Tone Names: Arbitrary

Tuesday, April 17, 2007 at 3:33 pm 4 comments

This is something I’ve wondered for years.

What is the point in assigning English words like “high” to tone names? Those are not the words the Thais themselves use to describe them. Thais just say สามัญ or เอก or โท and I think that’s superior for learning. What does “falling tone” even mean? What is falling? I hear no falling here! That’s a bad start for new learners. I say import the Thai words, or, failing that, go with: mid tone, low tone, crazy tone, hard tone, dippy tone, as they make a much more mnemonic introduction. Then just go straight for “aek tone,” “toh tone,” etc.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rikker  |  Friday, October 5, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    I found those names confusing when I started learning, too. Another alternative is just to translate the names of the Thai tones into English, which is a fairly simple task:
    เสียงสามัญ = common tone
    เสียงเอก = tone one
    เสียงโท = tone two
    เสียงตรี = tone three
    เสียงจัตวา = tone four

    Another benefit of this is that it helps you remember the tone marks, too, since they’re derived from the Arabic numerals 1 -่, 2 -้, 3 -๊, 4 -๋!

    It gets really confusing in the English-language literature about Thai. Many writers number the tones 1-5, so the tone called เสียงเอก (tone 1) in Thai is called tone 2 in the literature, and so on. Gah! I always used 0-4 when I’d write papers on Thai in college.

  • 2. jhs  |  Saturday, October 6, 2007 at 6:31 pm

    That’s awesome about the Arabic numeral derivation. I can’t believe I never noticed that!

    I don’t have experience with academic literature concerning Thai (in any language), but I want to address a failing in the common labels that I see on the net, from tutors, etc. Since the common labels have no basis in reality, why not use something more mnemonic?

    The disadvantage of teaching a brand new student the Thai tone names off the bat is that the names for the tone markers do not match the names for the tone sounds in the general case. For any low-class consonants you’ve got ไม้เอก but เสียงโท, etc.

    Oh, and while I’m on the subject, the classification of consonants into low, middle, and high is also relevant. We’re stuck with these labels since it comes from the Thai words for high/middle/low, but there is still no connection to tone sounds. A high class consonant does not by default make a high tone, it makes a rising tone. In fact, high class consonants never make the “high” tone. To minimize confusion, here is the new perfect re-assignment of tone sound names in English:

    • normal tone
    • bass tone
    • crazy tone
    • hard tone
    • rising tone

    The first four bear no implication of height, so as to avoid confusion with the high/mid/low consonant classes. I stick with rising tone because in practice, rising tone almost always comes from high-class consonants, so there’s a mnemonic association.

  • 3. rikker  |  Wednesday, October 24, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Weird–it never confused me about high consonants having rising tones, not high tones, or any of that stuff. Or maybe it did at the time, I’ve just forgotten it.

    As for tone marks versus tone sounds, I didn’t learned the Thai terms for the tone sounds (เสียงเอก, etc.) until late in my studies, but maybe this is because I never had much classroom time with the language. I learned the tone names in English as mid, low, falling, high, rising, and learned the tone mark names ไม้เอก ไม้โท ไม้ตรี ไม้จัตวา. So that never really tripped me up either.

    But now that you mention it, I can see how all of that would get confusing quick if it was all presented together. All the same, I’m not sure if your alternate suggestions are more confusing or less confusing, jsh. :P

    One option is to use the numbering system, like Thai, and simply make it very clear that tone mark and tone sound are independent, and refer to them as such: “mark 1, mark 2,” etc. and “common tone, tone 1, tone 2,” and so forth. Low consonant with open syllable and mark 1 produces tone 2. Sounds a bit arbitrary, maybe.

    I’m still kinda partial to the tone names I learned, though, because I got used to them. The actual symbols used in romanization can be misleading, too. Using ^ for falling tone gives a false impression of the contour, like it has to go up and then come down, which isn’t the case. Just one more example of how romanization is a crutch that should be abandoned in favor of the Thai alphabet (or Thai phonetics) as soon as possible.

  • 4. MTLa  |  Monday, March 23, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Tone mark is have four tone mark.
    There are mai-eak ่ low tone,mai-toe ้ falling tone,mai-dtree ๊ high tone,mai-jat-ta-waa ๋ rising tone.

    And another is no tone mark we call saaman common tone.

    And middle class consonants is ก จ ด ต ฎ ฏ บ ป อ
    There are 9 consonants and they can have five tone and four tone mark.

    Low class consonants is ค ฆ ง ช ซ ฌ ญ ฑ ฒ ณ ท ธ น พ ฟ ภ ม ย ร ล ว ฬ ฮ There are 23 consonants and they can have five tone but two of the tone mark.

    High class consonants is ข ฉ ฐ ผ ฝ ศ ษ ส ห There are 10 consonants and they can have three tone(low,falling and rising) but two of the tone mark.

    Have a nice day



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