[b]/[p]/[ph]-Series and [d]/[t]/[th]-Series in Thai and English

When touring around Thailand, it isn’t uncommon to encounter attractions with a most disagreeable double pricing system (higher admission cost for non-Thai nationals, you would never find this in Europe… Anyway…).  I imagine three categories of non-Thai tourist: those who pay the awful higher price (the majority); those who start arguing with the ticket agent (some); and those who get away with paying the Thai price (the minority).  Frequently, I’m in the minority category. If only they knew!  Usually when the agent gets suspicious they say as me something like เป็นคนไทยใช่มั้ย “You are Thai, right?” But then guilt sinks in and I say no.  My passing as a Thai national might have to do with my looking the part and having the ability to speak Thai quite fluently, especially in conversation. Being a non-native speaker of the language, I occasionally mess up by pronouncing a word funny, stuttering or making a syntactically ill-formed utterance.  I’m sure if I were to speak slower (careful speech), the ticket agent could more easily detect that I’m not from these parts.  In this post, I discuss some sounds in Thai that I (and I’m sure other learners) have trouble perceiving and reproducing, especially in careful speech.

The phones [p], [b] and [ph] all contrast in Thai, but not in English:

In Thai sounds like… In English sounds like…
[b] บิน “fly” Bean
[p] ปีน “climb” Bean
[ph] ภินท์ “destroy” Penal [phi:nɫ̩]

Actually, [p], an unaspirated voiceless labial plosive does exist in English, but only in the medial position of syllables. e.g.: spin, speed, spark.  To English speakers [p] and [ph] are allophones of /p/, and whether to use [p] or [ph] is predictable by a phonological rule. However, to English speakers initial [p] sounds more like “bee” than “pee,” as seen in the table. This is probably the reason why words with initial ป and บ have (always) been quite difficult for me to distinguish.  When I hear เปิด “open” and บิด “close,” I think of sounds like “Bert” [bə:t] and “beet” [bi:t].  I should be thinking [pə:t]!

Similar to the [b]/[p]/[ph]-series, the issues discussed above for the [d]/[t]/[th]-series also apply.  Namely, [d] and [t] are allophonic for English /t/, so ดิสก์ [di:t¬] “disk” and ติด [ti:t¬] “attach,” would be difficult to distinguish.  In English [t] (just like [p]) is found only in medial positions of syllables. e.g.: stone, store, stage.  But for some reason, I find the [d]/[t]/[th]-series much easier to distinguish and produce than the [b]/[p]/[ph]-series in both careful and connected speech (although this wasn’t always the case).

Back to deceiving the ticket agent as a Thai national: Perhaps in connected speech the voicing or aspiration may not be as important as suprasegmental features such as tone or rhythm, which might mean that one could pass as a native-Thai speaker without “enunciating too much,” in conversation.  Also, perhaps devoicing/deaspiration can be observed in connected speech of native Thai speakers?  If so, then one could pass as a native-Thai speaker by pretending to have just climbed a mountain or have lost his voice?  Anyway, for now, I will continue illegitimately wearing Siamese sheep’s clothing to those most disagreeable double-priced attractions.

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2 Responses to [b]/[p]/[ph]-Series and [d]/[t]/[th]-Series in Thai and English

  1. Fred Harvey says:

    I say to ignore your conscience and pay the Thai price! Besides, are you ashamed of being taken for a Thai? Better that you are assumed to be Thai rather than American, which you usually proudly espouse. And of course you pay for that pride! Thais discriminate against foreigners in every which way and constantly so what is wrong with turning the tables now and then?

    • cjkfung says:

      Of course I’m not ashamed of trying to disguise myself as Thai as it has proven to be quite economically advantageous. Espousing “proudly” the position as either a (fake) Thai or a “real” American (i.e. somebody who holds a U.S. passport) depends on the situation, which ever one is personally perceived as more advantageous economically, socially, politically, etc., is the stance I’ll take.

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