Thai language – alphabet, digits, dates and how to deal with it

Thai alphabet was created in 13th century during the reign of Ramkhamhaeng the Great. It is supposed to be derived from the Old Khmer script. Thai language is mutually intelligible to Lao. That’s all of historic facts that you will find in this article – the rest of it is devoted to practical use of Thai language in tourism (by travelers): why any Thai phrasebooks are 100% useless.

Contents:

Original manuscripts of Sunthon Phu
Original manuscripts of Sunthon Phu, the great Thai poet

Alphabet and pronunciation

Any English (Arabic, Russian, German etc) -Thai phrasebooks don’t work. You’ll never pronounce any “abracadabra” written in English right. First of all Thai language is the tonal one. It means that the way you pronounce each syllable (tone, intonation) affects the meaning of word.

I would compare a tone with an intonation in English (German, French or Russian) we have:

  1. . narrative intonation (phrases ending with dot)
  2. ? interrogative intonation (a question)
  3. ! exclamation intonation (when we express joy, indignation etc)

But all these intonations we apply to a whole sentence, while in Thai language these intonations are applied to every (God damn) syllable. Furthermore, they do have 5 tones, while our languages have 3 intonations. It means that 2 of 5 are inexplicable to us.

To write all these tones somehow down, one needs an alphabet that consists of 59 letters + special symbols. Many letters represent the same sound, but they do indicate tone difference (f.e. there are 6 letters “K” in Thai language).

The word “khao” can mean: rice, mountain, he/she, number “9”, white and God knows what else. The difference hides in tones (aspiration and long/short vowels).

In good case – Thais won’t get you. In bad case – you will tell them offensive things even without realizing it.

The 2d problem is the mindset. If Europeans (Russians, Arabs, Americans) do their best to understand, what a foreigner tries to say to them, Thai people seem to act like robots since you first words: “I don’t get anything: switch OFF”. If you see this “OFF” in beautiful Asian eyes, you don’t even need to finish your sentence – there’s no way that the person even hears your words. You need to change your strategy. It doesn’t mean that Thais are nasty, they are very friendly and helpful people, it’s just about the way their brain functions.

The 3d problem is that Thais expect that foreigners will speak English. So when you try to speak Thai (I mean your first steps in Thai language) and the person was expecting you to speak English – like in previous paragraph – here comes the “OFF”.

Thai language has extremely easy grammar. So if you conquer the pronunciation and learn the alphabet, you will easily speak Thai.

At Sunthon Phu museum
At Sunthon Phu museum

What’s then?

As you see, phrasebooks are useless. That’s why in my Thai guide book I will give you names (addresses or landmarks) written in Thai. So you will have the opportunity to show the word on the screen of your cell phone to any Thai national (driver, passerby).

If the letters will be too small, the “OFF” can occur (=the subject did not recognize the Thai alphabet). Due to it, one should enlarge the word on the screen as much as possible prior to showing it to someone. My 10-year Thai travel experience still didn’t give me the answer, why it happens. I suppose that taxi drivers I had met suffered from farsightedness and didn’t wear glasses or lenses.

By the way, if you write down the word (address) on a piece of paper in big letters, it works perfectly. Just copy the letters from the screen – it’s quite easy, Thais start writing their letters with those small circles (if there are any in a letter). No matter how bad was my inscription, Thais that were reading it were sure that it was written by a Thai national. Also this little trick will release you from worries about the expensive gadget.

Thai number plate
Decorative Thai number plate

Reading Thai

It seems that Thai letters are bigger and easier to understand that Arabic, but it’s until we come to fonts. If we speak of any road signs – they are written in understandable classical font, any other signboards – up to the taste of the owner. Due to these “beautiful” fonts, I even don’t understand Thai letters that I know. At FalkTime I’m using classical Thai font with those little rings, but one should not expect that one will be 100% able to compare it with any inscription. It will work with a menu, but with ingredients or signboards there’s only 50/50 chance.

Inscription - the name of school
Thai punctuation: words in one sentence are written together (with no spaces), the text is divided in sentences with spaces (no . , ? or ! are used)

Thai digits

Yep, digits in Thailand are Thai too. Thais use Arabic numerals but the symbols are Thai. These symbols are not very common, but you will definitely see them. All Thai people understand standard Arabic numerals that we use in Europe.

If you would like to remember Thai digit symbols, I would recommend buying any cheap watches with Thai digits. They are not as common as watches with classic numerals, but I’ve seen them for 50-200 THB. Unfortunately I still don’t have any, as they didn’t match my style.

Thai digits in details you will find in the end of this article. Right now I will show you just a clock in the middle of Bangkok.

Clock with Thai digits

Dates / calendar

While we live in 2019, Thais live in 2562. So don’t wonder when you see an expiry date from the far future. The reason for such a difference between us is the Buddhist calendar. I think it’s a good idea to surprise your friends or relatives (that haven’t been to Thailand) with some food souvenirs “from the future”.

Thais have also complicated months-system, but thank God, they are widely using the same months as Europeans do.

New Year decoration
2556=2013

Reverse effect / Thaiglish

(or why is it hard to understand their English)

Differences between Thai & English languages lead to difficulties in learning English for Thai people. Yes, the tones are here to blame too + there are some specific rules in Thai. F.e. a word can’t be finished with the sound [S]. Even if there’s a letter “S” in the end of Thai word, it is converted to a sound [T]. Now just realize, how many difficulties experiences a Thai native speaker learning English: sockS, fruitS, hiS, doeS… Letter “S” seems to be the main letter in English language.

The other specific moment in Thai language – almost all consonants are separated with a vowel. On my first trip to Thailand, I was trying to do my best to get the meaning of a word that one Thai guy said to me. It sounded like [kasa-meua], with word stress on the sound [eu] that even doesn’t exist in English. The context didn’t make it clear too. Later [kasa-meua] appeared to be a «customer», though the right word for the context would be a client.

If you aren’t native English speaker: the worse is your knowledge of English, the better you will understand Thais in your first trips.

English language has more complicated grammar than Thai. So the word order in a sentence is a reflection of Thai grammar. Don’t expect do/does in Thaiglish. Here’s the example:

In English: Where do you go?

In Thaiglish: You go where.

Thai is writing on the sand

Also don’t expect that Thais will incline verbs, as in Thai language past time becomes past, when one simply adds the word “yesterday”. Perfect grammar, right? Thaiglish is made of short sentences. And Thaiglish phrases are so sticky! When Russian students arrive back home, their English teachers can be surprised with their knowledge that became worse.

Of course there are Thai nationals that speak English perfectly. If we talk of the staff, these would be doctors (generally insurance companies send you to the best hospitals, so they have to). If we talk of people around, I’ve met only 2 person that had much better level of English than mine (my level is between upper-intermediate and advanced 1). This was a woman of ~50 y.o. in fabulous silk suit, she was definitely from the high society, though she kind-heartedly helped me with advice. The 2d one was a 23 y.o. young man, who had studied in a private school with a teacher of British origin.

Planning a trip to Thailand, you should understand, that there’s really a big difference between our (Russian, European, American, Arabic) cultures. That’s why every first-time visitor experiences a kind of cultural shock – everything seems to be different (but not that simple as upside-down). And one either becomes addicted to Thailand or identifies it as the country, one won’t ever visit again. There’s no other option.

Postbox in Bangkok
This font on the postbox is not the worse, but it’s difficult to read

English-Thai Phrasebook

Yes, this phrasebook is totally useless until you hear, how every word should sound. Day by day you will hear Thais repeating the same words. In order to help you to get their meaning I’ve gathered below the most useful words & phrases. When Thais will understand, what you’re trying to say to them, they will correct you. “Correct” doesn’t mean “explain” and it doesn’t mean that you will get the explanation, but they will definitely correct you.

ใช่

Yes [chai]

ไม่

No [mai]

กราบ / ค่ะ

[krap] and [kа:] are 2 little words that indicate your politeness and your gender. Krap is for men, ka: – for women. Ka: is pronounced as if you are dying (the sound becomes low and quiet). A polite person should add the word in the end of every sentence. It also includes the meaning of “please”.

สวัสดี ค่ะ / กราบ

It’s a form of greeting used at any occasion and at any time [sa-wat-dee] (now you should put some politeness depending on how your gender identification)

ขอบคุณ

Thank you [khob khun] (add the word of politeness)

ไม่เป็นไร

It’s ok, it doesn’t matter [mai bpen rai] (if you’re extremely polite – add the word of politeness)

เท่าไร

How much (does it cost)? [thau-ra:i] + the word of politeness

Thai baht

Counting in Thailand

The count itself is easy. Prior to remembering, you should listen to Thai pronunciation.

0 [su:n] ศูนย์

1 [neung] หนึ่ง

2 [song] สอง

3 [sa:m] สาม

4 [si:] สี่

5 [ha:] ห้า

6 [hok] หก

7 [chet] เจ็ด

8 [paet] แปด

9 [gau] เก้า

Tens, hundreds, thousands

10 ๑๐ [sib] สิบ

11 ๑๑ [sib-et] สิบเอ็ด

12 ๑๒ [sib-song] สิบสอง (then you just change the digit that comes after sib (ten))

20 ๒๐ [yee-sib] ยี่สิบ (then do it the way I’ve showed you with 11, 12)

30 ๓๐ [sam-sib] สามสิบ (further change the first digit up to 9)

100 ๑๐๐ [neung roi] หนึ่งร้อย

200 ๒๐๐ [song roi] สองร้อย (further like with tens, change the first digit up to 9)

1000 ๑๐๐๐ [neung pa:n] หนึ่งพัน

2000 ๒๐๐๐ [song pa:n] สองพัน (further like with tens, change the first digit up to 9

Big numerals

10 000 ๑๐๐๐๐ [neung meun] หนึ่งหมื่น

100 000 ๑๐๐๐๐๐ [neung saen] หนึ่งแสน

1 000 000 ๑๐๐๐๐๐๐ [neung la:n] หนึ่งล้าน

1 000 000 000 ๑๐๐๐๐๐๐๐๐๐ [pa:n la:n] พันล้าน

1 000 000 000 000 ๑๐๐๐๐๐๐๐๐๐๐๐๐ [la:n la:n] ล้านล้าน

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