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The Thai Phonemes, Part 1 Posted by on Apr 3, 2012 in Beginner

And now for the Thai phonemes. But what is a phoneme? A phoneme is the smallest segmental unit of sound used to form a meaningful contrast between utterances, from which words in that language or dialect can be created. Fortunately, most phonemes (sounds) that are used in Thai can be also found in English, so I’ll keep this post simple and won’t go over those. But, there are a few tricky ones of which I’ll describe below:


This letter is best transliterated as ‘dt’. Some authors write it as ‘t’, but this is incorrect as it sounds nothing like it. To make this sound, put the tip of your tongue between your teeth. Now, as you say the word ‘dog’ out loud, slide your tongue back into your mouth. It will sound like ‘dtog’. It should only take you about an hour of practice to have this down.

Note: some linguists will make the claim that ต isn’t one single phoneme but two combined. I disagree.


This is by far the hardest phoneme in Thai for an English speaker, and is best transliterated as ‘ng’. It’s just like the ‘ng’ found in ‘Nguyen’ so often found in Vietnamese. It sounds somewhat like the Spanish ñ, except that the ñ is pronounced at the front of the mouth whereas ng is pronounced deep in the throat. Through teaching experience I find it generally takes 1 to 2 years of practice before a foreigner can pronounce it correctly. So find a Thai friend to help and don’t give up!


อึ, อื
This vowel (both short and long versions) can also take a few months to master. I don’t speak French, but I’ve been told it’s exactly like the French ‘eu’ sound. The sound should come from the back of the mouth, near the throat.


Another hard consonant, and best transliterated as ‘bp’. Some authors will write it as either ‘b’ or ‘p’ – stay away from those authors. This letter is neither a ‘b’ nor a ‘p’, but something in between. Prepare your mouth to say the word ‘bad’, but curl your upper and lower lips inwards as you say ‘b’.

Note: Just like with ต, some linguists would argue this isn’t one single phoneme but two combined. I disagree.

to be continued . . .

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  1. Benard:

    Hi, I’ m French, and I think what you reported is not too correct. I mean, I have no knowledge of phonetics, so I will stand only on a common French speaker point of « hearing ».

    The French sound « eu » like in feux, heureux, malheureux (two times here)… is not sounding like « อื » or « อึ », but more like « เ_อ » (long) or « เิ » (when there is a finale consonant) or « เ_อะ » (short)

    In French, you sound the vowel « u » not like in English, where « u » will be sounded for a French speakers as « ou ». In French, the vowel « u » is the one that is the nearest to the thai vowels « อื » (long) or « อึ » (short). But it is not exactly the same sound, but the nearest.

    So the French word « foutu » (which is a bit street language and has one of the many meanings of thai word « เสีย ») could be transliterated in thai « ฟุตึ ».
    Do you get it ?

    Thanks for your posts, always so interesting to read.

  2. Tony C:

    One thing I learned about Thai and I teach my university students about English is don’t be afraid to look silly when you’re learning some of these unfamiliar sounds. For instance, when you say เมือง, say it with a big, exaggerated smile. Maybe surprising, but it gets you much closer to the Thai sound.