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

Thai tongue on English TH

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Tuh, duh, stuh, but never thuh

Video: Thai Kings of Chakri Dynasty

Tongue-tied with Thai-tongue column discusses the easiness and difficulty in phonating some words in foreign tongues - mainly English.

When you are around English speaking Thai people, you often hear:
"Happy bird-day to you, happy bird-day to you, happy bird-day, happy bird-day, happy bird-day to you."
"I need a new tooseblush."
"Steese shirt looks good on you."
"You are a bret of fresh air."
"Duh weater is hot today."

....And I am not an exception.

Thai tongue on English TH

When you visit Bangkok, or when you are around Thai people (like my American husband who is around me), you will often hear the mispronunciation of the letters, "th." I can tell you now that, although English was spoken and taught to me through books (by a British teacher ), as well as through real-life conversations (through my parents' business, whose associates- British, American, Canadian, and Australian- visited year-round, and for whom I was the designated tour guide for their families ever since I was young), I still work hard everytime I have to pronounce any word with a "th" in it. My current household had been bi-lingual when we lived in Bangkok, but now that we have relocated to America English has taken over; yet, I have to be so careful not to mispronounce "th" (among other things- about which I will write another time). Most if not all Thais whom I know, whether they live nearby, or my Thai friends since grade school, scattered all over the country, share this common difficulty. In fact, my friend and I made up a list called, "The Thai's THes", which separates the categories of who-pronounces-th-which-way, while trying not to laugh so hard that we wet our pants. It comes down to two, well, maybe two-plus groups:

(Now, you need to leave a little room for understanding. It may seem like we- my friend and I- are snobbish or condescending: but we are Thais, and therefore we still pretty much identify ourselves through classes. We do not disrespect: it is what it is.)

TH Class list:

~ Those educated, born and bred in Bangkok, ("inner city" is a term that indicates well-to-do and educated from a top-notch school), sophisticated, and definitely of a higher class, would say, "Dis is not what I expected from a toodspaste." But when they feel self-conscious and correct themselves, they'd say, "Steese is not what I expected from a toosepaste."
~ People educated outside Bangkok say, "Deed ead nod wawd I ec-peck fawm uh toodpaed."
~ For those in-between and somewhat educated, they would probably not even complain about the toothpaste in a foreign language. -Instead of making an attempt that they know would fail, they would gesture with their hands, accompanied by a big friendly smile.

Back in my day, only well-to-do families were able to afford to send their children to a school with excellent standards. If any parent had his way, he'd pay for his child's education to a private school. Rich parents who lived in other large cities would even send their children as boarding students to schools in Bangkok. Public schools were left for the ones who, despite doing their best, still couldn't afford private school tuition. This is still true today. With the country still developing, there are so many tasks. We want to give priority to those things that need developing and revamping, and a better education system is very high on the list. But when one doesn't have a lot of money, decisions must be made about how best to allocate the resources- whether to pour all into the one thing, or to spread it around so that everything gets a little bit of help.

A country with hundreds of years of history, Thailand is a small and peaceful country that stands on its own, thanks in large part to the great ability and foresight of the Thai Kings who saved our nation from being colonized by powerful European nations and America. We were, however, forced to cede parts of our kingdom to them. Rich with natural resources, we watched in dismay as foreigners conducted their exporting businesses within our borders, taking our resources but without paying taxes. We agreed to many treaties, knowing that they were written for one person's (country's) gain. All of these, so that we the people and our beloved country could remain "Thai" ("th" here is pronounced as a soft "t"). Thailand literally means "the land of freedom." "Thai" as the people means "free and liberated."

Tuh, duh, stuh, but never thuh

Because of our Great Kings, the country was never anyone's colony; but, because of that, there was nothing in it for "them" in later years. Thailand was pretty much left alone. We Thais realize that, to the world, we are small. We are humble and grateful, yet proud, and will fight to the death to keep our Thainess -our freedom. Together we are strong, apart we become weak. (Of course, where there are people involved there's always a bad seed or two who forgets to think of the country as a whole, but believes instead, "ME, first." With the end of the golden era aprroaching, this "ME, first" person -whose finances make him extremely powerful- takes advantage of the situation, and my country is in upheaval.)

Now that I've laid some background, you know why there's a difference in the way Thais pronounce the "th" sound.

Aside from our different opportunities and educational backgrounds, let me throw a few more things into the pot. With a Thai-tongue we are not able to blow air between the teeth and the tongue. The first reason for this is education, or the lack thereof. Second, is the fact that- even with 44 consonants, 32 vowels, and a numbers of symbols that apply rules and exceptions- there is no "th" sound in the Thai language. Third, the way "th" is produced is considered impolite. Being raised Thai, we were taught that civilized manners included: never blowing out air, clearing our throats, and, heaven forbid, spitting, to, at, or in front of others.

As an opera major in college I had to learn many languages as a requirement. I especially dreaded German, and I still do. I stayed away from the German repertoire because I didn't quite know how to get around the thought of hacking and spiting at- and on- my colleagues' faces.

French is a different beast on its own, but at least I didn't have to clear my throat at anyone. Perhaps this is why I most love singing the Italian repertoire: it flows very well, and it is beautiful and "polite" in my book. I rarely sing in English, which works out just fine.

If you are American, and you listen to the way I speak, I am overly careful and accent different places than you would. But, I definitely cannot say "th" without having made a plan to do so each time I have to say it! You may laugh, and that's alright. I laugh with you, because I know I continue to put in the effort.

Although irrelevant, I have to tell you that most Thais would pronounce, "mitten," not mit-'en, "mountain," not mound-'en, and, "pi-jah-mas," not pi-jaae-mas. Hardly a consolation or compensation, but this is only to say that we do try.

A few years ago I happened to be at a conference which was sharing the same convention hall with the American division of MENSA. I was there for three weeks, and they were there for a week or so. Running into- and conversing with- each other was inevitable. It was very intriguing, and in fact a thrill, when they all mentioned to me that my British accent was excellent. So, now I walk around with a MENSA-approved stamp on my forehead for owning a British accent.

"Sthuh family is waiting. We will be out enjoying sthuh fair weater today."

Th-ly Yours,