Thai Language Blog

How to read/write in Karaoke Posted by on May 22, 2011 in Beginner, Culture

What is karaoke? Is it standing up in front of a crowded room poorly singing a song on the video screen? Well, yes, but it has another meaning as well. In Thailand, karaoke is also those seemingly random English letters at the bottom of the Thai music video. In other words, karaoke (คาราโอเกะ kaa1-raa1-ooh1-gey1) is transliteration of Thai words using the English alphabet, hence the relation.

Let’s start with something simple, กินข้าวยัง? (have you eaten yet?).

In karaoke, it’d be written as gin khao yang? Or maybe gen kao yung? Or perhaps ghen cow . . . well, you get the idea. The point is, there is no set spelling. So how does everyone understand each other when writing it?

Suppose you got a text message in karaoke on your phone. The message says, ‘wan ne wang mai krap?’ What does that mean? Well, with many spelling variations of words and no tones given, it can be confusing – especially if the grammar is wrong when you write this to your Thai friend!

The trick to reading karaoke is to turn your brain off to how words are spelled. Naturally, your brain wants to link words to it’s spelling, but now you need to pay attention to context, word order, and pronunciation instead to figure out the meaning. It takes a bit of practice, but try to ignore the spelling and just listen to how it sounds when you read it out loud.

Here is the phrase again. It’s intentionally spelled in an unusual way to make a point:

‘wan ne wang mai krap?

Try to sound out each of the words, and try to figure out what it means before reading on.

The first three words are difficult to figure out, but look at the last one: Krap. This is always added at the end to make the sentence formal. Easy! Now, it has a question mark, meaning ‘mai’ is a question word (as opposed to the 10 other words it can be, depending on tone).

Now pronounce the first two words . . . sounds like วันนี้ (today), right? The middle word is the hardest, ว่าง, meaning available. “Are you available today?”

I’ll leave it up to you to figure out the response, ‘my waang kap’. Remember, don’t pay attention to the spelling, just the pronunciation and context.

On a side note, it should be mentioned there is a standard royal transliteration scheme. But to be honest, it’s perhaps the worst of all schemes as tones are left out and pronunciations don’t match their English equivalents. A perfect example is the name of the airport, spelled สุวรรณภูมิ yet written as Suvarnabhumi – try to pronounce that one! The correct pronunciation is Su-wan-na-pum (mid tone for each syllable). Or as tongue-Thai’ed expats like to say, ‘Swampy’.

Anyway, Thai karaoke can also involve singing songs to music videos. You and a couple of friends can rent private rooms and sing songs for hours while drinking and eating. It’s really fun, as the below video shows.

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  1. Ana Kravitz:

    I’ve always wondered who is the intended audience for karaoke Thai at the bottom of music videos. Thais obviously don’t use it since they can read the real Thai. Non-Thais who can sing in Thai are probably capable of reading it too. That means it could only be for 1) the small subset of Thai learners who can speak Thai but not read it, or 2)the even smaller subset of people who can’t speak Thai yet still want to sing Thai songs at the karaoke bar. To me, neither of these reasons adequately explain how ubiquitous it is.

    • palmisano:

      @Ana Kravitz I completely agree. But . . . I do often meet farang that can speak Thai fairly well but can’t read Thai, and I know a small number of Thais who were born and lived in the US so can only speak but not read . . .

      That said, it’s such a small subset I don’t think it matters . . .