Readers' Submissions

Pronunciation

  • Written by CG
  • August 19th, 2005
  • 5 min read

I've been reading a lot of the submissions on this website and I have noticed an awful lot of transliterations of Thai words that are wrong.

There are too many of them to be typos so I've taken it upon myself to send in a few corrections. To be blunt, I'm going to try my best to stop people sounding like idiots when they try to speak Thai. Hope no one is offended.

I'm half Thai (half English), I spent the first 16 years of my life in Thailand, I have Thai family from Chiang Rai that I see and be with a lot. My Thai is as good as my English, and I mean it, so I do know what I'm on about chaps.

I've seen lots of transliterations with missing or misplaced consonants, e.g."Sa Wa Dee Kha" instead of "Sawasdee" (pronounced Sawatdee) or "Bum Khun" instead of Bun or Boon Khun (generally meaning goodwill that is manifested in actions). I try not to be quick to judge, and I know that Thais and anyone else from anywhere speaking a foreign tongue often get things wrong, but sometimes I really do marvel at how some people can get some really simple pronunciations so drastically and god awfully wrong. Oh well.

When Thais hear you pronouncing/repeating Thai words wrong they're more likely to have a laugh and make a game of telling you that you said it correctly and say it incorrectly with you. It's a sort of private joke that they have with themselves or each other and it's very common. It's fairly good natured and it's not usually a malicious joke, but it just hasn't occurred (or mattered) to them that you'll be walking away saying things wrong all the time unless they stop pratting around with you and tell you how to say it properly. Sometimes they're just too lazy to tell you properly and couldn't care less how you go around saying things. Hell, I've even done it myself and immaturely sniggered at the sound of farangs walking away from me saying Bum this and Bum that when it was wrong and bad Thai, but that was when I was a kid, and in Thai mode.

As a general guide to pronunciation, say it out loud exactly as I tell you to say it here, and NOT how you might THINK you heard a Thai say it.

There are some odd, irregular and sometimes confusing English spellings that you have probably seen on official signs and things. I'll explain this some other time.

Here goes:

Phi (ghost) –
It's not "ffee", and yes its an aspirated P but the "P" is definitely there, do not try to be smart and say something like Hee because Hee means (in terms of meaning and usage) Cunt or some other rude way of saying vagina. You can't go wrong if you say "Pee". Really, its a great deal better to just say "Pee" if your struggling with the H element in it.

Sawas Dee –
You all know what this means, and it is ALWAYS pronounced "Sawat".

Tam Boon –
This means to make merit. It does not mean funeral and it is not pronounced Tam Bon. a Tambon is a local area denomination (one below Ampuhr). If you were told it means funeral its probably because at funeral times there is lots of Tam Boon going on and you were just humoured into calling funerals this for reasons outlined above.

Khop Khun –
Say it like "Cop" as in policeman, not "cock". And its Khun. Not Khum or Khung. Its no big deal to leave out the H in it if it confuses you.

Dai –
This can mean "have" or "can" depending on context. e.g."dai mai?" or"mai dai" = "did you get the thing?"/"no didn't get the thing" OR "can I/it/you ?"/"cannot". No it is never pronounced"Da". Say it like you would say Die (as in "to die for").

Khon –
This means people or person. Yes, say it with the N at the end. Don't say "Khong" because that means "probably" e.g. Khong mai pai = probably won't go. Khom (with an M) means sharp.

Chue –
It means name. If you know how to use umlauts, consider it "Chu" but with an umlaut over the U. Don't say "chew" because that's way off the mark. If you really can't say it then "chur" (without pronouncing the R) is the closest thing to it and will be fine.

Mai –
It means No, so its "mai dai" and not "ma dai". With a different tone it can also mean wood, among other things. for example bamboo is "mai pai" and not "ma pai". its Mai as in "my" folks, not Ma.

Gin –
I'm sure you're very familiar with this word, the one that means to eat. its Gin, with an N, not Ging.

Took –
It means Every. as in "took wan" = "every day". Not to be confused with or pronounced Toop, which means hardship or to beat something.

An –
A word used to refer to inanimate objects, e.g."took an" = "all of them" or "an nan" = "that one". Not Am or Ang.

That's all that I can think of at the moment. Please don't take it the wrong way, I'm only trying to help by improving the standards of Khun Farang's Thai. I'd be quite happy to receive any queries to do with the Thai language and other Thai stuff.

Stickman's thoughts:

There is no one correct way of transliterating English into Thai. There are several different systems, each with its own set of rules, the most popular being the royal system and rules of transliteration.

Transliteration of Thai into English creates all sorts of problems and it is just one of many reasons why people are better off learning written Thai RIGHT FROM THE START.