What Are The Thai Tone Rules?

October 14, 2020

The Thai tone rules are perhaps the deepest element of Thai grammar. By that, I mean it is the most nuanced aspect, one that is a little more difficult to grasp. As you start to learn Thai, I am sure that the question ‘how do you know which tone to use?’ comes up more often than not. That is fair, as tonal languages like Thai and Chinese are not the easiest to understand for English speakers. While we have covered some elements of these pronunciation rules before, I thought it would be best to bring them all into one place.

 

 

How Do Tones Work In Thai?

This is the big question that we will be answering today. The basic outline is that each syllable in the Thai language must be said with some kind of tone. Tones dictate how you change the pitch of your pronunciation, and can ultimately change the meaning of a word.

While learning to pronounce tones on-the-go can be a difficult task for speakers of non-tonal languages (like English), that can be regarded as the easy part. The more difficult/grammatical element comes in the Thai tone rules, our topic for today.

As the name suggests, the Thai tone rules are the guidelines that determine which tone a given syllable uses. You will need to learn these thoroughly if you want to master Thai pronunciation or reading in Thai.

Let’s quickly cover the five different tones used in the Thai language. The five Thai tones are as follows:

Low

Mid

High

Rising

Falling

Their names are pretty self-explanatory. You adjust the tone of your voice in a corresponding way. After some practice, you should be able to get this down. What is a bit more complicated is working out which tone you need to use. This is where the rules come into play.

The Thai Tone Rules

The Thai tone rules will take some explaining, but it is well worth the time. There are three main rules that you need to know in order to find out the tone in a given syllable. They are as follows:

Tone Marks

Tone marks are probably the easiest or most obvious way of working out the tone. There are four different tone marks in total that you will need to look out for. They would all appear above the characters that make up the syllable.

For the most part, it is as simple as that. Two of the tone marks align exactly with a specific tone. The other two, however, are dependent on the initial consonant of the syllable:

Tone Mark
Thai
Transliteration
Corresponding Tone (Initial Consonant)
Low Mid High
-่ ไม้เอก mai ehk Falling Low Low
-้ ไม้โท mai tho High Falling Falling
-๊ ไม้ตรี mai tri High
-๋ ไม้จัตวา mai chatawa Rising

Unfortunately, there is not always a tone mark present. That is where the other Thai tone rules come in.

Consonant Classes

All 44 of the Thai consonants can be grouped into three different classes. For the most part, the class a consonant belongs can be used to immediately identify the relevant tone. However, you will need to do a bit more investigating in some cases, as other aspects will come into play, as seen with high and low-class consonants.

The consonant classes revolve around how they are pronounced. For example, if you are able to hold the pronunciation for an extended time, then it likely belongs to the sonorant group. If it has a sound that makes a puff of air, then it is part of the aspirate-fricative group. These can belong to either low or high classes. Otherwise, it will be grouped as an unaspirated, or mid-class consonant.

Aspirate-Fricatives
kh ch s th ph f h
High
Low
Class
Sonorants
ng n m y r l w
Low
Class
Unaspirates
g j d dt b bp
Mid

If the syllable does not end in a consonant, then you will then need to move on to the next rule: the syllable types.

Live And Dead Thai Syllables

Syllables in Thai can be split into two groups: live and dead. What defines whether a syllable is live or dead is the length of time taken to pronounce it. If the syllable ends in a sudden or abrupt end, then it is a dead syllable. Meanwhile, a live syllable is one that you hold for longer.

To figure out the tone using this rule, you must discern the class of the initial tone of the syllable. If the syllable is live and has a low or mid initial consonant, it will create a mid-tone. Live syllables with a high initial consonant will create a rising tone. 

On the other hand, mid and high initial consonants that are together with a dead syllable will result in a low tone. Low consonants that are paired with a dead syllable will create a high tone unless it has both a short consonant paired with a long vowel. If so, it produces a falling tone. 

A Summary Of The Tone Rules

Confusing, right? It certainly was for me. To help you through the process, we have put together a chart to find the right tone.

Class Of Initial Consonant
No Tone Mark Present Tone Mark Present
Open Syllable With Long Vowel Closed Syllable With A Sonorant Consonant
-่
-้
-๊
-๋
Live Syllable
Dead Syllable
Short Vowel Long Vowel
Low Mid Tone High Tone Falling Tone Falling Tone High Tone - -
Mid Mid Tone Low Tone Low Tone Falling Tone High Tone Rising
High Rising Tone Low Tone Low Tone Falling Tone - -

And That Is It

Tones in Thai are generally seen as one of the more difficult aspects of learning Thai. The Thai tone rules are a reflection of that, as they can become a bit tedious and hard to understand. Despite this, you should over time be able to understand the different groups, characters, and tone marks, helping you recognize which tone to use. After learning, your Thai pronunciation should be all but perfect.

Want to improve the other aspects of your pronunciation? The Ling Thai app is ideal for doing just that. With native speakers providing voice samples, you can focus on replicating what you hear and sound more like a local.

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