L1(a) - What is Transliteration

Sorry but before we start learning Thai, we must first discuss the tricky subject of transliteration. Transliteration is the process of converting words from one alphabet to another. In this case, from the Thai alphabet to the Roman alphabet.

In these lessons, we are not going to teach you how to read the Thai alphabet. We will instead use a transliteration system to convert the Thai words into the Roman alphabet. The following lessons will not be very helpful if you do not understand the sounds we are trying to represent.

If you really don't want to read about the boring subject of transliteration then it is enough to say that we have tried to make our system as intuitive as possible for English speakers. We hope you can read our transliterated Thai words and know the sounds we are trying to represent. Now skip to Lesson 2) Tones.

Why is Transliteration a Problem?

There is no standard transliteration system. It seems like every school, textbook and organisation have their own system. This is not surprising since nobody has come up with a system that pleases everyone. In fact, creating such a system is impossible. The vagaries of the Roman alphabet and the way we use it are just too complicated.

For a start, different languages use the Roman alphabet in different ways. A transliteration system that pleases an Englishman will not be good for a Swede or a Spaniard or maybe even an American.

There are some very complicated transliteration systems. Scholars have tried to create systems that will represent all the subtle nuances of the Thai alphabet. They have created systems that allow the transliterated words to be converted back to the Thai alphabet. They have used all sorts of vowel combinations and even special characters to represent Thai sounds.

Most of these systems are too complicated for our purposes. We wanted a simple system that will give English speakers a reasonable chance of pronouncing the Thai word correctly. We are therefore going to add to the general confusion by using our own transliteration system.

We have tried to keep our system simple and do not differentiate between some of the finer distinctions of the Thai alphabet. Our priority is making the transliteration as intuitive as possible so the reader does not need to guess at the sounds we are representing. We will use hyphens if we think it makes pronunciation clearer. In certain cases we will ignore our own system if we thing it is misleading.

If you are interested in the Thai alphabet and transliteration then you can look at:

Appendix 1) Thai Alphabet Consonants
Appendix 2) Thai Alphabet Vowels

If you are serious about learning the Thai language then at some point you will want to learn the Thai alphabet. A few people do learn to speak Thai fluently without learning the Thai alphabet but in the long run you will find it much easier to know what sound is required if you can actually read it in Thai.

For our purposes, we will try to keep it as simple as possible. Read on for an overview of the difficulties of transliteration and the solutions we have used.





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