I may have put the horse before the carriage with my previous post on Thai Ramkhamhaeng Era Orthography in that I just threw a bunch of flash cards out there, but didn’t really talk about the consonants, vowels and they way that they are combined.
Vowels / Consonants / Numbers
- Consonants. Many of them are similar to what we are using at present, some you’ll have to use a little imagination.
- Vowels, here you will notice similarities to modern Thai and modern Laos. This could have been been because the stone carver was from Laos, but without ample evidence it’s hard to tell for sure. That being said, the fact that the inscription used the Lao / Issan word for name (พ่อกูซื่อ instead of พ่อกูชื่อ) is further evidence of this.
- Numbers. The obvious thing here is that many numbers are missing … this doesn’t mean that Thais used to use some strange numerical system based on 0, 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7 … only that these are the only numerals used in the stele and that no other evidence of this writing system has been found.
Combining Things / The Contraversy
- Ok, aside from carbon-dating issues, the main reason that there remains significant controversy around the origins of the stele, is that vowels and consonants are combined on the same line, similar to Western languages and different from Thai writing systems before and after this. The inscriptions from the Prayalitai พระยาลิไท period, the next period from which evidence has been found, use the modern system of vowels being before, after, above and below the consonant (both Ramkhamhaeng and Prayalitai are from the Sukotai period).
Instead of putting vowel signs above and below the consonant symbols as is done in the Thai writing system, the inscription stone put the signs on the same line of the consonants.
“Such a system [writing vowel signs on the same line as the consonants] was the one used in Western countries. This demonstrates that the writer must have been fluent in Western languages,” Piriya said in his book.
Rama IV was influenced by Western culture, and he paid a lot of attention to foreign languages as he set about modernising Siam through clever diplomacy.
Pthomrerk insists that Rama IV made up the story that the stone was completed during the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng.
“It was his great attempt to protect the country from imperialism. The King did not want to deceive later generations,” he said.
Pthomrerk believed that Rama IV wanted to show Western imperial powers, especially Great Britain and France, that Siam was a civilised kingdom with a writing system centuries old; not an uncivilised society, which was often used by imperialists as an excuse for colonisation.
- ออ and อือ vowels
- อุ อู ไอ โอ vowels. Here we have crystal-clear evidence of vowels which in pretty much every other example of Thai writing (both before and after) are either below the line or extending above the line.
- เอือ vowels
- เอีย vowels. This is also somewhat similar to modern Laos in that the เอีย vowel differs somewhat depending on if it is part of a final sound. In the first example (เมีย), that circle with a line through it is อี, the next character is ม, then two ย letters used to complete the vowel. In the second example, only one ย is used (the first three consonants are ว ย ง), as it is sufficient to form the vowel when there is another syllable before the end of the word.
Three more points of interest is that whenever we have a group of consonants whose sounds are combined, they are written together. This is somewhat similar to the way that consonant clusters hang off each other in Devanagari, Burmese, and Lanna, except that in this case they appear on the same line.
นิคหิต (อํ) is used similar to Pali and Sanskrit to mean อม
Finally, there is a doubling of consonants to indicate that the middle one should be pronounced as the อะ vowel. This was pretty common at that point in time, the earliest use of ไม้หันอากาศ that has been found is from 1361 CE (พศ ๑๙๐๔).
If you spend some time trying to read the stele, you will have to use your imagination somewhat. In the case where the same sound has more than one letter, there can be arbitrary use of either. For example, you might see ทง and ธง where both mean flag. Also things like ไม้เอก and ไม้โท may or may not be used, depends on the mood of the person doing the work.
Big thanks to my professor อาจารวิโรจน์ ผดุงสุนทรารักษ์ who wrote the textbook from which I scanned everything used in these posts. If anyone wants to try their hand at writing something out, you can scan it in and email to lukecd at gmail dot com and I will post them here.