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A Note on Thai Pronunciation and Spelling

by Michael Babcock

The Thai language is tonal and has its own script. Because it has many sounds not found in the English language, the task of representing Thai words with English letters is very challenging. The official system now in use in most publications has many flaws, which have led to the mispronunciation of many Thai words.

For instance, a well known soi (street) in Bangkok is Sukhumvit Soi 55, which is known universally as Thong Lo. That's the official transliteration for what is pronounced more like Tawng Law.

Although the Thai word for market is typically spelled talaat, a more phonetically accurate spelling would be "dtalaht" – the first consonant is actually a cross between a "D" and a "T" and not a "T" sound.

One more example: the well-known Bangkok weekend market is usually spelled Chatuchak in English. It's also quite common to hear it referred to as "J.J. Market." The initial "CH" is really from a Thai consonant that has more of "J" sound – hence, the confusion.

Throughout the website we've had to choose between being phonetically accurate or officially accurate. Kasma, in most instances (such as Thai names for different recipes) almost always tries to be phonetically accurate. In other instances, Michael has chosen to use the more official spelling, such as using talaat for market or gaeng for curry (Kasma would use Gkaeng) because it is likely to be recognized by more people.

Other people using English to write Thai words make other choices – you might see the Thai word for shrimp paste spelled in one of many ways: kapi, gabi, gkabi are three of many possibilities. Each spelling is an attempt to reconcile the two consonants in the Thai word for shrimp paste that don't exist in English – the initial consonant is a cross between a "G" and a "K" while the middle consonant is a cross between a "B" and a "P".

There are a couple of other issues when it comes to pronunciation. Thai is a tonal language, like Chinese. The English spelling give no hint as to the tone, so even if there was a way to have a phonetically perfect English spelling, the chances are pretty good that you'd pronounce it wrong tonally anyway.

Also, certain consonants, such as "L" in English are never found at the end of a word. Sukhumvit Soi 105 is also called Soi LaSalle however, a Thai would pronounce it as "Soi La-Sahn" – the "L" is pronounced as an "N" at the end of the word

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