Thai Language: A World Of Challenges

By Ray S
February 4, 2016
Pure and simple … the Thai language (also called Siamese) has no article, no gender, no plural, no conjugation, no declension, no upper or lower case, no punctuation … and no alphabet! Thai language overview – the simplicity of Thai grammar The Thai language uses an abugida (syllabic alphabet) of 44 consonant and 15 basic […]

Pure and simple … the Thai language (also called Siamese) has no article, no gender, no plural, no conjugation, no declension, no upper or lower case, no punctuation … and no alphabet!

Thai language overview – the simplicity of Thai grammar

The Thai language uses an abugida (syllabic alphabet) of 44 consonant and 15 basic vowel graphemes that can be assembled into about 32 vowel combinations, and 4 intonation signs. Thai is written horizontally from left to right, and vowel graphemes are added above, below, before, or after the consonant they alter. There are no spaces between words, no upper or lower cases, and no punctuation. Only the end of sentences are marked by spaces.

“Mai Mai Mai Mai Mai” or the magic of Thai pronunciation No doubt the above Thai sentence transcribed in Roman characters looks meaningless to the uninitiated. Thai is a polytonal language based on 5 distinct tones: mid, low, high, falling and rising. If we add the tones: mai (high tone), mai (low tone), mai (falling tone) mai (falling tone, long vowel), mai (rising tone), and write it in Thai characters ไม้ ใหม่ ไม่ ไหม้ ไหม, the veil is lifted and we’re left with a simple sentence: “New wood doesn’t burn, does it?”. Thai translation and localisation challenges Many of the major obstacles Thai translators face arise from socio-cultural issues, for example: Get Thai translation and Interpreting services for your projects Linguistic registers The Thai language is composed of distinct registers, used in accordance with the relevant social context. Most Thai people can speak and understand all of these registers, as rhetorical, religious and royal Thai are part of the national curriculum.

  • Street or common Thai is informal. It is used every day between relatives and close friends.
  • Elegant or formal Thai is the official version and the one used for writing. It includes respectful terms of address, and its simplified form is used in the media.
  • Rhetorical Thai is used by politicians for public speeches.
  • Religious Thai is used by monks or when addressing them.
  • Royal Thai is used when addressing the royal family or describing the royal lifestyle.

Social relationships Conveying family relationships is a common challenge when translating to or from Thai as most words expressing kinship have no direct equivalent in English. For example, Thai distinguishes between siblings by age, and not by gender.

When it comes to aunts and uncles, gender is only used to differentiate them when they are older siblings. And Thai only has a single, gender-neutral word to refer to grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. Buddhist era Thai people and computer systems often use the Buddhist Era which runs 543 years ahead of the Gregorian Calendar, so AD 2014 is equivalent to 2557 BE. 3 Thai time systems Thai people use 3 different time systems:

  • The 24-hour official clock is used for bus and railway schedules.
  • The 12-hour common clock divides the day into four segments: morning from 6am to noon, afternoon from noon to 4pm, evening from 4pm to 6pm, and night from 6pm to 11pm.
  • A Thai day is usually divided into one 12-hour and two 6-hour segments. Thai people refer to the time of the day using 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, midday, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, midnight.

Thai transcription As the Thai language doesn’t use the Roman alphabet, the translation of proper nouns is based on phonetic transcription. And since there is no standard system of transcription in Thai, the same name can often be found with different spellings. For example Ayuthaya with one T is as correct as Ayutthaya with two Ts. Thai or Siamese language? Known to Thais since records began as Mueang Thai, the country was known to outsiders as Siam until officially becoming Prathet Thai, “land of the Thai” or Thailand in 1939. Renamed as Siam in 1945 it reverted to Thailand in 1949.

Modern Thailand’s population is composed of ethnic Thais who speak one of the Thai languages (80% of the population) and non-Thai ethnic minority groups who speak one of the 60 languages unrelated to Thai. The ethnic Thais are composed of four ethnic and linguistic groups:

  • Siamese Thais, who generally live in central regions, speak Siamese (also called Siamese Thai,Central Thai, and Bangkok Thai). Siamese Thai has imposed itself as the standard language in Thailand and is taught in public schools, and used in university, most TV broadcasts and in the print media.
  • Tai Isan and Lao Isan peoples in the North East speak Isan.
  • Northerners speak Northern Thai, also called Lannaor Kham Mueang.
  • Thais in the South speak Southern Thai also called Pak Thai or Dambro.

Implications for translation Due to its linguistic and cultural characteristics Thai is an especially challenging language for translation. If you intend to use a translation for business purposes it is imperative that you engage professional Thai translators and editors. Only experienced Thai translators can render the meaning of the original text in the optimum way in the translation.

Asian Absolute works with experienced professional Thai translators who are familiar with the Thai language and culture. Our team will be happy to assist you with Thai translation and localisation projects of any size and subject matter.

For more information on our translation services, please visit our dedicated pages.

Please feel free to contact us to discuss your requirements, or enquire for a free quote.