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By Pradichaya | Thai food | photography | voice teaching | opera artist
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Sriracha and padthai | Tongue-Tied with Thai-Tongue |

By Pradichaya | Thai food | photography | voice teaching | opera artist

An article about adapting Thai spelling into the Latin alphabet and its misuse, mispronunciation, misconception; and, of course, the internationally known Sriracha sauce and the renowned Padthai noodle dish.

Sriracha and padthai

I don't know why- nor since when- the educated Thais (who, in the old days, obviously studied abroad) started to adapt the Latin alphabet to the sound of Thai language; and they did so, literally, alphabet-to-alphabet, instead of spelling words out the way they are pronounced. Among many outstanding samples, Sriracha -both a province and the famous Thai hot sauce- is misspelled. In Thai, when an "s" is followed by an "r," with a vowel applied to the "r," the "r" is then silent.

Therefore, in this case it is pronounced "Si-ra-cha," and not, "Sri-ra-cha." But how many non-Thai Latin alphabet users would know that? -Zero. I am sure it was a conscious choice to spell the words alphabetically rather than phonetically, but did these Thais expect foreigners to study our language so they would understand and apply the rules? -I have no idea. I've watched enough of the Food Network channel to realize that Sriracha sauce has gone to the international level, but everytime a famous chef pronounces the famous brand with an "r" it makes my tongue tickle and tingle so much, that I can't stop myself from giggling. No, sirs and madames, I do not laugh at you: you're just pronouncing the word the way it appears.

Names are something I regard highly. People are given theirs by their parents or by others for whom they have the highest regard. I respect how people's names are spelled and pronounced; but, before I go on, I need to clarify a few things with how Thai is written in the Latin alphabet. There is always confusion between "b" and "p." : P is a hard p sound, like a double p in the Italian language -pp. PH is a soft p, like a regular p- the "h" is never pronounced and, when together, it is not an "f" sound. Lastly, B is the hard b sound.

For reasons unknown to me, the older generation of Thais spelled their names with such letters in reverse order. A famous example of this reversed process would be the name of our beloved monarch, His Royal Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His majesty's name is pronounced "Phoo-mi-pohn," with the soft "ph" instead of a hard "b."

My maternal grandmother came from the family of "Sethaputra," (think Singha Beer, the white busline, and the first Thai-English dictionary -that was my grandmother's family), and its correct pronunciation is "Sed-ta-budd" (like buddha, not bud beer). I know this name was given to our ancestor by his majesty King Rama VI, but whether the English spelling was also given by the King along with the Thai spelling, I do not know.

I've seen many more mixed up words, such as: "phamohn" which becomes "bhamara," and the obvious one, "Phuddta," which is spelled "Buddha." For international vacationers, the "h" after the "p" in "PH" is silent, and therefore does not sound like an "f." This makes the correct pronunciation of one of the most beautiful Islands on the Andaman Sea in the south of Thailand, "Phuket," and never "Fuket."

We have 44 consonants and 32 vowels, not to mention other symbols that go on top of the consonants and vowels that yield the power to automatically apply or override rules -just like keyboard shortcuts on our computers. When faced with both hard and soft sounds that a single letter "p" makes, westerners -such as my husband- have a hard time making the distinction between "b" and "p." Suddenly, soft p isn't so much of a problem anymore. When one consumes spicy food with too many tiny Thai chilis in it, one can jump out of the seat yelling, "Phedd, phedd, phedd, water please." On the other hand, pedd means duck, and bedd means bait. The sounds are very close to one another. My youngest uncle from my mother's side was given the nickname "Pedd," and I call him "na Pedd-" uncle Pedd. My husband, as the nephew-in-law, should follow suit, but for the 30+ years he's been around my family -13 of them spent living in Thailand- he still is trying his best not to call my uncle, "na Bedd." I can't think my uncle would be good as bait, and to picture him hanging upside-down at the end of a fishing rod is really unbecoming.

It's about the language

My surname is Poonyarit,

...and my father chose to go down the middle road as far as spelling. It is pronounced "punn-y-ridd." The reason for the missing "a" vowel after the "ya" is because it is a short version of a long "ah" vowel, and we have yet to come up with the most precise way to stay true to the correct pronunciation. My grandfather had spelled it, "Poonyaritha," because he was from the old school, and spelled it with the intention of putting in all the letters. My father, however, wanted to enable foreigners to stay more-or-less close to the name's true pronunciation. (I can see why, for our family owned an international business ever since I was two years old, and it was vital to have foreign associates say our name correctly.) There is an letter "tawtohng-" "" and a special symbol on top- "ธิ์" that automatically makes ' "taw"tohng ' silent. The letter itself is pronounced ' "taw"tohng ', but there is a ' "taw"tahahn-""ท" that has already taken the spelling for such a pronunciation, and therefore someone inserted an "h" after the "t". As a rule, we Thais know that the "h" is always silent. But, again, we forget the original reason that we spell words in English is so that westerners would be able to say them. Most non-Thai persons are not aware of Thai language rules -and why should they be?- so they just pronounce the words as they see them. My father decided to make a small sacrifice to the name by staying with a do-able version. Therefore, instead of "Punn-yrit" he, along with the rest of us, make do with "Poonyarit." Ultimately, it is up to the bearers of the names to decide what's best. I may or may not agree with some spellings, but I respect and observe people's right to spell their names as they choose and do not go around correcting how others spell their own.

When it comes to the most delicious stir-fry...

...small rice noodle from the province of Junntaburee (or Chanthaburee, Chantaburi, etc.), the Latin alphabet's equivalent of the Thai spelling of the dish comes down to two: "Padthai," or "Padtai." The former means a stir-fry dish the "Thai" way, or our (as in the whole nation) very own way of making a stir-fry noodle dish. The latter is the stir-fry noodle of freedom- which therefore makes it Thai, because "tai" is free, and that's who we (Thais) are. There is a lot of evidence supporting both sides. They both make sense, and I have used both of them. My father, who is a linguist, prefers to use "padtai," but others -to show their patriotism (not that my father isn't patriotic)- spell the word, "padthai." Personally, when I'm in a nationalistic and patriotic mode, I spell it as two words, "pad Thai;" otherwise I'd just do it the same way as my father. Its true pronunciation, though, regardless of its Thai spelling, is (and always be) "Phahdd-tai." The "a" vowel in Thai often sounds "ahh" like the French vowel, "a." This is why I stick an "h" in, to emphasize the long ahhhhhh.

It's not black and white,

...and most of the time there is no right and wrong when it comes to spelling Thai words in the Latin alphabet. But if we know of something wrong, or if there's anything out there which you feel is misrepresented or misused, let's get all the facts together and put them into circulation so everyone has all the information and can decide for themselves. Not everyone will agree, but at least it's nice to have the option of seeing both sides of the fence.