Mid Tone is the Hard Tone

Monday, October 8, 2007 at 1:25 am 5 comments

It’s safe to say that new learners pick up the first three tones pretty easily (in the traditional order — ฟา ฝ่า ฝ้า ฟ้า ฝา — is there a word for this order?) The final tone (เสียงจัตวา) is not bad either. Most new learners need to practice เสียงตรี until they get it, but it’s achievable.

Today I expose the dirty little secret about Thai: the mid tone (or “common tone,” เสียงสามัญ) is the hardest by far. Actually the true difficulty is the ambiguity between the mid tone and the low tone. Without context, side-by-side contrast, repetition, or very focused concentration, it’s hard to hear the difference.

My “natural” tone is definitely the low tone (เสียงเอก). When challenged to utter a single, clear, mid-tone syllable (for example, แก), I often fail and just say “old.” ให้แก: no problem. คำว่า แก เฉยๆ ไม่ได้เดดขาด. It’s hilarious. Notably, native Thai speakers do not have this problem whatsoever.

Fortunately, in real conversation, there is always context, so in practice it’s a non-issue. Tellingly, no Thai has ever noticed me mispronounce the mid tone. For a while, I pronounced “year” and “hit” with the low tone, but in mid-sentence, it is either not noticeable or at any rate not worth mentioning.

Entry filed under: Nailing Thai. Tags: .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jeroen  |  Wednesday, October 10, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    Many Americans speak with their throats relaxed and open. It produces a low base tone and a lot of volume. Many others constrict their throats a bit all the time, giving them a real “mid tone” from which they can go either up or down (and to me, producing more characteristic voices). In one case in Europe, two adjacent cultures were found to have a full two tones of difference in their average speaking tones!

    This difference in speech may also be why Americans in some places have a reputation for being loud and obnoxious. The “open throat” sounds more like a block wave, as if the sound had been run through guitar distortion. It produces more sound volume for the same frequency and amplitude than a sine-like wave and covers much more of the frequency spectrum.

  • 2. rikker  |  Saturday, October 13, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    I’ve noticed that even native speakers don’t necessarily distinguish these very well in their own speech, and interpret based on context. There are even some examples where both are acceptable, and two written forms have developed as a result–เท่าไร and เท่าไหร่ comes to mind first. I think the first is “proper” but the second is the more common spoken pronunciation and is thus used in a lot of informal writing (on the internet, or character dialogue in books, for example). I’d guess that if you said a phrase like, say, เขาัยังไม่มา as เขายังไม่หม่า, most people wouldn’t even notice the “wrong” tone. Sounds like someone should do a study. Not it.

  • 3. rikker  |  Wednesday, October 17, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    I thought of another example of mid- and low-tone versions of the same word: หนึ่ง and the informal variant นึง. The writing reflects actual usage–even those who don’t approve of writing it นึง still probably say it that way without noticing.

    The mid-tone version is found in unstressed positions, usually following another word, e.g. นิดนึงพอ เพื่อนคนนึงของฉัน. It’s used generally on the internet as an all-purpose replacement for หนึ่ง, too.

  • 4. Mangkorn  |  Monday, November 5, 2007 at 8:38 pm

    I agree with you completely: for many farang, the middle tone can seem more like a sustained high tone, or something…

    In fact, the difference between middle tone and high tone can be slight, depending on whom is speaking. I would say they are 1 and 2 in the difficulty level – especially if you get a bit lazy.

    But I also agree that context is all important – as it has to be: different people have varying pitches to their voices, even among Thais.

    What still drives me ’round the bend are the often-similar sounding words ไร and ไร้; ราย and ร้าย

    Quite different meanings, surely…


  • 5. zackxx  |  Saturday, October 18, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Context is not particularly helpful to determine what is meant when the words ใกล้ and ไกล are used. If fact if your asking for directions getting it wrong could turn out rather inconvenient! I will invariably need to ask a repeat or confirmation because in most other situations one can usually be lazy about listening out for tones and rely on context to help you out.

    Unlike English pronunciation, which uses a lot of teeth, tongue and lip to enunciate our consonants Thai has a lot of vowel produced at the back of the throat (which also seems to be where the tones are controlled) and less clarity with consonants. Do you find it difficult sometimes to hear that final consonant? Would you agree that to speak Thai more clearly we need to move the sounds we make from the front to the back of the mouth?


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