A common point of confusion for many of my students is when they encounter the silent ห and อ in Thai.
This is because when you first learn Thai, you might have thought ห is just a consonant and อ is just a vowel.
However, ห and อ can be used as tone modifiers. When they are used as tone modifiers, the letters are silent and their purpose (as the name suggests) is only used to change the tone of the word
When is ห NOT a tone modifier
When ห is not used as a tone modifier then you pronounce the “h” regularly.
Let’s first learn when ห is NOT used a tone modifier.
- When ห is followed by a vowel
- When the word only consists of 2 consonants and no visible vowels. Only the silent vowel. Like in หก hòk where the silent vowel is โ-ะ)
- หก hòk – meaning “6”. In this case, there are only 2 consonants and no visible vowels. So you pronounce the “h” sound.
- ห้าม hâam – meaning “forbidden”. In this case, there is a vowel after the ห, so you pronounce the “h”.
- ห้อง hông – meaning “room”. In this case there is also a vowel after the ห, so you pronounce the “h”.
Silent ห in Thai
Now let’s learn when ห IS used as a tone modifier and hence the “h” sound is NOT pronounced.
The ห is a high class consonant. When it is placed before another consonant it becomes silent and modifies the tone of the syllable to follow high class consonant rules.
Let’s see some examples when ห acts like a tone modifier :
- หลาย lăai – meaning “many”. Because of the silent ห before the ลาย, the word follows the rule for high class consonants. A high class consonant with no tone mark and a live syllable ending becomes a rising tone word. Hence หลาย is rising tone.
If the ห wasn’t there and the word was simply ลาย then this would be a middle tone word.
- หย่อน yòn – meaning “flabby”. Because of the silent ห before ย่อน the word again follows the rule for high class consonants. A high class consonant with a (ไม้เอก ่) becomes a low tone word. Hence หย่อน is low tone.
- ใหม่ mài – meaning “new”. Without the silent ห this word would be a falling tone. Thanks to the ห the word is a low tone.
- หมด mòt – meaning “completely”. Without the silent ห this word would be a high tone but thanks to the silent ห it is a low tone.
Silent อ in Thai
The silent อ only comes before the ย letter and actually there are only 4 words that have the silent อ.
The อ is a middle class consonant and hence these 4 word follows middle class consonant rules.
The words are:
- อยาก yàak – meaning “to want”. Because of the อ before the ยาก the word follows middle class consonant rules. Since there is no tone mark and it has a dead syllable ending, the tone is a low tone.
If the อ wasn’t there then the word would have a falling tone.
- อย่าง yàang – meaning “type”. Because of the อ before the ย่าง, the word follows middle class consonant rules. The (ไม้เอก ่) tone mark turns the word into a low tone.
If the อ wasn’t there then the word would be a falling tone.
- อยู่ yòo – meaning “to be at”. Without the อ the word would be a falling tone but due to the อ it is a low tone.
- อย่า yàa – meaning “don’t”. Thanks to the อ the word is a low tone instead of a falling tone.
I hope you now understand how the silent ห and the silent อ work in Thai.