Friday, May 13, 2011

Ancient Thai Script: Sukhothai Period - Year 1293

     It is believed that the script created by King Raam Kham Haeng is the direct ancestor of modern Thai (Siamese) script. The script was created around the year 1293. Comparing to other Tai scripts(including those of Lao and Northern Thai) which are in circular shapes, the Sukhothai letters are more squared-like. The script has 39 consonants as opposed to the modern Thai script which has 44. There are only two tonal markers as opposed to four in the contemporary Thai script. The 39 consonants were probably invented to represent the ancient pronunciation which many Tai linguists argue that they are different from the contemporary pronunciation. In particular, voiced stop and fricative sounds may have gotten devoiced, e.g. คg>kh, ฅɣ>x>kh, ชɟ>tɕh, ซz>s, ทd>th, พb>ph, ฟv>f etc. Other changes include implosives ดd and บb>plosive d and b respectively.
     These changes may have caused the tones to shift from having at least three tones to five (or six in other dialects of Siamese). The devoicing of original voiced consonants made them merge with their voiceless counterparts. To maintain the distinguish, the tonal shift had to occur. For example, before the shift there were "va" and "fa".  However, after the shift, "va" became "fa". Thus, now we have "fa" and "fa." To distinguish the difference, one (or both) of them had to undergo a tone shift: fa (mid tone) and fa (rising tone) etc. This phenomenon could explain how modern Thai has come to have three consonant classes (e.g. high f vs. low f---where the low f may have come from the ancient /v/).

Oh and have you ever wondered why ห is written before น to create a new sound: a high n? Well in the ancient time, these two sounds were actually a cluster, i.e. it was pronounced as /hn/. Linguists would go look at other languages that borrowed a Thai words beginning in hn in the ancient time, and see if in these languages still retain the hn sound. How did linguists come to conclude these changes? Well thankfully the Thai script was created based on Indic scriptures, so we can compare it with let's say the Devanagari script to see how the sounds differ since there are many Pali and Sanskrit loanwords in Thai.

For more info on the ancient pronunciation, read From Ancient Thai To Modern Dialects by J. Marvin Brown, and there are also a lot of great researches done by the late linguist William Gedney too which maybe in your local university's library. For those who are curious how the Thai r became h in many Tai dialects(and not the other way around since the creator used the same symbol to write a Pali word with an r and a Thai word with an r) such as Lao, Shan, and Northern Thai, these books might give you the answer.
Images above taken from here

3 comments:

Horus said...

very intersting post thank you, as a student of ancient Scripts in Thailand this is a valuable post for me. Interesting point about the H+N, and the R-H swop matter. I always wondered what the cause of this was.

syera said...

thx,i was searching for this thingy

AS C0335077 said...

Thanks a bunch! I've been looking everywhere for this!!!