How To Speak Thai: Thai Tones

How do we figure out the tone of a word in Thai?

Each syllable gets its own tone and there are a few steps we need to take to find out the tone of a word in Thai.

First, we need to determine the class of the syllable or word.  We do this by having memorized the Middle and High Class letters so we can identify them instantly.  If it’s not Middle Class or High Class, it must be Low Class.

Step #1: The class of the first letter determines the the class of the word.  This rule applies even if the first letter of the word is silent.

Step #2: Check the word for any “modifiers.”  There are 2 types of modifiers: TONE MARKS and HARD ENDINGS.

Step #3: Apply rules for consonant CLASS + STATE.

There are 3 possible “states” for a word.  Each “class” or group has a formula to follow once you know the state of the word.

  1. Default
  2. Has Tone Mark
  3. Has Hard Ending

The tricky part is that each class has its own default starter tone and its own set of rules.  Middle and High class are very similar which is why we want to master them first.  Low class turns everything upside down and is considerably more difficult so it’s a good idea not to even get into it until you have completely mastered the middle and high class rules. If you want to do it the easy way, than at least have a look at my course which holds your hand and guides you though all of this.

Default tones for each class: =

  • Middle Class = Mid Tone
  • High Class = Rising Tone
  • Low Class = Mid Tone
Did you ever study trigonomotry?  I didn’t until I was at university here in Thailand and I was very surprised to see that Thai works in a similar way.  When you look at a word, you have to determine which of the 3 classes(groups of letters) that the word is a part of.  This is based on the first letter of the word (even if it is a silent letter).  Then, you go follow the formula for that CLASS.  So if we take a couple middle class words as  examples:

บ้าน = house

  1. What class is บ ? = Middle Class
  2. Does it have a tone mark? = Yes (middle class + 2nd tone mark = Falling Tone)

ไก่ = chicken

  1. What class is ? = Middle Class
  2. Does it have a tone mark? = Yes (middle class + 1st tone mark = Low Tone)

ตาย = to die

  1. What class is ต? = Middle Class
  2. Does it have a tone mark? = No
  3. Does it have a hard ending? = No
  4. Default tone = Mid Tone (We checked for 2 modifiers.  There were none so we apply the default tone for Middle Class)

จาก = from

  1. What class is จ? = Middle Class
  2. Does it have a tone mark? = No
  3. Does it have a hard ending? = Yes (Middle Class + Hard Ending = Low Tone)

Now practice it until your eyes bleed!  Mastering the process =  Mastering the tone rules

Still don’t get this stuff? Consider trying my online course.

  • จาน
    จาน
    mid tone
  • แจก
    แจก
    low tone
  • จ้าง
    จ้าง
    falling tone
  • จอด
    จอด
    low tone
  • จ่าย
    จ่าย
    low tone
  • จน
    จน
    mid tone
  • All Done!

 

Comments

  1. Trent H says:

    Loving the course so far. Have a little trouble between a couple of mid class consonant letters. Fish and leaves. Even when described by my thai girlfriend(not the best teacher) still hard but without her i think i would have found myself pronouncing wrong. She says it will take time. Sometimes the sounds when i press them dont always work. Go between computer and phone to use the course. Primarily my phone with headphones on for better hearing.

    • Hey Trent – Glad you are enjoying the course.

      Almost everybody has trouble with the fish and leaf since we don’t distinguish that sound at the beginning of words in English. Just try and remember that the fish is essentially a “p” sound, but without the puff of air. Try putting your hand in front of your mouth saying “hippo” a few times and then “party.” Pay close attention to what’s happening with the “p” in hippo. Then start saying “hippo” very slowly: hip-po until you can say that “po” without the blast of air.

      If you find a sound file that doesn’t work, try reloading the page as it may not have loaded properly. I’m rolling out a new version in the next month or so which should dramatically improve mobile performance.

      As for headphones, I would try listening without the headphones sometimes. The sounds may be easier to differentiate.

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