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SECTION 43 



Thai and Lao Writing 

Anthony Diller 



Thai and Lao (Laotian) are closely related members of the same language family, and 
their writing systems are similar. The scripts are Indie in origin and written from left 
to right without regular word spacing. Instead, spaces are used to indicate sentences 
or phrasal units. European style paragraphing is used along with quotation marks, pa- 
rentheses, and occasionally other punctuation marks. While the scripts are both pho- 
nologically based, the relationship of letters to sounds is complex, especially for Thai. 
Only the main features of written Thai and Lao are introduced here (see Haas 1956, 
Danwiwat 1987, and Kerr 1972 for comprehensive treatments). 

The two scripts are directly convertible. Thus the majority of Lao speakers, as de- 
fined by Hnguistic criteria, actually reside in northeastern Thaihind; they tend to write 
their spoken language using Thai script, whereas Lao script is standard in Laos prop- 
er. According to official estimates, over fifty million people are at least partly literate 
in these scripts taken together. In addition to the national languages Thai and Lao, the 
writing systems are used for several minority languages and non-standard dialects. 

Consonant letters are considered the basis of both orthographies, with vowels 
added as required diacritics. An important feature of the writing systems, indicated in 
TABLE 43.1, is an apparently excessive number of consonant letters as compared to 
phoneme inventories. This relates to historical issues and modern tone marking ex- 
plained below. 

In both phonology and orthography, each language distinguishes the same nine 
pairs of long and short vowels. In the semi-official Thai-Lao transliteration system 
used here, vowel phonemes are transliterated as: 

high / u u mid e oe o low ae a o' . 

Authorities differ slightiy over some phonetic equivalents, a consensus being: 
high [i m u] mid [e y o] low [ae a o] 

(see Henderson 1951, Haas 1956). Long vowels are transliterated here with a colon. 
Three diphthongs ia, u'a, and ua [is uxq us] are counted as part of the core vowel 
systems and behave phonologically like long vowels, with rare short variants. Sounds 
transhterated here as ay, aw may appear elsewhere as ai, ao (e.g. in "Thai," "Lao"). 
Stop + h represents aspirated stop (e.g. in "Thai"); c = [tc]; ng = [q]. Lao v varies 
among alternates [v ~ p ~ w], and kh among [k^ - x-%\. 

Transcriptions and transliterations for Thai and Lao show variation, with Lao 
sometimes transcribed in a French-inspired way ("Vientiane" for [visq-tqan]) and 



457 



458 PART VII: SOUTHEAST ASIAN WRITING SYSTEMS 

TABLE 43.1: Quantitative Comparison of Thai and Lao Inventories 

Simple 
Consonant Consonant Vowel Core Vowel 
Symbols Phonemes Symbols Phonemes 



Thai 44 21 19 21 

Lao 27 20 18 21 

TABLE 43.2: Sound Changes Affecting Interpretation of Thai and Lao Scripts 

Thirteenth Twentieth 

Century Century 



(i) 




r\ 


b 


ph 




compare: 


W 


ph 


ph 


(ii) 




y\'u 


rri 


m 




compare: 


w 


m 


m 


(iii) 




u 


?b 


b 


(iv) 




<n 


bh(?) 


ph 



Thai often showing letter-by-letter Indie etymology rather than modern pronuncia- 
tion, as explained below. The Lao-English Dictionary of Kerr (1972) uses a system 
close to that followed here, which differs only superticially from that of Haas (1956, 
1964) for Thai, e.g. final stops are represented here as -p, -r, -k (rather than as -b, -d, 
-g, as in Haas). 

Development 

The diachronic background of the Thai and Lao orthographies is the key to under- 
standing their modern complexity. Historically, written Thai and Lao can be traced 
back to South Indian writing systems of the Grantha type (section 30), but the prox- 
imate source was a form of Old Khmer script. According to the traditional account, 
in 1283 King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai, in what is now north-central Thailand, 
adapted this source script to a language of the Thai-Lao type. He is credited with the 
innovation of tone marks — arguably the first time that phonemic tone was regularly 
indicated in a writing system intended for common use. 

The Sukhothai writing system underwent shifting and proliferation. In addition, 
according to most authorities, a set of important sound changes occurred in the spo- 
ken precursors of modern Thai and Lao over the following centuries (Li 1977). These 
changes are illustrated in table 43.2 for selected Thai labial items. 

Analogous changes occurred for other consonant groups and in general: 
(i) Unaspirated voiced occlusives > aspirated voiceless occlusives, 

(ii) Pre-aspirated or voiceless continuants > plain voiced continuants. 



SECTION 43: THAI AND LAO WRITING 

(iii) Voiced preglottalized stops > plain voiced stops. 

(iv) However etymological voiced aspirates might have been pronounced in 

Sukhothai times, they have now merged with voiceless aspirates. 

Along with the mergers implicit in table 43.2 came a compensatory increase in 
tonal distinctions, somewhat differently in the Thai and Lao cases. Earlier spelling 
patterns were on the whole retained, so that letters in the writing system that had ear- 
lier indicated consonantal distinctions now came to function rather as indirect mark- 
ers of tone, with tonal interpretations different in Thai and Lao. These changes 
provide the historical background for much of the consonant- letter proliferation of 
TABLE 43. 1 , and they motivate the column appearing in table 43.3 which identifies 
particular consonants as class i, 2, or 3 for purposes of modem tone rules (as in 
TABLE 43.9 on page 464). (Traditionally, these classes are labeled in Thai as n^1^ 
kla:ng 'mid', ^^ su:ng 'high', and ^1 tdm 'low' respectively — probably referring to 
earlier tonal values.) 

By the early sixteenth century a form of Sukhothai writing had spread to the 
Mekhong River basin, and subsequently several Thai-Lao orthographic differences 
began to develop (Gagneux 1983). Separate phonological changes also occurred, 
which further differentiated sounds represented by the writing systems. For Lao, 
changes included simplification of many consonant clusters, and shifts with merger 
of r> h,ch> s, and y>n; Thai had the reverse merger n > y. 

More recently, different approaches to language standardization have been re- 
sponsible for additional Thai-Lao divergences. Under successive regimes, Lao script 
has been scaled down to approach a phonemic representation. (An official order of 
i960 provides the Lao text sample.) By contrast, written Thai tends to incorporate un- 
pronounced etymological information. Forms meaning 'language' in both Thai and 
Lao are borrowed from Sanskrit bhdsd 'speech' but are now pronounced segmentally 
SiS pha:sa: (with tones as assigned in table 43.9). The text samples show that Lao 
has respelled this item phonemically, while Thai retains "extra" nonphonemic letters 
pointing back to the Sanskrit source consonants. Thai is also often romanized etymo- 
logically, especially for proper nouns of Indie origin: ill t jli Vajira:vudh, pro- 
nounced [wachiraiwut]. 

Syllable-final stop proliferation of the above type calls for special attention in 
Thai schools. Phonologically, apart from final glottal stop (automatic with short vow- 
els and not transcribed here), both Thai and Lao admit only three final stop-consonant 
sounds: -/?, -t, and -k. Lao, as officially reformed, allows only three symbols: DOT). 
(In initial position these represent b-, d-, k-.) Thai, by contrast, represents these three 
sounds by no less than 16 different letters, with the possibility of additional silent let- 
ters as well (see table 43.3). A good example of extra finals is the word meaning 
'etymology' itself, niruktisd:t, as in the Thai text sample; compare Sanskrit nirukti 
'derivation' + sdstra 'knowledge'. 

For more historical detail see Hartmann 1986 and Li 1977. Aspects of this tradi- 
tional view have been challenged in the debate presented by Chamberlain 1991. 



TABLE 43.3: Thai and Lao Consonants 



Indie 




r/i<3i Sound 




Lfl^? Sound 




Sound as 


Prototype 


Thai Letter 


as Initial 


Lao Letter 


as Initial 


Class 


Final 


A. Velar and Palatal Letters 


k 


n 


k- 


n 


k- 


I 


-k 


kh 


u 
^ 


kh- 

(kh-) 


8 


kh- 


2 

2 


-k 


g 




kh- 
(kh-) 


a 


kh- 


3 
3 


-k 


gh 


% 


kh- 






3 


-k 


n 


^ 


ng- 


3 


ng- 


3 


-ng 


c 


^ 


c- 


q 


c- 


I 


-t 


ch 


% 


ch- 






2 




J 


% 


ch- 


^ 


s- 


3 


-t 




% 


s- 






3 


-t , (-S) 


jh 


m 


ch- 






3 


-t 


n 


qj 


y- 






3 


-n 




B. 


Retroflex and Dental (alveolar) Letters 






(t) 


s 


d- 






I 


-t 


t 


fl 


(t-) 






I 


-t 


th 


I 


th- 






2 


-t 


d 


T1 


th- 






3 


-t 


dh 


m 


th- 






3 


-t 


n 


m 


n- 






3 


-n 


(t) 


f\ 


d- 


n 


d- 


I 


-t 


t 


^ 


t- 


n 


: t- 


I 


-t 


th 


fi 


th- 


ri 


th- 


2 


-t 


d 


r\ 


th- 


^ 


th- 


3 


-t 


dh 


B 


th- 




th- 


3 


-t 


n 


n 


n- 


u 


n- 


3 


-n 


C. Labial and Labiodental Letters 


(P) 


u 


b- 


u 


b- 


I 


-P 


P 


iJ 


P- 


U 


P- 


I 


-P 


ph 


w 


ph- 


u 


ph- 


2 


-P 




pj 


f- 


y 


fi 


3 




b 


=v\i 


ph- 


u 


ph- 


3 


-P 




1/^ 


f- 


hi 


f- 


3 


-P, (-f) 


bh 


/I 


ph- 




ph- 


3 


-P 


m 


w 


m- 


jj 


m- 


3 


-m 



SECTION 43: THAI AND LAO WRITING 



TABLE 43.3: Thai and Lao Consonants (continued) 



Indie 




Thai Sound 




Lao Sound 




Sound as 


Prototype 


Thai Letter 


as Initial 


Lao Letter 


as Initial 


Class 


Final 


D. Residual Consonant Letters 


y 


U 


y- 


U 
5 


n- 


3 

I 


-y 
-y 


r 


1 


r-, (1-) 


s 


h- 


3 


-n 


r 






(S) 


1- 


3 


-n 


1 


^ 


1- 


Q 


1- 


3 


-n 


V 


1 


w- 





V-, (w-) 


3 


-w 


s 


ff 


s- 






2 


-t 


s 


12J 


s- 






2 


-t 


s 


^ 


s- 


§i 


s- 


2 


-t, (-S) 


h 


VI 


h- 


01 


h- 


2 




1 


^ 


1- 






3 


-n 







['-] 


9 


['-] 


I 









h- 






3 



















Consonant symbols 

In form, most Thai and Lao letters have small "heads" which are written first in hand- 
writing. The traditional order of Thai consonants, shown in table 43.3, generally 
follows Devanagari (section 31); but the sound changes mentioned above, as well 
as other innovations, disguise the parallelism. Some additional shifts characterize Lao 
order. Consonants are named by their sound followed by the vowel 0' :. To differenti- 
ate consonant names in Thai, a token noun is used (see Haas 1 954: 6-9). 

Thai once distinguished velar fricatives, represented by "^J and fl in table 43. 3 A. 
The fricatives merged with stops, and the letters are no longer used; but they are still 
officially recognized. The Thai letter %, representing an alveolar fricative s, is classi- 
fied among the palatals. In most Lao sources, two "residual" consonants (here moved 
to table 43. 3D) are included in the palatal series: §1 s (in the dictionary order of Thai 
SX ch) and U ii (in the dictionary order of tlJ >'). 

In TABLE 43. 3B, etymologically retroflex consonants are distinguished from 
dentals in written Thai but both series are pronounced as alveolars. Except for % th, 
retroflex letters are unusual as initials. Parenthesized Indie prototypes indicate less 
common symbols. 

How the Thai letter 1 is pronounced is a strong sociolinguistic marker — norma- 
tively r but colloquially /. Similarly, the Lao letter S, usually pronounced /, was for- 
merly used for Indie loans spelled with r-; but this (nonphonemic) letter has been 



462 PART VII: SOUTHEAST ASIAN WRITING SYSTEMS 

TABLE 43.4: Compound and Conjunct Forms as Class-changing Alternates 



Thai Compound 


Thai Sound 


Lao Compound 


Lao 


Conjunct 


Ixio Sound 


afl55 


Vl^ 


ng- 


m^ 




- 


ng- 


2 


V\Vt 


n- 


oiu 




UU 


11- 


2 


VI 14 


m- 


OIU 




m 


in- 


2 


y\^ 


1- 


OIQ 




SI 


1- 


2 


VII 


w- 


UIO 




- 


V-, (w-) 


2 


VII 


r-,(l-) 


- 






- 


2 


V[J 


y- 


niu, 01s 




- 


n- 


2 


m 


y- 


- 




(t]) 


(y-) 


I 



officially discouraged, and a / is the prescribed substitute. Current use of S may relate 
to political sympathies. The glottal-stop signs Thai ID and Lao 9 are required to begin 
written syllables in the absence of other consonants since, unlike Devanagari, Thai 
and Lao have no special syllable-initial symbols for vowels. Non-initial U in Lao once 
had an alternate form §, but officially this is now restricted to diphthongs; see 
TABLE 43.7. 

Items in table 43.4 are used for tone-marking purposes (table 43.9). In Thai, 
silent Vi- and Q- are prefixed to certain Class 3 items in table 43.3 to create alter- 
nates in Classes 2 or i. Lao makes similar shifts, with some freely varying conjunct 
alternates. Lao d is etymologically associated with Thai Q[J. 

Vowel symbols 

In writing, some phonemes are represented directly by a simple vowel symbol. For 
others, symbols combine to form complexes. Vowel symbols may occur after, over, 
under, or before their associated consonant letter — that being the approximate dictio- 
nary order, table 43.5 through table 43.8 show syllable-final vowel forms. Some 
separate forms discussed in the following paragraphs are specified for medial posi- 
tion, i.e. in the presence of a final consonant. 

Medially, short -a- is written as superscript - in both languages: Thai fl^ kdt 
'bite'; Lao fin. For Thai, when a syllable ends in -u : a silent Q is added: fiO ku' :, (In 
spelling pronunciation, syllables terminating in short vowels are given a glottal-stop 
closure and tone is assigned as in table 43.9.) 

In both languages, syllables in short e and ae occurring between consonants dis- 
pense with final Z. Instead, a superscript short sign is added over the initial consonant: 
Thai -, Lao -. Thus Thai i, ^ "U tern 'full' ; Lao cfiu. In the case of short o between con- 
sonants, Lao uses a special superscript symbol -, while Thai opts for an unwritten in- 



TABLE 43.5: Simple Short and Long Vowel Symbols 



Thai 



Lao 



Thai 



Lao 



o 

n 
n 



ka 
ki 
ku 
ku' [kui] 



n 
n 
n 



nn 


ka: 


n 


ki: 


^ 


ku: 



n ku': [km:] 



TABLE 43.6: Short Vowel Indicated by Final Z Added to Long-vowel Form 



Thai 



Lao 



Thai 



Lao 



\.-Z 


\.r]z 


C-ti 


cn^ 


ke 


\k-Z 


Lin^ 


GG-t^ 


GGnti 


kae 


\-Z 


In^ 


U 


In- 


ko 



L- m G- en ke: 

\L- Lin GG- CCn kae: 

I- In I- In ko: 



herent vowel. Thus Thai ^U con 'poor'; Lao "^U. In nonfinal syllables, the inherent 
Thai vowel is usually -a-, whereas Lao marks all vowels overtly: Thai nu<g kabdt 're- 
bellion'; Lao ntiSn. 

Medial o' and o' : are rarely distinguished from eacli other (viz., with the short 
signs mentioned above). They are written with letters elsewhere functioning as glottal 
stop: Thai Q, Lao 8. Thus Thai flQ^ kd:t 'to hug'; Lao n9n. As table 43.7 indicates, 
Thai uses this sign for syllable-final -o' : as well, whereas Lao has a distinctive super- 
script. Thai 0, Lao 9 also appear as components in complex vowel signs. For medial 
-oe- Thai uses a form analogous to Lao. For medial -ia- Thai adds the final consonant 
to the complex in table 43.7, whereas Lao uses the simple symbol ^ alone: Thai 
\>T\t]'W thian 'candle'; Lao ^/l^U. For medial -ua- both languages dispense with super- 
scripts, employing consonant letters Thai Q, Lao alone, with implied diphthong 
function. Thus Thai C^TU suan 'garden'; Lao ^OU. 



TABLE 43.7: 


Compound Vowel Symbols; Consonant Symbo 


\s Used as Vowels 




Thai 




Lao 




Thai 


Lao 


1-1^ LfH^ 


G-nti 


Gnnt^ 


ko' [ko] 


-0 


n 


-- n 


ko': 


[koi] 


L-Q^ LHQ^ 


G- 


Gn 


koe [kY] 


L-0 


Lf 


10 G-~- Gn 


koe: 


[kYi] 


C-l] \.f\l\ 


C-S, G-U 


Gns, Gnu 


kia [kb] 


L-0 


if 


10 G~-9 Gng 


ku'a 


[kuis] 


-1 T\l 


-0 


no 


kua [ku9] 


L-1 


If 


11 G-n Gnn 


kaw 


[kaw] 


L-^ m[j 


G-S, G-U 


Gn^, Gnu 


koe:y [kvij] 































464 PART VII: SOUTHEAST ASIAN WRITING SYSTEMS 



TABLE 43.8. 


Symbols Standing for 


Other Vowel-Consonant Combinations 


Thai 


Lao 




Thai 


Lao 


In 

101 


In kay 
nn kam 




In 
fif] 


tn kay (< ""kam) 
— kri, km' 



Some miscellaneous symbols are shown in table 43.8. The Thai symbol f], af- 
ter consonants as in fiV\'^Dlf]%l phru' tsapha:khom 'May', is traditionally counted 
among the vowel signs (compare Devanagari r), but it occurs initially in a few words 
which are alphabetized in dictionaries after 1. It is pronounced as (i) ru\ as in f]fj 
ru'du: 'season'; (ii) n, as in f]TlB rit 'supernatural power'; (iii) roe:, as in t\T]1^ roe:k 
'asterism'. In older manuscripts and certain archaizing texts, ^ may be followed by 
1, the latter in this case sometimes given a matching downward prolongation "|. The 
value here is technically long ru' ;, but items now pronounced with the three other 
sounds noted above can be found in early texts spelled with f|1. Similar principles ap- 
ply to a parallel symbol <f] lu' , encountered only in a few archaic contexts but still 
found on official lists of vowels. 



Tone rules 



TABLE 43. 9 A shows how tone is assigned to a written syllable — differently for Thai 
and Lao— through a combination of four criteria: (i) class of initial consonant; (ii) 
whether the syllable is open, i.e. ends with a long vowel, nasal (-m, -n, -ng) or semi- 
vowel (-W, -y); or closed, i.e. ends with a stop sound (-/?, -f, -k) or a glottal-stopped 
short vowel; (iii) whether the syllable is unmarked or bears a superscript tone marker 
(mainly used with open syllables); (iv) if closed, whether the vowel is long or short. 
Tones are more standardized for Thai than for Lao. Lao values in table 43. 9B like 
low falling and high falling apply to one common Vientiane dialect. The relation of 



TABLE 


43-9: 


Main Tone Rules 














Open Syllables 


Closed Syllables 




Unmarked Marker- 


Marker - 


Short Vowel 


Long Vowel 






A. Main Thai Tone Rules (tones marked 


as in Haas 


1964; 


) 


Class I 
Class 2 
Class 3 


mid 
risin 
mid 


low(^) 
%0 low(^) 

falling C^) 


falling n 
falling n 
highO 


low(^) 
low(^) 
highO 




low(^) 
low(l 
falling n 






B. Main Lao Tone Rules (tones marked 


as in Kerr 


1972) 





Class I low 


mid C) 


high falling (") 


high(0 


low falling (") 


Class 2 low rising C) 


mid (-) 


low falling (") 


highd 


low falling O 


Class 3 high(') 


mid (-) 


high falling (^) 


mid (-) 


high falling C) 



SECTION 43: THAI AND LAO WRITING 

TABLE 43.10: Numerals 





/ 


2 


3 


4 


5 


6 


7 


fi 


9 





Thai 


® 


b 


0) 


d 


s: 


b 


ci 


u 


S' 





Lao 


9 


^ 


5 


i 


i 


S 


r] 


2 


CIJ 






tone to orthography in other Lao varieties and in regional Thai dialects is subject to 
the four criteria above, but specific tone values differ. 

In addition to the two main tone markers -r (md:y-e:k) and ~ (mdy-tho:) shown 
in TABLE 43.9, two less frequent extra ones, of similar shape in Thai and Lao, are re- 
stricted to Class I consonants: - Thai high, Lao high falling; and ^ Thai rising, Lao 
low rising. 

Markers are occasionally used with closed syllables, mainly for onomatopoetic 
effect, to override the closed-syllable values given by the tone rules: Thai 00^ d:t 
'buzz'. The exact alignment of tone markers varies, with Lao preferring placement di- 
rectly over initial consonant and Thai often aligning markers right of center. When a 
tone marker occurs with a superscript vowel symbol, the tone marker is aligned on 
top: Thai UU nan 'that'; Lao UU nan. 



Numerals and other symbols 

Thai and Lao have distinctive sets of numerals as in table 43. 10. These combine in 
normal decimal fashion. Other symbols: ^ repeat sign; "^l abbreviation sign; 'l^'l et 
cetera sign; - silent letter diacritic. 

Sample Texts 

Below are similar passages in Thai and Lao scripts, first in unspaced form as they 
would actually occur, then shown word-by-word. In the Thai transliteration, for con- 
venience in identifying individual symbols, words of Indie or Khmero-Indic prove- 
nance are transliterated using "Indie prototype" source consonants as indicated in 
table 43.3. For other (non-Indic) lexical items, and for Lao, standard alphabetic val- 
ues are used. The tone-class of each syllable-initial consonant is indicated by sub- 
script numbers, both as an aid to identification in table 43.3 and to facilitate tone- 
rule application in table 43.9. Tone markers md:y-e:k and md:y-tho: are indicated 
by superscript I and II respectively. The homophonous vowels l> and I are similarly 
differentiated as ay^ and ay2 respectively. Silent-marked letters are parenthesized. 



466 PART VII: SOUTHEAST ASIAN WRITING SYSTEMS 



Sample of Thai 



i\ 



f]ini'^i[r]mmwuf]i%^y\^mr)m>riUWf\mmi 



1. Thai: ^°1 ^11fl1 In [J \v\ 

2. Transliteration: khgam bh3a:s2a: thgaiiy hzai." 
J. Transcription: kham phaisai thay hay 
4, Gloss: word language Thai let 



i:,i,mn fl1^ 


V\^T\ 


khaian tia:m 


h^lak 


khian taim 


lak 


write follow 


basis 



2. kie:n(d) 
J. kein 
4. rale 



n3ir3uktiis2a:st(r) 

niriiktisait 

etymology 



'Words in the Thai language should be written on the basis of principles of ety- 
mology.' 

Sample of Lao 
/. Lao: an wnan 

2. Translit,: kh3am ph3a:s2a: 
J. Transcr: kham phaisai 
4. Gloss: word language 

'Words in the Lao language should be written according to pronunciation.' 



Qno 


Im 


2S1J 


nnu 


^53 


cDn 


Iga.-w 


%ml' 


kh.ian 


t,a:m 


S2iang 


vaw^^ 


laiw 


hay 


khian 


taim 


siaq 


vaw 


Lao 


let 


write 


follow 


sound 


speak 



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Thai Linguistics. Bangkok: White Lotus. (Original publications, 1965-79.) 

Chamberlain, James R. 1991. The Ramkhamhaeng Controversy. Bangkok: Siam Society. 

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Gagneux, Pierre-Marie. 1983. "Les ecritures lao et leur evolution du XVe au XIXe siecles."A^/e du 
Sud-est et Monde Insulindien 14 (1-2): 75-96. 

Haas, Mary R. 1956. The Thai System of Writing. Washington, D.C.: American Council of Learned 
Societies. 

. 1964. Thai-English Student's Dictionary. Stanford, Cahf.: Stanford University Press. 

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