Introduction to the Thai Language

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Sukhothai, estabrished in central Thailand in the early and mid-thirteenth century, represents the first major kingdom of the Thai. Current theories state that the language spoken in Sukhothai resembled Proto-Tai in tonal structure. This early system consisted of three tones on syllables ending in a long vowel, a semi-vowel or a nasal(kham pen’live syllable’ in traditonal Thai grammatical terms). On syllables ending in p,t,k or in a glottal stop after a short vowel a forth tone existed, althrough these syllables showed no tonal differentiation at all( kham taay ‘dead syllable’ in traditional Thai grammatical terms). While the present of some type of suprasegmental contrasts is considered conclusive at this early stage of the language , the phonetic nature of these contrasts still remains a matter of speculation. This system prevailed at the time of creation of the writing system by King Ramkhamhaeng(1275-1317) in the latter part of the thirteenth century.

In 1350 the center of power shifted from Sukhothai to Ayutthaya. Recent theories, which will not be discussed here for lack of space, claim that the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya dialects underwent different sound changes. These theories, furthermore, claim that Southern Thai evolved from the Sukhothai dialect and Central Thai or Thai from the Ayutthaya dialect (see Brown 1965). The generally accepted theory, however, holds that Thai descended from the Sukhothai dialect with the following sound changed.

The first of the changes, the sound change known as the tonal splits, affected all of the languages in the Tai family. Because of the splits, sound systems with three contrasting tones, for example , became systems typically with six tones , two different tones from each of the three earlier tones. In some dialects , however, special characteristics of the dialect created more or fewer tones. Thai, for example, now have five tones. In brief, these shifts resulted when the phonetic nature of the initial consonant of each syllable conditioned an allophonic pitch difference. Subsequent changes in the initial consonant, then, caused these allophonic non- contrastive pitches to become contrastive(see section two for details of the early tones and the tones split in Thai). Linguists frequently set a date as early as AD1000 for these sound sound changes. For the Thai spoken in Ayutthaya, however, the splits seem to have occured much later. Several factors suggest a latter date for the splits in Thai.

First, late thirteenth-century and early fourteenth-century Ayutthaya poetic compositions appear in the three tone language.

Second, Khmer loanwords, which probably entered the language after the Thai conquest of Angkor in 1431, also predate the splits.

In addition, seventeenth-century descriptions of the Thai alphabet demonstrate that the consonant changes involved with the tonal splits had already taken place by that date.

Citing this evidence, Gedney proposes a date sometimes between the mid-fifteenth and the mid- seventeenth centuries for the tones splits in Thai.

The Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) also saw large numbers of Sanskrit and Pali words borrowed, althrough this phenomenon was not strictly limited to this period. These Indic loanwords compris a large portion of the techmical vocabolaries for science, government, education, relegion and literature. Gedney(1947:1) states that these loanwords are as common in spoken Thai as Latin and Greek forms are in spoken English. Sanskrit and, to a much lesser extent, Pali assume the same caltural important to Thai as Latin does for English. Many of these loanwords exist in both a short and a long forms.The shorter form represents the usual Thai pronunciation: rat’state’, theep’god’. The longer alternant usually, but not always, functions as a combining form: ratthabaan ‘government’ ( latter constituent baan ‘protecter,protection’); theepphabut’angel’(latter constituent but ’son’). Most of these compounds seem to have been formed in modern Thai sinc they do not appear in either Sanskrit or Pali.

During the Ayutthaya period, Thai began to acquire other characteristics that have let the Thai to reguard their language as highly complex and stratified, difficult to acquire even for the very educated. In past, this impression grew because of the Indic loanwords. But far more central to the creation of this image was the proliferation of titles, ranks, pronouns, royal vocabulary and royal kin terminology that reflected the growing stratification and conplexity of the society. Although much of the complexityapplied only to the court, Thai speakers nevertheless interpreted these changes as changes in their own language.

Many of these new terms had their original in Sanskrit and Pali. Still others came from Khmer. Khmer institutions had always had an influence on the Thai court and this influence increases when the Thai imported Khmer intelligentsia into Thailand after the fall of Angkor. Royal titles provide a goood example of this increasing complexity. Originaly, during the Sukhothai peroid, the Khmer title khun referred to the king . By the Ayutthaya peroid, this title applied only to officials and the king had acquired for more elaborate ones. Other changes affected the title s for the king’s offspring. Newly created titles included those for children by the royal queen, for the children by a non-royal queen and for the grandchildren. In the ninteenth-century titles for great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren were also added.

The Thai Writing System

The Thai migrated into the Indo-Chinese peninsula from their own home in China sometime in 400 B.C. after migrating into Indo-China, the Thai were within the empire of the Mon, which was the governing race in the area, roughly from the 5th century A.D. onward. In the 10th century A.D., the Khmer (Cambodians) began ro migrate into the Thai area and eventually succeeded the Mon so that the Thai came to be ruled by the empire of the Khmer.

It is stated in Thai history that King Si Intharathit of Sukhothai city freed Thailand from the Khmer and established Sukhothai as the capital of Thailand in 1257 A.D. from that time on the Thai became the dominat force in central Thailand. King Ramkhamhaeng, the second son of King Si Intharathit, was a very independent lord. He had a strong national feeling and so wanted to form a new official Thai script which he wished to have as something purely Thai, free from Mon or khmer influence. He therefore invented a Thai script called "The Sukhothai Script" in 1283 A.D. It is well known as the earliest Thai writing. The ultimate source of the Sukhothati script was a form of the ancient Brahmi script of South India called "Grantha". The grantha form of the Brahmi script is the source of the Khmer script. the Grantha came to be used in Indo-China through the spread of the Buddhist religion nad trade contacts. In 300 B.C., Ceylon bacame the first country in Southeast Asia to begin using the Grantha script. the earliest inscription in the Khmer language is dated from 611 A.D.. The script on this inscription is similar to the Grantha script.

The Sukhothai script of King Ramkhamhaeng was used till 1357. In 1357, in the reign of King Li Thai, the grandson of King Ramkhamhaeng, a new script called "King Li Thai script" came to be used. It is evident that the shapes of the letters in the King Li Thai script are based on the Sukhothai ones, although some of them were modified.

Ayudhya city was established as the capital of Thailand instead of sukhothai city in 1378. during the early periods of the Ayudhya kingdom, the King Li Thai script had been used, though certain changes had been introduced through the process of time. In 1680, during the reign of king narai, the script called "King Narai acript" was brought into use. The King Narai script has been developed and preserved as our national Thai script up to now.

Tones & Homonyms

Thai is a tonal language similar to Chinese. As was pointed out by the renowned Thai linguist and writer Phaya Anuman Rajadhon in his paper The Nature and Development of the Thai Language, published 1961 by the Fine Arts Department of the Thai government, there actually are hundreds of similar words in Thai and Chinese. Many of these words may be cultural borrowings, mostly by the Thais, after long and continual contact with the Chinese. On the other hand, there are certain classes of words which obviously were derived from common sources in ancient times. And more importantly, beyond the similarities of single words, the spoken Thai and the spoken Chinese language are structured much the same way (though when written, the two languages are completely different).

The Thai language originally is monosyllabic in its formation of words. It is a characteristic to be found also in Chinese and, more or less, in other languages of Southeast Asia. Each word is complete in itself and admits no modifications as do inflectional languages with their differences of case, gender, number, etc.

Furthermore, there is no hard and fast rule that makes Thai words belong to a particular part of speech. Any word may become a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, etc, simply through the position of the word in the sentence. Except for a number of words derived from Sanskrit each word stands distinctly and independently, and concedes no joining of sounds or assimilations between words.

Due to the limited number of combinations of sounds which the consonants admit (in original Thai there used to be only one vowel per word as original Thai was monosyllabic), there arises naturally a multitude of words with the same sound but with a difference in meaning (homonyms). To overcome this shortage, the Thai language, like Chinese, has invented various tones as a primary feature to differentiate meaning in homonymous words.

There are five tones in the standard Thai language, but in actual speech there may be six or even seven tones varying in certain dialect areas.

However, the fact that there is a large number of homonyms in the Thai language is often overly emphasized in Western publications, especially guide books. That Thai is a tonal language is not a barrier that cannot be overcome by any non-Thai with an interest in learning the language. For one thing, homonyms are not something uniquely found in Thai and other tonal languages such as Chinese. Even English has a large number of homonyms: plane, plain; to, too, two; there, their; and hundreds more.

While in the few cases given above, two words which are pronounced the same are spelled differently, there is a huge number of words spelled and spoken similar to each other. Nevertheless, the difference in pronunciation of two different words may in one locality be almost negligible if compared to different pronunciations of one and the same word in different parts of the world where English is the native language. A person from Oxford will often find it hard to understand a native of Newcastle, and the average Texas millionaire doesn't really sound like Prince Charles - even though both may rightfully claim to speak English.

Languages are living entities, not sets of mathematical formulae; primarily, they don't serve the purpose of being correct but of being understood. All languages are flexible, and Thai is no exception. Therefore, while there are pronunciation rules for similar words with different meanings, these pronunciation rules are not as strict as it is made to appear in many Western publications. Just like New Yorkers and Londoners pronounce English differently, Thais from Hat Yai and Thais from Udon Thani have very different pronunciations - and this encompasses tonal rules.

In Thai, like in English, it's often the context, in cases of doubt more than the pronunciation, that gives a clue as to how a certain word is to be understood.

In the preface to their book The Fundamentals of the Thai Language which even today is one of the best textbooks for foreigners who want to learn Thai, Stuart Campbell and Chuan Shaweevongs wrote in 1956: "In the earlier books on Thai for foreigners... the tones are dealt with from the beginning but we have departed from precedent in this respect because we feel that it is only confusing the issue to try and deal with the tones until you have acquired something of a vocabulary... We do think that a study of the tones should be secondary to the acquisition of a vocabulary... In only relatively few cases will a wrong tone cause you to be misunderstood."

Thai Alphabet

The Thai alphabet uses forty-four consonants and fifteen basic vowel characters. These are horizontally placed, left to right, with no intervening space, to form syllables, words, and sentences. Vowels are written above, below, before, or after the consonant they modify, although the consonant always sounds first when the syllable is spoken. The vowel characters (and a few consonants) can be combined in various ways to produce numerous compound vowels (dipthongs and tripthongs).

Each syllable, consisting of one or more consonants and a simple or compound vowel (possibly inherent or implied, and thus not written) has a "default" tone determined by several factors, including the type of consonant(s) present (consonants are divided into three classes for this purpose). The syllable's tone can be modified by one of four tone markers. Some people incorrectly assume that the tone marks identify all necessary tones, or perhaps force certain tones, but neither of these is correct. Actually the final tone of a syllable is determined by the tone mark in conjunction with the type of syllable, as determined by the vowel and consonant characters present.


The grammar of the Thai language is considerably simpler than grammar in Western languages, and for many students, this makes up for the additional difficulty of tones. Most significantly, words are not modified or conjugated for tenses, plurals, genders, or subject-verb agreement. Articles such as a, an, or the are also not used. Tenses, levels of politeness, verb-to-noun conversion, and other language concepts are accomplished with the simple addition of various modifying words (called "particles") to the basic subject-verb-object format.

Cornelius B. Bradley stated in Some Features of the Siamese Speech and Writing, published 1923, that Thai "words are symbols of concept per se, being wholly devoid of inflectional apparatus to express and define their relations with other words in the sentence. They are, therefore, free to function in any syntactical relation not incompatible with their essential meaning".

Indeed, the Thai language has one of the simplest grammars of all languages, and many writers have claimed there is no grammar at all. However, in the judgment of Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, Thai has in the course of its historical and cultural development suffered at the hands of Thai grammarians who have introduced exotic rules and restrictions based on English, Sanskrit or Pali grammar.

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