Shwa for Thai

When people first started writing the Thai language, they used the writing system for Khmer, which is from a different language family. The Khmer system, in turn, had been an adaptation of the Brahmi script developed for Indo-Aryan languages, yet another language family. And Brahmi, in turn, was adapted from the Aramaic script, a fourth language family. So Thai writing was never designed for the Thai language, in the first place.

Since then, changes in Thai have made the situation even worse. What was once a voicing distinction has become a tonal distinction, so that tones are now marked by a combination of accent marks and choice of letters. In addition, many Sanskrit and Pali words came into Thai, bringing some foreign sounds with them. Even as these words became domesticated, the letters used to write the foreign sounds were kept (kind of like English ph as a way of writing the f sound in words from Greek).

The end result is that Thai orthography is much more complex than it needs to be. Thai written in Shwa is easier to read, easier to write and much easier to learn, both for foreigners and for Thais.


Thai is written in Character gait, with Breaks between characters and Spaces between words. The Break is usually not visible in character gait, but it becomes visible to represent the มาตรา mātrā after a short vowel when there's no final consonant or offglide. The Catch , representing a glottal stop ʔ, is used when there is no initial consonant. The second letter of an initial cluster is written in the second column, staggered away from the final consonant in the third column, if any.


Here are the consonants of Thai, with the current letters in black and IPA in green:

Voiced Plosives b ฎด d ʔ
Unvoiced Plosives p ฏต t ʨ k
Aspirated Plosives ผพภ ฐฑฒถทธ ฉชฌ ʨʰ ขฃคฅฆ
Unvoiced Fricatives ฝฟ f ซศษส s หฮ h
Nasals m ณน n ŋ
Liquids ลฬ l r
Semivowels w ญย j

In final position, the voiced and aspirated plosives and the fricatives all collapse to the corresponding unvoiced plosive. The affricates collapse to t, and the liquids collapse to n.

Thai permits only eleven initial consonant clusters:

ปร- pr ปล- pl
พร- pʰr ผล- พล- pʰl
ตร- tr
กร- kr กล- kl กว- kw
ขร- คร- kʰr ขล- คล- kʰl ขว- คว- kʰw


The Thai vowels form a neat system, with three series - front spread, back spread and back rounded. Each series features a close vowel, a close-mid vowel, and an open-mid vowel, although in the back spread series it's a fully open a. And all nine occur in both short and long versions. Shwa writes the long vowels with the Long mark.

Front Spread Back Spread Back Round
Short Long Short Long Short Long
Close -ิ i -ี -ึ ɯ -ื- ɯː -ุ u -ู
(Close-)Mid เ-ะ e เ- เ-อะ ɤ เ-อ ɤː โ-ะ o โ-
Open(-Mid) แ-ะ ɛ แ- ɛː -ะ -ั-a -า เ-าะ ɔ -อ ɔː

In addition, Shwa writes the "inherent" vowels that aren't written in the current script: a in open syllables and o in closed syllables.

In Thai, as in Khmer and Vietnamese, there are centering diphthongs that function as monophthongs. They use the Yawn as an offglide:

Short เ-ียะ ia̯ เ-ือะ ɯa̯ -ัวะ ua̯
Long เ-ีย iːa̯ เ-ือ ɯːa̯ -ัว uːa̯

All these monophthongs, both short and long, combine with y or w offglides to form diphthongs :

Backing Fronting Fronting
Short Long Short Long Short Long
เ-ียว ia̯w เ-ือย ɯa̯j -วย ua̯j
-ิว iw -ุย uj -ูย ːuj
เ-็ว ew เ-ว eːw เ-ย ɤːj โ-ย oːj
แ-ว ɤːw -อย ɔːj
เ-า aw -าว aːw ใ- ไ- aj -าย aːj


Thai has five tones, written in Shwa with an accent on the vowel, as follows:

Tone Mid tone Low tone Falling tone High tone Rising tone
Thai ปา ป่า ป้า ป๊า ป๋า


Now that you've learned the letters, why don't you try reading a phrase?


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