Jump to content
New Hosting Read more... ×
BANGKOK 19 January 2019 11:21
Beowulf

Organization / history of the Thai alphabet

Recommended Posts

I've just found out that the order of the Thai alphabet is based on the Sanskrit, and that the Sanskrit order has a logic to it that is not too hard to work out if you are looking at the Sanskrit consonants, but near enough impossible if you are looking at the Thai.

 

The handful of letters that do not seem to represent Sanskrit consonants have their own logic. What the historical sequence of events was I don't know, but you can look at them as having been created by modifiying one of the Sanskrit characters. If the new character is simpler (as in the case of ด, seen as a simplified ต) it goes in just before. If it is more complex (as in the case of ฝ, seen as ผ with a tail) it goes in just after. These are the only departures from the Sanskrit order.

 

I'm pleased with this little discovery - it makes it easy to remember alphabetical order and tells you the consonant class of the rarely-used letters. It clears up a few other puzzles too, like why the consonant T has more variants than any of the others, and why some similar sounds are far apart when others are clustered together.

 

There are still a few questions though. The set of high class consonants in Thai is nearly a perfect match with the set of unvoiced aspirated consonants from Sanskrit, but there are two exceptions. One is easy to explain - khaw khuat was just a duplication of khaw khai (which explains where it appears in the alphabet and also why it became obsolete), but the other one isn't. The Sanskrit h was apparently voiced, which means that ห ought to have been a low consonant, and the Thai creation (ฮ, derived from อ by making it more complex, so inserted just afterwards) should have been the high class h.

 

Also, while Sanskrit had any number of conjuncts for combinations of letters, only one (ฬ, representing a double l) appears in the Thai alphabet. It appears after the simple consonants but before the null consonant, which makes sense - but why did Thai need a letter for this conjunct, and none of the others?

 

If anyone else is interested in this stuff, I'd be grateful for any thoughts  - especially on those last two issues. I found out that the Sanskrit word for a Bengal kite was jilla, which contains the double l and may be the reason for the ฬ in จุฬา, but that's about as far as I have got so far.

 

The Sanskrit order I am talking about is:

 

Consonant types are ordered from most occlusive to least occlusive (so plosives first, h second last, null consonant last)

Within each type, sets of consonants are ordered according to the point of articulation (from the back of the mouth to the lips)

Within each set (e.g. plosives having the point of articulation at the back of the mouth, so gs and ks), individual consonants are ordered according to voicing and aspiration, as follows: unvoiced unaspirated (becoming mid class in Thai), unvoiced aspirated (becoming high), voiced unaspirated (low) voiced aspirated (low) nasal (low).

 

This has to be put together with the fact that Sanskrit did not all of those varieties for every type of consonant - and some are just impossible e.g. you can't have an unaspirated h.

 

When I was in the middle of this I came across an interesting article by Richard Wordingham on the Thai Language site (the forum there doesn't seem to be active ATM). He has put it together in a slightly different way - quite possibly more historically informed - but says that the liquids (ย ร ล ว) are just a list, whereas they follow the same order as the plosives (point of articulation moving forward) and there is a reason why they appear between the plosives (which are more occlusive) and the sibilants (which are less occlusive). BTW the Sanskrit logic says that the character after ฌ (i.e ญ) would originally have represented ñ as in España - this explains why (unlike ย) it says n when it is a final consonant, and also why the y sounds are so far apart in the alphabet.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

 ฃ ฅ ฆ seem to be nasally raspy arabic kh sounds that is no longer voiced in normal Thai language

Maybe you'll have to look in to Khmer as that seems to be how the Thai got the alphabet from too.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I understand what you mean, this sort of thing is what linguists discuss but of limited value to most people.


Sent from my iPhone using Thaivisa Connect

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Quote

The Sanskrit h was apparently voiced, which means that ห ought to have been a low consonant, and the Thai creation (ฮ, derived from อ by making it more complex, so inserted just afterwards) should have been the high class h.

The answer is that the Thais seem to have got the letters from other SE Asians who only had plain /h/.  Moreover, ฮ seems to be a late addition to the alphabet, added after the number of Thai tones had doubled (in a simple model).  Khmer shows a similar pattern, where the letter matching ห also patterns with the Indic voiceless characters rather than the Indic voiced characters.

 

Thai words beginning with ฮ seem to fall into three groups - modifications of words beginning with ร (e.g. ฮัก from รัก), onomatopoeic words, and loanwords.  The neighbours of Southern and Central Thai replaced initial /r/ with /h/, and some of this change seeped into Central Thai.  Posh words in the neighbouring dialects resisted the change by turning /r/ to /l/.

 

ฬ does not correspond to a double letter in Sanskrit.  It serves as a letter for Pali, which between vowels has ฬ where Sanskrit has ฑ, e.g. the Thai words for sport, namely กีฬา from Pali and กรีฑา from Sanskrit.

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 12/23/2018 at 8:50 PM, Richard W said:

The answer is that the Thais seem to have got the letters from other SE Asians who only had plain /h/.  Moreover, ฮ seems to be a late addition to the alphabet, added after the number of Thai tones had doubled (in a simple model).  Khmer shows a similar pattern, where the letter matching ห also patterns with the Indic voiceless characters rather than the Indic voiced characters.

 

Thai words beginning with ฮ seem to fall into three groups - modifications of words beginning with ร (e.g. ฮัก from รัก), onomatopoeic words, and loanwords.  The neighbours of Southern and Central Thai replaced initial /r/ with /h/, and some of this change seeped into Central Thai.  Posh words in the neighbouring dialects resisted the change by turning /r/ to /l/.

Thanks, very interesting. Onomatopeic words are in a category of their own, I'd say, and leaving those aside it sounds as though Thai may not have needed a low-class /h/ at the time. The need may only have arisen later - if you are going to replace /r/ with something it has to be a low class consonant really, and then there are loanwords with tones that don't fit the Thai system.

 

On 12/23/2018 at 8:50 PM, Richard W said:

ฬ does not correspond to a double letter in Sanskrit.  It serves as a letter for Pali, which between vowels has ฬ where Sanskrit has ฑ, e.g. the Thai words for sport, namely กีฬา from Pali and กรีฑา from Sanskrit.

I got that from a website somewhere, although there was nothing to back it up. It seems incredibly meticulous to use a different letter to reflect that historical twist - but then the system is incredibly meticulous so I shouldn't really be surprised.

On 12/15/2018 at 3:59 AM, tgeezer said:

I understand what you mean, this sort of thing is what linguists discuss but of limited value to most people.

Well, everyone learns in a different way. When I first came across the tone rules and consonant classes I thought you just had to memorise the consonant classes, and I hate memorising things. After I found out (thanks to thai-language.com) that the liquids are always low, the stops are always mid and the fricatives can be either high or low, I progressed a lot faster - plus, for me it's way more interesting to learn by understanding things than by rote. This new insight into way the alphabet is put together completes the picture by telling me which of the fricatives are high and which are low. For some reason I always had a mental block about ภ - now it's gone. Same for ศ. Also, I won't forget alphabetical order again. So for me there's quite a bit of practical value in this knowledge - but each to their own, of course.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

Sponsors
×