OK, here's the tip:
When you have learned a few words of the Thai language and you want to start trying them out on a Thai-speaking person, please don't get upset when they look at you all blank and they obviously haven't understood a word that you have said... Or, more likely, they are completely and utterly confused by what you actually did just say! You just need to work on those tones...
For anyone literally just starting out with learning Thai - the sooner you can get your head around the fact that Thai, (like Mandarin and other Chinese languages,) is a tonal language - the better! The Thai language uses five different tones.
Each syllable in any one word has one of the following tones:
Lòw, mid, hígh, fȃlling and rǐsing
Note the tone marks above. These are the most commonly used ones that you will come across when looking at Thai words that have been transliterated into the Roman alphabet - mostly in the 'Learn Thai in Five Minutes' type of textbooks. These tone marks are easy enough to produce in a Microsoft Word document but other than copying and pasting from Word, I haven't figured out how to insert them here on my own website! So I will use the following colour-coding to indicate the tones, for the purpose of this article:
Low, mid, high, falling and rising
This is based on a "traffic light" system. (The red is usually on top and the green is at the bottom of the three lights. Pink is "falling" from red - and light green is "rising from green - if that makes any sense?!!)
Now you know why the Thai alphabet contains about three times as many letters as the Roman alphabet! In very simple terms, it is one of the ways that the different tones are indicated. The extended alphabet, in conjunction with some tone marks, (in some words but, by no means all) - and some rather complicated "tone rules" enables any Thai language script to be read phonetically, including the tones.
The important thing to realize here is that if you transliterate any single syllable Thai word into the Roman alphabet, then that same group of letters can have up to five different and totally unrelated meanings when spoken back to a Thai person - depending on which tone you use... For words of more than one syllable, the problem does not go away!
So it is best to:
a) Take note of the tone marks, if you are reading a "Learn Thai in Five Minutes" type of text book.
b) Whenever you learn a new word, make sure that you learn it together with the correct tone. Otherwise you could end up in an embarrassing situation! (More on this, later...)
c) If you decide to make a list of new (transliterated into the roman alphabet) words - or better still, your own flashcards - you will need to indicate the tone, somehow. If you don't like the commonly used tone marks for transliterated Roman alphabet text, you can use your own colour-scheme or, for example, underline low-tone syllables, put a line above high-tone syllables - and a sweeping downwards curve for falling tones with an upward sweeping curve for rising tones. Just use whatever works for you. But indicate the tones and learn the correct tones together with the pronunciation of any new word that you come across.
Khun suay - all mid tones - ( คุณซวย ) - can be translated as: "You are unlucky, unfortunate - or even bad!"
You probably meant to say:
Khun suay - rising tone on the second syllable of the second word - ( คุณสวย ) - which means "You are beautiful!"
Mai wai - falling then rising tone - ( ไม่ไหว ) - Unable to... cannot...
Mai wai - rising then high tone - ( หมายไว้ ) - To expect, anticipate, predict
Mai wai - falling then mid tone - ( ไม่วาย ) - Always, constantly, to keep on repeating or doing the same thing
Enough said? So the different tones don't just change a word slightly - to mean something similar. There are absolutely no similarities in meaning between any of the above examples. They are completely different words and it's no wonder that a Thai person cannot understand you if you don't at least try to pay attention to the tones of each and every syllable that you speak.
It sounds quite daunting but, really, it isn't - just as long as you learn the correct tones for each new word, every time you come across one. Your Thai friends will definitely help you with this...
Edited by smb