The Thai or Siamese language is closely related to Chinese, both being “isolating” languages. In the course of history the Thai tribes emigrated from their homes in southern China and at various periods mixed with the peoples of the Indochinese peninsula. Some tribes formed groups of some size and importance, including the Shans of Burma, the Thais and the Lao; some still live in South China. In Thailand they mingled with the Mon-Khmer peoples and acquired from them certain physical characteristics as well as much of their culture and language.
From about the 5th to the 13th century central Thailand was successively dominated by the Mons and Khmers. The Mons were strongly influenced by the Indian civilization and practiced Theravada Buddhism, which used the Pali language. The Khmers had adopted Hinduism, which was later replaced by Mahayana Buddhism, using Sanskrit (Pali is related to Sanskrit, with a number of phonetic differences and simplifications). These combined trends were now added to the animist beliefs of the people.
When the Thais established their first Kingdom in central Thailand in the 13th century they adopted the cultural inheritance of their predecessors, and the Siamese language was enriched by many words from Pali and Sanskrit as well as from Mon and Khmer.
Thai is a monosyllabic tone language. Words which sound to us alike vary in meaning according to which of the five tones (normal, low, high, rising, falling) is used in pronouncing them. Thus a rise or fall in the voice does not specifically indicate a question or a psychological reaction, but serves to distinguish between different words: for example ma (rising tone) means “dog”, while ma (high tone) means “horse” and ma (normal tone) “come”.
The monosyllabic character of the language has been attenuated both by the introduction of foreign words and the use of composite and coupled words. Examples of composite words are nam fon, “rain-water” (nam = “water”, fon= “rain”), nam ta, “tear” (ta = “eye”) and nam khaeng, “ice” (khaeng = “hard”). Examples of coupled words (words associated either in meaning or in sound) are yai to “big”, which is also the meaning of its component parts yai and to, though with slightly different nuances) and ban muang, “country” in the sense of a man’s homeland (ban = “house, village”, muang = “village, country”). The coupled words may intensify, define more closely or generalise the meaning of the separate parts. They may also be formed purely for reasons of euphony, for which the Thais have a very delicate ear. In colloquial language a taste for alliteration sometimes leads to the formation of composite words whose ingredients may not always have any significance of their own: e.g. kinkaen, formed from kin, “eat”, and kaen, which has no independent meaning.
A Thai sentence is made up of a number of invariable words, without case, gender, number, tense or mood. The usual order is subject-verb-object. Adjectives always follow the noun they quality.
Gender and number are expressed with the help of auxiliaries, as in most of the languages of South-East Asia. Temporal relations are also expressed by auxiliaries, often verbs, which according to their place in the sentence may refer, for example, to the past or to a future eventuality. Thus ma = “come”, ca-ma = (I, you, he, etc.) “will come”, dai-ma = (I, you, he, etc.) “has come”. In place of prepositions, conjunctions or articles Thai uses terms of relationship, which are not always necessarily expressed. Thus pho luk (pho “father”, luk = “child”) can mean “father and child”, “father or child” or “father of the child”. If the context is not sufficiently clear it may be necessary to insert between the two noons a term expressing relationship, like lae (“and”), ru (“or”) or khong, a term meaning “belonging to”, “of”.
Besides the Bangkok dialect which has become the national language there are many other Thai dialects, the most important of which are the Khorat dialect and the dialect of northern Thailand. The structure of the language remains the same, and the differences of vocabulary are not great.
The differences between social classes are clearly marked. Thus the word kin is the lower class term for “eat”. People of a higher social class will prefer to say rapprathan or than, a word which is also used by subordinates addressing their superiors. The use of personal pronouns is a very subtle art in which the person speaking must establish his relationship to the person he is addressing in terms of age, social class and rank, for the choice of pronoun depends on the person who is speaking, the person who is being spoken to and the person who is being spoken about. Contact with western languages, however, has produced a trend towards the simplification of everyday language.
The written language (apart from the language of the newspapers, which has its own particular expressions and formula) uses more elaborate forms which may he difficult for a westerner knowing only the spoken language to understand.
More elaborate still is the vocabulary used in addressing Buddhist monks or members of the royal family. In speaking to the King or a high dignitary or in speaking about them, even in the press, it is necessary to know the royal vocabulary or ratchasap. The court language is taught in schools but used only in the royal household. Some Thais are only imperfectly acquainted with it, and may prefer to speak in English rather than in imperfect Thai, which would be regarded as bad form.
The Thai alphabet
In 1283 King Rama Khamheng introduced a Thai alphabet on the model of an Indian script, but departed in two important points from his Indian and Mon models. Two consonants standing together at the beginning or end of a word were not joined in a ligature as in Sanskrit, but written separately as in the European alphabet. The signs for vowels, which in Oriental writing can stand before, after, above or below the consonant, were brought into line with the other letters, thus forming genuine vowel-letters.
The second innovation was too revolutionary and was not maintained, but in all other respects the modern script corresponds, with one or two modifications and additions, to King Rama Khamheng’s original. Writing is from left to right, with no distinction between capital and small letters. Vowels are marked in various ways, mainly by means of signs added to the consonants: where no sign is used, a or o is to be read. The system is not free from difficulties or ambiguities, but considerably simpler than many Oriental scripts. Spaces mark the ends of sentences or clauses; words are not separated.
The modern Thai alphabet has 44 consonants, as well as 32 signs for vowels. The order of the letters is much the same as in Sanskrit and Pali. There are also special Thai numeral signs, though western figures are widely used.
Before the introduction of paper specially prepared palm leaves were used as a writing material. The writing, originally only Cambodian, was scratched on these with a needle sharp stylus, and the lines rubbed with soot to make them visible. Both sides of the long narrow leaves were used, with four or five lines on each side, and the leaves were then tied together at the ends. The manuscripts were then wrapped in precious fabrics or silks and kept in special bookcases. Elaborate gold lacquered bookcases and boxes can be seen ill the National Museum in Bangkok. Even today the scriptures are still written on palm leaves.
There is no standard system of writing Thai in the Roman alphabet: hence the wide variation in the spelling of place-names and personal names. The three possible methods of transcription are:
1. Reproducing the modern pronunciation, without regard to Thai orthography.
2. Transcribing Thai characters letter for letter, without regard to pronunciation.
3. Writing Sanskrit and Pali words in their original form, without regard to Thai spelling or pronunciation.
The most difficult problem is the transcription of vowels, which may vary even within one and the same book. In fact the spelling of names can vary so much that the uninitiated will not always recognize the same name with a different spelling. Some frequent variations are worth noting.
> j can alternate with ch (tch): raja (‘king’), which occurs in many names, can be written raja, ratcha or even rat.
> ph can alternate with bh, and th with dh: thus Thonburi or Dhonburi (ph is as in ‘top-hole’, and th as in ‘pot-hook’).
> r or l at the end of a word is pronounced, and often transcribed, as n.
> s at the end of a word is pronounced t, as also is j or ch. The title somdej or somdech is pronounced somdet; in this Guide the compromise spelling somdetj is used.
A number of Sanskrit or Pali words, having dropped the final vowel, also undergo these changes, e.g. vihara, Thai wiharn. Phra Meru, in an anglicized spelling of the Thai pronunciation, appears commonly as Pra Mane. Even in this Guide complete consistency has not proved possible, and other books, maps, etc., will offer many variations. Thais themselves are often embarrassed as to how to spell their names in English.
The only thing to do is to ask a Thai the correct pronunciation in case of doubt, and then perhaps make a note in one’s own personal spelling. Further, some places have more than one name, either because they have been renamed, or because they have different names in different languages. Thus Khorat is now called Nakhon Ratchasima or Rajasima, while Surat Thani in Thai is called Bandon in Malay. In 1967 the Royal Institute of Bangkok published a booklet giving the official transcription of the names of the provinces and many towns. The official names, however, are not always in general use.