slice-of-thai.com Thai Language Syllable Stress in Thai

Syllable Stress in Thai

Just what we need...more stress!

Table of Contents

Introduction

Linguists define stress as "the relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word."

Stress plays an important role in English, where it can be used to distinguish words (e.g. "world record" vs. "to record music"), distinguish phrases (e.g. "my tea" vs. "mighty") or change the meaning of a whole sentence (e.g. "he'll charge me?" vs. "he'll charge me?"). Syllables that are not stressed tend to get slurred in normal, fluent speech (e.g. the first, third, and fourth syllables in "America" tend to become "uh-me-ruh-kuh"), whereas stressed syllables generally escape such mangling.

Surprisingly, even though Thai is tonal and already has long and short vowels, many of these same phenomena occur in Thai. In particular, you will often hear syllables whose vowel, vowel length, or tone does not match that predicted by the rules you've learned. By understanding syllable stress, you can predict when many of these "slurred syllables" are likely to occur. This helps you understand Thai speech more easily, and it may even help you speak more like a Thai.

Stress is an important aspect of the Thai language that is nearly 100% ignored by today's Thai learning texts, which is a shame because it leaves many students struggling to recognize, and look up, common Thai words they hear. Here on slice-of-thai.com, we indicate stress for every Thai syllable by using - and ~ and other notations, as explained below.

But don't worry, you don't have to spend extra time memorizing the stress pattern of every Thai word in order to get benefit from this knowledge. After you've read this page to learn what happens to unstressed syllables in general terms, you'll start to recognize stress patterns when you hear Thai people speak, and this will make it a bit easier for you to guess what they are saying!

The last Thai-English dictionary to indicate stress was the famous 1964 Mary Haas student dictionary, which is still in use today. I worked with Paiboon Publishing on the Three-Way Thai–English, English–Thai Pocket Dictionary, released in February 2009, and we indicate stress for every Thai word using the same Paiboon+ system found on slice-of-thai.com.

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Choose Your Favorite Pronunciation Guide Systems
As you've probably noticed, nearly every book and website uses a different pronunciation guide system (also known as "romanization," "karaoke language," "transliteration," or "phonemic transcription" systems) for helping you learn the pronunciation of native Thai words.

Here at slice-of-thai.com, we let you choose the system(s) you want to see. Check your favorite system(s) below, and we will remember your setting and instantly apply it to all pages on slice-of-thai.com.

Pronunciation guides are a useful crutch, but they have hidden pitfalls which may surprise you: learn more about this, as well as how each system differs, at Pronunciation Guide Systems for Thai. Also, you can click on any system below for more information.

SystemDescriptionExample
คุณ เก็บ เสื้อ ไว้ ไหน
Paiboon+Used in all recent Paiboon titles[kun-gèp-sʉ̂ʉa-wái-nǎi]
PaiboonBenjawan Poomsan Becker's Thai for Beginners[kun-gèp-sʉ̂a-wái-nǎi]
Easy ThaiSpells out each syllable using simple Thai[คุนM-เก็บL-เซื่อF-ไว้H-ไหฺนR]
TLCFrom the fantastic thai-language.com[khoonM-gepL-seuuaF-waiH-naiR]
TigerThai learning books from Tiger Press[koon-gèp-sûea-wái-nǎi]
HaasMary Haas (adopted by AUA, US Peace Corps)[ˈkhun ˈkèp ˈsʉ̂a ˈwáy ˈnǎy]
IPAInternational Phonetic Alphabet: nerds love it[ˈkʰun ˈkèp ˈsɯ̂ːa ˈwáj ˈnǎj]
ALA-LCALA / US Library of Congress[khunM-kepL-sư̄aF-waiH-naiR]
TYTTeach Yourself Thai by David Smyth[ˈkOOn ˈgèp ˈsêu-a ˈwái ˈnǎi]
LPSystem from the Lonely Planet guidebooks[khun-kèp-sêua-wái-nǎi]
T2EFrom thai2english.com[kun-gèp-sêua-wái-nǎi]
Thai Govt+Lame system used for Thai road signs + tones[khun-kèp-sûea-wái-nǎi]
Example of how it will look: [sʉ̂ʉa, sʉ̂a, เซื่อF, seuuaF, sûea, ˈsʉ̂a, ˈsɯ̂ːa, sư̄aF, ˈsêu-a, sêua, sêua, sûea]

Stress in English

In English stress, the "relative emphasis that may be given to certain syllables in a word" manifests itself in several ways: compared to an unstressed syllable, a stressed syllable can be louder, drawn out longer, have more clearly articulated vowels, or have greater pitch contrasts. Typically you'll see two different categories of stress in English, lexical stress and word emphasis.

Lexical Stress

Lexical Stress is any stress pattern that always tags along with a particular word. For example, in the English word "a-me-ri-ca," the second syllable is stressed and the other syllables are unstressed. In the English word "syl-la-ble", only the first syllable is stressed. In the English word "syl-la-bic," only the second syllable is stressed.

Lexical stress sometimes allows us to distinguish two words that would otherwise sound identical. For example, consider the words "insight" and "incite." They have the same vowel and consonant sounds, but differ only in the stress applied to each syllable. Similarly, consider the noun "record" (as in "world record") and the verb "record" (as in "to record music").

Lexical stress helps us to distinguish phrases too, not just single words. Consider how lexical stress (along with other clues) helps us disambiguate:

A critical aspect of lexical stress is that unstressed syllables tend to get slurred in normal, fluent, running, connected speech more often than stressed syllables do:

The use of fluent speech, complete with its slurred, unstressed syllables, is not just a case of sloppy diction: it's considered correct diction. It's a convention that speakers of any given language use to "smooth out" connected speech, in order to make it practical to talk quickly. In some cases, as we'll see below, the slurring that happens in fluent speech can actually increase the clarity of your message, because it creates contrasts between phrases that would sound the same in citation speech. A person who always utters syllables using the perfectly-sounded-out citation form, even in casual conversation, will sound very strange indeed: just like your 80-year-old elementary school English teacher who spoke like Mary Poppins.

Word Emphasis

Word Emphasis allows us to emphasize certain words in a sentence and change the meaning of the sentence in which the words appear. Word emphasis is different from lexical stress in that it can be applied, or not applied, to any word (it is a property of the sentence), whereas lexical stress always tags along with particular words (it is an inherent property of the word). Consider:

A word can even show both kinds of stress simultaneously, as seen in the last example ("record" has lexical stress that picks out the verb "record" as opposed to the noun "record," and in the last sentence, "record" also has word emphasis to clarifiy the meaning as "record, as opposed to just listen").

Lexical Stress in Thai

In English, stress is expressed in part by changing the pitch of your voice, and/or drawing out the length of a stressed syllable relative to an unstressed syllable. But Thai, as you probably know, is a tonal language where the pitch of your voice actually picks out different words. Plus, Thai even has long and short vowels, meaning that if you draw out the length of a vowel, you will often be saying a different word.

So how can Thai possibly have stress, when both tone and vowel length are already "used up" for purposes other than stress?

Well, it turns out language is messier than that. Nobody ever said that you can't use the same property of speech (tone, vowel sound, consonant sound) for more than one thing at the same time! Stress, in particular unstressed-ness, imposes an extra layer of changes to a set of properties that are "already used" for other things. We'll detail exactly how this works below.

Which Syllables are Stressed and Unstressed?

In Thai, the last syllable of a word (and the only syllable, for one-syllable words) is always stressed. Other than that, there is no regular pattern: you must memorize which syllables of each Thai word are stressed and which are unstressed on a word-by-word basis.

Here on slice-of-thai.com, we have a simple system to show you stress in our pronunciation guides:

The actual vowels and tones that we write in our pronunciation guide (for example, the high tone and the [a, a, −ะ/−ั−◌ะ/ั◌, a, a, a, a, a, a/u−, a, a, a] vowel of [má~, má~, มะH~, maH~, má~, má-, má-, maH~, má–, má~, má~, má~] in [má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, มะH~หาR-วิดH-ทะH~ยาM-ไลM, maH~haaR-witH-thaH~yaaM-laiM, má~hǎh-wít-tá~yah-lai, má ˈhǎa ˈwít thá ˈyaa ˈlay, má ˈhǎː ˈwít tʰá ˈjaː ˈlaj, maH~hāR-witH-thaH~yāM-laiM, má ˈhǎh ˈwít tá ˈyah ˈlai, má~hǎa-wít-thá~yaa-lai, má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, má~hǎ-wít-thá~ya-lai]) are still the official ones predicted by the rules and used for citation speech, but the unstressed marking gives you a hint that the word probably sounds different in fluent speech.

Typically, syllables with long vowels and/or final consonants are stressed (there are exceptions though). Typically, only short syllables with no final consonant, like [má~, má~, มะH~, maH~, má~, má-, má-, maH~, má–, má~, má~, má~] in [má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, มะH~หาR-วิดH-ทะH~ยาM-ไลM, maH~haaR-witH-thaH~yaaM-laiM, má~hǎh-wít-tá~yah-lai, má ˈhǎa ˈwít thá ˈyaa ˈlay, má ˈhǎː ˈwít tʰá ˈjaː ˈlaj, maH~hāR-witH-thaH~yāM-laiM, má ˈhǎh ˈwít tá ˈyah ˈlai, má~hǎa-wít-thá~yaa-lai, má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, má~hǎ-wít-thá~ya-lai], are candidates for being unstressed. But the converse is not true: just because a syllable is short, that does not mean it's unstressed. Plenty of short syllables (with and without final consonants) are stressed.

In a few cases, we indicate stress by changing the written vowel length instead of using stress marks, as in น้ำ [náam, náam, น้ามH, naamH, náhm, ˈnáam, ˈnáːm, nāmH, ˈnáhm, náam, náam, nám] (n. water) vs. น้ำแข็ง [nám-kɛ̌ng, nám-kɛ̌ng, นั้มH-แข็งR, namH-khaengR, nám-kǎeng, ˈnám ˈkhɛ̌ŋ, ˈnám ˈkʰɛ̌ŋ, namH-khæŋR, ˈnúm ˈkǎirng, nám-khǎeng, nám-kǎeng, nám-khǎeng] (n. ice). More on this below.

What Happens to Unstressed Syllables?

In Thai, stressed syllables generally follow the rules you expect: their consonants and vowels have the regular sounds you find on our charts, and their tones follow the normal Thai tone rules (we'll be adding a page on the tone rules to slice-of-thai.com soon). That's not to say stressed syllables are 100% regular: there are certain other Thai irregularities, unrelated to stress, that may alter the tone or length of Thai syllables, and you can check out our page on what makes Easy Thai easy for a partial list.

But in fluent Thai speech (as opposed to citation speech), one or more of the following four things happen to unstressed syllables.

Tone Becomes Mid

In unstressed syllables, the tone becomes a mid tone rather than the tone that is written:

Remember that we write our pronunciation guides on slice-of-thai.com as you see on the left, with the "official" tone. The guide on the right is just to help you understand our point in this section.

Vowel Centralizes

In unstressed syllables, the vowel slurs towards the basic vowel [ə, ə, เ−อะ/เ−ิ−Sเ◌อะ/เิ◌S, uh/er−, er, ə, ə, œ, er, oe, uh/er−, oe] - instead of the "real" vowel (linguists say that the vowel is "centralized," because the [ə, ə, เ−อะ/เ−ิ−Sเ◌อะ/เิ◌S, uh/er−, er, ə, ə, œ, er, oe, uh/er−, oe] is located at the center of their vowel chart):

Notice how both the first and fourth syllables of [má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, มะH~หาR-วิดH-ทะH~ยาM-ไลM, maH~haaR-witH-thaH~yaaM-laiM, má~hǎh-wít-tá~yah-lai, má ˈhǎa ˈwít thá ˈyaa ˈlay, má ˈhǎː ˈwít tʰá ˈjaː ˈlaj, maH~hāR-witH-thaH~yāM-laiM, má ˈhǎh ˈwít tá ˈyah ˈlai, má~hǎa-wít-thá~yaa-lai, má~hǎa-wít-tá~yaa-lai, má~hǎ-wít-thá~ya-lai] get centralized.

Glottal Stop Disappears

Short vowels at the end of unstressed syllables flow right into the next syllable, as in:

as opposed to stressed syllables, in which we first cut off the flow of air at the throat, as in:

There is no way for us to write this sound difference textually, so be sure to click on the play buttons above to hear the sound difference. Each sound clip plays the correct sound for that word, followed by the incorrect sound for comparison.

Linguists call refer to the cutoff of air in "uh oh" as a glottal stop, so another way to say it is that glottal stops often get dropped in unstressed syllables.

If a word contains multiple syllables ending in a short vowel, they don't all have to be stressed or unstressed. For example, in - สหภาพ [sà~hà-pâap, sà~hà-pâap, สะL~หะL-พาบF, saL~haL-phaapF, sà~hà-pâhp, sà ˈhà ˈphâap, sà ˈhà ˈpʰâːp, saL~haL-phāpF, sà ˈhà ˈpâhp, sà~hà-phâap, sà~hà-pâap, sà~hà-phâp] (n. labor union), the first syllable [sà~, sà~, สะL~, saL~, sà~, sà-, sà-, saL~, sà–, sà~, sà~, sà~] is unstressed (so [sà~, sà~, สะL~, saL~, sà~, sà-, sà-, saL~, sà–, sà~, sà~, sà~] flows right into [hà-, hà-, หะL-, haL-, hà-, ˈhà-, ˈhà-, haL-, ˈhà–, hà-, hà-, hà-]) but the second syllable [hà-, hà-, หะL-, haL-, hà-, ˈhà-, ˈhà-, haL-, ˈhà–, hà-, hà-, hà-] is stressed (so it gets cut off with a glottal stop before we continue on to [pâap, pâap, พาบF, phaapF, pâhp, ˈphâap, ˈpʰâːp, phāpF, ˈpâhp, phâap, pâap, phâp]).

Also, just because a syllable ends in a glottal stop, that doesn't mean it's stressed. For example, the word - สะอาด [sà~àat, sà~àat, สะL~อาดL, saL~aatL, sà~àht, sà ˈʔàat, sà ˈʔàːt, saL~ʿātL, sà ˈàht, sà~àat, sà~àat, sà~àt] (adj. clean) has to have a glottal stop between [sà, sà, สะL, saL, sà, ˈsà, ˈsà, saL, ˈsà, sà, sà, sà] and [àat, àat, อาดL, aatL, àht, ˈʔàat, ˈʔàːt, ʿātL, ˈàht, àat, àat, àt], otherwise the syllables would blur together and the word would be indistinguishable from - สาด [sàat, sàat, สาดL, saatL, sàht, ˈsàat, ˈsàːt, sātL, ˈsàht, sàat, sàat, sàt] (vt. splash). But this case doesn't count as stressed, because the [sà~, sà~, สะL~, saL~, sà~, sà-, sà-, saL~, sà–, sà~, sà~, sà~] in สะอาด [sà~àat, sà~àat, สะL~อาดL, saL~aatL, sà~àht, sà ˈʔàat, sà ˈʔàːt, saL~ʿātL, sà ˈàht, sà~àat, sà~àat, sà~àt] is typically pronounced with a mid tone and a [ə, ə, เ−อะ/เ−ิ−Sเ◌อะ/เิ◌S, uh/er−, er, ə, ə, œ, er, oe, uh/er−, oe] vowel, hallmarks of an unstressed syllable.

Long Vowels Become Short

In unstressed syllables, long vowels can sometimes become short vowels. This stress pattern typically occurs when words that have meaning all by themselves (base words) get re-used in the beginning or middle of a compound word. In these cases, we do not mark the syllable as unstressed (e.g. with ~); instead, we write the spoken vowel length:

Notice how the base word on the left sounds long by itself, but it becomes short when it is stuck at the beginning of a compound word. The vowel length does not change when the base word is at the end of a compound word:

This vowel length change only applies to compound words, not just to any sequence of words involving the base word. For example, in these phrases:

the base word [náam, náam, น้ามH, naamH, náhm, ˈnáam, ˈnáːm, nāmH, ˈnáhm, náam, náam, nám] does not form a compound with the word after it, so it does not change in length (in the second example, [náam, náam, น้ามH, naamH, náhm, ˈnáam, ˈnáːm, nāmH, ˈnáhm, náam, náam, nám] happens to form a compound with the word before it, but that does not cause it to change length, since it is at the end of the compound). There is no strict, objective definition of what is a compound and what is not (see below for some sample sentences you can use to test for compounds), so you just have to memorize the vowel length changes.

Fun Examples

The changes that befall unstressed syllables give rise to some fun Thai contrasts that mirror cases like "my tea"/"mighty" and "come on!"/"common" in English. Consider the written Thai word กระเทียม: it actually has two different interpretations:

You cannot tell which interpretation is correct if you see it in writing, but you can tell if you hear it in fluent speech: Here are some more examples pointed out by Rikker Dockum on his blog Thai 101 and on a thai-language.com forum post:

In the forum post, Rikker also states that this kind of stress can also apply to more complex long syllables like กล้วย and even whole sentences:

There's a variety of banana called กล้วยหอม, but it's also possible to say that a กล้วย (of any variety) หอม .... The phonetic representation of these two possibilities would be: /kluay 'hɔːm/ vs. /'kluːay 'hɔːm/ '(variety of) banana' vs. '(this/these) banana(s) smell nice'

You can even do this with the phrase ครูสอนภาษาอังกฤษ, using stress (which in this case manifests itself in the vowel length) to indicate whether you mean one of two things: /kʰru sɔn pʰə'saː ʔəŋ'krit/ vs. /'kʰruː 'sɔːn pʰə'saː ʔəŋ'krit/ 'English teacher' vs. 'the teacher taught English' (as opposed to teaching some other subject).

Word Emphasis in Thai

What about word emphasis in Thai? Is there a way to use stress to get a similar effect as in this English example:
"He ran home?" (as opposed to the video game shop)
"He ran home?" (as opposed to walking or driving)
In this case, the stress is not lexical stress: the words are "ran" and "home" in each case; only the emphasis is different.

Many Thais I spoke to vehemently insist that this phenomenon does not exist in Thai—that the Thai would instead insert more words into the sentence to make the meaning clear. But then again, almost no Thais I have spoken with are aware that they pronounce the [i, i, −ิ/−ิ−ิ/ิ◌, i*, i, i, i, i, i, i, i, i] vowel differenly in ติ [dtì, dtì, ติL, dtiL, dtì, ˈtì, ˈtì, tiL, ˈdtì, tì, dtì, tì] vs. ติด [dtìt, dtìt, ติดL, dtitL, dtìt, ˈtìt, ˈtìt, titL, ˈdtìt, tìt, dtìt, tìt], or pronounce [náam, náam, น้ามH, naamH, náhm, ˈnáam, ˈnáːm, nāmH, ˈnáhm, náam, náam, nám] with different lengths in - น้ำ [náam, náam, น้ามH, naamH, náhm, ˈnáam, ˈnáːm, nāmH, ˈnáhm, náam, náam, nám] (n. water) vs. - น้ำแข็ง [nám-kɛ̌ng, nám-kɛ̌ng, นั้มH-แข็งR, namH-khaengR, nám-kǎeng, ˈnám ˈkhɛ̌ŋ, ˈnám ˈkʰɛ̌ŋ, namH-khæŋR, ˈnúm ˈkǎirng, nám-khǎeng, nám-kǎeng, nám-khǎeng] (n. ice), so this could just be another example of being blinded by expertise.

This is an open question and I welcome any thoughts from readers out there.

Stress In Other Books and Websites

Most pronunication guide systems in use today (outside of slice-of-thai.com and Paiboon's 2009 dictionary using Paiboon+) either do not notate stress at all, or they do it inconsistently in a way that confuses learners.

For example, in the old Paiboon system, which is used in a large number of books and websites, a word is:

If I had to pick one, I'd say that the form #2 is the one you will most commonly find for the old Paiboon system, but you will certainly be able to find exceptions between books and even within certain books.

On sites such as thai-language.com, whose TLC pronunciation guide is mostly computer-generated based on an algorithm that examines the Thai word, you are more likely to find form #1, but even on that site there will likely be exceptions.

The modern pronunciation guide systems have this problem because none of them explicitly specify how stress should be notated. On slice-of-thai.com, we have added information about stress on top of all of the pronunciation guide systems, as we explain above.

Ironically, many of the systems developed by the first wave of non-Thai linguists who studied Thai in the 20th century, including Mary Haas, do include stress, but we lost those refinements somewhere along the way.

There is no reason why a system has to choose #1, #2, or #3 above; there's many other, useful ways of notating stress. The problem comes when the method used is inconsistent.

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