a sentence, blank spaces are used more often. Commas can also appear to with the same function as in English. There are brackets and quotation marks too.

One form of punctuation unique to Thai is the ‘kho mut’ ๛ (โคมูตร). This symbol is used to signify the end of a story or document. 

Reading and Writing in Thai

Understandably, the Thai alphabet are the building blocks needed to begin ready and writing the language. Once you start getting the hand of the individual characters and words, you will be well on your way to not only read and write, but also speak the words you see all around you. That means signs, menus, and many other writings you previously could not check out will now be much available. This will ultimately open up many new and exciting opportunities.

A great way to learn and test your understanding of the Thai script is with the Ling Thai app. Using the app, you can learn to write the characters and work your way up to, eventually, reading and understanding whole sentences.


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