Thai Language
The Thai language is difficult to negotiate and learn.

There are 44 consonants, 14 vowels, and 4 tone markers that are written. There is one mark that mutes its associated consonant, and several unwritten vowels. The phonetic alphabet was designed in Thailand in the 13th century, using Old Khmer and Indian scripts as its basis.

Thai uses 5 tones. Each syllable has its own tone: mid (or resting), high, low, falling or rising. Thai derived words are often only 1 syllable long; whereas Sanskrit or Pali (a Sanskrit dialect) root words are longer.

Thai spelling is controlled by a complex matrix of rules. These rules determine which of the several letters for the same sound are used (there are 4 characters for the 's' sound) and what the tone of the syllable will be. The basis of the rules is:

  • Position in syllable (initial or final)
  • The class of the consonant: mid, high, and low
  • The length of the vowel
  • The vowel or consonant ending the syllable
  • The accent mark used (or left off)

A syllable or word may be written with a consonant that has a different sound at the beginning or the end of the word. This is indicated in the chart with the initial/end sound (i.e. j/t).

The consonants summarized below are in Thai alphabetical order and give the Thai name for each letter with the English translation in parenthesis. The numbers identify the class: 1=mid, 2=high, and 3=low.

Each area of Thailand has its own dialect, which is not understood across the regions. Standard Thai is Central Thai, spoken in the central area around Bangkok. This is the national dialect and is taught in all schools.

The regional dialects are Northern Thai, Northeastern Thai (similar to Lao), and Southern Thai. The regional dialects are not usually written and involve a systematic change of tones with considerable local vocabulary.

It is important for visitors to understand that a word's tone is integral to its meaning. The word 'mai' said with a high tone means 'silk,' while 'mai' said with a falling tone means 'no.' A word said with a certain tone has a specific meaning. Visitors often say that a person should be able to figure out the context if the tone is mispronounced. Sorry, but that's not how it works—they are two distinct words.


For non-Thai speakers there are several important things to know about using Thai consonants. The first is the concept of paired characters where one is aspirated and the other is not. A good example is the pair 'k' and 'kh.' Both are made with the same position of the mouth and tongue, but in the aspirated 'kh' air is released past the lips. The result is that 'kh' sounds like an English 'k' where the 'k' sounds more like a 'g.'

The other pairs are:


  • t/th
  • p/ph

The ‘th’ is pronounced as a simple ‘t’ in English (like in Thomas). The ‘t’ is halfway between a ‘t’ and ‘d.’ Any Thai word spelled with ‘th’ in English is seldom pronounced as the English theta, which does not exist in Thai. Khlong Thom is pronounced with a simple ‘k’ and ‘t.’ Thais are not thighs!

The second pair is similar. The ‘ph’ sounds like the English ‘p,’ and the ‘p’ is halfway between a ‘p’ and ‘b.’ Phi Phi Island is not said as Fi Fi, and Phuket is not said as ‘f*ck it”! (Unless you’ve had a really bad experience there!)


Thai words end with a vowel or a restricted number of consonants. Even though a word may end with a Thai ‘s,’ it will always be pronounced as a final ‘t.’ An ‘l’ becomes and ‘n.’ A ‘j’ character will change to a final ‘k.’ A ‘b’ becomes a ‘p.’


In addition to the lack of a ‘th,’ Thai does not have a ‘v,’ ‘x,’ ‘sh,’ or ‘z.’ Many of the vowels have no English equivalent. As a result, when Thais try to pronounce many words, there is a heavy interferences from Thai, which makes it difficult to get the English sounds correct.

In many areas of Thailand, there is no distinction between the 'l' and 'r' sounds. The 'r' often sounds like an 'l.'

To complicate matters further, in Krabi there are some idiosyncratic pronunciation issues:

  • The initial ‘ng’ is replaced by an ‘h,’ so Ngai Island becomes Hai Island.
  • The ‘f’ becomes a ‘kw.’ Fai (light or fire) changes to kwai.
  • The final ‘k’ is dropped.


The number of Thai vowels is between 18 and 32, depending on what you count as vowels. The list below included all the character combinations that form vowel sounds, plus some other characters that are commonly seen in Thai writing.


This link takes you a new page with a list of useful phrases in Thai.