January 5, 2008

Know Your Dictionary: Pronunciation Guides in RID99

[Note: See also in this series introduction, sorting, orthography, symbols, and word senses. Forthcoming: etymology and list of abbreviations.]

I'm back again with another installment in the Know Your Dictionary series, in which I am translating the introduction to the Royal Institute Dictionary, 1999 Edition. The remaining installments will be coming down the pipeline quickly. They're all translated, but I've been staggering them to avoid entirely chasing away readers who prefer less, ahem, arcane topics. The original Thai for this translation is here.

Part 4: Pronunciation guides

Pronunciation guides follow these rules:
1. Words that end with the basic final consonants, e.g. แม่กน* spelled with น, แม่กบ spelled with บ, as in the words คน or พบ, are not given a pronunciation guide.

2. Words with ญ ณ ร ล ฬ pronounced like น, words with ข ค ฆ pronounced like ก, words with จ ช ฎ ฏ ฐ ฑ ฒ ต ถ ท ธ ศ ษ ส pronounced like ด, words with ป พ ฟ ภ pronounced like บ--all four types are given pronunciation guides if the spelling causes ambiguous pronunciation.

3. Pali and Sanskrit words that are samasa (สมาส) compounds must usually be pronounced according to compounding rules, i.e. pronouncing the final syllable with a compound อะ vowel; this type of word is given a pronunciation guide, e.g. ทารุณกรรม [ทารุนนะกำ], สุขนาฏกรรม [สุกขะนาดตะกำ], รูปธรรม [รูบปะทำ]. For words which have developed two pronunciations, i.e. a rule pronunciation and a popular pronunciation, the rule pronunciation is given first, e.g. ประวัติศาสตร์ [ปฺระหฺวัดติสาด, ปฺระหฺวัดสาด], มัธยมศึกษา [มัดทะยมมะ-, มัดทะยม-], อุดมการณ์ [อุดมมะ-, อุดม-].

4. Pronunciations with the phinthu (พินทุ) dot beneath a letter means either:
A. That letter is a "leading letter" and is not pronounced, i.e. a phinthu dot is placed below ห to prevent alternate pronunciations that have different meanings, e.g. เหลา [เหฺลา], เหย [เหฺย], แหงน [แหฺงน].
B. That letter is part of a consonant cluster, which there are three of in Thai, i.e. ร ล ว; the phinthu dot is placed below the first letter of the cluster to cause the two consonants to be read as a cluster, e.g. ไพร [ไพฺร], ปลอบ [ปฺลอบ], กว่า [กฺว่า].

5. Words from other languages which formerly were pronounced with consonant clusters and when borrowed into Thai are pronounced as two syllables are given Thai pronunciation guides, e.g. เสด็จ [สะเด็ด], พยาบาท [พะยาบาด], แสตมป์ [สะแตม].

6. For sub-entries with possibly ambiguous pronunciation because the pronunciation is not the same as that of the headword, a pronunciation guide is given for the sub-entry, e.g. กล, กล- [กน, กนละ- ] น. ... กลไก [กน-] น. ... กลฉ้อฉล [กน-] น. ... กลบท [กนละบด] น. ...
To be honest, I have trouble understanding why the Royal Institute doesn't do a better job with pronunciation guides in their dictionary. It betrays the underlying assumption that anything significant in the pronunciation of a Thai word can be captured by the existing orthography. But this ignores some important things. Among them:

1. Syllable stress. This can be non-transparent in compounds, so it should be made explicit.

2. Vowels written long but pronounced short (for example, เส้น is short but เสน is long; แห่ง is short but แห้ง is long. While there is a regular pattern to this sort of thing, their approach assumes the reader inherently knows this, but this isn't obvious and rarely taught to second-language learners.

3. Words with short vowels but no final glottal stop. For example, the particle นะ, among others. Compare with ณ, which has a final glottal stop, and you'll see what I mean. This is also important because some words must always be pronounced with a glottal stop, in both careful and fast speech (e.g. สะใจ), while huge numbers of words lose their glottal stops in normal/fast speech or in compounds, but not always predictably so (e.g. สาระ--yes glottal vs. สารพัด--no glottal vs. สารสนเทศ--yes glottal). It's time for a publication as venerated as RID to start differentiating. Assuming users know the right answer is not the answer.

In English dictionaries, for as long as I've been using them (that's my cop-out way of saying I don't know when this innovation was introduced), the basic alphabet has to be augmented in order to systematically represent all of the sounds possible in the language. Lexicographers of English use breves and macrons and other diacritics and punctuation to try to best represent the spoken language on paper. RID gets away with using only the พินทุ (the little dot placed below a letter to indicate a consonant cluster). Unfortunately, that doesn't really cut it. It's in instances like this that it's clear that RID is intended for native users. I'm sure the scholars at the Royal Institute could devise a better system using Thai orthography. And it's okay if it takes users some learning to be able to interpret. I remember often having to flip to pronunciation guide on the inside front cover of my old Merriam-Webster Collegiate as a kid to check if a certain symbol stood for a as in father or a as in cat. Nothing invested, nothing gained.

Well, enough of my cranky ranting. If you can think of any other insights into the RID's system, leave a comment. Tune in next time for the section about word senses. Before that, though, I have a couple of gems from the Bangkok Recorder to share, in the long-awaited (by me, if no one else) return of the feature Old News [see previous installments of Old News about Siam's first advertising and the original Siamese twins].

*This format of แม่ X (แม่กก แม่กง แม่กน แม่กด etc.) is used in schools to teach Thai children about which final consonants make what sound. So แม่กด consists of words ending with ด ต ท ถ, and so forth). It's difficult to succinctly translate, but when it says "
แม่กน spelled with น" what it means is final consonants that are pronounced น that are also spelled with น. I chose to translate this concept as the "words that end in the basic final consonants".


  1. Rikker,

    Re: "This format of แม่ X (แม่กก แม่กง แม่กน แม่กด etc.) is used in schools to teach Thai children about which final consonants make what sound." What is the difference between the "แม่กก แม่กง" and the "ตัวสะกด"?

  2. This comment got lost in the shuffle--sorry to take so long to reply.

    First off, the name for these divisions is มาตราตัวสะกด. แม่ X is the colloquial way of saying it. The more formal version is มาตรา X (มาตรากก มาตรากน, etc).

    What this represents is the organization of all Thai words into "sections" (มาตรา) based on their final sound. กก กง กด, etc. are used because those are very simple examples.

    From the RID99 entry for สะกด:
    เขียนหรือบอกตัวอักษรที่ประกอบกันเป็นคํา, เรียกพยัญชนะที่บังคับตัวอักษรข้างหน้าให้เป็นมาตราต่าง ๆ เช่น แม่กน น สะกด แม่กด ด สะกด
    "To write or say the letters that combine as a word; the letter that controls which section a word goes in, e.g. แม่กน น สะกด, แม่กด ด สะกด."

    The first sense is akin to the English verb 'spell'. The second sense is the ตัวสะกด that you're talking about: the letter of the word which defines what section it goes in, and thus what pronunciation it gets. Each word may have many letters, but only one ตัวสะกด (usually the last consonant, or the last one before the ตัวการันต์).

    For แม่กด, the ตัวสะกด could be ด ต ช จ or several others. In ราช, ช is the ตัวสะกด that defines it as a แม่กด word.

    There are a total of 9 แม่/มาตรา. The full list is:
    แม่ ก กา (syllables with no final consonant)
    แม่ กก (syllables ending in ก sound)
    แม่ กด (syllables ending in ด sound)
    แม่ กบ (syllables ending in บ sound)
    แม่ กง (syllables ending in ง sound)
    แม่ กน (syllables ending in น sound)
    แม่ กม (syllables ending in ม sound)
    แม่ เกย (syllables ending in ย)
    แม่ เกอว (syllables ending in ว)

    See here for more details. I hope that helps clear things up!

  3. Dear rikker,

    you "Know your Dictionary" is for me, a beginner in Thai language, one of the most enlightening "books" (sic) I ever read on Thai-language in general.
    Despite this, I would like to adress to questions to you:

    1. The system you call "pronounciation Guides in RID" - a system applied even in books for Thai pupils beginning to read, is there any Thai name for it? I call it TPA (Thai phonetic alphabet) trying to underline its aproximity to IPA. ... but the Thai name?
    2. "Pali and Sanskrit words that are samasa (สมาส)" ... with samasa you "apply" RTGS (Royal Thai General System [of transliteration of TPA in Latin letters] on the Pali and Sanskrit word, but not on the Thai-Word, which is in RTGS samat? I consider it slightly problematic to apply RTGS on Sanskrit (and Pali) words in RID, since on these words IAST (international alphabet of sanskrit transliteration) should be applied?!

  4. 1. Yes, I think Thai Phonetic Alphabet is what it's called, or in Thai, สัทอักษรไทย. Thank you very much for asking me this, because you led me to discover a book that I haven't seen before: สัทอักษรไทย การสร้างสัทอักษรไทยเพื่อบันทึกภาษาไทยถิ่นและภาษาชนกลุ่มน้อย
    "Thai Phonetic Alphabet: Creating a Thai Phonetic Alphabet for Recording Thai Dialects and Minority Languages". The author wrote a book I know well on the history of Thai dictionaries, so I definitely need to seek this one out.

    2. I tentatively agree with you, but I don't know IAST very well, and many people who study Thai don't know Sanskrit/Pali outside of the context of Thai itself. The reason I wrote 'samasa' was to match the counterpart 'sandhi', since sandhi is well-known term in linguistics (tone sandhi, vowel sandhi). I thought it would have been even stranger to use 'sandhi' and 'samat'. I'm inconsistent, you're right. I've used both IPA and RTGS for transcribing Thai words in different posts. Even I'm affected by the lack of a standard..

  5. 1. Thanks for the term สัทอักษรไทย. It will help me very much for my futher efforts to learn pasa Thai.
    2. How to use a Sanskit dictionary/how to apply an online Sanskrit vocabulary I have displaye in brief at
    How to apply the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon on RID?
    (Blogger BLOGGSTOCK). I hope it is readable. I have to apologize for my poor English.