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Phonemic Approach to the Consonant Classes

Learning the consonant classes marks an important step in moving from the beginning student level to a more intermediate level. The Thai consonants are divided into three classes, and knowing which class a consonant belongs to is essential for applying the tone rules. The tone rules, in turn, tell you how to properly pronounce a Thai word. Let's start learning the consonant classes.

The three classes of consonant are: low, middle (or mid), and high. The Thai names are the same: อักษรต่ำ  /akL saawnR dtamL/, อักษรกลาง  /akL saawnR glaangM/, อักษรสูง  /akL saawnR suungR/. Do not confuse these categories with the low, mid, and high lexical tones—they're not the same at all. For one thing, there are two additional spoken tones, falling and rising. In this article we'll just be discussing the consonant classes, which are a starting point for applying the tone rules and eventually determining which of the five spoken tones is indicated.

Although there are forty-four consonant graphemes, or "letters," in Thai, these represent only twenty-one consonant phonemes, or sounds. (For the benefit of the non-linguists, we'll use the words letter and sound instead of grapheme and phoneme, respectively, from now on.) We'll use the natural organization of these twenty-one sounds to help us learn the consonant classes. The consonant classes may make more sense if you look at them this way.

Using the Tables
  • The phonemic transcription given is that which is used throughout this web site for the corresponding Thai characters.
  • These tables are organized in columns; read down for the corresponding Thai letter or letters.
  • Rare consonants are shown faintly. It is not necessary to memorize these at first (or ever).
  • Remember that in these tables, we are only discussing consonants in their roles as the initial—not final—sound of a syllable.
Time to get started. The twenty-one consonant sounds are divided equally into three groups: sonorants, aspirate-fricatives, and plains. Let's look at the seven sonorant sounds first.
Sonorants — sounds that you can hum

All of the sonorants are low-class consonants. Memorize the seven sounds that you can hum and remember that they are always represented by low-class consonant letters. There are ten of these low-class letters (one is rarely used) and if you know their respective sounds then it's easy to remember that they are always low-class. If you need to review their sounds, you can take this quiz: Phonemic Transcription of the Sonorant Consonants as Initials.

[We're not yet studying the tone rules, so you can skip this paragraph for now.] One thing you might notice is that—unlike the aspirate-fricative sounds presented below—these sonorant sounds have no high-class consonant letters. To obtain the high-class consonant function (which allows for syllables with a rising or low tone) with a sonorant initial consonant, a silent leading , which is called หอ นำ  /haawR namM/, is added, as in the following words: หมา   /maaR/, หลอด   /laawtL/, หนู   /nuuR/, etc.

We'll look at the seven aspirate and fricative sounds next. Air is released when these sounds are pronounced. In aspirates, air is released in a "puff" which could, for example, blow out a candle. In fricatives, it is released into a narrow passage as a stream between, say, your teeth and lower lip. Note that each aspirate sound has a low-class and a high-class letter—sometimes more than one but always at least one of each. After you memorize the seven sounds, you'll know that none of them can be represented by a mid-class letter.
Aspirates and Fricatives — sounds that release air
low class:
high class:

Note that all of the high class consonants are shown in this table; all high-class consonants are aspirates.

The seven unaspirated stops were left for last because they are neither hummable, like the sonorants, nor release air, like the aspirates, so you may be able to memorize them by exclusion.
Unaspirated stops (plains) — are neither hummable nor release air

All of the unaspirated stops are mid-class consonants. In this case, the converse is also true: all mid-class consonants are plains!

When we study the tone rules, we'll see that the reason mid-class consonants are so-called is because, they act like low-class consonants in live syllables and like high-class consonants in dead syllables (in syllables without written tone marks). In this way, they "straddle" a middle ground between the two.

Good Job!

As we've seen, the twenty-one consonant sounds used in Thai divide neatly into three groups of seven sounds each: sonorant, aspirate, or plain. If you think you've got these memorized, you can try this quiz: Sonorant, Aspirate-Fricative, or Unaspirated Stop: the 21 Consonant Phonemes .

These three charts cover all of the 44 consonants in the Thai alphabet. When you're done memorizing the consonant classes, you can test your new skills with this quiz: Classes of All 44 Thai Consonants.
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