I’ve been hearing a lot of people – both on and off the blog – talk about their difficulty in understanding and internalizing the tone rules for the Thai language. I admit that it did take several months before I felt truly comfortable with them, but rest assured it can be done.

So let’s start from the beginning.

There Are Five Tones

Just in case you forgot, the Thai language has five tones: mid, low, falling, high, and rising. As I’ve said a million times before, it is absolutely essential that you learn the tones and are able to pronounce syllables and words with the proper tones. You may come across people who say the tones aren’t important at first; they are wrong. Learn them right from the start and you will be able to start communicating right away. It will save you a lot of time and headaches.

First, Consonant Class

The first thing you need to determine is the initial consonant’s class. Remember that we’re dealing with syllables here, not with the entire word. If you don’t know the consonant classes, I suggest you learn about them here.

Second, Tone Marks?

The next thing you should look for is whether or not the consonant has a tone mark. (The four tone marks are known as วรรณยุกต์ /wan-ná-yúk/.) The tone marks are: /mái èek/; /mái too/; /mái dtrii/; /mái jàt-dtà-waa/.

If the consonant has one of these tone marks above it, all you have to do is look at the chart to see which tone to use. There is nothing else that needs to be done; the tone mark overrides all other aspects of the syllables characteristics.

(Note: as you can see from the chart, the low- and high-class consonants do not have any corresponding tone rules for /mái dtrii/ and /mái jàt-dtà-waa/. This is technically true, but there are exceptions. There are a few words in the Thai language – very few – that exist with these tone marks and consonant classes. They are so rare, however, that it’s not important to learn tone rules for these situations. If you happen to come across one, just memorize the associated tone; it will save you time and energy.)

Third, Live or Dead Syllable?

Assuming there is no tone mark, you will need to determine if the syllable is live or dead. You can learn about live and dead syllables in my post on Thai vowels.

If a syllable has a live ending (which is either a long vowel or the small list of short vowels that are considered to have live endings) then you will refer to the “Live Syllable” section of the chart to determine the syllable’s tone.

Today we’re going to stop with the live syllables. We’ll do the dead syllables in Part 2 tomorrow. For now, here is a list of simple syllables that you can use to practice determining what the tone should be. These aren’t necessarily actual words or syllables, just practice items. I’ll give you the answers tomorrow!

  • จะ
  • มา
  • ห้า
  • ไจ
  • โต่

And, a bonus question: ใหม่