How To Speak Thai: Live And Dead Thai Syllables

September 24, 2020

Terminology, or the words used for certain concepts, can be weird. Especially when it comes to languages, it seems that there are so many different names given to different elements of languages. There are plenty of examples in Thai alone: aspirated and unaspirated consonants, high, middle and low, rising and falling tones, and, as we are looking at today, live and dead Thai syllables. 

Despite what the name suggests, it is nothing too painful to learn. In fact, the concept is quite simple. Look beyond the names and you will find a pretty standards element of the Thai language.

 

 

What Makes Thai Syllables Live And Dead?

When you start to learn Thai, there are a number of different concepts that you may not be used to. Live and dead syllables is one such example. But what are the differences between live syllables and dead syllables?

In essence, the secret behind whether a syllable is live or dead is how long it is pronounced. It is a bit more complicated than that, but knowing this fact is about 90% of it. They play a role in understanding the tone rules in Thai, so it is important for learning to speak Thai. Here is a basic breakdown.

Syllables are the individual sounds of each word and contain one vowel sound. The word Thai has one syllable while the word sawatdee has three. I think you get the idea. Basically, there can be some level of variance in how long you hold the vowel sound.

So, there are long and short syllables, but how can you tell which to use? We will have to look back at how Thai vowels and Thai consonants work, as they play a major role in working out which one is correct.

There are both long vowels and short vowels - that is something you will discover early on when you learn to speak Thai. When shown, the vowels are usually split into these two groups. What sets them apart is the length of their pronunciation. Can you see where this is going?

In terms of consonants, we have to look back on something we quickly touched upon before. That is the concept of initial consonants and final consonants. Well, mostly finals in this case.

A ‘final’ consonant is one that is placed at the end of a syllable, and thus ends it. They differ in pronunciation from their ‘initial’ counterparts. For the purposes of our topic today, we will focus on sonorant and short classes. Sonorant final consonants are held for longer, while short final consonants are abrupt.

Dead Thai Syllables

Dead syllables are syllables that end abruptly. If the syllable has a sudden end or changes to the next syllable without holding it for a second or so, it is a dead one. There are actually a couple of ways we can work out which one to use. Here is where the relevance of the different types of Thai vowels comes into play. 

If the Thai syllable ends with a short vowel, then it would be classed as a dead syllable. This overlap should help with the learning and memory process.

If the syllable ends in a consonant, you will need to distinguish what type it is. If the consonant ending the syllable belongs to the short class, then it is a dead syllable.

Live Thai Syllables

On the other hand, we have live syllables. This is where you lengthen the pronunciation of the syllable/say it longer. As you may imagine, most of the opposite things apply here.

Looking back at the vowels, you should have worked out now that the long vowels signify that the syllable is a live one. This is why learning all the Thai characters is so important. The same is true for the consonants too.

The short class of final consonants in Thai ends abruptly when you pronounce them. As such, seeing one at the end of a syllable is a sign that the syllable is a live one.

How Do Live And Dead Thai Syllables Affect The Tones?

There are a number of different ways in which you can determine the tone of a word in Thai. Usually, there would a tone mark. However, this isn’t always the case. Some Thai words are written without marks that denote which tone to use. 

One way you can work out the tone is by looking at the class of the initial consonant. Otherwise, you will need to look at whether the syllable is live or dead and then use that to figure it out. Truth be told, it gets pretty complex.

You will need to take the syllable, determine whether it is live or dead, then compare that with the initial consonant of the syllable. A live syllable paired with a low or mid initial consonant will create a mid-tone. Alive syllables with a high initial consonant will create a rising tone. 

Meanwhile, a mid and high initial consonant paired with a dead syllable will result in a low tone. A low initial consonant paired with a dead syllable is a bit more complex still. It will create a high tone unless it takes includes both a short consonant paired with a long vowel - in that case it produces a falling tone. 

Confusing, right? We will cover the different types of Thai consonants in more detail another time, so don't worry.

Try Practicing The Different Thai Syllables

While syllables may seem like a relatively simple concept for many, you can see that Thai does things a bit differently. The main part of it is simple: some syllables are said abruptly while others are said a bit longer. However, when it comes to recognizing when to use each type, you need to use your knowledge of some other not so simple concepts. Either way, practice makes perfect.

Looking for some help with learning Thai syllables and pronunciation? The Ling Thai app may just be the right companion for you. Give it a try today!

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