If you had visited Thailand, you probably had flown into or transferred in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (IATA code: BKK). You most likely also had butchered the name of the airport when trying to say its name, or avoided saying it altogether. You’re not alone. I had pronounced the name incorrectly myself.
How to pronounce “Suvarnabhumi” Airport? Say it like this “Su-wan-na-poom” Airport, and you will be at least 90% correct.
Those who know that Thai language is tonal might ask which tones to use for “Suvarnabhumi”. Luckily, most Thai people when saying this word will smooth out the tone of each syllable into somewhat middle or normal tone. So, you can use a monotonic sound when pronouncing it and it will sound similar to the natives. You can listen to the pronunciation here.
There are different English spelling variations of this Thai word (สุวรรณภูมิ). For example, there is a district or Amphoe in the Thailand’s northeastern province of Roi Et with the same name in Thai. It is written as Suwannaphum.
The problem of different English spellings of Thai words is rooted from the fact that the Thai language doesn’t use the Latin or Roman alphabet. The Thai language also has lots of vowel sounds, 32 of them. Over the years, several systems for the romanization of the Thai language had been proposed and used with limitations. In the case of Suvarnabhumi Airport, the name is spelled based on transliteration of the Thai name of Sanskrit root using the King Rama VI System, which was introduced in 1913. Although the written forms of Sanskrit were retained, that is reversibility of the conversion is maintained, the word is pronounced differently from the Thai sound.
Many of Thai words written in English are more or less following the Royal Institute Systems. When you see Thai words written in English, keep in mind that the system of transcription being used provides only an approximate pronunciation for non-Thai speakers. To know the exact pronunciation, ones have to rely on the Thai characters.
The lack of tone designation may cause ambiguous pronunciation, for example, the word “south” (Thai: “tai” “ใต้”) and “to die” (Thai: “tai” “ตาย”) cannot be distinguished without knowing the tone of the word. So, when someone said to you about “pai tai”, you might want to know if they will “go to the southern Thailand” or they are telling you to “drop dead.”
Fun facts: In 2012, six years after its opening, Suvarnabhumi Airport was the world’s most popular location for photographing and sharing on Instagram. Who knew?
Romanization, Transliteration, and Transcription for the Globalization of the Thai Language [http://www.royin.go.th/wp-content/uploads/royin-ebook/276/FileUpload/758_6484.pdf]
Wikipedia: Romanization of Thai [https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanization_of_Thai]