Pali in Thai Script

Richard Wordingham richard.wordingham at
Thu Mar 27 19:23:49 CDT 2014

On Thu, 27 Mar 2014 15:06:36 -0700
Rick McGowan <rick at> wrote:

> What is the current situation of Pali written in the Thai script? Is 
> there a scholarly tradition already?

There was a scholarly tradition of writing Pali in the Khom
script (Bangkok,as successor to Ayutthaya) or Tai Tham script (north and
northeast).  For secular writing, there were versions of the Tai/Lao
script, which had additional letters whose purpose was to retain the
consonant distinctions made in the religious scripts.  Rama IV
commanded (whether as Patriarch or later as king - I don't remember)
instructed that religious writing be switched to the Thai script.  He
also promulgated a change in the writing system for Pali, whereby the
two vowel killers, YAMAKKAN and THANTHAKHAT, were 'simplified' to a
single diacritic, PHINTHU.  There was thus in principal an immediate
'tradition' of writing Pali in the Thai script.

Now, there is actually a problem in writing Pali in the Thai script.
When a preposed vowel phonetically follows a consonant cluster in the
middle of a word, does it proceed or follow the first vowel?  There
seems to be a lot of inconsistency, as Vinodh and I found out when
trying to work out the rules so that he could transliterate his
master copy of the Tipitaka into the Thai script.  I was working
from a Thai CD of the Tipitaka, and was quite startled by the
internal inconsistency in the spelling in the Thai script.

There are two other problems.  The system of phinthu and implicit
vowel and NIKHAHIT to write the anusvara is quite different to the way
that Thai is actually written.  For private recitation of Pali, a
tradition has grown up of using MAI HANAKAT and SARA A, which are not
used in traditional Pali spelling, to replace the implicit vowels,
thus creating a Thai script writing system for Thai that is actually an
alphabet rather than an abugida.

The second problem is the 'great consonant shift' whereby old voicing
contrasts were lost in much of East Asia, covering most Tai,
Mon-Khmer and Chinese dialects.  (The change is not complete - some
areas have escaped the change.)  Consequently, the more conservative
Sinhalese and Burmese pronunciations are quite different to the Thai
and Lao (and Mon and Khmer) pronunciations.  The Thai and Lao
pronunciations have replaced voiced stops by voiceless aspirates.

> Why are new symbols being used for this purpose in this project?

The ideas of the new symbols it to restore the ancient pronunciation.
Just as a Classical Latin pronunciation differs greatly from English
legal Latin or Roman Catholic Church Latin, and is very different to
how Latin loan words are pronounced in English, the modern Thai
consonant sounds are very different to the ancient Pali sounds.

> I'm trying to understand the particular scholarly need that will be 
> addressed by this project, and to know why some other existing
> symbols are not, or cannot, be used for this purpose.

The problem with the traditional symbols is that they are pronounced
quite differently in Thai.  พุทฺธ is /buddʰa/ in the ancient
pronunciation, but พุทธ is /pʰut(tʰa)/ in Thai pronunciation.  (Thai
doesn't use PHINTHU.)  An analogy is that 'Caesar' is
pronounced /siːzə/ in British English, but is approximated as /kaɪsar/
in a Latin class in England.  Apart from the possible examples of Pali
and Sanskrit pronounced in the Indian way, most Thais are probably not
accustomed to Thai letters being pronounced differently in different


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