Thai Tones | Cheatsheet and Complete Guide

by | Sep 2, 2020 | Thai, Patterns

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Let’s learn all about Thai Tones in this article. I will explain what each of the five Thai tones are, how to determine which tone to use, show you many examples, and why pronouncing words with the correct tone is important in Thai.

Explanation of Thai Tones

The Five Tones in Thai

Thai language has 5 different tones.

A word can have more than one tone. This is because each syllable can have a different tone. For example, the word for “what” อะไร (à-rai) has a low tone (อะ) and a middle tone (ไร). After you finish this article, you will know exactly why.

To listen to how each tone is pronounced, please watch the video.

The Thai tones are

  • Mid tone (Example: come: มา maa)

  • Low Tone (Example: chicken: ไก่ gài)

  • Falling Tone (Example: Can: ได้ dâai)

  • High Tone (Example: to count: นับ náp)

  • Rising Tone (Example: I: ฉัน chăn)

👁‍🗨 Notice how in the transliteration there are symbols on top of the vowel. These are used to indicate the tone in the transliteration.

The Thai Tone marks

Even though there are 5 tones in Thai, there are only 4 tone marks because the neutral (mid) tone doesn’t require any tone marks.

Tone MarkMark NameTone namePossible Tone Produced
(no tone mark) สามัญ (săa-man)NeutralAll 5
ไม้เอก (mái àyk)LowLow or Falling
ไม้โท (mái toh)FallingFalling or High
ไม้ตรี (mái dtree)HighHigh
ไม้จัตวา (mái jàt-dtà-waa)RisingRising

❗️ Please note that the tone names (mid, low, falling, high, rising) come from the tones produced when applied to mid class consonants.

❗️Please note that the ๊ and (ไม้ตรี and ไม้จัตวา) tone marks only apply to Middle class consonants. Keep reading to learn about the Middle, Low, and High class consonants.

Tones in Thai

How to determine the tone

Tones in Thai are determined by the following factors.

As I mentioned earlier, a word can have more than 1 syllable which means it can have more than 1 tone. Apply the above rules to each syllable to determine the tones.

Formula / Cheatsheet

Choose a word that you want to read and follow these rules with each syllable.

If the syllable has a tone mark (่ , ้ , ๊ , ๋) follow these rules:

  1. If the first consonant IS a low class consonant (ค, ฅ, ฆ, ง, ช, ซ, ฌ, ญ, ฑ, ฒ, ณ, ท, ธ, น, พ, ฟ, ภ, ม, ย, ร, ล, ว, ฬ, ฮ) (only 2 tones marks apply)

    • = falling tone
    • ้ = high tone
  2. If the first consonant is NOT low class consonant

    • = low tone
    • ้ = falling tone
    • ๊ = high tone
    • ๋ = rising tone

If the syllable has No tone mark:

  1. If it ends with dead syllable

    • If initial consonant is low class (ค, ฅ, ฆ, ง, ช, ซ, ฌ, ญ, ฑ, ฒ, ณ, ท, ธ, น, พ, ฟ, ภ, ม, ย, ร, ล, ว, ฬ, ฮ)

      • If the vowel is short (คัด)
        • High Tone
      • If the vowel is long (คาด)
        • Falling Tone
    • If initial consonant of the syllable is NOT low class (หาด)
      • Low Tone
  2. If it ends with a live syllable

    • If the first consonant of the syllable is High Class (หาง)
      • Rising Tone

    • If the first consonant of the syllable is NOT High Class (งาน)
      • Mid Tone

I recommend you memorize the middle and high class consonants first. All the rest of the consonants will automatically be low class consonants.

The formula shown above is all you need to know. But I will explain it again below to really help you understand.

If there is a tone mark – memorize the following:

  1. Remember that for middle and high class consonants, low (), falling (้), high (๊), and rising (๋) tone marks produce those tones.

  2. Remember that a low class consonant with produces a falling tone and with ้ produces a high tone.

With the above 2 steps, if there is a tone mark you will know exactly which tone to apply.

If there isn’t a tone mark, memorize the following:

  1. Determine the consonant class.

  2. For low and mid consonant classes, if it’s a live ending then it is a mid tone.

  3. For high consonant class with live ending then a rising tone.

  4. For mid and high consonant class with dead ending then a low tone

  5. For low class consonant with a dead ending then remember that short vowel is high tone and long vowel is falling tone

⭐️ If you don’t know what dead or live syllables are or want a more in-depth explanation keep reading and I will teach you about all these factors.

Consonant classes in Thai

In Thai, the consonants are divided into 3 classes. The initial consonant of a syllable will help determine the tone.

Low class consonants

ค, ฅ, ฆ, ง, ช, ซ, ฌ, ญ, ฑ, ฒ, ณ, ท, ธ, น, พ, ฟ, ภ, ม, ย, ร, ล, ว, ฬ, ฮ

Middle class consonants

ก, จ, ฎ, ฏ, ด, ต, บ, ป, อ

High Class Consonants

ข, ฃ, ฉ, ฐ, ถ, ผ, ฝ, ศ, ษ, ส, ห

My advice is to only memorize the middle and high class consonants. That way any letter you see that is not part of middle or high class must be low class.

Short Vowel vs Long Vowel

In Thai, there are short and long vowels.

Short vowels are obviously pronounced for a shorter period of time than the long vowels.

Long vowels include า, ู, ื, ี , and short vowels include ิ, ึ, ำ, ุ. Please note that is not a comprehensive list. For more information on long and short vowels, please see my article.

Dead vs Live

Dead syllables are syllables that end abruptly, meaning you can’t keep making that sound. These are words ending in p, t, or k sounds (or some short vowels like ะ). For example, “love” รัก (rák) ends in a “k” sound.

The live syllables are น, ฌ, ญ, ร, ล, ฬ, ม, ง, ว, ย (n, m, ng, w, y sounds) and all the long vowels.

For more information on dead and live syllables please see my article.

Many examples

To fully understand Thai tones, let’s break some words into their tones and explain why. This should really help you know which rules to apply and why.

Examples:

  • อะไร (à-rai): This word has 2 syllables: อะ and ไร.
    อะ has no tone marks so we know we have to use the rules without tone marks. The ending is a dead syllable and is NOT low class consonant. Meaning อะ is a LOW TONE.
    ไร also has no tone mark. The ending is live and is NOT a high class consonant (it is a low class). Hence this is a MID TONE.
    Meaning อะไร (à-rai) is low tone followed by mid tone.

  • รัก (rák): There are no tone marks. The ending is a dead syllable,is a short vowel, and is a low class consonant. Hence this is a high tone.

  • สำนวน (săm-nuan): This word has 2 syllables. สำ is a rising tone because there are no tone marks, it’s a live syllable and is a high class consonant. นวน is mid tone because there are no tone marks, it ends with a live syllable and is a low class consonant.

  • ห้อง (hông): This word is a falling tone. It has a falling tone mark. is a high class consonant and so it has a falling tone.

  • โกรธ (gròht): This word is a low tone. No tone marks. It has a dead ending (t) and is a mid class consonant. Hence low tone.

  • บ้า (bâa): This word is a falling tone. It has the falling tone mark () and is a mid class consonant. Hence falling tone.

  • ใหม่ (mài): This word is a low tone. It has a low tone mark and thanks to the before the , the word follows high class consonant rules. A low tone mark on a high class consonant produces a low tone. To learn more about the silent , please see my article.

  • ใช้ (chái): is the falling tone mark, however, is a low class consonant and with low class consonant = high tone.

  • เรื่อง (rêuang): This word is a falling tone. It has the low tone mark, however, is a low class consonant. For low class consonant a low tone mark produces a falling tone.

  • ลาก (lâak): This word is a falling tone. There are no tone marks. The word ends with a dead syllable and the consonant is a low class consonant. Finally, the vowel is long , hence this is a falling tone.

Why are Tones important in Thai

If you want to sound like a real Thai, or if you want to be understood all the time then you not only have to use the correct vowel length but also the correct tone.

Although with context most things will be understood, sometimes there isn’t much context and so you need to say the correct word.

Let me show you some examples of words that when pronounced with incorrect tones, mean different things.

  • “Bear” (หมี mĕe) and “Have” (มี mee). In this example, “bear” has a rising tone and “to have” has a mid tone.

  • “Beautiful” (สวย sŭay) and “Unlucky” (ซวย suay). In this one, “beautiful” has a rising tone and “unlucky” has a mid tone. You can definitely imagine a situation where you are calling someone unlucky but they understand beautiful or vice versa.

  • “Steal” (ลัก lák), “Main” (หลัก làk), “Drag” (ลาก lâak), This one consists of 3 examples to emphasize the importance of tones and also vowel length. “Steal” has a high tone and short vowel length, “Main” has a low tone and short vowel length, and “Drag” has a falling tone and long vowel length. So you can see here, how if you mess up the vowel length or the tone, the word can mean something completely different.

  • “Dog” (หมา măa), “Horse” (ม้า máa), “Come” (มา maa). In this one “Dog” has a rising tone, “Horse” has a high tone, and “come” has a mid tone.

Summary

I hope this article has been helpful in your quest to learn about Thai Tones.

Thai tones are not the easiest thing in the world. Whether it’s the actual pronunciation or knowing what tones a word has. However, after practicing it will eventually become second nature. Hopefully, my video is also helpful for you to know how to pronounce the tones.

Most of my students after a couple of days of practice can already know the correct tone to use. It’s just a matter of practice.

I recommend going over the examples I provided and trying some on your own. Then check in thai2english online dictionary which tells you the tone in the transliteration (Example: no symbol is mid tone, gròht this symbol is low, rák means high, lăai means rising and dâai means falling). Pick random words and try to figure out the correct tone then check against the dictionary.

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