This topic has caused many a debate in the world of Thai grammar and language. Like one of those all-too-common Asian government gang fights they pass off as legislation debates, the issue of how exactly we Westerners should pronounce Thai consonants and vowels is highly discussed and often argued.
I have my own thoughts, which I will share with you today. Please keep in mind that these are general suggestions, not intended to be taken as the absolute way. These ideas are meant to get you a little bit closer to sounding more natural when you speak Thai, and for me to learn as well. If you have any thoughts on the subject, please chime in.
Since we’re not trying to pass any new laws, let’s keep the fist-fighting to a minimum as I discuss five pronunciation tips…
ก and the “G” Sound
And so we begin with the first consonant of the Thai alphabet – ก (กอ ไก่) /gɔɔ gài/. ก is more than just a simple “G” sound; it’s pronounced more like “gk.” There’s a bit of harshness to the sound, which seems to come from placing the back part of your tongue on your palate and then pronouncing a “gk” sound. (My non-medical background hard at work here, as you can see.) Think about the way you pronounce the last name of America’s greatest do-it-yourselfer: MacGuyver. The “G” in his last name is pretty close to what I’m talking about.
จ and the “J” Sound
จ (จอ จาน) /jɔɔ jaan/would typically seem easy enough to pronounce. Heck, my name is Josh so I should have this letter and sound nailed, right? Well, in Thai, the “j” sound for จ sounds more like a “tjch” sound. It’s a slightly harder, more percussive sound than we would normally pronounce it. I almost think of it as a Russian consonant sound, though I admit to having no experience with the Russian language. The image I get, however, helps me with trying to recreate the sound.
ต and the “DT” Sound
ต (ตอ เต่า) /dtɔɔ dtào/ seems to trip people up the most out of all of the Thai consonants. When I say this consonant, the sound seems to generate from the back of my mouth, with my tongue on the palate. It’s a more percussive sound than the regular “D” ด (ดอ เด็ก) sound.
ป and the “BP” Sound
ป (ปอ ปลา) /bpɔɔ bplao/ – similar to ต – is a percussive sound. I think of making the sound “POW!” like the old Batman TV shows but softening it up a bit. You want to try and get a little expiration (aspiration) of air on the “P” part of the sound, which helps soften things up. Don’t round your lips like you would for the “B” sound; purse them in like you did when you had to kiss your 80-year old wet-lipped grandmother growing up.
ซ and the “S” Sound
ซ (ซอ โซ่) /sɔɔ sôo/ is somewhat easier than the first few I mentioned. This consonant’s sound is more akin to an “sch” sound than an “s” sound. It’s subtle, however, so be careful how much emphasis you place on the “ch” part.
As I said in the beginning, these are just general suggestions to help you along. Don’t take these as be-all rules that must be adhered to. If you pronounce จ as a regular “j” sound and never get the nuance, it’s okay; no Thai person will have trouble understanding you. If you are looking to get a little more natural-sounding, however, these are good to keep in mind and work on.