Thai Tones and Tone Rules
Thai is a tonal language. But what does this mean?
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Lingo Ninja Research Team
6 min read · first published April 26, 2021 · last update July 6, 2021

What is a tonal language?

Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal language. But what does this mean?

Imagine the word "house". You can say it neutrally (probably that's what you imagined right now). In Thai, we call this the "medium tone". You can pronounce it in an angry tone: "House!"- in Thai we call that the "falling tone". You also can ask "house" like a question: "House?" - what we call a "rising tone". The last two tones are easy to create. Just speak house in a high or low tone and you get the - wait for it - "high tone" and "low tone". Pretty straightforward until now.

So Thai has 5 tones. Mandarin Chinese has 4 tones, and Cantonese Chinese has (depending on how you count) up to 9 tones.  But what does that mean?
  1. Well, first, people from tonal languages can really distinguish which tone you used. In the west, most people can't. So don't worry.  You are not alone. It's mostly musicians who can hear the difference. 
  2. Second, and that's the problem, every tone has a different meaning. 

Example

Let me give you an example. The small letters in brackets denote the tone of every Thai word. Every tone is a different word with a different, unrelated meaning: 
(click on the words to hear the sounds)
  • ค้าว (h = high tone) - no meaning
  • คาว (m = medium tone) - fishy
  • ข่าว (l = low tone) - news
  • ข้าว (f = falling tone) - rice
  • ขาว (r = rising tone) - the color "white"
Before you start to panic now, let me ease your fear. Speakers of tonal languages are really good at guessing your meaning if you get the tone wrong. You might receive a chuckle, but that's all.

You can also see that the Thai writing of these words changes.  The first letter is sometimes different, and there are weird lines a.k.a "tone marks" above the first letter. We will cover this down lower in this article under "Thai tone rules".

How are tonal languages different?

In most western languages tones are used for sentences (linguists call this the "prosody" of your speech). The rhythm and rising and falling of your tone conveys your emotion. A question is a rising tone.  An angry statement is a falling tone. You stress a word to emphasize the topic of your sentence. But in Thai tones are already used for words, so they can't convey emotions.  So what do you use instead? Extra words, so called "Particles".

Politeness for Thais speaking English

But before we dive into particles, let's look at another important consequence.  Let's imagine in your language you don't use tones to indicate emotions and instead, you are used to saying "polite" or "impolite" at the end of a sentence.
So when you learn English, you might keep the "neutral" tone of the sentence, but as there are no polite particles in English, you have to leave these out. To an English speaker, the "neutal" tone sometimes appears aggressive, although it is not intended to be. So there is one simple rule to remember: Asians very rarely would on purpose talk to you in an aggressive tone. If you have the impression they are aggressive, it might be the difference in languages.

Particles

Ok, back to particles.

Thai has "Polite Particles", which inform the listener how polite (or impolite) your sentence is. Of course, if you already use words for that, then you can create quite a few of these particles, and develop a nuanced system of polite particles. Politeness in Thailand is a complex concept of your age social standing vs. the other person's age and social standing, the quality, and type of your relationship, etc. But again, don't panic. There are some simple "fallback options" you can always use.

Thai also has other particles:
  • "Question Particles" turn a sentence into a question
  • "Request Particles" turn it into a command or request
  • "Softening Particles" make a sentence sound softer/less imposing

Tone rules

When I learned Chinese, I often heard that Chinese is extra hard, because it has signs and no alphabet. So for many characters, if you only see them in writing, you don't know how they are pronounced or which tone they are. You need to remember the tone for each word. 

Well, for Thai there is good news and bad news.
Good news: Thai has an alphabet, and if you see the word written, you can read it correctly.
Bad news: To figure out which tone the word is, you need to use complex "Tone rules". Even if you are a gifted linguist, this will take you a few seconds for every word. This takes way too long to speak fluently - so you need to remember the tones. But just for curiosity's sake, continue reading and see the rules.

To figure out which tone a word has, you need to take into account:
  1. the class of the starting consonant 
  2. modifiers of the consonant class
  3. the type of ending consonant
  4. the length of the vowel
  5. the tone rules
Let's go through these points one by one.

Thai consonant classes

The Thai language has three consonant classes: high, medium, and low. All letters belong to one of these classes. To learn more about consonants, you can go to the consonant dictionary.
Below is a table summarizing the letters by sound. Find the letter and see which class it is on the top. And yes, there are multiple consonants for similar sounds Thai.
Sound class
low medium high
b
ch ช ฌ
d ด ฎ
f
g
h
j
k ค ฆ
l ล ฬ
m
n น ณ
ng
p พ ภ
r
s ศ ษ ส
t ท ธ ฒ ฑ ถ ฐ
w
y ย ญ
silent

Modifiers of the consonant class

There are two types of class modifier:
  1. preceding letters. 
    If there are two leading consonants next to each other, and the first one is ห or อ, the first consonant is not pronounced but changes the class of the second consonant. 
    • อ changes the class to medium
      E.g. ย is low class. อย is medium class.
    • ห changes the class to high
      E.g. ย is low class. หย is high class.
  2. Thai tone marks
    there are 4 tone marks in Thai:  ่, ้, ๊, ๋ 
    If the syllable has a tone mark, you don't need to look up the tone of the starting consonant. There are simplified tone rules for syllables with tone marks.

Thai ending consonant types

Thai syllables each have one of the following three ending consonant types:
  • no ending consonant
  • a "live" ending consonant
    This is true for syllables ending in m, n, .. where you can drag out the ending consonant smoothly. E.g. you can drag out "on" into "konnnnnnn...".
  • a "dead" ending consonant. 
    Dead ending consonants cannot be dragged out smoothly, they sound like a machine gun. Examples are d, p, etc.  E.g. If you try to turn "pud" into "pudddddd..." you end up sounding like "pud-d-d-d-d...". Don't confuse this with stretching the vowel into "puuuuud".

Thai vowel length

Thai vowels fall into two groups:
  • long vowels and 
  • short vowels
Each letter has a certain length. You can look up the length of each vowel in the vowel dictionary.

You only need the vowel length if the syllable has
  • no tone mark AND
  • no ending consonant OR a low-class starting consonant

Thai tone rules

If you gathered the information above, you are ready to look up the tone rule and find out the tone of the syllable.
There are two tables to look at:
  • syllables with tone mark
  • syllables without tone mark

Tone rules for syllables with tone marks

You're lucky. this is the shorter table. Find your row by using the consonant class in the left column. Find your column by using the tone mark in the top row. You get the tone of the syllable as a result. 
Consonant
class
high low tone falling tone -- rising tone
medium low tone falling tone high tone rising tone
low falling tone high tone -- --

Tone rules for syllables without tone marks

This table is a bit complicated. 
  1. find the consonant class in the first column.
  2. find the ending type in the second column
  3. if necessary, select the vowel length in the third column.
  4. The resulting tone is in the fourth column.
Consonant
class
Ending
consonant
Vowel Tone
high life rising
dead low
no long rising
short low
medium life medium
dead low
no long medium
short low
low life medium
dead long falling
short high
no long medium
short high
Thai Grammar Online
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