I thank God on a regular basis that Thai uses a phonetic alphabet, and in general the Thai alphabet is very useful. More useful than the A, B, Cs sometimes.
Like the vowels. A, E, I, O and U (and sometimes Y) can be tricky, because each one can represent several different sounds. Thai has over twenty vowels, variously reported between twenty-four and twenty-eight, so it’s pretty much one for every occasion.
Thai names can be very, very tricky to pronounce, even if one knows the alphabet pretty well. The difficulty comes in the form of “implied vowels,” spaces where there is a vowel sound that is not represented by a printed letter. I came across a name while proctoring last week that makes a great example.
Thai letters are spoken as the sound, followed by an example. Such as “gaw-gai,” which is the sound of the letter followed by the Thai word for a chicken. The name went like this:
Saw, ngaw, waw, naw, waw, ngaw, saw. (That’s the sound components only.)
In English: SNGWNWNGS. I have a very good friend, American, whose family name has only a solitary A for vowels in the middle of five consonants. He gets teased about it sometimes. But Sngwnwngs must be some kind of record.
I am informed, and believe, that the name is pronounced “Saengwanwong.” So there are three of those implied vowels in there. There are problems for the un- or semi-initiated.
Problem number one: notice that the implied consonants in the name take three different values. In a word or name that you are not familiar with it can be a challenge to choose the correct vowel sound.
Problem number two: the S at the end is marked with the tone marker for “don’t pronounce this one,” or these ones in some cases. It’s there for reasons that are hard to explain. When I used to ask, the answer was usually, “it’s Sanskrit.” (Answered delivered after a period of eyes rolled towards the ceiling.) I don't ask anymore.
The whole thing is very interesting. There are, for instance, six letters to cover the sound of the S, along with one or two combinations of letters that sound like the S, with neither of the letters being one of the S letters. You may recall me mentioning that the Lao have gone ahead and eliminated all of the S letters but two, which carry different tones. Communist governments can go ahead and do such things on their own motion; it will never happen in Thailand, where people just would not stand for it. We are Thai! We got this alphabet from the great King Ramkhamhaeng! Hands off! And I think that they are right, too. It’s easy enough to keep up with it all, especially if you learned the language from your parents.
Like I say, I’m just happy that there is an alphabet, not like Chinese where if you want to learn to read you must study over 5,000 pictograms. And only one alphabet, too, not like Japanese where every paragraph of the newspaper, if not every sentence, uses three different alphabets and about 900 Chinese characters that they still find indispensable.
If Thai were any more difficult, I could not have made the little progress that I have in learning it.