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As we all know, "Thailand" is not pronounced with a /θ/ — so why is it spelled that way?

Is the 'h' vestigial? Does it represent some subtle phoneme in the Thai language, and if so, what is that difference?

A couple of observations:

  • It is also spelled with an 'h' in French and German, so it's no accident of English. (To be fair, there is no 'h' sound in French, and the 'h' is sometimes silent in German, as in "Neanderthal".)
  • The Thai language is a member of the Tai language family, which is not spelled with an 'h'.
  • I don't know the answer but I do know that Thai people practise Theravada Buddhism and Theravada is also pronounced without the h sounding - like te-ra-va-da, so perhaps it has something to do with Sanskrit or other Indian languages that have letters that we do not have in English. – user179713 Jun 6 '16 at 19:53
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    The Thai script has an alphabet of 44 consonants and 15 vowels (Wiki). Various systems have been used for converting Eastern languages into a Romanised spelling system. Chinese, an ideographic language, without a phonetic alphabet for the major parts of speech, has had several iterations of Romanisation. Hence what was once Peking is now Beijing. But as for the TH of Thailand, it perhaps represents one of the Thai consonants not available in English. The former name of the country was Siam. I do not know if it was a different spelling of the same thing, or a completely different name. – WS2 Jun 6 '16 at 20:16
  • Further to that, I note that the former name Siam from the Sanskrit sayam was only used by foreigners. The population always referred to themselves as Mueang Thai, which is its name in Thai today - meaning land of the free. I am not sure how the official name came to be Siam, but it seems to have been the experience of WW2, during which Thailand for a time became allied with Japan, which prompted the change of name in 1948. – WS2 Jun 6 '16 at 20:23
  • Thailand is not pronounced Thighland: everything2.com/title/Thailand+is+not+pronounced+Thighland – user66974 Jun 6 '16 at 20:24
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Like many languages outside Europe, Thai distinguishes between aspirated and unaspirated plosives (eg [tʰ] and [t]). These both occur in English, but they are not treated as distinct sounds, so it is usually hard for English speakers to hear and produce them reliably. The word "Thai" in Thai starts with an aspirated consonant.

To percieve the difference, consider the English words "tick" and "stick". In English, an initial 't' is usually aspirated, but the 't' in initial 'st' is not - you can verify this be holding a hand in front of your mouth when you say the words: you will feel the puff of breath after the 't' in 'tick' but not in 'stick'. In those contexts we readily pronounce the 't' differently, but don't notice we are doing so, and have difficulty making or hearing the difference outside that context.

Scholars believe that the many English words that are borrowed from Greek and contain 'ch', 'th' and 'ph' (eg 'chasm', 'theatre', 'physics') originally all had aspirated stops in Greek, though in Modern Greek as often in English they have changed to fricatives.

  • It looks like the Thai alphabet has two letters (ฏ and ต) which correspond to "t" when transliterated (in initial position), and six letters (ฐ, ฑ, ฒ, ถ, ท, and ธ) which correspond to "th" (aspired t). Furthermore, it appears that "Thai" begins with the letter ท, called "tho thahan". Disclaimer: I do not know Thai language. – Jeppe Stig Nielsen Jul 18 '16 at 15:20
  • True (I think) but pretty irrelevant. What I describe is an aspect of the phonology of Thai: it would be the same even if Thai had never been written. This is about sounds, not letters. – Colin Fine Jul 18 '16 at 18:07
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The Thai language has multiple consonants that correspond to the letter T in the Roman alphabet. The difference between T and Th is a phonetic difference that is light, but does exist in some English words as well. Thai words written in the Roman alphabet with the letter T are pronounced without exhaling after the consonant, like the T in the English word what. Thai words with Th, however, are pronounced including the exhalation after the consonant, like the Th in Thomas.

  • I think "Thomas" is a slightly misleading example, since it happens to have a "th" in it, but that's not what distinguishes it from the "t" in "what". All "t"s in English followed by a vowel and not preceded by a consonant are aspirated, whereas "t"s at the end of words never are (in most dialects). – Max Nov 9 '18 at 11:39
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Thai language which is also known as Siamese is the national and official language of Thailand and the native language of Thai people.

I think the difference in their spelling comes from the fact that Thai belongs to Tai–Kadai languages which is

a language family of highly tonal languages found in southern China, northeast India and Southeast Asia. They include Thai and Lao, the national languages of Thailand and Laos respectively.

Both Thai and Tai-Kadai are proper nouns and the reason "Tai-Kadai" is not spelled as "Thai-Kadai" seems that it was coined by a linguist.

The Wikipedia article, Tai languages further states that

Cognates with the name Tai (Thai, Dai, etc.) are used by speakers of many Tai languages.

Thai is just a romanized spelling of ไทย and its IPA key is /tʰäj˧/. You can notice there is small /h/ after /t/ in the key. As @WS2 mentioned in the comment, I suspect the "h" has something to do with the Thai pronunciation of ไทย which could reflect a distinction not made in English.

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    They are not pronouns: do you mean proper names? And it is not that the sound is "weak", bur that it reflects a distinction not made in English. – Colin Fine Jun 7 '16 at 10:58

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