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Pronouncing the Tones

Tone refers to a change in the pitch of a syllable during its pronunciation. In Thai, every syllable is pronounced in one of five tones: low, mid, high, falling, or rising. The tone must be spoken correctly for the intended meaning of a word to be understood. Since every word has a particular mandatory tone, we say that the Thai language has obligatory lexical tone.

Every Thai word throughout this website is displayed alongside its phonemic transcription. If you haven't changed the default settings, then this "transliteration" indicates the required tone for the word with a superscripted capital letter after each syllable; L, M, H, F, or R, corresponding to the low, mid, high, falling, and rising tones, respectively.

Linguistic marking

Languages have at their disposal various different tools for achieving their primary function of enabling communication; any sound or gesture that a human can produce is fair game. Taking these tools together we can think of them as marking resources, which different languages embrace (or eschew) in different ways.

Comparing Thai and English, prosody is used for different functions. In Thai, tone has a semantic function; words which are similar but pronounced with different tones have different, unrelated meanings. English generally does not use tone in this way, but for illustration it may be useful to examine a different type of prosody in English. Consider the case of stress. In a few rare cases, English differentiates the meaning of words with lexical stress: consider "He wanted to present her with the medal of honor..." versus "...but she wasn't present to receive it."

More commonly in English though, stress is applied at the sentence level for information-structural effect—that is, in order to differentiate the topic of the sentence (information which is already accommodated by discourse participants) from its focus (the new information that the proposition intends to communicate). In other words, stress in English is typically used to call attention to the most important part of the utterance. Consider the following English, where stressed syllables are shown in bold.
[Paul]FOCUS fell in the swimming pool.

Paul [fell in the swimming pool.]FOCUS
The first sentence answers the question, "Who fell in the swimming pool?" The second sentence answers the question, "Why is Paul all wet?"

Pronouncing the five lexical tones

Speaking the Five Tones of Thai
tone example word how to say it
low ไข่  khaiL (egg) spoken in a constant or slightly falling lower pitch, starting at a pitch lower than your normal vocal range.
mid ไป  bpaiM (to go) spoken in a constant pitch in your normal vocal range. Do not vary the pitch as the syllable is pronounced.
high ครับ  khrapH ([a grammatical particle]) spoken at the top of your normal vocal range, producing a somewhat stressed sound.
rising หนัง  nangR (cinema film) rising sound, as in a question spoken in English
falling ใช่  chaiF (yes, agreement) starting slightly above comfortable speaking range, rise just a little before falling below the starting point.

The following image shows a more technical analysis of the pitch (frequency) of over time.

Unless you are exclusively studying the Thai script, it is very important to note, learn, and speak the proper tones (shown as superscripted capital letters — L M H R F — in the phonemic transcriptions throughout these web pages).

Technical note for advanced students:
A minority view that some linguists take is that the high tone is further divided into two tones, giving a total of six tones in the Thai language. As the graph shows, the high tone has a short drop-off in pitch near its end. The proposed additional tone is a shorter-duration high tone which does not descend like this. McFarland (Thai-English Dictionary, Stanford University Press, 1944, page x) calls this the "high staccato" tone, as opposed to the "circumflex or emphatic" tone (which we call "high"). Others argue that this distinction is covered by the long-versus-short characteristic of Thai vowels—in other words, by viewing the high tone on dead syllables as though it didn't have time to fall off.

Since this subtlety is not represented in the phonemic transcriptions on our site, once again the best plan is to be guided by a native Thai speaker or our audio clips.

Audio Tone Comparison

It is crucial to listen to native Thai speakers when learning tones. As a start, please study the tone comparisons given below:

ไม่ maiFnot; no
ใหม่ maiL[is] new; modern; fresh
ไหมmaiR[word added at the end of a statement to indicate a question]
ไหม้ maiFto burn

เขา khaoR[3rd person singular or plural pronoun] he; she; him; her; they; them
เข่า khaoLknee
เข้า khaoFto enter; go in; to penetrate; to insert; to approach

Comparing the preceding group with the following group also illustrates the important difference in vowel length (duration). For more information on this, see the vowels page.

ขาว khaaoR[is] white
ข่าว khaaoLnews; tidings; information received; message
ข้าว khaaoFrice

If you think you've got it, you can practice with the quiz, Listening for the Tone of One-Syllable Words.
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