THAI SPELLING REFORM.

Rikker Dockum’s blog Thai 101 covers “Thoughts on Thai language, media, and culture,” and his latest post is on “Simplifed Thai spelling during World War II.” I hadn’t known anything about it, and it’s not mentioned in the (admittedly short) books I own on the country, but thanks to Rikker—and Matt of No-sword, who sent me the link—now I do:

I understand that it was mandated by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram [who was known as "Marshal Pibun" when I was living there in the late '50s—LH], and even people’s names had to be respelled under this system. One remnant legacy of this is that famous name in dictionaries, So Sethaputra, whose last name is spelled เสถบุตร to this day. The original spelling of his last name is เศรษฐบุตร, but since his name became famous along with his first dictionary under its revised spelling, he was one of the few that didn’t revert the spelling after Field Marshal Plaek was ousted.

Rikker reproduces some passages from a 1944 “Thai Language Textbook” with the simplified spellings in red; it should be fascinating to those who can read Thai, an ability which, alas, almost half a century has deprived me of, to the limited extent I ever had it. (I assume the spelling reform wasn’t well done, since it was abandoned after the war.)
Incidentally, So Sethaputra sounds like an interesting guy, who started compiling his dictionary while serving time as a political prisoner in the ’30s; unfortunately, all I can find online about his life is this review of a biography, which annoyingly doesn’t even mention his birth and death dates (though it does say that his wife, the author of the book, died in 2000).

Comments

  1. michael farris says:

    “I assume the spelling reform wasn’t well done, since it was abandoned after the war”
    Well done in what way? Surely you know that the linguistic soundness of the reform would have virtually nothing to do with its acceptance.
    Just a very quick glance, it looks pretty good to me, removing a lot of the chaff without damaging the wheat.
    The basic idea is substituting some of the less common and essentially useless letters (of which there is no shortage) with more common ones with the same pronunciation.
    It jettisons the non-productive parts of the alphabet that exist only for (non-thai) etymological purposes like the ‘retroflex’ series of consonants, the two s letters that are used only in Indic loans (and pronounced the same as the ‘thai’ s). Eliminating a some of the many ‘unpronounced’ letters and rationalizing a few other strange spellings.
    My best guess is that it was rejected because it didn’t seem formal and complicated enough or it was too associated with an unpopular person all vestiges of whom had to be removed.

  2. If I’m not mistaken, according to this Thai Wiki entry, So Sethaputra was born in 1903 and died in 1970.

  3. This is a forgotten period of Thai language history; perhaps intentionally so. For example, I have a beautifully illustrated book about the origin and development of the Thai script by well-known writer Sujit Wongthet (สุจิตต์ วงษ์เทศ), published in 2005, and it doesn’t mention this spelling reform at all. It devotes pages to cave paintings and other aspects of general orthographic development, but makes no mention of this interesting period of local history.
    I think Michael’s on the right track for why the reform was abandoned. The association with Marshal Phibun and the alliance with Japan would have been too much to overcome. It may also have been seen by some as a betrayal of heritage, and after a period of significant Westernization and modernization, the rhetoric of “Thai-ness” and all its traditional trappings was employed with a vengeance in the post-war era.
    Anyhow, it’s much less drastic than what Lao did in the 1960s. It’s actually a rather good happy medium between the extremes of modern Thai and Lao, I’d say. People lament that Lao has completely lost the ability to determine the etymology of words (particularly homophones) from the modern spelling, while Thai usually strictly retains it, even when it creates spelling oddities and difficult exceptions. The Phibun-era reform falls in between, keeping silent letters and numerous redundant consonants.
    In the end, though, like a doting parent, I love Thai just the way it is.

  4. Oh, yeah. And thanks for noticing my blog. :)

  5. I have a beautifully illustrated book about the origin and development of the Thai script… published in 2005, and it doesn’t mention this spelling reform at all.
    That’s astonishing! Sounds like there’s some serious repression of cultural memory going on. Thanks very much for your enlightening post, and I’m glad to have discovered your blog.

  6. I’ll post about this myself soon, but I thought I’d share for those interested here that today I was able to pinpoint the exact date of this reform’s inception as May 29, 1942. I discovered through this blog that the archives of the Royal Gazette (a record of government proclamations) are available as (passably readable) scanned PDF files on ratchakitcha.soc.go.th.
    The five-page document, whose title translates to “Prime Minister’s Office Announcement on Improving the Thai Alphabet”, includes a justification of the new system and lays down the rules. Talk about a jackpot discovery.
    The site isn’t very easy to navigate, but I’m working my way through trying to find when the spelling was reverted, too.

  7. Man, that’s just so Sethaputra!

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