A Note on Transliteration

Transliteration (the process by which Thai script [ก ข ฃ] is converted into Roman script [a b c] in the hope that the words can be easily and accurately said) is a notoriously tricky beast.

There are a number of different systems in wide use, from the official Royal Thai General System, through systems developed for dictionaries and phrase books, to informal and highly personalised systems that people cobble together that suit them. None of them gets it quite right.

The problem is that there are certain consonants and vowels which just don’t exist in romance languages and therefore cannot be represented using the Roman alphabet. Also vowel length is very important in Thai. So, for example, the difference between the long ao sound in kao meaning ‘rice’ and the short ao sound in kao meaning ‘enter’ cannot satisfactorily be rendered using Roman script (before we even begin to tackle differences in tone).

In some systems letters which point to the Sanskrit or Pali origins of a word are included which can totally obscure the pronunciations.  Think, for example, of the standard Thai greeting สวัสด๊.  This is often written as ‘sawasdee’, when anyone who has who has ever heard it said knows that it is clearly pronounced sa-wat-dee.

Equally, people who understand how to read Roman script don’t all do it the same accent. A perfectly acceptable transcription of a Thai word for someone with a Scottish accent won’t necessarily work for someone with a Spanish accent.

So what does this mean to you, diligent TweetYourselfThai reader?

Well, for the posts herein when transliteration is employed, the general rule will be to follow the system used by the online dictionary Thai2English.com as this at least keeps it consistent.  However, if this doesn’t suit your taste, Thai2English allows you to select any of eight different transliteration schemes, including IPA and phonetic Thai.  Find a word you’re not sure about, copy and paste it into the online dictionary, having selected how you want it rendered, and Somchai’s your uncle.

Of course there are other dictionaries around.  A list of the ones I like is on the blogroll to the right of each page of this site.

Of course it goes without saying that the best way to accurately render the Thai language is in Thai script, so keep coming back for plenty of reading practice so that transliteration becomes something you used to worry about.


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