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How to Determine the Tone of a Syllable

contributed by Gregory Satir

Every syllable in a Thai word is spoken with a tone, one of five—mid, low, falling, high or rising. Determining the tone can be complicated. A syllable might have one of four tone marks written over it. The tone mark only partially determines the actual tone of that syllable. You also may need to consider the the syllable’s starting consonant and possibily how the syllable ends.

1.

Let’s start with the easy case. The third and fourth tone marks do actually determine the tone of a syllable. Just read this table:
  high
  rising


2.

Otherwise, syllables with the first or second tone mark, or no tone tone mark, can have more than one tone. We must determine the class of the syllable’s starting consonant — mid, high or low. Do not confuse consonant class with tone, even though they use the same words.

Three Classes of Consonants
Low
, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mid
, , , , , , , ,

High
, , , , , , , , , ,

For more information on the classes of the Thai consonants, please see:
Now, if the syllable has a tone mark, use this table:

Consonant Class
Tone MarkMid/HighLow
lowfalling
fallinghigh

3.

If there is no tone mark written over the syllable, you must consider how the syllable ends. A dead syllable ends with a short vowel or one of these “stop” sounds: /-k/ /-t/ /-p/. A live syllable ends with a long vowel or one of these sonorant sounds: /-ng/ /-n/ /-m/ /-y/.

Consonant Class
Syllable TypeMidHighLow
dead (short)lowlowhigh
dead (long)falling
livemidrisingmid
Where vowel length is pretty obvious:
short   -   -อ   -อ   -อ   -   -   -   -าะ   -อัวะ   -อียะ   -อือะ   -อะ
long   -   -อ   -อือ   -อ   -   -   -   -   -อัว   -อีย   -อือ   -   -อ
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