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The Myth of the Thai Tones


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Like many, I struggled to speak Thai in a way that people really understood what I was saying, even though my listening skills were good enough for me to follow conversations.   And Thai fri

Even in my early days in Thailand, when my pronunciation surely was atrocious, there were some Thais who understood me almost without fail, while I had no luck whatsoever with others.   I th

I'm sceptical on your theory.   So you are basically saying that we can pronounce every word in a mid/normal tone and  Thais work out the tone and the meaning of the word used from the

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On 5/31/2021 at 8:51 PM, Kinnock said:

I now realise tones are more like regional accents

exactly right.   plus in SONGS it's different.    

 

only problem is you might go to the same place a lot, and they have figured out what you are trying to say (80% correct, for example) and won't correct you.

 

and then you realize 10 million speak some Laos/Thai mix........  

 

just learn how they speak where you live.....easier to bond into a community.   After a while you wonder if anyone says "chai mai?" (too lazy to type in Thai).   different everywhere.

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On 5/31/2021 at 8:51 PM, Kinnock said:

I now realise tones are more like regional accents than strict rules, and that Thai people actually use context more than tone to understand the meaning.  I also realised my attempts at tones were adding to the confusion when I spoke.

Tone and context go together, always have and always will.

When Thais try to speak in English I understand what they're saying because of the context used, even though the tone/pronunciation was poor.

However when the context used is understood by the speaker then tone should be addressed to be accurate.

Accent just makes it more difficult.

 

 

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On 6/3/2021 at 1:39 PM, Bredbury Blue said:

Sometimes you will be right, if there's a horse in a field and I say that maa (horse) has to go", then Thais can work out it is the horse I'm talking about.

But if there's a horse and a dog in a field (both 'maa' in Thai but different tones) and I say "that maa has to go", then Thais cannot work out if it is the horse or dog I'm talking about.

Correct... tones do exist and are important.

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22 hours ago, clivebaxter said:

I honestly cannot hear any tones at all, so have no interest in this crude language any longer

Sometimes Ignorance is bliss, and sometimes ignorance is just ignorance.  And sometimes it's both.

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When my longtime Thai friend remarks that what I said was very clear, I am astonished as I have no idea about tones. I just parrot what I hear.

 

BTW She doesn't say it often. 555

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15 minutes ago, rwill said:

near and far are more a length of the vowel sound than a tonal difference.

The near/far was one of the word pairs I used in my little experiment...  and it had the lowest success rate.  Interestingly, I noticed friends using head and eye gesture to improve their success on subsequent attempts ...  in effect, cheating. 😁

 

In practice near and far will always have some context, but said in isolation and with no head or arm movements, my friends could not reliably distinguish between the two words.

 

I feel that the complex tone rules exist only for written Thai and for academic purposes, in casual, everyday conversation they are blurred or ignored to such an extent that context becomes paramount.

 

It's like 'see' and 'sea' in English - context is essential, but the near/far one in Thai is risky as the context may still not make it perfectly clear 😁

 

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On 5/31/2021 at 9:02 PM, wasabi said:

I don't think the tones are mythological; they can help clarify meaning, but their distinction in isolation is less helpful than some say as you demonstrated. Another issue is the fact ร ror rua is often pronounced ล law ling. So even if you pronounce the word right using the R sound many from Issan won't recognize it unless you replace it with an l due to "lazy tongues" 

 the biggest problem with most foreign languages and native English speakers is that we "hear" the consonants while many other native language speakers "hear" the vowels.  I have studied more than 10 languages.  As for Thai tones, my daughter (17) listened to my wife and I for her first 4 years in Thai only and then we decided that for a better future she should have English also so from then on I spoke only English to my daughter and Thai wife who spoke no English.  Now my daughter speaks fluently in Thai, English, fully understands and speaks and has taught basic Mandarin in a high school, and has tested the international Korean proficiency test two phases at the III level and has taught some Korean too.  She indicates that Thais can easily learn Chinese because Thais are used to tones and she does really well in Chinese but she says that Chinese can learn Thai and Korean easily but that Koreans have a

difficult time trying to speak Thai and/or Chinese because of the tones.  I myself just speak Thai very quickly and only use what I feel  is the correct tone on specific phrases and have no problems holding a conversation with Thais.  But, many time my wife and daughter catch me and make me pronounce a particular word with the correct tone.  The older one gets the more difficult it is to learn a foreign language.  The US State Dept. foreign language school says the number one indicator on how well an American will do learning a foreign language is the student's college English grade.  I guess one should be fluent in one's native language in order to properly translate.    Sorry it is so long but just thought I would share my experiences with Thai tones.

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Posted (edited)

Transliterations of spoken Thai using a European alphabet and western sounds is hopelessly inaccurate.

 

This is since most of the Thai hard 44 consonants have different sounds.

There are 33 vowels - most of which have different sounds to European languages.

…And of course, each spoken syllable has one of 5 discrete tones. 

Speaking Thai without tones would be similar to speaking English without vowels. The tones are necessary. A lot of guess work is necessary without the tones.

 

Listen to Thai news shows broadcast from Bangkok and mimic the speaker’s pronunciation.

But also listen to recordings of all the dialects spoken across Thailand.

 

Recognize that dialects of Thai are so strong, that it is not uncommon to see sub-titles during films to help central Bangkok Thai speakers understand what is being said (in North Isaan for instance.

 

Isaan Thai - a language so far from Bangkok Thai that it is really another language. 

 

 

Edited by SteveB2
a word was missed out.
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23 hours ago, KeeTua said:

Then why visit the Thai language forum if you don't have any interest in this 'crude' language?

I expect a few others get here through the daily newsletter like me. I agree with your sentiment though.

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I agree with the OP. I have no ability to reproduce tones, so I don't bother. While not fluent in Thai, I'm reasonably competent.

I talk to my GF in Thai all the time, she understands me perfectly. Strangers occasionally don't,  I find ways to work around it.

Yesterday, I asked a waitress for pad siew gai. She could not understand me. I then repeated the order to the checkout girl, who did. She said the same words to the waitress, I could almost see a light bulb come on over her head.

I could not pick any difference in what I said, and what the checkout girl said. It sounded exactly the same to me.

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Have to admit sometimes when I miss the context in Ameri or Aussie-english I completely loose track and everything after becomes gobbledegook. Same for strong english accents such as welsh scottish west and north country and it must be the same for Thais.

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6 minutes ago, chilly07 said:

Have to admit sometimes when I miss the context in Ameri or Aussie-english I completely loose track and everything after becomes gobbledegook. Same for strong english accents such as welsh scottish west and north country and it must be the same for Thais.

I like to watch a show on the Discovery Channel called Super Truckers, but they really need subtitles. All I hear is, "Gobbledegoogadagragglaharada...job done!"

 

As for reading Thai, I can decipher the tones much quicker than I can figure out the fancy font styles they often use. I know different font styles make things more creative and attractive, but those fancy fonts really get on my nerves.

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You miss one major point. Native Thai speakers (like any native speakers of any language) learn to speak by imitating the people around them. Only at a later stage they learn to read and write, but even that they learn in a different way than non native speakers. If you ask a native Thai speakers for the rules or the names of the tones most of them won't have a clue. Learning/ teaching Thai as a foreign language is not the same as native - just as teaching English as a foreign language is different to teaching it to native speakers. 

There are 5 different tones and 4 different tone marks which means that if there's no tone mark above a letter the "missing" tone mask actually indicates a tone. But as was mentioned above, the same tone mark (or the absence of it) sounds differently when combined with different letter groups

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I think the op is probably correct. Most non-native speakers of Thai can get by without a good understanding or usage of tones. Context is all important.

 

Native Thai speakers (at least out our way) only seem to really use tones when they are drunk, excited or emotional. Maybe it is just because the tones are so exaggerated when people are agitated.

 

I only speak a little Thai, but people often praise my Thai. I don't know if they are just flattering me or because the few words I do speak I can speak well.

 

I will sometimes say 'bung kee' (maybe), or mimic other people's smiles etc when listening to a conversation I don't understand. My wife is convinced I can understand Thai, and won't gossip around me anymore when someone is talking. Of course I can't understand any of it - I am just mimicking the response of others listening to the conversation.

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I don't know if it is true or not but I once read that Thai Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, who created the Thai into English transliteration scheme, basically said that foreigners aren't used to hearing tones, aren't used to reproducing them so they are generally wrong when the try, and they shouldn't bother with tones because Thais would figure out what was meant from the context of what was said. 

 

I can hear Thai tones and even reproduce them fairly accurately according to my wife, but regional accents make what I say virtually a foreign language to many Thais.  I find using English, pointing, and gesturing like an idiot generally gets me better results.

 

wasabi, I loved your comment on the "r" sound.  With many Thai words I can hear a soft trilled "r", sometimes in combination with "l" as an "lr" sound.  Most of my farang friends can't hear the soft trilled"r" sound so they substitute a "l" ,except for one friend.  That friend insists on ordering "coffee ron" , which the waitress's don't understand until I order hot coffee while discretely pointing to myself and my friend.  If you want to try it the "correct" transliteration is "coffee lron" with the "l" combined with a faint trilled "r" into a single sound.

 

I find many native English speakers can't reproduce a trilled "r", and can't hear it in Thai, but if you speak a Germanic language you should have no problem hearing or reproducing the soft trilled "r".

 

Another favorite is how most of my friends in Pattaya tell me someplace is on "Pattaya Clang" with a hard "a" sound.  My Thai friends tell me that "Pattaya Klang" is pronounced with the a pronounced "ahh" like in the word "law".

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When you omit tones from the language other foreigners do understand you, your g/f or wife mostly understands you, Thais who are regularly in contact with foreigners often understand you, and Thais without exposure to foreigners never understand you.

 

The grammar in Thai is fairly simple, but tones are essential, more than using the correct consonants in a word. In Western languages such as English, French, or German tones or usage of tones is less important but grammar and using correct consonants are essential. Can you understand a sentence spoken in English without grammar? Well yes, sometimes. If you live in Thailand long enough then even more often.

 

I trust you made your little experiment with the outcome as stated but you might need to consider a false premise.

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1 hour ago, SteveB2 said:

Transliterations of spoken Thai using a European alphabet and western sounds is hopelessly inaccurate.

 

This is since most of the Thai hard 44 consonants have different sounds.

There are 33 vowels - most of which have different sounds to European languages.

…And of course, each spoken syllable has one of 5 discrete tones. 

Speaking Thai without tones would be similar to speaking English without vowels. The tones are necessary. A lot of guess work is necessary without the tones.

 

Listen to Thai news shows broadcast from Bangkok and mimic the speaker’s pronunciation.

But also listen to recordings of all the dialects spoken across Thailand.

 

Recognize that dialects of Thai are so strong, that it is not uncommon to see sub-titles during films to help central Bangkok Thai speakers understand what is being said (in North Isaan for instance.

 

Isaan Thai - a language so far from Bangkok Thai that it is really another language. 

 

 

 

Thailand calls isaan a dialect of Thai but the people of isaan say they speak Lao which is more correct. Isaan / lao having an extra tone and many different words as the video illustrates. Most isaan people are bilingual in their isaan dialect (there are many) and Thai. In school they are only taught Thai; isaan they learn from what they hear around them.

 

Enjoyed the video. Never studied isaan at all but I knew a few words I've heard the wife say. Our kids are bilingual English/ central Thai and have very little knowledge of isaan even though the wife's family speak around them all their lives.

 

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On 6/3/2021 at 11:38 AM, ColeBOzbourne said:

An interesting experiment, I've often wondered what the results of something like that might be.

If you have access to JSTOR, or the like, you might be interested in a study entitled 
"Speech Melody and Song Melody in Central Thailand" which includes information similar to the above as well as noting that, when presented with nonsense syllables spoken in one of the tones, native Thai speakers could not reliably identify the tones. Very interesting, at least to those who find such things interesting.

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2 hours ago, Lacessit said:

I agree with the OP. I have no ability to reproduce tones, so I don't bother. While not fluent in Thai, I'm reasonably competent.

I talk to my GF in Thai all the time, she understands me perfectly. Strangers occasionally don't,  I find ways to work around it.

Yesterday, I asked a waitress for pad siew gai. She could not understand me. I then repeated the order to the checkout girl, who did. She said the same words to the waitress, I could almost see a light bulb come on over her head.

I could not pick any difference in what I said, and what the checkout girl said. It sounded exactly the same to me.

I think what you describe is a different problem.  Often when we meet Thai people in restaurants, shops etc., they expect us to speak a foreign language, panic and lose all language comprehension.  

 

I sometimes have to say, in Thai, "I'm speaking Thai", then they re-tune and alls well.

 

To avoid this slightly embarrassing situation for both parties, I'll start any exchange with a polite Thai greeting so they expect to hear Thai, then 9 times out of 10 they understand my request.

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On a continent far away I have an old Thai language/grammar book that quotes the then reigning monarch expressing ideas similar to those you present. 

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9 minutes ago, timendres said:

Tones matter. Thinking they don't will simply limit your ability to speak the language.

of course they matter.   In fact, they matter quite a bit.

 

However, I think the OP is saying that there can be a number of exceptions and don't think that the tone should be 100% this way....it might be another way.   Keep an open mind.

 

I would add..... a RISING tone actually falls and then rises (in my head).  doesn't go up and keep going up.    Falling goes UP and then down......and doesn't go UP that long.  Quick.   All these little things can drive someone crazy.

 

and even sometimes I hear the easiest of words:  Chicken.  Low tone.  I hear someone say it flat.  But if I said it flat they would correct me.  So it's my ears I guess.

 

Teach.   rising.  Test.  Falling.   Already.  Crazy rising tone.  Pork.  Not crazy rising tone.  Duck versus Eight.   Still have no idea.  lol   

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Thai tones really do exist but it is important to understand that they can be modified by several things including where the word falls in a sentence and whether the speaker specifically wants to stress that word or not. The result of stress on one word can mean that the tone of word next to it is completely elided and undetectable.

 

Tones are also quite different in Thai dialects compared to central Thai. Often the vocabulary is the same but an Isaan speaker, for example, will use different tones for the same words, e.g. Kin khao (eat rice) in central Thai AFAIK is kin (middle) khao (falling) which puts the stress on the khao.  In Isaan it is kin (falling) khao (low) with the stress also on the falling syllable which in this case is kin. Someone who is a native speaker of one of the dialects may speak central Thai with an accent that makes them mispronounce the tones in central Thai.

 

You can often get away with trying to ignore the tones and speaking Thai tonelessly which may be the only choice for those who are "tone deaf".  I have heared a lot of farangs speaking Thai that way and they are usually understood in the same way as foreigners speaking English with thick foreign accents can usually be understood.  Whatever works is good.

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