Thai Language Blog

Thai Tones, Part 3 Posted by on Mar 23, 2012 in Beginner

Unfortunately, none of the signs you’ll find in Thailand written in karaoke (Thai spelled using the English alphabet) make the distinction between either Thai tones or vowel length (I’ll go over those soon). And that’s why it’s important to learn how to read and write Thai at an early stage to get the pronunciation correct when reading these signs.

Now, I understand as a beginner this is really difficult. Too much at once can be overwhelming. So in all my articles I also write the karaoke next to the Thai. But keep in mind there is no good official way to do this. Every author has their own method which they believe is the best, and there is no good official standard.

The best methods make distinctions for vowel length, tones, and phonemes (sounds) not found in English.

To distinguish between tones, there are a hundred different ways by a hundred different authors to do it. It’s usually done with various squiggles, arrows, and/or lines above the word, or sometimes subscript letters such as H, F, L to denote high, falling, and low, etc. I like most of these methods, and they work great when you are jotting stuff down in a notebook. However, these methods are a huge hassle when typing – where is the squiggle arrow on the keyboard, anyway? As such I prefer to use numbers after each syllable, where the number denotes the tone from 1 to 5. It’s just easier for typing. I actually learned this method from a Taiwanese friend who writes Chinese using the English alphabet.

Below is an example of the word ‘ma’ which has entirely different meanings depending on the tone you use.

Thai spelling Thai transliteration (karaoke) English Tone
หมา maa5 dog Rising
ม้า maa4 horse High
มา maa1 come Mid
มาม่า maa1maa3 Mama brand noodles Mid, Falling


Some useless but interesting facts:

Vietnamese has 6 tones.

Cantonese has 9 tones (gasp!).

Mandarin has 4 tones.

Lao has 5 or 6 tones, depending on the dialect.

Navajo, the native American language, has 2 tones, although some would argue 4.

Burmese has 2 tones, plus two others called ‘creeky’ and ‘aspirated’ voice – some people would argue they aren’t actually tones.

Taiwanese has 7 tones.

If you ask a Thai person what tone a word is, they will count on their fingers and look confused.

If you ask a Chinese (Mandarin) person what tone a word is, they will start doing karate chops in front of you – different hand motions represent different tones.

And no, not all Asian languages are tonal – such as Japanese and Cambodian.

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  1. Natasha:

    Hi, these Thai posts keep ending up on the Portuguese RSS feed for transparent languages – could someone please fix it please??