Back in June of this year, the Royal Institute held a press conference on the topic การจัดทำพจนานุกรมคำใหม่ "Making a Dictionary of New Words" (the page about it on the RI site is here, the PDF press release is here). This was widely covered in the Thai press, but also widely misunderstood.
The main confusion appears to surround the Thai term ศัพท์บัญญัติ, and specifically the word บัญญัติ. The term is frequently translated as "coin", in the sense of "coining a word", but in English, to coin a word simply means to come up with it, while บัญญัติ carries an air of authority. More broadly applied, as a verb it means to prescribe or legislate, and as a noun, law or regulation. So ศัพท์บัญญัติ literally means something like prescribed words. Usually these take the form of technical vocabulary, coined into existence to match some equivalent term in English or another foreign language. This type of coining/prescribing is necessary in the process of modernizing a language like Thai.
Let me switch tracks for a second. Notice that in English (or at least American English as I'm familiar with it), we say "the dictionary". This use of the definite article implies that there is some sort of authoritative dictionary out there, the official arbiter of all things linguistically correct. I regularly hear the sentiment "that's not a real word". And who can forget that childhood taunt, "ain't ain't a word 'cause it ain't in the dictionary"? Popular opinion aside, though, English is notable because it doesn't have such a dictionary, nor does it have any organization empowered to regulate "standard" or "proper" use of the language.
Thus, for English, those who would seek to prescribe proper usage must assume the authority themselves. English dictionaries of the last century or more have not usually attempted to do this, though many still read them as if they did. Early notable lexicographers of English, namely Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, included some element of prescriptivism in their dictionaries, but Webster was notable for bucking British prescriptive trends and helping to define American English as a separate linguistic entity, canonizing many spellings and pronunciations we still use today. More recently, lexicographers like James Murray (Oxford English Dictionary) and Philip Gove (Webster's Third) saw their tasks as being to describe the language as it was and is used, and employ usage notes to differentiate standard from non-standard. Still, it is the everyday users of the language who clamor for a linguistic king--demanding a final answer on things like who vs. whom (which provided great fodder for an excellent scene in a recent episode of The Office), whether ain't is "really a word", or how to "correctly" spell such-and-such word. While I believe that a standard language is important, and you will be judged socially and professionally by your ability to use the standard language conventionally, you, dear reader, may be picking up what I'm putting down: I don't much care for arbitrary prescriptivism.
Back to Thai. Unlike English, the Thai language has just such an organization. It is the Royal Institute. And surrounding the issue of this "new words" dictionary, I'm seeing confusion among the Thai people in the opposite direction from English. That is, since the Royal Institute exists, and is formally endowed with the power to prescribe proper, standard language use, people think that anything that comes from them is being prescribed. With respect to the forthcoming พจนานุกรมคำใหม่, this means that people are misunderstanding the publication of this volume as an endorsement of the words contained therein. And given the RI's past tendency to keep slang at arm's length, it's understandable. The inclusion of slang was one of the reasons why the Matichon Dictionary (พจนานุกรม ฉบับมติชน) was such big news upon its release.
There is a great mirror for this sort of controversy in English, actually. In 1961, Merriam-Webster published Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (commonly known as Webster's Third or W3), which was met by a fair amount of criticism at its inclusion of--you guessed it--ain't, among other words. The funny thing was, ain't had been in dictionaries for a long time, but Webster's Third became a whipping boy for dictionary "permissiveness". (Read more on Wikipedia. This is also the subject of an excellent book.)
Things haven't gotten quite so far in Thailand (though the Royal Institute has taken some beatings over the years), and I doubt things will, unless the Institute announces plans to incorporate the contents of the "new words" dictionary into the next edition of RID (very unlikely). Nonetheless, some folks seem to be responding with displeasure that such an august institution as the RI would even bother with what they see as teenage language abominations. The Institute is quite clear on this though: this is not a collection of ศัพท์บัญญัติ, but rather a compilation of new words currently in use, ostensibly for the benefit of later generations, who may be confused by the wacky slang of today's popular media. (I think, in some ways, they're referring to themselves, being mostly elderly folks.)
Consider a couple of quotes from the web board of the Royal Institute website (my translations):
"อยากทราบว่าในพจนานุกรมฉบับใหม่ที่กำลังถกเถียงกันอยู่ตอนนี้ มีคำอะไรบ้างคะที่จะบัญญัติลง..." (I'd like to know what words are prescribed in the new dictionary being argued over right now...)
"ต้องการทราบเรื่อง การบัญญัติคำศัพท์ใหม่ ที่ออกรายการช่อง 3..." (I want to know about the prescribed new words that were reported about on channel 3...)
If this is what people took away from media reports on the June press conference, it seems that the press missed the message on this one. Now, there are those on the message board who are trying to point out that these aren't ศัพท์บัญญัติ, but I wouldn't be surprised if many folks are still under the misconception.
In late September, the Royal Institute had another press conference to show off the newly printed book (on the left in the photo at right). The formal premier of the book was this past Monday, October 22nd, at the national book fair. It's available exclusively there until the fair ends (tomorrow).
In all, I think this is a good move on the part of the Royal Institute. I think it's a bit silly and unnecessary that they have to go through a bunch of logical gymnastics to justify the new dictionary, but I'm glad they did it. While this idea has basically been done before in the form of Matichon's พจนานุกรมนอกราชบัณฑิตยฯ (Dictionary of Words Not in RID, the out-of-print predecessor to Matichon's full dictionary), this will still be a legitimately valuable reference work for not just future generations of Thais (one of the Royal Institute's justifications for the book), but for all the Thai language learners who've ever worn a bald spot into their scalp scratching their heads over the seemingly bottomless fount of new Thai words. I hope เล่ม ๒ comes sooner rather than later.
[Note: I wrote this without having gotten my hands on the book. I bought a copy tonight. I'll post my thoughts soon.]