Thai transliteration – the good, the bad and the ugly

When we say transliteration, we mean a way of writing Thai words using the English alphabet, rather than in Thai script. You’ll see it throughout thai2english, and it looks like this…

transliteration2

The little accent markers above some of the letters are what we use to show the tone markers that each syllable is pronounced with.

Why we need transliteration

If you’re just starting to learning Thai, then transliteration is your best friend. It lets you read, write and pronounce Thai words, without first having to spend years learning to decipher and remember the Thai alphabet.

This is a massive benefit, as it lets you get right to the goal of communicating with and understanding Thais much quicker.

Used well, transliteration lets you build up a decent-sized vocabulary which you can then use in your day-to-day conversations, and to make your life in Thailand easier.

So I don’t really need to learn to read Thai script at all then? Cool! This is easier than I thought.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. Once you progress a bit more in your studies, transliteration quickly starts holding you back.

…and what’s wrong with it

The first, and most obvious, problem is that Thais themselves don’t use it.

If you want to be able to read Thai Facebook posts, web pages, Line chats, menus, newspapers or, well, anything else, then you’re gonna have to be able to read Thai script.

There’s a more subtle problem too. Thai contains a whole bunch of sounds that we just can’t accurately and unambiguously write using the English alphabet.

The best we can do is to get as close as possible. Unfortunately though, no-one can agree on the best way to do that.

Let’s take the Thai word ข้าว (rice) as an example — on restaurant menus you’ll variously see it written as khao, cow, kao and kaaw amongst others.

What’s the best one? Maybe I think it’s kao, and maybe you think it’s something else. The problem is no-one’s really right or wrong, it’s all just personal opinion. The only correct spelling is the one in Thai script.

So if you’re given some transliterated Thai to read, it’s anyone’s guess as to how difficult that’s going to be. If you’re lucky, they used a transliteration style and vocab that’s familiar to you, and it’s easy. Other times, it might as well be in hieroglyphics.

With every single syllable having multiple different ways someone could choose to spell it, you end up left with the world’s least fun guessing game. For me, this was about the time when Thai script, with its simple and unambiguous spelling, started to look like the better option.

That’s crazy! There must be a standard way of doing it, right? Like Pinyin for Chinese?

Yes, at least in theory. It’s snappily known as the Royal Thai General System for Transcription, or RTGS to its friends.

If you find yourself needing an official transliteration of a Thai place name, person’s name, name of a legal document or the like, the RTGS is what you’d turn to.

In practice though, the RTGS is widely ignored and many Thais are not even aware of what it is. It’s quite a contrast from Chinese students who are taught Pinyin from an early age.

If a Thai person finds they need to transliterate a word, they’ll just do it in an ad-hoc way based on whatever seems best to them at the time.

OK, but at least the thai2english transliterations use the RTGS consistently, right?

Well, erm, no.

Just like everyone else, we have our own opinions on what makes a good transliteration and so we have our own way of doing it.

The problem is the RTGS often uses the same English letters to represent very different sounds in Thai. This makes the resulting spelling pleasingly short, but next to impossible to correctly pronounce if you don’t already know how to.

At the other end of the scale, it’s possible to transliterate based on the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) instead. This produces the most accurate transliterations, but the end result is almost as hard to read as Thai script itself (seasoned linguistic experts excepted).

As our goal is to help you learn to speak Thai, the thai2english transliteration is focused on giving you a consistent spelling that is both easy-to-read and possible to accurately pronounce. With over ten years of providing automatic Thai transliteration, the thai2english transliterations are now widely used and familiar to many.

The bottom line

Transliterated spelling will never be perfect, and is always a compromise in one way or another. It’s best to treat it a short-term aid in your learning, a kickstart that helps you progress through the early stages of learning Thai and building up your vocabulary.

In the longer term, it’s well worth saving yourself the headaches that transliteration can bring and learning Thai script instead. It’s not as difficult as you might think!