Introduction to the Thai
to Thai Language
Sponsored by Thai
Association of Oregon
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
to Thai Language