Readers' Submissions

Tip-toe Through the Thai Alphabet



No one is ever going to accuse me of being a scholar; at least not as far as foreign languages are concerned. Whatever portion, of whatever hemisphere of the brain that is responsible for language acquisition gave its all when I was learning my mother tongue. Apparently content that this had been done, this bit of grey matter decided to take a long deserved holiday…a very long holiday. Trying to master high school French and German without the benefit of these faculties was not much fun. To say that I just managed to get by would be putting it kindly. So setting out to master the Thai language was setting bar pretty damned high indeed. The one thing I had going for me this time around was that I was nothing if not highly motivated.

Back in 1998 as I was preparing for my first visit to Thailand, I thought it would be a fine idea to actually speak some Thai. In rural Western Massachusetts, learning Thai was much easier said than done. Given the fact that the Thai language is only spoken in Thailand and that not many Thais live in chilly New England, finding a Thai language course took a bit of looking around. I eventually wound up making a five hour round trip to Boston on Saturdays to study with a Thai woman from Berlitz. Sumalee’s technique of teaching was total immersion. That is to say the very first moment I walked in the door she started speaking Thai…and only Thai. Only with great reluctance would she explain anything in English. There was no written material. There were no vocabulary or grammar lessons. I was expected to somehow just “absorb” the Thai language. Unfortunately, given the fact that part of my brain was still “missing in action”, this technique had only limited success. Since I was her only student, and I was in fact paying some big bucks for these lessons, I finally put the breaks on this approach and demanded that she just teach me some essential vocabulary and how to construct simple sentences. At last I began to make some real progress. I would write down my best guess at transliteration on to flashcards and practice these words and phrases again and again and again. To my amazement, I could actually make simple sentences that could actually be understood! Many of the words I learned during these marathon classes have remained in my brain. Will wonders never cease? Of course it wasn’t until I actually arrived in Bangkok late one evening that I actually got to try all of this theoretical knowledge out in the “real world”. Now perhaps Pretty Lady at Nana Plaza is not really the real world, but it sure captured 100% of my attention at the time! If this was a dream, I had no desire whatsoever to return to waking consciousness! Tentatively, with my stomach threatening to jump out of my mouth, I began an attempt to communicate with the lovely young lady sitting in my lap. Well actually my body was doing a fine job of at communicating a thing or two, but to my surprise this sweet thing could actually understand what I was saying. Yes, it was all small talk, but I could be understood! Understanding her was a little bit more difficult, since everyone speaks their own language a pretty fast clip. But as a first effort, it wasn’t too shabby. Obviously some additional language instruction was needed, preferably private instruction, preferable immediately if not sooner! Luckily I was staying at the Nana Hotel (pretty seedy even back then) so we continued our language exchange (as well as other things) throughout the night…and the next day…and the next. This bright young lady, a true newbie to the bar scene, was as eager to learn English as I was eager to learn Thai. Ah, sweet memories! Who would have guessed I would have the coveted GFE with the very first girl I met? Well the rest of that particular story is not really germane to this submission. There was actually a happy ending that I talked about in the first piece I ever wrote for Stick. (How it all began) The important point I wanted to get across is that I was at least on my way to speaking Thai.

Flash forward ten years. I now live here in Thailand. I’ve been married for over 8 years to a lovely Thai lady. I live a fulfilling, if sometimes frustrating life in The Land of Smiles. I’ve accomplished a hell of a lot since first walking into Berlitz ten years ago, but there has been one little problem that has haunted me. Despite my ability to speak some Thai, I have remained illiterate. Oh the shame, the shame! On various occasions I would make some half hearted attempts to decipher written Thai, but without much success. I have no real excuses, except that my memory is not what it once was. Hell, sometimes I have to write myself a note to remind myself to look a note I wrote earlier in the day! Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad, but I could certainly use a brain transplant now and then.

Oh, you’re probably asking yourself, why didn’t this fool simply get his Thai wife to teach him? It’s a reasonable question. Well, for one thing, when my tee-rak who is from Burriram, speaks Thai, I hear Lao! I swear I can barely understand the woman! (just joking) Her English by the way is quite excellent. Although we have a damned fine relationship, we have never had much luck teaching each other certain things. My attempts back in the U.S. to teach her how to drive were not much fun. Well intended suggestions like “Get your foot off the clutch except when shifting the car” were not taken in the “kindly spirit” in which they were offered. My poor brand new Toyoya RAV 4 echoed my sentiments…loudly! So it was off to Dave’s Driving School, where the mysteries of a standard transmission were set aside for the relative ease of an automatic one.

Those of you ex-pats living in large metropolitan areas have many Thai language schools available. Here in Lampang there are none. So I’ve had to rely on my own limited ability to puzzle things out. This year I finally made an iron-clad resolution to master the Thai alphabet or bust! No more fooling around. Just sit down and grind away at it. Today I am proud to say that I have mastered the last of the Thai language’s 44 consonants! It wasn’t easy. I had to use the “brute force” approach. Just keep writing the letters over and over and over again…everyday! My penmanship is not refined enough that I am about to give up my day job and become a calligrapher…not by a long shot. But I must admit that my Thai letters look a hell of a lot better than some of the chicken scratch I see everyday. I know that I will probably have to continue writing out my daily alphabet for a long time to come, but maintaining knowledge is easier than acquiring it in the first place.

Now for your elucidation, here is what it’s taken me years to drum into my head. The transliteration is my own. It’s the way I remember, so don’t write to me bitching that this is NOT the way it should be! I have run my pronunciation for each letter by the Thai teachers I work with, and it’s just fine. Oh by the way, there is no easy little ABC song for Thai, although there is some kind of chanting litany. It has never been of the slightest help to me, as it doesn’t exactly stick in the mind. In Thai you remember by saying the name of the letter followed by an associated word. These illustrations come from http://www.thai-language.com/. They have an excellent dictionary there where you can hear each of these letters and many words pronounced.



Gaw gai (rooster)



Kaw kai (egg)



Kaw kuat (bottle)



Kaw kwai (buffalo)



Kaw kuhn (person)



Kaw ra-kawng (large bell)



gnaw gnu (snake)


Jaw jahn (plate)



Chaw chaw-ching (small cymbals)


Chaw chang (elephant)



Saw so (chain)



Chaw chewk-a-chew (tree)



Yaw ying (woman)



Daaw cha-dat (hat used in classical dancing)


Dtaaw pa-tak (spear)



Thaaw thaan (pedestal)



Thaww nong-man-toe (character from the Ramayana)



Thaww poo-tau ( elder)



Naw naw-nehn (novice monk)



Daw daw-dek (child)



Tau tau-tow (turtle)



Tau tung (sack)



Tau ta-hahn (soldier)



Tau tung (flag)



Naw new (rat)



Baw bai-mai (tree leaf)



Baw pbla (fish)



Paw pung (bee)



Faw fah (lid)


Paw pan (a tray to place offerings for a monk)


Faw fun (teeth)


Paw paw-som-pow

(a sailing ship)


Maw ma


Yaw yahk (a character from the Ramayana)


Raw ruah (boat)


Law ling (monkey)


Wah wan (ring)


Saw ru-see (a hermit or ascetic)


Saw sa-la (Thai Gazebo)



Raw ru-ah (tiger)


Haw heep (a chest)


Laaw ju-la (kite)


Aw ahng (basin for washing)


Haw nok-hoo (owl)

There you have it! What is missing here are the “tones”, rising, falling etc. Of course you may have noticed that there is something else missing from this list…the vowels! There are at least 15 characters that serve as vowel sound! Damn it! Just when I think I’m on easy street, its back to slaving away in a practice book! Oh well, this shouldn’t take me that long to master…I hope! In the meantime I can already puzzle out simple words. Soon I may actually be able to really learn how to read! Undoubtedly I will have to carry around a dictionary for the rest of my life, but at least someday I may be able to read what my students spend all of their time reading…comic books!

Images used with the kind permission of: thailanguage.com

Stickman's thoughts:

Nice!