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Understanding our Phonemic Transcription System

Introduction

Romanization is the process of rendering the sounds or of a foreign language with the letters of a Roman alphabet.

The type of Romanization that students learning a new language find most useful is called phonemic transcription. Such systems attempt to represent the phonemes of the unknown language in a way that is natural for the student to pronounce aloud. Such systems are called phonemic—as opposed to phonetic—because they do not attempt to distinguish those phonetic variations that do not convey meaning in Thai phonology.

There is no standardized romanization scheme for Thai, and many different schemes are in use by different texts and websites. The system we’ve developed for this website uses the familiar English alphabet and assumes a nominal American English pronun­ciation, while still attempting to notate tone and vowel duration, both of which are used contrastively in Thai.

Of course the best solution for learning Thai is for the student to learn Thai script, which generally indicates an unambiguous pronunciation of a Thai word. The pronunciation of Thai words based on their spelling is more regular than is the case for English. This is due to the fact that, historically, the Thai system of writing was instituted more recently. It is also preferable to use the Thai audio clips (where they are available), rather than the phonemic transcription, to guide your pronounciation. However, note that the native Thai speakers who recorded these audio clips sometimes speak very slowly for maximum clarity, and this can introduce citation form irregularities and can make it difficult to tell the difference between the short and the long vowels.
Note:
transliteration” systems map the characters of one alphabet directly to characters in another, so that the original script may be accurately reconstructed. Because these systems are more concerned with orthography, and less with representing the correct pronuncation of a word, transliteration in the true technical sense is generally not as useful to students as phonemic transcription.

This site does not include “as in”-style English sample word pronunciations for each of the vowel sounds, because there is too much variation in English speakers’ pronunciation of any given English word. We have been able to include an audio recording of a native Thai speaker pronouncing each Thai word on the vowels page, which is of course a much better alternative.
Note:
This page discusses the Thai-language.com enhanced phonemic transcription system, so transcriptions shown on this page use this scheme regardless of the romanization settings in the site control panel.

T-L.com Enhanced

The Thai-language.com enhanced phonemic transcription system is recommended for beginning students and is the default setting for transcriptions throughout this web site. However, you can now select an alternate romanization scheme in the site control panel, including IPA, Paiboon, AUA, the Royal Thai General System, ISO 11940 transliteration, and others.

Examples

Each transcripted syllable on this website is presented in two parts, a phonemic portion and a tone indicator. The phonemic portion is intended to represent the sound of the consonants and vowels present, and the tone indicator represents the tone with which the syllable must be spoken for it to be properly understood.
รัก rakH
กระดาษ graL daatL
ใกล้ glaiF
แสดง saL daaengM
ตำรวจdtamM ruaatL
กอล์ฟ gaawpH
ก็ gaawF
ศูนย์ suunR
ศาสตร์ saatL
จอร์จjaawgeL
โทร tho:hM

Phonemic Portion

The phonemic portion is spelled out as an approximation using Latin letters according to a consensus American English pronunciation. The system is documented on the following two pages, which should be studied carefully.
The transcription key on the vowels page adjusts according to the transcription system you've chosen in the site control panel. Where possible, my system tries to differentiate long duration Thai vowels from short duration by doubling one of the vowel letters { a e i o u }. For an exception to this, see the section “Long /-oh-/ Vowel” below. I also try to use the same vowel letter for the short/long pair, but an exception to this is my use of /oo/ and /uu/ for one of the short/long pairs. There are other exceptions that you can find by scanning the charts. Many of the choices represent a compromise between several competing considerations.

The consonants page is not affected by your control panel selection, and always shows the T-L.com Enhanced consonant transcriptions. Like many other Thai Romanization systems, our system uses different letters depending on whether a Thai consonant is used as a syllable-initial versus syllable-final.

Tone Indicators

Every syllable in Thai is pronounced in one of five tones: low, mid, high, falling, or rising. In our system, the required tone is indicated with a superscripted capital letter after the syllable.
IndicatorLexical ToneExample
LLowอยู่ yuuL
MMidตา dtaaM
HHighรัก rakH
FFallingห้า haaF
RRisingหรือ reuuR
As you can see, I have opted not to use diacritical marks to indicate the lexical tone. One reason is that those marks have specific meanings in other languages. I feel that the superscript system properly calls more attention to the spoken tones; in the T-L.com Enhanced system, a tone is indicated for every syllable, including mid tones.

Long /-oh-/ Vowel

One exception to the policy of not using unusual marks in the phonemic transcription system is for the long-duration oh- sound represented by the Thai vowel . We can't write /-ooh-/ because this implies a different sound in English. In order to distinguish the long-duration /-oh-/ sound from its short-duration variant, the long-duration vowel uses a colon, as shown below. This is similar to how long duration vowels are marked in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
Phonemic Transcription of  
o:

Example

โทร   /tho:hM/

Gaaran Characters

The system has the capability of displaying, in square brackets, letters which are marked as silent by the presence of the การันต์   /gaaM ranM/ mark. In general, this mark indicates that the letter or letters underneath are not pronounced. For more information on gaaran, refer to the section titled “Silence” on this page.

Previously, the display of these letters could not be disabled, but now the option is off by default. This setting, which only affects the T-L.com enhanced system, can be enabled in your Site Settings, and the remainder of this section is relevant only if you choose to enable the feature.

The brackets are not always shown when the gaaran symbol is present because sometimes the transcription code handles certain special cases in other special ways. For example in the sample word “hamburger” given on that page, the ‘r’ sounds in the phonemic transcription actually come from the vowel, and the ‘r’ character with the gaaran above it does not show up in the transcription in any way.

The reason you may wish to display gaaran characters is that, when the silent letters appear in English loanwords, some Thais with a good knowledge of English may elect to pronounce some of them. It was originally thought that being able to reference this aspect of the source orthography would provide insight to students, but due to inconsistencies and incompleteness of the feature, forum members reached a consensus to de-emphasize it.

This concludes the discussion of the T-L.com enhanced phonemic transcription notation. The remainder of this page discusses the use and appearance of the various user-selectable transcription systems, and discusses phonemic transcription in general.

Transcription Errors

Phonemic transcriptions shown on this web site are generated automatically from the Thai script by a computer program. The algorithm, in this case a Finite State Transducer (FST), has grown complex over time so that it can handle many of the exceptions in Thai pronunciation, but some of the transcriptions may still be incorrect. Please be patient while improvements are made.

For entries with audio pronounciation, the audio gives the correct pronounciation in any case where there is a difference with the transcription.

Please feel welcome to submit corrections to erroneous transcriptions by using the correction link at the bottom of every dictionary page. However, please realize that transcription accuracy is a goal which is secondary to our other development activities, such as recording additional new audio clips. Most users agree with this prioritization. Behind-the-scenes, I have several ways to adjust individual transcriptions:
  • syllabification assistance
  • so-called xlit flags which tag certain prescribed situations
  • manual override
  • modifications to the C# source code for the engine.
If your correction can be accomplished within one of the easier of these methods, it has a better chance of being effected in a timely manner.

Transcription Pitfalls

In general, phonemic transcription is a haphazard practice which suffers from many pitfalls:
Further complicating matters is the fact that Thai consonants represent different sounds depending on whether they appear at the beginning (“initial”) or ending (“final”) of a syllable. Unsophisticated transcription systems don’t account for this, which is why you sometimes see the Thai greeting สวัสดี rendered as, “sa was dee” rather than “sa wat dee;” the character is pronounced with an /-s/ as an initial, and with a /-t/ sound as a final.

In fact, as is the case for every language, many of the sounds which are not present in the Thai language, such as final /-s/ or /-r/ may not be hearable by native speakers; to some people, the sounds are perceptually indistinguishable from other endings which, to English speakers, clearly contrast. Of course the converse is true for Westerners encountering Thai phonology.

For these reasons, the author recommends that all students of the Thai language eventually study the Thai alphabet. More so than for English, the Thai spelling of a word indicates its pronunciation fairly unambiguously. Being able to read and write Thai will allow you bridge between different tutorial materials and gain a deeper understanding of the language. And it’s fun to be able to read what you come across as you’re travelling around Thailand, too.

Audio clips for the dictionary entries can go a long way towards eliminating the need for transcription on a web site such as this. Nevertheless, I understand the need for transcriptions when people are trying to get up to speed quickly. With the earliest version of this website, I had resolved not to offer transcription in order to “encourage” people to take a look at Thai orthography, but ended up caving in to a flood of requests.

In keeping with the tradition of proliferating transcription methodologies, this website uses the system described above. It seems reasonably accurate to me and has the advantage of being internally consistent and well documented. You may wish to note that I was raised on America’s east coast, so my decisions reflect this regional pronounciation.
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