Sunday, 30 January 2011

Loooong vowels and six tones in Thai


Going to get back to Thai language related posts for a while. But plenty of craziness stored in my head for later.

I am not a great fan of reading much about a language when I start, or finding out about grammar, or any other technicalities. I find that reading about language related things before I have some kind of feeling for them isn't very helpful, Sometimes when I have a feeling for them I then don't need to read about them at all. I don't completely switch off from reading about the technicalities of the language though, they can help things drop into place or be useful for discussing the language with other people.

Thai has long vowels, I read about them recently, it was a little helpful, but there again I already knew about them. Here is an interesting video about Thai vowels (more related to the writing system but sounds as well:

Long vowels are important

It is quite clear when listening to lots of Thai that the long vowel sounds are important, whilst I suspect that with any language there are short-cuts and laziness there are many words that consistently maintain their long vowel sounds when Thais are speaking, I would even go out on a limb and guess that the getting long vowels correct is as important as tones when conveying meaning in Thai. These kind of affects are no where near as important in English (usually a similar difference in pronounced vowel length just becomes part of an accent).

Long vowels are not rocket science but reading about them when I first started would just have added to a huge pile of new stuff to think about, long vowels, unstressed syllables, tones, b's that are a bit like p's, d's that are a bit like t's etc. etc. That new information can't be processed in real-time for either listening or speaking. Initially there are just sounds, there is the sound of words spoken by a native speaker and eventually a feel for the acceptable range of sounds for that word spoken by many native speakers.

My sixth tone

I really didn't know that long vowels were part of the phonetic writing system until a few weeks ago, and it wouldn't have helped me prior to that, When I read about them there were lots of little aha moments all rolled into one and I spent a happy 20 mins or so with a dictionary (which I hardly ever use for Thai to-date) confirming that a bunch of words I already "knew" had long vowels were actually written that way.

I also realized that long vowels were responsible for my "sixth tone". There is a very distinctive sound made for most words that have a long vowel in the falling tone, So distinctive that usually it is clearly different from similar falling tone words without long vowels. Some examples: five "haa", nine "gaoo", like "choorb", speak "poot", able "daai" etc. etc. are very clear to hear right from the start (disclaimer: don't be too upset by my made up romanisation and definitions).

I don't expect you to believe that Thai has another tone, however I did a little search and was satisfied to see that some people have ascribed extra tones to Thai for this kind of reason also extra tones for Cantonese have been based on certain vowel sounds (and their effect on the overall tone). My Thai has six tones, I suspect it always will, maybe I will add even more later.

The main reason I am happy to add an extra tone though is that the "sixth" tone of Thai is by far the easiest to distinguish and reproduce right from the start (at least for someone from my background) so for that reason alone the sixth tone (a long vowel over a falling tone) deserves a special mention :)


As I have stated many times before, language is fundamentally sound, it is important to me to learn predominantly from sound.

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