Learning How to Read Thai Part ๓ – Word Tone = Word Meaning

OK, so we’ve discussed how to read the tone of a simple Thai word (see part ๒). So, you now know how to pronounce the word correctly without ever even hearing it said! Pretty cool, no? Well, though you may think it’s “cool” you may be wondering why it’s so important.
The reason is because, in Thai language, the tone of the word = the meaning of the word.

If we know how to read a Thai word correctly, we’ll know how to write and pronounce the word correctly too. Now that you know how consonant class affects tone of the word, you’ll be able to understand why certain consonants are used to write certain words. This is important as there are many Thai words which sound similar but have completely different meanings all because the tones of the words are different.
For example:
พัก (pak- high tone) a verb meaning to halt, take a break, take a rest
ผัก (pak- low tone) a noun meaning vegetable

If we read the Romanized Thai (the “Thaiglish”) we would see no difference between these two words at all as they would both be spelled “pak” and “pak”. English has no characters to display tone, because, it doesn’t use tones like Thai. But if you learn how to read Thai, you’ll see the difference right away because the leading consonants are different classes, which makes the tones differ as well.
พัก is spelled with a low-class consonant. Using the guide from before, you’ll see that low-class consonant + short vowel + dead ending = a high tone
ผัก is spelled with a high-class consonant. High-class consonant + dead ending (regardless of vowel length) = low tone

To know this is a huge advantage! It means knowing the difference between two very different words, without using any “Thaiglish” at all! Think about how different these two words are (even though they sound slightly similar). If you didn’t know what tone to use you may accidentally say that you’re “going on vacation to vegetable,” or that you “ate a break” for lunch. พัก and ผัก are just one example of many Thai words which are like this. Similar sounding to the foreigner. Made different by tone and spelling. Very different meanings.

Here are some more examples how tone and spelling change the meaning of the word*:

kap: คับ (high tone) =  adjective; tight; close fitting   ขับ (low tone) = verb; to drive (a vehicle)
kaa: ค่า (falling tone) = noun; value, charge   ฆ่า (falling tone) = verb; to kill, murder   ขา (rising tone) = noun; leg
kai: คาย (mid tone) = verb; to spit-out; discharge   ขาย (rising tone) = verb; to sell
kiow: เคี่ยว (falling tone) = verb; to simmer    เคี้ยว (high tone) = verb; to chew   เขี้ยว (falling tone) = noun; fangs, cuspids   เขียว (rising tone) = noun/adjective; green
sak: ซัก (high tone) = verb; to wash clothes   สัก (low tone) = adverb of degree; just, some
sook: ซุก (high tone) = verb; to hide, conceal   สุก (low tone) = adjective; ripe, mature, cooked   สุข (low tone) = adjective; happy, joyful   ศุกร์ (low tone) = noun; as in ดาวพระศุกร์ – the planet Venus or วันศุกร์ – Friday
taan: ท่าน (falling tone) = noun/pronoun; a very respectful 2nd person pronoun; you   ฐาน (rising tone) = noun; base, pedestal
paan:  พาน (mid tone) = noun; tray  ผ่าน (low tone) = verb; to pass
fak: ฟัก (high tone) = noun; gourd, squash   ฝัก (low tone) = noun/classifier; an ear (of corn), pod, sheath
fan: ฟัน (mid tone) = noun; teeth   ฝัน (rising tone) = verb/noun; to dream, a dream
faa: ฟ้า (high tone) = noun; the sky   ฝา (rising tone) = noun; a lid, cover   ฝ่า (low tone) = noun; palm (of the hand), sole (of the foot)
faak: ฟาก (falling tone) = noun; a side, shore   ฝาก (low tone) = verb; to deposit, leave
sop: สบ (low tone) = verb; to encounter   ศพ (low tone) = noun; corpse

As you get out and start speaking with Thais, you’ll realize even more how important word tone is. As English speakers (who don’t use tones to determine word meaning) we’re apt to mispronounce words very often. Don’t be discouraged! Thais are very forgiving and will probably kindly help correct you. Listen to how they speak. Speak slowly and clearly and if you confuse someone and they ask “What?!” don’t freak-out and speak faster (a common flaw of mine). Slow-down. Think first, then speak… and don’t worry! Have fun with it.

Hope this helps! Good luck!

(*You will notice some words listed here use Tone Markers (วรรณยุกต์) which also affect word tone. If you don’t know how to read these yet, I’ll try and explain it in a later post.)

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