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Thai language forum

A Note on Transliteration

Posted by AjarnPasa on 10/10/2010 at 17:45

Transliteration (the process by which Thaiscript [ก ข ฃ] is converted intoRoman script [a b c] in the hope that the words can be easily and accuratelysaid) is a notoriously tricky beast.
There are a number of different systems inwide use, from the official Royal Thai General System of Transcription, throughsystems developed for dictionaries and phrase books, to informal and highlypersonalised systems that people cobble together that suit them. None of them gets it quite right.
The problem is that there are certainconsonants and vowels which just don’t exist in romance languages and thereforecannot be represented using the Roman alphabet. Also vowel length is very important in Thai. So, for example, the difference between thelong ao sound in kao meaning ‘rice’ and the short ao sound in kao meaning‘enter’ cannot satisfactorily be rendered using Roman script (before we evenbegin to tackle the difference in tone).
In some systems letters which point to theSanskrit or Pali origins of a word are included which can totally obscure thepronunciations (think for example of the standard greeting สวัสด๊which is often written as ‘sawasdee’, when anyone who has been hereknows that it is clearly pronounced sa-wat-dee).
Equally, people who understand how to readRoman script don’t all do it the same accent. A perfectly acceptable transliteration of a Thai word for someone with aScottish accent won’t necessarily work for someone with a Spanish accent.
So what does this mean to you, diligentTravelfish reader?
Well, for the posts herein the general rulewill be to follow the system employed by the online dictionary forgive me if, on occasion I slip) as this at least keeps itconsistent. However, I will alwaysinclude the Thai script so that you can plug it into whichever dictionary youlike and suits you best. Many of theonline dictionaries have audio clips to go with each entry so you can hear theword too. There’s a list of the ones Ilike at the TweetYourselfThaiwebsite
I couldn’t finish this post however without acall to arms for all serious learners of the language to learn the Thaiscript. There really is no better way tounderstand how a word is said. It’s notas difficult as you’d imagine ... really it isn’t.

#1 AjarnPasa has been a member since 26/5/2010. Location: Thailand. Posts: 27
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Posted by exacto on 10/10/2010 at 23:19

Hey Ajarn,

Over the years I've noticed that people definitely get a bit wrapped around the axle over transliteration systems. We used to have a joke that even the Thais didn't know how to spell their own names, with the transliterations varying so much.

Anyway, I learned to read and write Thai using a pair of workbooks written by the great (and I believe late) Dr. Marvin Brown. The books were well written and well organized. I got them at the AUA campus in Bangkok, but that was years ago and the last time I looked for them the books were no longer available.

For the folks who are interested in learning to read Thai, do you have a specific book or website or something that they can use? Is there a good standard Thai reader that folks can get overseas before they travel? What about once they arrrive in country? Regards.

#2 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,759
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Posted by AjarnPasa on 11/10/2010 at 08:16

Good points Exacto. My favourite mis-transliteration of a name is Ple for แอปเปิ้ล :-)

For people wanting to learn how to read I would start by learning the alphabet and vowels. Try these vids at YouTube:


You can drill the names and the sounds with help from some Spaced Repetition Software (or SRS) like Anki, which is free. From the anki website you can download some decks made by users to support the learning process for reading.

The most highly thought of book, as far as can tell, is David Smythe's Teach Yourself Thai. I have found Banjawan Becker's series of books so be quite useful too. You'll find them all at Amazon.

A personal tutor is (assuming they know what they're doing) probably the best way to ensure you're getting your tones right. I can personally vouch for Learn Thai for a White Guy who does lessons over Skype.

Of course there are loads of other resources out there and sometimes it's just a question of finding the one that you feel most comfortable with.

#3 AjarnPasa has been a member since 26/5/2010. Location: Thailand. Posts: 27
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