Phonetic Spelling in Thailand


Soi Bukow Soi Bukaow Soi Bukhao.

The Thai language is a tonal language so it doesn’t lend itself well to phonetic spellings due to the fact that the Thai alphabet is centered moreso around sounds than letters like most western languages. So, it’s always funny to me when I see an arguement pop up on a Thailand based forum or website claiming a correct phonetic spelling for a certain Thai word or place.

Soi Buakoaw Soi Buakhaw Soi Bua Khao

Just look at these pictures of a popular road in Pattaya named Soi Bukow or if you like Soi Bukhao. If the Thai’s can’t claim a correct phonetic spelling for it then how can we. Then again, looking at the different mispellings of English signs in Thailand  maybe that arguement falls flat as well :)

Like many I am learning the Thai language and phonetic spellings of the words really help me sound them out properly. I’ve found that the best phonetic spelling is what works for me not what may be accepted by others.

For instance whenever you see the phonetic spelling for the polite female/male ending of a sentence it’s almost always ka for the female and krup for the male. Ka works because it sounds as it reads and as a Thai female would speak it. Krup on the other hand doesn’t work. Whenever I have heard a Thai male speak it I never hear the R so the the word sounds like cup. Of course there are the words with R sounds where the Thai’s are using an L sound. So the word for foreigner can come out Falang or Farang and in the case of my girls Aunt it comes out Fallung.

As far as phonetic spelling is concerned there is no right or wrong. Whatever works for you and sounds correct when speaking it is fine. Getting the sound and the tone correct is the most important thing and learning from Thai’s is usually the best way to really get the tones correct.

By the way the correct phonetic spelling of the road above is Boocow :)

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25 Responses to Phonetic Spelling in Thailand
  1. Catherine
    June 10, 2009 | 10:20 pm

    Excellent timing as I came across a funny comment about the male polite particle just yesterday.

    Quote…the masculine courtesy word is ‘khrap’, not ‘khap’ as you will hear all over town. ‘Khap’ in this context is broken Thai and should not be used. It actually means ‘tight’, as in ‘my pants are too tight’.

    It makes you wonder what you’ve been saying all this time, doesn’t it :-D

    But while ‘khap’ may be broken Thai, I’ve heard a lot of educated Thais use it.

    When they are on their mobile phones, talking to someone higher up on the social chain, I hear nothing but, ‘khap, khap, khap, khap, khap, khap, khap, khap’ before they sign off with ‘khap’.

    (said fast and close together, it sometimes sounds like ‘gap’ to me)

    Females are supposed to have two polite particles, but sometimes I hear one where the other should be.

    ?? = ká = when asking a question
    ??? = khâ = normal banter

    I’m not sure if it is my bad hearing, or that the rules are not hard and fast. Does anyone hear the same?

    Another excellent article Talen, I’m looking forward to more :-)

    Catherines last blog post..The Streak-eared Bulbul in Bangkok

    • Talen
      June 10, 2009 | 11:27 pm

      Catherine I hear Thai’s doing the same…it’s what makes it the most confusing for us falang lol.

      Then on top of it when you are up in Issan they say things differently and then sprinkle in Lao or Kmer.

      I often wonder about my hearing as well. When I first started using the male polite particle I was saying krup which is how I had seen it written out but everyone else that I was around was saying cup and I was told by Thai’s that this was correct.

      But I have heard Khap as well…it’s bad enough how badly I can butcher the language but the language isn’t helping me any!

    • Talen
      June 10, 2009 | 11:33 pm

      “?? = ká = when asking a question
      ??? = khâ = normal banter”

      This is where a lot of my problem learning the language comes in. I really think falang hearing just isn’t sensitive enough.

      When I hear the above Ka or Kha it sounds exactly the same to me.

  2. Mike
    June 10, 2009 | 10:23 pm

    Talen, me too, without phonetic spelling I do not have a clue when practicing Thai. What I tend to do is get the basic idea from the phonetics then practice on MTF, a blank stare usually means I have got it wrong again.

    That said my comprehension of the language is much better now and I enjoy listening to Thai TV to see how much I truly understand. Fortunately(you might say) its not too much especially with some of the Thai soap offerings!

    Mikes last blog post..Thailand-Thai Tourist Police.

    • Talen
      June 10, 2009 | 11:29 pm

      I test out my new Thai learnings on my girl as well and more often than not I get the same blank stare lol.

      I have to say though that the Thai soaps have actually helped me a little learning the language….and, as you can guess, I get a lot of practice!

  3. Western Observer
    June 11, 2009 | 3:17 am

    When you explain to english-speaking visitors that tacking “crap” on the end of a sentence makes it more polite, they tend to be incredulous.

    But, getting back to the point, once you’ve learned the Thai writing system, transliterations just get in the way. Unlike written Englsih, The Thai writing system does a great job of spelling out the precise sound and tone of every syllable.

    Western Observers last blog post..BBC iPlayer: How to watch real UK TV in Thailand

    • Talen
      June 11, 2009 | 11:27 am

      This is something I’m starting to work on now ….but learning Thai writing is also not easy for me lol.

  4. Catherine
    June 11, 2009 | 4:15 am

    Although I know that I’m hearing khap, I don’t have the background to explain so I sent the above quote to Rikker from Thai 101 ( )

    His response clears up some of the discrepancies we are coming across, online and off.

    This is Rikker’s response:

    This comment shows either (a) ignorance of how colloquial Thai is actually pronounced (clusters with /r/ and /l/ are reduced to just the initial consonant), or (b) a disingenuous presentation of the facts. You can’t actually know how Thais speak and still seriously make a claim like this.

    Spoken Thai has simply lost most of its consonant clusters. It’s a very common linguistic occurrence, and it doesn’t say anything about the language other than that it evolves naturally (gasp), just like every other language.

    You might compare this to rejecting contractions like ‘don’t’ and ‘I’m’ as broken English. Who has a “better” English accent? One who mimics native speakers, or one who insists on technical perfection over authenticity, and misguides others to do the same?

    Catherines last blog post..The Streak-eared Bulbul in Bangkok

    • Talen
      June 11, 2009 | 11:25 am

      Catherine, Which quote did you send him?

  5. Martyn
    June 11, 2009 | 11:46 am

    Nongkhai or Nong Khai I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been around that city and seen it spelt both ways and to this day I’m still confused. The dropped R that’s replaced with a L does confuse me when trying to learn Thai from a book. Then of course there’s Isaan country and a different language again, confusing to say the least.
    Martyn´s last blog ..Sober Days In Thailand – Nong NoochMy ComLuv Profile

  6. Nice is Thai
    June 11, 2009 | 12:09 pm

    I agree with Rikker’s response.

    Krub (hah, notice how I spell it) with noticable R sounds too formal. So you hardly hear Thai say R sound although it’s the correct way to say .

    Krub is also shorten from Koh-Rub (old Thai langauge, you can hear it in some Period Thai soaps)

    about Ka (when asking a question) and Kha
    in Thai spelling, there’re sooooooooo many Thai spell it wrong when using with Na/Nha like Na-ka and Nha-Kha, they use Na-Kha which is wrong! even in the media like TV or some gozzip/teen magazines and all over the internet.

    • Talen
      June 11, 2009 | 4:02 pm

      Here is the question then. You spell it krub so do you pronounce it with a B sound at the end?

      I always hear a P sound at the end ( and that could be my hearing ) so thats how I say it. I’m always understood but then again I am a falang so I get smiled at no matter what especially when I speak a word wrong.

      • Nice is Thai
        June 19, 2009 | 2:05 pm

        Thai language has no air/end-sound.
        so I guess whatever you hear is because of your Farang’s ears. :P

        B or P at the end, we pronounce (and hear) it as the same in Thai words – or even in English words :P
        Krub – just an example of “up to me” thai romanize/phonetic spelling. lol

        Even I and my dad spell our lastname differently in our national ID card :P
        I spell rak (love), he spell ruk

        p.s. I love to read to see how foreigners learn Thai. Have you ever visited this site?

        • Talen
          June 19, 2009 | 5:48 pm

          Good to know…I have visited Thailand QA and it has been very informative at times.

  7. Rikker
    June 11, 2009 | 1:54 pm

    The quote sent to me was this one:

    …the masculine courtesy word is ‘khrap’, not ‘khap’ as you will hear all over town. ‘Khap’ in this context is broken Thai and should not be used. It actually means ‘tight’, as in ‘my pants are too tight’.

    It’s saying it’s “broken Thai” to speak like actual Thai people speak in real life.

    Romanization is a headache, to be sure. But using the word “correct” or “incorrect” is probably out of place, simply because there’s no accepted standard. The closest thing is the Royal Institute system (which would spell it “bua khao”), but of course this system isn’t always followed even on basic highway signs.

    It’s a sticky, tricky issue with no clear solution.
    Rikker´s last blog ..Thai Movie Titles: May and June 2009My ComLuv Profile

    • Talen
      June 11, 2009 | 3:59 pm

      Thanks Rikker for clearing that up. And I agree with all that you said.

      You couldn’t be more right on the signs. When I was in Nakhon Phanom last I wasn’t sure where the hell I was or if different parts of the city just had a different name. I counted at least 11 different spellings total and 7 different spellings on official signs.

  8. Catherine
    June 11, 2009 | 7:44 pm

    Boy, do you guys stay up late!

    Talen, I’m also hearing a p at the end of khap/gap. Sort of a swallowed p.

    Rikker, thanks for coming in. I’m glad you are around to clear things up.

    I know what I’m hearing but it’s nice to have you say that it is so. Especially when even Thai teachers try and get students to roll their r’s!

    I took it that the guy seemed to think that colloquial Thai is broken Thai. But now I’m wondering just how proper his spoken English is… and what his Thai teacher is telling him…

    I did find his comment about the tight pants hilarious. And if I can get over being nervous about posting in a gay forum, I just might. Just to see if anyone else is hearing something different too…
    Catherine´s last blog ..The Streak-eared Bulbul in BangkokMy ComLuv Profile

    • Talen
      June 11, 2009 | 10:49 pm

      Rolling R’s bring even more questions for me. For instance when saying carrumbing ( airplane ) or similar my girl my girl will pronounce the r but other words she’ll give it the old L…

      I’m begining to think it’s a conspiracy!

  9. Catherine
    June 12, 2009 | 5:40 am

    Oh dear. This is another one for Rikker but I SO agree on the conspiracy angle.

    I enjoy my Thai teacher very much as we have a lot of fun, but it takes me knowing something first before she’ll loosen up and teach me real Thai.

    Ok, ok, being a lousy student doesn’t help ;-)
    Catherine´s last blog ..The Streak-eared Bulbul in Bangkok My ComLuv Profile

  10. Jon
    June 13, 2009 | 11:06 am

    Hi Talen,

    Great post, communication is so important and those tones can make the difference big time – for example mispronounce snow and you have a female dog’s private ‘bits’ – oops!

    I agree with Western Observer, I’ve been learning Thai script for a few months and its really worth the effort. Makes it easier but comes with new challenge such as no spaces between words.

    A Thai friend once jokingly told me the language was constructed to prevent foreigners learning it — perhaps it’s a fact after all?
    Jon´s last blog ..A tribute to the pancake man My ComLuv Profile

    • Talen
      June 13, 2009 | 3:05 pm

      I believe your Thai friend. As for Thai script I wish it were Greek to me then I might get a grasp of it quicker.

  11. john
    June 13, 2009 | 2:00 pm

    i have never tried really to learn thai our should i say issan /lao but i have lived it so speak with the accent been a yorkshire man ie up north maybe it makes it much more easy either way i am getting a feel for Thai without much effort

  12. Andy
    June 15, 2009 | 6:09 am

    Those hundreds of spelling variants are really a pain if one tries to find information on a specific place. Luckily at least for the official traffic sings they now seem to use only the RTGS transcription, which has its problems (no tone, no long or short vocals to name the biggest) but at least is a standard and makes it possible to identify a place name without any guessing. To learn the right pronunciation this transcription is obviously not the best choice, but then it has standards like IPA for that as well – but then this is not easily readable either. If only the Thai spelling would be more simple, especially the tone rules with the different consonant classes still make me struggle…
    Andy´s last blog ..District boundary signs My ComLuv Profile

  13. Jon
    June 15, 2009 | 10:20 am

    Rikker’s point is important, and the key to the confusion, most Thais don’t speak the language properly.

    They rarely pronounce Rs, often replacing them with Ls – eg fast (reo, pronounced leo), school (rongien, pronounced longien) and know (roo, pronounced loo).

    Or they omit the R sound all together – as with polite male article (krup/krub – depending on personal taste, English (angrit/angrid – personal taste again).

    Makes it one hell of a lot harder, but hey, at least they don’t have lots of tenses as we do in English?!

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