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BANGKOK 22 April 2019 09:55
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Consonants & Tones

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The rule for the names of the letter is to choose a word in which the letter starts a syllable. (Initial is ignored, as in ญ หญิง, and also in abbreviations.) There are very few words starting with the retroflex examples, and several of the name words chosen probably shouldn't have retroflex consonants!

I've noticed this often since reading your file yesterday Richard. I take this to be like a silent H in english. Sometimes it seems it's there to indicate a puff of air or, what what did you guys teach me recently.... aspirated! But sometimes it does not.

What is the general rule for this letter, if there is one at all?

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ห หีบ /haw hiip/ is the High Class /h/ consonant, in which case it is pronounced /h/ in initial position - the High Class equivalent of the Low Consonant ฮ /haw nok huuk/.

Examples of this use are หา /haa/ long vowel rising tone (to search, to look for) หาก /haak/ long vowel low tone (formal word for 'if') หัก /hak/ short vowel low tone (to break) ห้าม /haam/ long vowel falling tone (to forbid, don't) โหด /hoot/ long vowel low tone (evil, tough-hearted) หู /huu/ long vowel, rising tone (ear) หึง /heung/ short vowel rising tone (to be jealous in love)

Of the above you can see that Dead syllables without tone markers with an initial consonant from the High Class are always Low tone. You can also see that in Live syllables with a High Class initial consonant, the tone is always rising.

Apart from this "normal" use of ห it also has the function ห นำ , or "leading h" where ห is used to convert a Low Class sonorant (any sonorant except ณ and ฬ) such as ง ญ น ม ย ร ล ว into a High Class Sonorant. The ห is then silent and not pronounced.

Examples: หนู /nuu/ long vowel rising tone (mouse, rat, deferential/'cute' female pronoun) หรือ /reu/ long vowel rising tone (interrogative particle used in yes/no questions, 'or') หมา /maa/ long vowel rising tone (dog) หมี /mii/ long vowel rising tone (bear) หญิง /ying/ short vowel rising tone (woman, female) หยุด /yud/ short vowel low tone (to stop, to halt) เหม็น /men/ short vowel rising tone (to stink, to perceive a bad smell) เหมือน /meuan/ long vowel rising tone (like, similar to)

To summarize - apart from its normal duty to represent the sound /h/ it also assists as a 'silent partner' before some of the sonorants to convert them into high class letters.

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There's also a silent ห after the vowel:

พรหม [M]phrom 'Brahma'

พราหมณ์ [M]phraam 'brahmin', in particular Hindu priests who serve Thais as well as Indians.

Word finally, it has the thanthakhat, e.g. (ยา)เสน่ห์ ([M]yaa)[L/M]sa[L]nee 'love potion', so there is no problem there.

เสน่ห์ seems to have a complicated history; it derives from Pali / Sanskrit sneha 'viscous or oily liquid; love, lust; fat'. The tone development is as though it were once pronounced */sneek/ (a possible Khmer word). Applying the Thai tone assignment rules gives *[L]sneek. Applying the rules of Thai syllable structure, with tone sandhi rules to handle the first syllable, gives *[M]sa[L]neek. If we then restore the Sanskrit consonants (something I think has happened to a lot of Thai words from Pali), we would get the unprononceable *[M]sa[L]neeh. We actually end up with เสน่ห์ [M/L]sa[L]nee, เสนหา[M/L]sa[M]nee[R]haa and เสน่หา[M/L]sa[L]nee[R]haa. The latter two give more emphasis to the 'love' meaning; เสน่ห์ to the 'potion' meaning - think 'polyjuice' from the Harry Potter novels.

เสน่ห์ illustrates the 'irregular tone' rule. The easiest way to think off this is imagine the inherent vowel being inserted after the tone has been decided. The rule does not always apply - the best rule I can think of is to ask whether the word feels Sanskrit / Pali. If it feels Sanskrit / Pali, the normal rules, not the irregular tone rule, apply. /s/ + sonorant seems not to feel Sanskrit / Pali. A second guide is that it only applies and matters to middle or high stop plus sonorant (e.g. it does not apply to เฉพาะ [M/L]cha[sH]phor 'specifically'). Several words have two pronunciations - with and without the application of the irregular tone rule.

The 'irregular' tone rule also applies to the application of the Khmer infix -am-. For example, ตรวจ 'inspect' is [L]truat. ตำรวจ 'police' is [M]tam[L]ruat, although application of the normal rules would lead one to wrongly say *[M]tam[F]ruat. This example makes the point that the tone is as much part of the word as the vowel.

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Or am I missunderstanding the 3 class categories all together. :o

Also can you recommend a system for learning the effects of all these posssible combinations (mind boggling), step by step? It seems like a huge task!

Besides the other suggestions, I would suggest getting a copy of Benjawan Poomsan Becker's Thai-English/English-Thai dictionary.

In addition to all the other good stuff inside, on pages 34-35, she provides 7 rules for determining tone in the absence of tone mark.

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Also can you recommend a system for learning the effects of all these posssible combinations (mind boggling), step by step? It seems like a huge task!

I missed this question. The way I learnt the system is:

1. A low consonant precludes the low tone, and a high consonant precludes the high tone! I found this seeming paradox useful in learning the system.

2. Learn the tones for middle consonants in live syllables, in sequence:

  • No (0) mark => middle
  • Mai ek (1) => low
  • Mai tho (2) => falling
  • Mai tri (3) => high
  • Mai chattawa (4) => rising

Sequence: 0:middle, 1:low, 2:falling, 3:high, 4:rising

3. The tones for low class consonants start the same, but miss a step at mai ek, because a low class consonant precludes a low tone:

0:middle, 1:falling, 2:high

4. High class, live syllable, no tone mark => Rising tone. Learn this as an exception.

5. In every other case (i.e. every case but Rule 4), live or dead, middle and high class consonants are treated the same.

6. If there's a tone mark, the type of syllable, live or dead, is irrelevant.

For a long time I had no good way of remembering the tones for dead syllables without tonemarks. However, I think the following may help:

7. Dead syllables with no tone mark are treated as though they had mai ek, EXCEPT:

8. Short dead syllables don't have long enough to fall, so low consonant with short vowel gives HIGH, not falling. Backup: Birds (นก [H]nok) fly high.

9. Backup for rules 7 and 8, based on rules 1 and 8 in part:

For dead syllables with short vowel, low consonants give high tone and high class consonants give low tone.

I hope this helps.

Perhaps I should add:

10. Mai tri and mai chattawa mean the same for all consonants.

Rule 10 should be unnecessary, for these marks should only occur with mid consonants, but one may encounter misspellings like เค๊ก for เค้ก 'cake'.

Another rule, again of limited use, is:

11. Dead syllables borrowed from English take the high tone.

This rule finds application because tone marks are optional in loanwords. It seems that this tone rule also applies to words ending in stops in English that are silenced in Thai, e.g. แชมป์[HS]chaem 'champion' - 3820 google hits for แชมป์ and only 34 for แช้มป์. (I got a measly 2 hits for แช็มป์, and they both seem to refer to a motor racing enthusiast with the username ChAmP`~*.) Or are Thais actually saying [HS]chaemp? Remember the slang word มันส์ that was discussed recently!

Some of these way of thinking about the system are wrong in some respects, but that does not detract from their usefulness in learning the system. The corrections, which will hinder rather than help your learning, are:

  • It is not the high class live syllables with no tone mark that are exceptional - it is actually the middle class live syllables with no tonemark that are exceptional in that they have the same tone as low class syllables with no tonemark and therefore separated the middle consonants from the high consonants.
  • There are dead syllables with short vowels in the falling tone - but they are a very small proportion of the vocabulary and the common ones are 'mood' particles at the end of sentences.

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Besides the other suggestions, I would suggest getting a copy of Benjawan Poomsan Becker's Thai-English/English-Thai dictionary.

Thanks Spee. I actually picked up her book "Thai For Beginners" at the airport yesterday. It's brilliant and very easy to understand, Just not easy to remember. I probably should not have read it for 3 straight hours - info overload.

And thanks Richard. I'll give that a go too.

P.S. Sydney is a perfectly cool 20 Deg. Ahhhhh :o

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7. Tones have merged. Thus live syllables in Central Thai dialects can have four (TBC), five or six different tones.

I've checked and I can't find any Central Thai dialect with only four tones on live syllables. The only dialect like that in Thailand I could find is that of Korat, and that seems to follow the Isan pattern of tone splits.

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