Adapting and Writing Language Lessons/Appendix M

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Adapting and Writing Language Lessons by Earl W. Stevick
Appendix M: A Learners Synopsis of Thai





(with Warren G. Yates)

1. Any English speaker who wants to communicate with Thais will find that his problems lie in two areas: his perception of the world, and his inability to handle the mechanics of the Thai language.

In the first of these areas lie such questions as What should I have for breakfast? Who am I? What kinds of deference are expected of me by whom? What is 'honesty'? What does it mean to be 'punctual'? What of importance has happened today? What of importance was happening 500 years ago? Of the two areas, this is the one in which lie the most serious obstacles to communication.

2. Yet in training Americans--including Peace Corps Volunteers--for work in other countries, the second area is the one that has usually claimed most attention. There are at least six reasons why this has been so:

  1. Language facts are easier to write down as separate items on sheets of paper.
  2. It is easy to know when (verbal) language is being performed and when it is not.
  3. Some ability in handling the language normally goes hand in hand with ability in the first area.
  4. People react to mistakes in either area, but they are more likely to react verbally to mistake in the verbal area.
  5. Unfamiliarity with the non—verbal code often leads misunderstanding, while unfamiliarity with the verbal code inevitably leads to total (verbal) unintelligibility.
  6. Language learning is time-consuming.

3. Whenever we limit our attention only to the cultural area or only to the linguistic area, or to only one of them at a time, we do so at our peril. There is no language without meaning, and there is no culture without words. Nevertheless, this synopsis will violate that principle by concentrating entirely on the mechanics of speaking Thai. It is addressed primarily to native speakers of English who expect to live in Thailand, and gives a bird's-eye-view of the tasks they will encounter in their study of the language.

4. Why a Synopsis? There already exists at least one reference grammar of Thai, as well as courses which contain detailed grammatical notes. But people learn things when they are ready to learn them. They also need to have the same facts available on more than one scale. Experience with basic courses in other languages suggests that most students need a connected summary of the main points of structure, in addition to and not instead of the notes that are scattered among the lessons. A reference grammar, of course, does just that, but if it is as detailed as it ought to be, it is necessarily too long to be accessible to many students until after they have completed most of their study. A Synopsis, on the other hand, should be short enough and general enough so that a person who has not yet begun to study the language can follow it; it should also contain cross-references to existing sources of further detail, so that the student may use it as a rough map, to be looked at and added to from time to time as he plods (or jogs) through the hundreds of individual side streets and alleys of Thai structure. Its purpose is to help him establish and maintain perspective.

5. The persistent difficulties that we have in learning Thai fall into three general categories: pronunciation, sentence structure, and vocabulary.


6. The most conspicuous—though not the largest—unit of Thai pronunciation is the syllable. In spite of some similarities, Thai syllables differ drastically from English syllables in the way they are organized. The most striking difference is that each Thai syllable has one or two of three possible 'tones,' and that the vowels and consonants of a syllable make up either one or two tone—bearing elements ('moras'). Among the consonants, where English has only a two—way distinction between p and b, or between t and d, Thai has a three-way distinction that causes trouble for English speakers. Finally, though many Thai vowels and consonants have similar-sounding counterparts in English, there are many differences in the details of pronunciation. The key sentences of this paragraph will now be ampllfied in sections 7-22 , below.

7. 'Each Thai syllable has one or two of three possible tones.'

It is more usual to say that a Thai syllable may have one of five possible tones: three 'level' tones (low, mid, high)

and two glides (high falling and low rising). But the glides are found only on syllables that have two moras (see 12, below). Either way of describing the tones will work, but the one we have chosen here seems to us to highlight the physical aspects of pronunciation better. (For further details on what the tones sound like, see Noss, pp. 18-20: Yates and Tryon, p. xli.)

8. The 'tone' of a syllable is related to its 'pitch,' but the two are not identical. 'Pitch' means the note or notes on a musical scale which are heard with one particular occurrence of a syllable. Different speakers may pronounce the same word with the same 'tone,' and even a single speaker may use quite different pitches on different occurrences of the same word, but again with constant 'tone.' 'Tone,' then, refers to how the pitch of a syllable sounds relative to its neighbors: relatively high, relatively low, relatively level, or relatively long glide, and so forth.

9. In producing acceptable approximations to the five tone-combinations of Thai, it is not necessary for us to do anything that even the most tone—deaf of us does not do every day in speaking English. The problem lies not in the mechanics of controlling the pitch, but in the uses to which we are accustomed to put pitch distinctions. In English, we employ pitch to show where a given word is in the sentence, or to signal that we are asking a question, or to convey attitudes and emotions. Furthermore, we learned to use pitch in these ways very early, and these matters have very deep roots in our linguistic personalities. In Thai, on the other hand, the tone of a word remains relatively constant, no matter where it is in the sentence or how the speaker feels about what he is saying.

10. 'The vowels and consonants of a Thai syllable make up either one or two tone—bearing elements ('moras').

Before talking about Thai syllable structure, it will be worthwhile to take a quick look at the surface structure of English syllables. In English, every syllable has a 'nucleus,' and most also have 'onsets' or 'codas' or both. A 'nucleus' may either be a simple vowel (as in bet), or a diphthong (as in bite or bout). The 'onset' is the consonant or group of consonants that comes before the nucleus (s, p, l, sp, sl, pl, m, sm, br, etc.), and the 'coda' is the consonant or group of consonants that comes after it. (s, t, st, ts,sts, mp, etc.). The number of possible onsets and codas in English is very great, and some of them are quite long and complex.

11. One fact is of the utmost importance in understandingthe differences between Thai and English syllables: y-glides (as in buys, boys), and w-glides (as in knows, cows) are part of the nucleus in English. This means (1) that the same codas that can follow a simple vowel in English can also follow a diphthong that ends with a w-glide or a w-glide, and (2) that the t in cat counts as a coda, but the w of cow is part of the nucleus: cow has no coda.[1]

12. In Thai syllables that consist of two moras, the first half consists of a vowel and whatever consonant(9) (if any) stand before it. The second half consists of (1) a repetition of the same vowel, plus whatever one consonant (if any) stands after it, or (2) the vowel 5, plus whatever one consonant (if any) stands after it, or (3) one of the 'sonorant' consonants j, w, m, n, ŋ,

Examples are:

(1) ma a
  thí í
  khy y
  ka at
  tha an
(2) klu
  klu aj
  khu ap
(3) khu j
  khu n
  kha w

Notice that unless there is a vowel in the second half of the syllable, a sonorant (m, n, ŋ, j, w carries tone just the way a second vowel does. It also occupies about as much time, so that a sonorant after a single vowel sounds stronger and longer than after a double vowel (Noss, p. 9: Yates and Tryon.p.xxxiii). Notice also that two sonorant consonants cannot occur together. This is why Thais who find it easy to approximate the pronunciation of English Tim, Tom and tie may still tend to say tie when they mean time.

13. A one—mora syllable in Thai therefore cannot end with a sonorant consonant. It consists of a single short vowel, which may be preceded by consonants and may be followed by a non-sonorant consonant (p, ,k or glottal stop and in loan words f, s).

14. In a two-mora syllable, the tone of the first half may be low and the tone of the second half high, or the first half may be high and the second half low, or the tones of the two halves may be identical. These possibilities provide for four of the five combinations that exist for long Thai syllables:

  1. low rising
  2. high falling
  3. high level
  4. low level

The fifth combination is pronounced in at least two different ways. When a syllable with this combination is pronounced by itself, both of its halves are high, but there is a very noticeable down-step of pitch between the first and second halves. When such a syllable is preceded by a syllable with high tone, its own tone is level, but there is a downstep between the two syllables. The fifth combination may therefore be described as

  1. high with downstep

(It is usually called mid tone.)

15. 'Where English has a two-way distinction between p and b, Thai has a three—way distinction that causes difficulty for English speakers.'

English speakers find it hard to hear and produce consistently the differences among the three Thai sounds that are romanized as p, ph, b, Of these sounds, b is fully voiced, as in English samba. The sounds ph and p are not voiced. The former is followed by a puff of air ('aspiration') and the latter is not. The trouble is that while both aspirated and unaspirated p occur in English, the choice between them depends on position in the word, and so the difference cannot be used for distinguishing between two different English words. Accordingly, we have learned to ignore it. In Thai, on the other hand, many pairs of words differ only in this respect.

16. Just as English p may be either aspirated or unaspirated, so English b may be voiced or unvoiced. This choice depends less on position in the word than on the identity of the speaker: some people almost always voice b in English, but many others virtually never do. The result, however is the same as for p-ph because the difference between voiced and unvoiced b never carries a difference of meaning in English, we have learned to ignore it.

17. English speakers therefore may have considerable difficulty in hearing the difference between Thai b and p, or between p and ph, or both. Comparable problems exist in dealing with Thai d,t,th; c, ch; k, kh.

18. One logically minor but in practice troublesome fact is that the consonant ŋ which occurs only at the ends of English syllables (e.g. sing) is hard for English speakers to pronounce when it begins a word, as it often does in Thai.

19. 'Though many Thai vowels have similar—sounding counterparts_in English. there are differences in the details of pronunciation.'

If we compare a chart of the simple vowel contrasts of the surface structure of English with a chart of the vowels of Thai, the two charts look virtually identical:

(Trager and Smith's analysis)

  Front Unrounded Central Unrounded Back Rounded
High i (pit) ɨ u (put)
Mid e (pet) ə (putt) o (as in coat, but no w—glide)
Low a (pat) a (pot, American) ɔ (pot, Standard British)

[The high central vowel sound ɨ is very frequent in speech, but is only rarely in contrast with other English vowel sounds, and is therefore hard to illustrate for non-phoneticians.]

(Symbols as in Yates and Tryon)

  Front Central-Back Unrounded Back Rounded
High i (pii) y (khyy) u (duu)
Mid e (thee) ə (pə̀ət) o (too)
Low ɛ (jɛ̂ɛ) a (sǎa) ɔ (tòo)

21. By far the most important difference between these two vowel systems is that in Thai the vowel y is in full contrast with all other vowels, while in English the vowel ɨ can almost always be replaced by some other vowel without a change of meaning. There are however certain noticeable differences between the Thai vowels and their closest English counterparts. (For details, see Noss, pp. 15-17.)

22. 'Though many Thai consonants have similar—sounding counterparts in English, there are differences in the details of pronunciation.' For details, see Noss, pp. 10-14.

II. Problems of Sentence Structure

23. In the way they are put together, even the simplest Thai sentences bear little resemblance to their English counterparts. True, the subject does ordinarily come before the predicate, as in English, and the verb does stand before its object, but almost everything else is different. The following are nine of the differences that cause English speakers the most trouble.

24. (a) Every English statement must have a subject, even if the subject is only a personal pronoun (I, etc.)

In Thai, the subject may be omitted if no ambiguity would result:

jùu (He)'s in.
rɔ́ɔn mɑ̂ɑk (It)'s very hot.
dii máj Is it good?
chɔ̂ɔp mɑ̂j Do (you) like it?
mâj sâɑp (I) don't know.

25. (b) In English, we must show the gender for third person singular pronouns (he, she, it), but not for the first person singular pronoun (I). In Thai there is no he-she-they distinction but I has separate translations for men and women:

phǒm I (male speaker)
dichǎn I (female speaker)
khǎw he, she, they

For a female Thai speaker to refer to herself by the masculine pronoun (phǒm) I instead of the feminine I (dichǎn) would be as great a blunder—as to refer to an English speaker's mother as he. (There is a distinction betweenhe-she-they and it, but the latter is rarely used. (khǎw) he,she,they: (man) it.)

26. (c) English sentences must show the time of an action (goes, went, will go, etc.), while Thai sentences are often noncommittal in this respect.

kháw paj talàat He goes (is going, went) to the market.
phǒm maj chɔ̂ɔp I (don't, didn't) like it.
mii thahaǎn jùu máj (Are, were) there soldiers there?
kháw khuj kan They converse(d).

When time is indicated in a Thai sentence, it is sometimes shown by the choice of a sentence particle which has no direct relation at all to the verb.

paj rýplàaw Did you go?
paj máj Do you (want to) go?

27. (d) Most English nouns must show by their form whether they are singular (cow, child, man) or plural (cows, children, men). They must do so even if the matter is obvious or not important in a particular context: I snapped my fingers, bumped my head, The light came through the window(s). In Thai, there is no singular-plural indication in the nouns themselves, though the concept can be put across in other ways when the need arises.

khruu khon nyŋ one teacher (teacher person one)
phûjǐŋ 2 khon two women (woman 2 person)
nǎ ŋnsy̌y dii dii good books (book good good)
dèk dèk children (child child)

The temptation for English speakers here as in the other examples is to overuse the available mechanisms in Thai for specifying plurality and to specify in Thai what Thai speakers leave unspecified.

28. (e) Corresponding to English sentences with he as the main verb, Thai has at least six different constructions. The choice among these constructions depends partly on the subject and partly on the expression that follows be.

Subject Verb Complement
nîl[2] (khyy) phŷan kháw This is his friend.
khun cɔɔn pen khruu phǒm John is my teacher.
kháw chŷy[3] cɔɔn His name is John.
aahǎan dii[4] ——— The food is good.
kháw jùu bâan He's at home.
thɛɛ̌wníi[5] mii ráantàtphǒm In this area there is a barber shop.
kháw (mii) aajú 6 khùap He's eight years old.
wanníi (pen) wansǎw Today (is) Saturday.

29. (f) The part of the simple sentence that is most likely to arouse comment from foreigners is the system of 'classifiers'.

A 'classifier' is one of a special list of about 200 nouns which are used in constructions to enumerate or specify other nouns.

nansy̌y lêm diaw One book
book clf. one
rót khan nyŋ: one car
nákrian sǎam khon 3 Students
student 3 people

Each classifier is normally used with a large number of nouns of very different meanings, and there is frequently no observable connection between the classifier and its noun.

takraj 2 lêm 2 pairs of scissors
nǎŋşy̌y 2 lém 2 books
mîit 2 lém 2 knives
khûmyy 2 lém 2 manuals

Fortunately, for limited purposes there are about 50 very common classifiers that will take care of most of our needs. Some of these are of very high frequency: khon, tua, an, etc.

an khan khrŷaŋ baj hɛ̀ɛn lêm

30. (g) Questions based on even the simplest statements provide new complications. The interrogative words do not usually occur at the beginning of questions as they do in English.

kháw ca paj mŷaraj when will he go?
tham jaŋŋaj How do you do it?
kháw bɔ̀ɔk wâa araj what did he tell?
kháw pen khraj Who is he?

The sentence particle, and not the verb, may indicate something about the time of an action.

kháw paj rýplàaw Did he go?

The sentence particle may also show something about what the speaker expects from his hearers.

khun pen thahǎan ry̌y You're a soldier? (expecting confirmation)
paj kin khâaw máj Do you (want to) go eat? (an invitation)

Knowing how to reply to a question depends on noticing what its structure was. Even as simple (to us) a concept as 'yes' has different translations after various kinds of question.

(1) Q: paj rýplàaw Did you go?
  A: pâj/mâjdâj paj Yes (or) No,
(2) Q: khun pen thahǎan ry̌y You're a soldier?
  A: khráp/plàaw khráp Yes (or) No.
(3) Q: paj mǎj Want to go?
  A: paj/mâj paj Yes (or) No.
(4) Q: kin khâaw lɛ́ɛw ryjaŋ Have you eaten yet?
  A: kin lɛ́ɛw Yes, I have' (or)
    jaŋ khráp No, not yet.

31. (h) Negation of simple sentences is likewise accomplished in several different ways, depending largely on the way the affirmative sentence is constructed.

kháw mâjdâj chŷy prasə́ət His name isn't Prasert.
nân mâjchâj tó That isn't a table.
mâj dii (It) is no good.
mâj paj I don't (want to) go.
jaŋ mâj paj (He has)n't gone yet.
jaŋ mâj dâj kin khâwu (They) hadn't eaten yet.
jàa paj Don't go.
phǒm mâj dâj pen chaawnaa I'm not a farmer.

32. (i) some of the aspects of simple Thai sentences appear strange and arbitrary to foreigners, and the classifier system is formidable, but all these can be understood and mastered one-by-one through hard work. Possibly the most confusing features of Thai structure are the ways in which one sentence can be embedded in another to form a more complicated sentence. Sentence embedding is in itself nothing new to us. We do it in English all the time. Embed The exam was hard in She took an exam and we get She took a hard exam. Embed The model works in This is a model and we may get This is a working model or This is a model that works.

33. We have two problems with Thai embedding in Noun Phrases and Noun Compounds: (1) The word order is frequently wrong, since the main noun precedes its modifiers instead of following them as in English:

khruu phûujin (teacher woman) woman teacher(s)
maa sii dam (dog color black) black dog(s)
mɛɛw tua jàj (cat body large) a large cat
ŋaan mâj khɔ̂ɔj mâak (work not hardly much) hardly any work

34. (2) The connectors (-ing, that, which, etc.) that help us keep track of embeddings in English are virtually always missing in Thai. Stative verbs, other verbs, and even whole clauses may stand between the main noun and its classifier or determiner, with no change in their form.

mii bâan bɛ̀ɛp thaj chán diaw than samǎj wâan châw jùu laŋ nyŋ

There is house style Thai storey single modern vacant rent classifier one.

'There is one vacant, modern one-storey Thai style house for rent.'

news relate to this matter news relating to this
person propose resolution request.... the proposer of a resolution requesting...
matter not break law beginning a matter that was not initially illegal

35. Similarly, English has several verb forms that may function as nouns or as adjectives. For example, driving is a verbal noun in I like driving cars; to drive is a verbal noun (sometimes called an 'infinitive') in I like to drive cars. Compare maintain:maintenance, proceed:procedure, and many others. In barking dogs and frozen food, barking and frozen are verbal adjectives derived from bark and freeze. There are only two noun formatives that are used to form nouns like those above:

kaan and kwaam
kaantàtsŷa   tailoring
kaan sùup burìi   smoking cigarettes
kaan wîn running
kwaam rúu knowledge
kwaam khawrópthoŋ respect for the flag

36. We have just seen why English speakers may have difficulty keeping track of noun expressions in Thai. Verb expressions may also create bewilderment because of (1) the lack of connectors, and (2) the number of verbs that may be stacked next to each other.

take gentle stuff back enter go keep further

'Gently stuff it back in some more.'

III. Problems of Vocabulary

37. Except for a few borrowings (which may be unrecognizable with Thai pronunciation) Thai words sound entirely different from their English equivalents. They not only sound different from English words, they frequently resemble each other in ways that make it difficult for the English speaker to distinguish them. For example, these three words differ only in tone:

khǎaw white
khàaw news
khâaw rice

These pairs of words are identical except for length of vowel:

khǎaw white
khǎw he , she
khàaw news
khàw knee

These pairs of words differ only in the type of initial consonant (one is aspirated; the other isn't):

kaaw step, pace
khaaw rice
pàa forest
phàa to cut

Since these particular types of contrast are not present in English, the student may find it hard to keep them in mind in Thai.

38. Since the experience area covered by a particular word in Thai will usually differ from that in English, the student will usually not know the range of meaning of the word in Thai and may extend it into areas where it is not used. An example of this would be the word hǔu'ear', which the student might extend to egg of corn or grain where the word ruaŋ is used. In some areas where it might be extended, such as khîihǔu (excretion of the ear) 'earwax', or tàaŋhǔu 'earring', the student may feel afraid to extend it, although the 'basic' meaning of 'ear' is kept. Frequently the student will understand compounds in which a somewhat extended meaning of the word is used, such as hǔuthoorasáp (ear telephone) 'telephone receiver‘, although he would be unable to orginate a compound of this sort.

39. The meaning of a word as used in a compound may be quite different from the 'basic' meaning learned by the student. In these cases the student will find the compound difficult to understand. An example of this is hǔukrapǎw (ear bag) 'handle of a bag (suitcase, etc.).'

40. The way that Thai words are put into categories differs from English. For example, wheat, corn, millet, oats, and different varieties of rice all contain the word khâaw:

khâaw rice, grain
khâawnǐaw glutinous rice
khâawfâaŋ millet
khâawsǎalii wheat
khâawphôot corn
khâaw rice, food, grain

In a similar fashion, pocket, pouch, purse, handbag, briefcase, glasses case, and suitcase are all considered as (krapǎw). When a number of Thai words are subsumed under one category, the only problem for the student is recognizing what is being referred to.

A more serious problem arises when one English word has many Thai translations. An example is the word 'carry', which is translated according to how things are carried:

1. hǎam: two people carry with a pole between them

2. hàap: two people carry something on a pole on their shoulders

3. hɔ̀ɔp: carry on the arm, like a package

4. hɔ̂ɔj: to carry hanging, on the arm for example

5. thy̌: to carry in the hands

6. hîw: to carry by the handle, like a basket, bag, etc.

7. bɛ̀ɛk: to carry on the back

8. ûm: to carry in one's arm, like a baby

9. banthúk: to carry in a vehicle, like a truck, etc.

10. saphaaj: to carry with a strap over the shoulder

11. kradìat: to carry against the hip or waist, like a basket

12. khǒn to carry or transport large objects

13. phók: to carry wrapped in a cloth

14. thuun húa: to carry on the head

41. Another problem that students have in learning Thai words is that frequently what is expressed as one word in English may require two or more in Thai. Compare the word 'fetch' with Thai (paj aw maa) (literally: 'go take come'). Other examples are: 'store up' (kèp aw wáj) (literally: collect take keep) or 'squeeze it out' (khán aw ɔ̀ɔk maa) (literally: squeeze take out come).

  1. (Nōn codam sed caudam!)
  2. Demonstratives only.
  3. Only with names.
  4. Stative verbs only.
  5. Locatives only.