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Thailand / The Development of the Thai Language

Based upon somewhat scanty data concerning certain basic words and the linguistic formations of the languages of the many Thai minority groups found scattered throughout present day southern China and its adjacent lands, Phaya Anuman Rajadhon presumes that the language of the Thais of Thailand is still similar in its fundamental aspects to that of the language of their ancestors.

In the course of history many groups of Thai speaking people migrated into the Indo-Chinese peninsula from their old homes in southern China in different groups and in different directions and periods of time. It is not known for certain when and how the earlier migrations of these groups of people took place, but it is a common scientific belief that most of these migrations happened some time not less than ten centuries ago.

One group of this people became the Shans in Upper Burma, another became the Thais of Thailand another became the Laotians of Laos, not to speak of other minority groups with many local names to be found throughout the northern parts of the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

All these groups, particularly the Thais of Thailand have mixed freely with the people of the Mon-Khmer linguistic group, their fore-runners in Indochina, both ethnically and culturally. Through the close contact of the Thais with these peoples, first with the Mon of lower Burma, and second with the Khmer, the ancestors of the Cambodians, the Thais in Thailand have developed from a blending, in the course of time making certain racial and cultural traits peculiarly their own. The group was known thereafter and until about World War II as the Siamese.

Compared to the language of the initial Thai migrants, the Thai language of the Siamese had seen a substantial change in vocabulary, by far the greatest influence being that of the Mon-Khmer languages.

Phaya Anuman Rajadhon pointed out that the Mon-Khmer languages in certain aspects are similar to Thai. Their basic words are largely monosyllabic, but unlike Thai, they have prefixes and infixes to form derivative words, while Thai had none in its original language system. The Mon-Khmer languages also admit certain initial consonantal clusters of two or more non-syllabic sounds to many of their words. Thai dialects, on the other hand, lack such a feature in words, with the exception of the Siamese and the Ahom of Assam.

Some scholars have maintained that old Thai had such features but lost them at a later date. At any rate, through contact with the Mon-Khmer, the Siamese language, especially in central Thailand, has absorbed to a great extent these two features of the Mon-Khmer, i.e. the use of prefixes and infixes as well as initial consonantal clusters in words.

From the 5th to the 13th century A.D. central Thailand was within the political orbit of the Mons and the Khmers successively. The Mons at that time were a comparatively civilized race in the Indo-Chinese peninsula. They had received their civilization from India and had adopted Buddhism; the Khmers also had received much of their culture from India but unlike the Mons, their religion was mostly Hinduism.

Consequently, both the Mons and the Khmers had in their languages a considerable number of words derived from Pali and Sanskrit. As the Mon and Khmer languages are largely monosyllabic, loan words from Pali and Sanskrit were usually clipped and reduced, if possible, to a minimum monosyllabic form, and sounds were changed to meet the phonetic system peculiar to their languages.

Although the Siamese became the paramount race in central Thailand after around 1150 A.D., succeeding the Khmers, Phaya Anuman Rajadhon considered it reasonable to suppose that the bulk of the population might still have been predominantly Mons and Khmers for several hundred years after the Thai ascent to political power. The Khmer and Mon populations were gradually and naturally absorbed by the Thais and, as an important ingredient, became part and parcel of the race known as the Siamese.

The Thai language changed much through the influence of the Mon-Khmer. Progressively, Mon and Khmer words were adopted into the Thai language. Moreover, words of Sanskrit and Pali origin were introduced into the Siamese language, at first through the medium of the Mon and the Khmer languages, and later through direct borrowing from India and Ceylon.

Sanskrit and Pali are at the opposite pole from the Thai language. The former are grammatically inflectional languages where words are bound by cases and other endings, while the latter is an analytic one with words that are independent and free in their grammatical form.

Words from Sanskrit and Pali borrowed by the Thai no longer are subject to the original rules of inflections; words of Sanskrit and Pali with many syllables were clipped and reduced, if possible, in the same manner as in the Mon and Khmer languages. Likewise, Sanskrit and Pali sounds were changed to conform with the Thai phonetic system.

After their consolidation as ruling race in Thailand, the Thais gradually absorbed into their language a fairly large number of Mon and Khmer words as revealed in their current use both in speech and in Thai literature. In fact, the Thai had even adopted the system of making derivatives from their indigenous words with prefixes and infixes of the Mon-Khmer language.

In a later period a reverse development took place. Instead of the Thais borrowing words from the Mon-Khmer language, the Khmer in particular drew on a fairly large number of Thai words to become part of their own vocabulary. Paradoxically, many Thai words of Khmer origin were borrowed back by the Khmers unconsciously in new phonetic forms peculiar to the Thai pronunciation. The mutual borrowings of both languages are often discrete, for the borrowed words were fully naturalized in both languages.

In The Nature and Development of the Thai Language, published 1961 by the Fine Arts Department of the Thai government, Phaya Anuman Rajadhon states: "At the present time an intelligent Thai, when reading Khmer writing in Thai transliteration, will be able to identify easily many words as identical with his own; not to speak of words drawn from Sanskrit and Pali from which the two languages have borrowed abundantly. It is in speaking only that the two languages are mutually unintelligible because of different phonetic systems."

In adopting words of exotic origin into the Thai language, the Thais have made use of their old device of forming synonymous couplets (see above), probably to translate their newly adopted foreign words by juxtaposing them with the Thai indigenous words which had similar meanings. For instance ton-doem in Thai means origin. Ton is a Thai indigenous word meaning bole base; doem is Khmer in origin meaning beginning or first cause. Tiang-trong means upright, just; tiang is a Thai word meaning correct, sure; trong is a Khmer word meaning straight. There are a large number of Thai words of this type.

The same juxtaposing was done with words of Indian origin. For instance sap-sin means asset. Sap is Sanskrit meaning wealth, while sin is Thai meaning money. Rup-rang means feature, shape, form. Rup is rupa in its Sanskrit and Pali form, while rang is Thai meaning structural form.

It was already mentioned that a peculiar feature of the Mon-Khmer language is the use of prefixes and infixes. An infix is an insertion of a sound into a radical or basic word to form a variation of meaning.

The Thai language originally did not know infixes. But through the intimate contact of the Thais with the Khmers, a large number of such words are to be found in the Thai language today.

In Thai, the word truat means examine, inspect. With the sound am infixed into it, it becomes tamruat and means police, guard. Pak alone means rest; with n as an infix it becomes pnak meaning a support, as for instance of a chair. With am as an infix it becomes pamnak meaning a support in time of distress or difficulty.

Sometimes the meaning of an originally Khmer word with a Khmer infix is not different from that of the radical word. For example charoen means increase, prosper; with am as an infix it becomes chamroen which has the same meaning as charoen. In Khmer, the meanings are different; chamroen is to prosper while charoen is causing prosperity.

Malayo-Javanese Influence

Though to a lesser extend than the Mon-Khmer languages or Pali and Sanskrit, the Malayo-Javanese language has also played an important part in the development of words in the Thai language. And the borrowings were not only direct. Through the medium of the Malayo-Javanese language, the Thai have received a fairly large number of foreign words of Semitic and later even of Portuguese origin.

In a random survey of the Malay language, Phaya Anuman Rajadhon found a large number of Malay words common to Thai and other language groups of Thailand's neighbors. No doubt most of these words are due to cultural borrowings. In the 18th century A.D. the well known Javanese Panji Cycle Tales were introduced into the Thai language and became one of the popular romances in Thai literature. Through these stories a fairly large number of Javanese words were introduced into the Thai language. These words are understood comparatively well by the Thai people, though most are of a literary nature.

Like the Indonesian language group, the Thai language in a later period adopted Chinese words, relating to certain articles and foods peculiar to the Chinese as well as to trade and commerce. Most of these words are used colloquially, but many have also been naturalized fully into the Thai language. Chinese words in Thai are of the Tie-Chiu or Swatow dialect while in Malay they are mostly Fukianese. In both cases the borrowings reflect the origin of the predominant Chinese immigrants.

Finally, English has played a role in the development of the current Thai language. Though there are comparatively few English words to be found in Thai, the influence of English and American sentence forms and idioms on both spoken and written Thai is increasing in the younger generation.


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Last updated: November 20, 2011