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The Thai Language (ภาษาไทย)

April 23, 2015 ภาษาไทย


If you happen to walk past a typical Thai kindergarten class you will hear what sounds like a cacophony of little birds singing. In actual fact, it is the children chanting their “koh kays”, the 44 consonants in the Thai alphabet. The Thai written language is a syllabic alphabet with roots in Sanskrit, Pali or Khmer origin and, according to tradition, was created in 1283 by King Ramkhamhaeng.

Thai is a tonal language with five tones. The tone of a syllable is determined by a combination of the class of the consonant, the type of syllable, the tone marker and the length of the vowel. If you make a mistake on the tone, the most common mistake of a non-Thai speaker, you can create the exact opposite of what you meant to say as “near” can become “far” and many other great insulting disasters could await you.

The consonant for our letter “K” has six images in Thai as are shown below:

From left to right, the first is koh kay (chicken), koh khay (eggs), koh khuat (bottle), koh khway (water buffalo) koh kohn (person), and koh rakhang (bell). The children literally chant koh kay, koh khay, koh khuat and so forth to memorize the consonants.

The small cards you see above are at least seventy years old and were inserted in cigarette packages to help illiterate Thai’s learn to read and write. It would have been helpful to have a “hazardous to your health” warning on the packages to illustrate their new learning experience. We noted one flaw in the characterization of the animals as noted below:

The symbol for cho chang is an elephant. However, as you note in the Thai flash card, the elephant’s trunk is raised to coincide with the uppermost portion of the alphabet character. However, as the cigarettes and the cards were a product of The British American Tobacco Company, the subtle distinction of a raised or lowered elephant’s trunk was beyond their comprehension.


There are many other complications to the Thai written language but the most notable one may be that the words are not separated. Therefore, when you see an unbroken stream of Thai letters you look for the “koh kay” consonants that can be either preceded or followed with a specific vowel or contain an inherent vowel in the medial or final position. A brief example is shown below in the shirts we just completed for The Elephant Story Elephant Polo Tournament to be held in Moo Ban Chang, Ban Ta Klang, Thailand.

In the first line of Thai writing you can pick out the “cho chang” for elephant. The first part of the line is “ruaeng” followed by the word “chang” which means The Elephant Story. The second line says Ban Ta Klang, the official name for the village where our June 24-25 elephant polo tournament will be held on the school soccer grounds. Come join us and you can hear elephants trumpeting with their trunks raised for a goal scored and young children serenading you with their “koh kay” chanting.