Writing is one of the main elements of a language. Alongside reading and speaking, it is a core skill that is essential to truly learn and understand a language. However, many people put the majority of their focus on their speaking ability, to the detriment of these other skills. This is all well and good for basic conversation and communication for short visits, it does miss out on a major part of the language.
Reading and writing go hand in hand, with the common denominator between these skills being the understanding of the alphabet and the individual characters that make up the language. The Thai language is written using its own unique alphabet, which was derived from the old Khmer script. Known as ‘aksorn Thai’ (อักษรไทย), the Thai script is used throughout Thailand and in some regions of neighboring countries. At first glance, Thai writing appears to be made up of a lot of squiggles, circles, and lines. These are what make up characters in the Thai language.
It is written left to right, though due to the way characters are ordered, you may need to look above or to the right of a character to read it properly. Also, Thai is traditionally written without using and punctuation or spaces between words. These days, however, you will find that some punctuation is used and spaces are often put between each word.
So those were the basic facts about Thai writing. Now, let’s look at the characters that make up the Thai Alphabet.
In total, there are 72 characters in the Thai alphabet. This can be split up into 44 consonants and 28 vowels. This can then be split further into 3 consonant classes, 12 long vowels, and 16 short vowels. While this may seem like a lot compared to the 28 letters of the Latin Alphabet, it is worth noting that 6 characters (2 consonants and 4 vowels) are no longer used, being a relic from old Thai or otherwise taken from Sanskrit or Pali.
Before we learn more about the Thai Alphabet, there are a few things that need to be covered. Remember that this is just a guide to pronunciation as the Thai language doesn’t have an official transliteration system. This means that books and websites will write out a Thai word using the Latin alphabet in different ways.
This is due to the use of aspirated consonants in Thai, which isn’t present in the English language. As such, they try to find ways to signify or replicate the sound. There are also some more difficult pronunciations that don’t really have an equivalent in English. Either way, keep in mind that different sources will write things out differently.
Another thing to mention is that there are no upper or lower-case versions of characters. They stay the same wherever they are in the sentence. This should, of course, be good news for all of us learning Thai as we don’t need to be able to identify more character varieties.
One more thing to note is that the Thai consonants are generally shown with an acrophonic. This refers to words that start with that consonant’s sound. The equivalent in English would be to say ‘U as in Universe’.
|Thai consonant||Example||Pronunciation||English sound||English translation|
|ฃ||ฃ ขวด||kɔ̌ɔ-kùuat||k||bottle (no longer in use)|
|ฅ||ฅ คน||kɔɔ-kon||k||person (no longer in use)|
|ณ||ณ เณร||nɔɔ-neen||n||novice monk|
|ภ||ภ สำเภา||pɔɔ-sǎm-pao||p||junk boat|
You also may have noticed in this list that some of the characters look almost exactly the same as each other. For example, ผ and ฝ are nearly identical other than an extended line. This means that, especially when written by hand, it can be difficult to tell which it should be. The same can happen with different fonts. Ultimately, you will need to train yourself and learn each of these to the best of your ability.
While we say that there are 28 vowels, it is better categorized as a combination of long and short vowel sounds. There are actually 32 in total but 4 are no longer in everyday use.
Once again, there is no real transliteration system in place, meaning that different books and websites may write out a Thai word using the Latin alphabet using different characters.
As we talked about previously, Thai words are written in a unique way. The vowels don’t necessarily follow the consonant to its right, and instead can be placed above, below, to the left, and to the right of it. They can also be in a combination of these placements. It may therefore help to learn the consonants first so that you can recognize these characters, then you can identify the vowels. The consonants act as a base for these vowels, after all.
Finally, the word for the vowel in Thai is ‘sara’ (สระ). When writing out the vowels, it is typical to write this before each individual vowel. For example, ‘sara a’ (สระอะ) is written, which would be the same as writing ‘vowel a’ in English.
There are 7 vowels that can change their form. This happens when they are followed by a consonant, and is done to help prevent confusion that can happen with certain combinations while making things clearer and faster overall. Note that these only change the way they are written, and do not impact the pronunciation or tone. We can look at these another time.
Otherwise, as you can tell by the two tables, the Thai language distinguishes between the length of vowels. That means that the vowel length can change the meaning of a word. You will have to learn to be strict about the length you pronounce as you learn or you might be misunderstood.
The Thai language does not use punctuation like in English, but not to the same extent. While full stops/periods can be used to signify the end of a sentence, blank spaces are used more often. Commas can also appear with the same function as in English. There are brackets and quotation marks too.
One form of punctuation unique to Thai is the ‘kho mut’ ๛ (โคมูตร). This symbol is used to signify the end of a story or document. There are also some other special Thai characters you should know when learning how to write and read the Thai language.
As mentioned, reading and writing, two skills that require an understanding of the Thai Alphabet, make up a significant part of language learning. While speaking ability alone can get you far, there will be some occasions where reading and writing will also prove useful.
Another thing to point out is that learning the Thai Alphabet can also help you with your speaking. Let’s not forget that a lot more opportunities to learn will open up. You can start reading documents, books, and other materials that you couldn’t read before. This will greatly increase the speed at which you can learn and improve your skills. Your vocabulary will increase significantly and you will gain further insight into the culture of Thailand.
When visiting Thailand, you will find that many of the more authentic experiences, eating or otherwise, are not always signposted in English or any other language. They will use their native Thai to write out their menu or whatever else they have on offer. As a traveler, you may well be looking for an authentic Thai cultural experience rather than a tourist-orientated one. For this reason, learning to read Thai can be invaluable for visitors to Thailand.
Unfortunately, there is no single method that will help you learn Thai overnight. It will require a lot of time and effort on your part to learn the characters of the Thai Alphabet and get to the point where you can read it with ease. There are, however, some ways you can speed up the process. These best practices will help optimize your learning and potentially cut down the amount of time it takes.
Ideally, you should start out learning the alphabet from the get-go. You can learn each individual character and know exactly how it is pronounced. Bear in mind that the length of the vowel - that is, how long you hold the syllable - can change the meaning of a word. Therefore, spending the time to learn each character can actually improve your pronunciation and reduce any awkward misunderstandings.
Another tip is to use associations as a way to remember things such as pronunciation and how to write the characters. For example, you may look at the character (ต) and think that it looks like a tooth. You can use this association to immediately recall that the character that looks like a tooth is ‘to tao’ (ต เต่า). Do this with all the characters and you should over time be able to memorize them.
Due to the quirk mentioned above about how characters are ordered and read, you will find that in some words the vowels are placed not only next to a consonant but also above it or even behind it. This is because consonants act as a base for the vowels to attach to. This can make the learning process a bit more complicated. By focusing first on the consonants so that you can better identify them, you should be able to see the vowels easier.
Finally, you should just try to draw the characters out by hand. Trace it, freehand it and repeat. It is quite interesting to see how your handwriting improves over time until a point where it is recognizable and easily readable. Also, seeing your progress can be great motivation to continue your learning.
There are some related lessons you can do related to learning the Thai Alphabet.
As well as having its own alphabet, Thai also has its own number system. These Thai numerals can be seen in many places, including on banknotes. Some shopkeepers have been known to use these Thai numerals to hide the ‘local’ prices of their goods from foreigners. However, they appear alongside the number system we are familiar with in the West the majority of the time. Either way, it is useful to learn.
When it comes to writing, you will unlock the ability to test your understanding of grammar. You can better communicate with other people. This is especially the case when it comes to online and the digital world.