Here is a chart for the 30 Thai vowels. 30 may seem like a handful but actually, if you understand the difference between a long and short Thai vowel, there are only 15 different sounds and the last vowel sound is obsolete, so there are only 14 separate sounds, with varying lengths that are in use today.
Using this chart:
Similar to the consonants, each vowel character has a two-word proper name. But, unlike the consonants, these names are simple combination of the word สระ sara, which means “vowel”, followed by the sound that this vowel makes. Therefore สระอะ sara ah, could be translated to “vowel ah” or “short vowel ah”, สระโอ could be translated to “vowel oh” or “long vowel oh” and so on. The exceptions to this rule are some of the สระเกิน (the Extra Vowels). These are ใอ ไอ ฤ ฤๅ ฦ ฦๅ. You’ll notice ฤ ฤๅ ฦ ฦๅ have names similar to consonants. This is because they very, very often are used like consonants. In fact, these characters kind of act as both. They are vowels which function similar to consonants. The final two characters ฦ ฦๅ are not in use anymore today.
This is the sound which the character will make. Notice that this is just the sound it makes without respect to the length of the vowel. It’s rather difficult to type vowel length in English because, well, we don’t use “length” for vowels in the same way Thais do.
Where as Thais have characters and symbols in their written language to display the length of the sound, we do not.
Example: In Thai โอะ is a short “oh” sounds. Think of it like when something surprises you suddenly and you just say a quick “oh!” Yes, it’s something like that. But Thai also has a second “oh” sound โอ which is a longer held tone. Think of when you say “oooohh” like when you understand something at last. It’s probably not quite as dramatic as that, but it’s important to grasp as the length of the vowel sound changes the meaning of the word. I’ll go into this more in the next section.
If you’re a new student to Thai, some of these sounds may be new for you. Thai does have some vowels sounds that English lacks and you’ll have to practice often to get your mouth used to forming these new sounds. (I know I did- and still do!)
Thai vowels which English lacks:
อึอ and อือ – If these sounds take you a while to get the hang of, don’t worry. I’m positive every native English speaker grapples with them at first. The sound is “eu” and I read in one book it can be compared to the “eu” in the French word “bleu”. It’s difficult to type out this sound in English but, just so you know, the word มือ (meu = hand) is not pronounced “moo”, “muh” or “mua”.
เอือะ and เอือ – This is kind of an extended version of “eu” in the fact that it starts with “eu” and then ends with an “ah” sound. “Eua” short and “Euuaa” long.
ฤ and ฤๅ – Many books translate this vowel as “leu” but this is a mistake! The obsolete characters ฦ and ฦๅ are pronounced “leu”. ฤ and ฤๅ are pronounced “reu”. So why do so many books tell us to say “leu” for the wrong character? I believe it is because they fail to instruct us in the difference between Asian “l” and “r” and Western “l” and “r”.
Any “r” sound in Thai may at first sound like an “l” to you. This is because Thais (and most Asian languages) have a rolled, much softer “r” than English. Where as our “r’s” are very hard and rigid (especially in American English) the Thai “r’s” are softer and rolled.
Your everyday Thai will usually slur it a little to where it, indeed, sounds similar to an English “l”. But this does not mean that we should take the lazy way out and pronounce our Thai “r’s” like “l’s”. Besides, I’ve tried that, and they can tell you’re saying an “l” sound. Instead, please ignore these lousy pieces of “advice” from other books and practice proper Thai pronunciation by rolling all of your “r” sounds.
Think of it like this… English “r’s” are like a sharp 90 degree angle where as Thai “r’s” are like a smooth curve. If you think that Thais are saying “l” instead of “r”, well, some of them are (it’s a lazy slur… like we may say “gonna” instead of “going to”) but many of them do roll their r’s properly. We just have to train our ears a little to hear the difference. Don’t worry, if you don’t get it already, you will soon. It’s not hard!
Length of the Vowel:
Thai vowels have two “sounds” or “tones”. A short sound or short tone and long sound or long tone. Unlike the English “long” and “short” vowels, Thai’s longs and shorts are not different sounds.
A short Thai vowel means you hold the sound for only a short period of time. A long Thai vowel is held a little longer.
English long/short: A = ay and A = a (or ah)
Thai long/short: อะ = Ah (the sound isn’t held for long) and อา = Aah (the sound is held longer)
This is very important because, in Thai, the length you hold the vowel will change the meaning of the word.
แตะ Dtae – with a short, low “ae” vowel is a verb meaning to touch or make contact with something (like when you’re feet touch the floor).
แต่ Dtae – with a long, low “ae” vowel is the conjunction “but”.
This color code system is to show which group the vowels are divided into.
Thai has three vowel groups:
Single or Stand-alone vowels: These are vowels which use a single part of the mouth to make one sound. “Ah”, “oh”, “ur” etc. Simple vowels.
Compound vowels: These are vowels which are comprised of more than one sound and therefore use more than one part of the mouth to make the sound.
Extra vowels: These are vowels which sort of play by their own rules. They act similar to consonants and don’t really fit in the other vowel categories due to fact that some of them can switch vowel length and vary as some are single-sounds and some are compound sounds.
ไอ – is normally a short-sound vowel.
ไกล glai ไป bpai and ไหน nai all are said with a short vowel length. However, there are some exceptions to this. ไม้ mai and ไหม้ mai are said with the vowel sound held a little longer. As opposed to the negating mai ไม่ which is said with a very short “ai” sound.
เอา- is normally a short-sound vowel as well.
เดา dao เบา bao เรา rao for example, are all said with short vowel sounds. But the word เก้า gao (number 9) is said as if it’s a long vowel word.
As for ฤ… it can make two different sounds. If it comes at the beginning of a word, it says it’s name-sound “reu” but if it comes paired behind a second consonant it can make either a sound similar to ริ “ri” (rolled r sound + อิ) or sound like รึ (rolled r sound + อึ).
อังกฤษ (English) is pronounced Ang-Grit
ฤ makes a sound similar to ริ when paired with ก like this.
พฤษภาคม (the month of May) is pronounced Preut-sa-paa-kom
ฤ when joined with the consonant พ makes consonant-vowel blend which sounds like “Preu”. The same rule applies to the month of November พฤศจิกายน which is pronounced Preut-sa-ji-gaa-yon.
If these seems overwhelming or confusing, don’t be discouraged! These kind of words are exceptions to the usual rules but the few words that use them are so common that you’ll have an easy time remembering them.
(As for ใอ – There are only 20 Thai words which use this vowel. I’ll try to make a chart for these in the near future.)