Friday, May 20, 2011

Does the /g/ Sound Exist in Thai and Lao?

     The word for "chicken", is it [gai] or [kai] (tone omitted)? Does the g sound exist in Thai and Lao? The answer is maybe, but only in very limited environments, and it varies across native speakers.
     First, /g/ and /k/ are both unaspirated velar stops, but the /g/ is voiced while the /k/ is voiceless. The /k/ in transcriptions often causes confusion with the aspirated /k/ in English, e.g. kill (aspirated) vs skill (unaspirated).  In Thai and Lao, the aspirated and unaspirated /k/'s are separate phonemes, (aspirated k is usually transcribed as kh) whereas in English, there is only one /k/ phoneme. So you could have a minimal pair such as kaa 'crow' vs khaa 'stuck.'
     However, there is no /g/ phoneme in Thai and Lao. If you were to substitute kaa 'crow' with [gaa], your pronunciation would slightly be off, though you would still be understood. People will just think you have an accent. Since there is no /g/ phoneme in Thai and Lao, native speakers cannot hear any difference between the /g/ and the unaspirated /k/.
    Most English speakers find it hard to produce the unaspirated /k/--unless they also speak Spanish or other languages that have unaspirated /k/. Many feel that the unaspirated k is a [g]. This might be because in English when g occurs initially, e.g. get, it gets slightly devoiced, but when it occurs medially, e.g. forget, it is fully voiced.
   Thus, if you want to improve your Thai or Lao accent, work on your unaspirated k! One of the many tricks is to say words like "skip" "scar" "scheme" repeatedly. Feel your k's. Then try to get rid of the s while still maintaining the k. So for "skip", for example, try to go from skip to -kip, and do not allow yourself to aspirate the k.
Good luck!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ancient Thai Script: Sukhothai Period - Year 1293

     It is believed that the script created by King Raam Kham Haeng is the direct ancestor of modern Thai (Siamese) script. The script was created around the year 1293. Comparing to other Tai scripts(including those of Lao and Northern Thai) which are in circular shapes, the Sukhothai letters are more squared-like. The script has 39 consonants as opposed to the modern Thai script which has 44. There are only two tonal markers as opposed to four in the contemporary Thai script. The 39 consonants were probably invented to represent the ancient pronunciation which many Tai linguists argue that they are different from the contemporary pronunciation. In particular, voiced stop and fricative sounds may have gotten devoiced, e.g. คg>kh, ฅɣ>x>kh, ชɟ>tɕh, ซz>s, ทd>th, พb>ph, ฟv>f etc. Other changes include implosives ดd and บb>plosive d and b respectively.
     These changes may have caused the tones to shift from having at least three tones to five (or six in other dialects of Siamese). The devoicing of original voiced consonants made them merge with their voiceless counterparts. To maintain the distinguish, the tonal shift had to occur. For example, before the shift there were "va" and "fa".  However, after the shift, "va" became "fa". Thus, now we have "fa" and "fa." To distinguish the difference, one (or both) of them had to undergo a tone shift: fa (mid tone) and fa (rising tone) etc. This phenomenon could explain how modern Thai has come to have three consonant classes (e.g. high f vs. low f---where the low f may have come from the ancient /v/).

Oh and have you ever wondered why ห is written before น to create a new sound: a high n? Well in the ancient time, these two sounds were actually a cluster, i.e. it was pronounced as /hn/. Linguists would go look at other languages that borrowed a Thai words beginning in hn in the ancient time, and see if in these languages still retain the hn sound. How did linguists come to conclude these changes? Well thankfully the Thai script was created based on Indic scriptures, so we can compare it with let's say the Devanagari script to see how the sounds differ since there are many Pali and Sanskrit loanwords in Thai.

For more info on the ancient pronunciation, read From Ancient Thai To Modern Dialects by J. Marvin Brown, and there are also a lot of great researches done by the late linguist William Gedney too which maybe in your local university's library. For those who are curious how the Thai r became h in many Tai dialects(and not the other way around since the creator used the same symbol to write a Pali word with an r and a Thai word with an r) such as Lao, Shan, and Northern Thai, these books might give you the answer.
Images above taken from here

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Variation in Thai Script

     This script is almost identical to the Lao script. It includes a mai kong for sara o(ผม), sara ua(ตัว) and sara -aw(เข้า), a fueang ย for sara -ia (เขียน), a tua อย(อย่าง), a merge between ห and ม(ไหม), and a tua sara o(ขอ).