January 23, 2009

2009 Fulbright project: Sukhothai inscriptions

Only a few readers probably know that I was awarded a Fulbright grant from the U.S. Department of State to come to Thailand to conduct an independent research project in linguistics. Due to an excess of bureaucracy and a plate full of other things to do in the meantime, I am only just now formally beginning this project.

My recent return to Bangkok means I'm official: my Fulbright project was approved by the National Research Council of Thailand.

The project, at its heart, is simple: improve accessibility to Sukhothai-era inscriptions. Why Sukhothai? Because you have to start somewhere, and you can only do so much. The Sukhothai inscriptions comprise some 20,000 words of text. The work I do on this relatively small subset will help me do a better job on the rest of the stone inscriptions of the Tai-language tradition. They're also the oldest Thai writings, so it's a logical starting point.

Specific goals I plan to accomplish include:
  • Romanize the Sukhothai corpus (initially with some automation, but manual checking is inevitable)
  • Create a web site for searching and browsing the inscriptions, including filtering and sorting by various features (date, script language, text language, material inscribed upon, place found, etc.)
  • Full text search of the inscriptions, including basic corpus search tools (pulling out all instances of a given word, with contexts)
  • Compile an improved and expanded glossary of Sukhothai Thai (there are several glossaries in Thai, and one notable Thai-English glossary)
  • Offend no one in the process (whether Inscription 1 is authentic or not is irrelevant as far as this project is concerned)

Two Thai professors have kindly agreed to be my advisors on this project: Dr. Udom Warotamasikkhadit (ศ.ดร.อุดม วโรตม์สิกขดิตถ์) and Dr. Prasert Na Nagara (ศ.ดร.ประเสริฐ ณ นคร), both fellows of the Royal Institute (Dr. Udom is also currently Secretary of the Academy of Arts). They are both busy men, and I am very grateful to them both for their support of my work.

In particular, Dr. Prasert is a giant in Thai epigraphy. He turns 90 this year, but still serves on numerous committees of the Royal Institute. He's there every day, Monday to Friday. One such committee is working on the forthcoming Dictionary of Ancient Words (พจนานุกรมโบราณศัพท์). Dr. Prasert is practically a household name, so it was an honor to finally meet him last year.

Dr. Udom is also one of the fathers of modern linguistics in Thailand, having written a now classic word on Thai syntax as his Ph.D. dissertation in 1963, and numerous books since. I first met him in 2005, when I was working on my senior thesis for my B.A. He has always been very encouraging and helpful to me.

The tone and content of this blog jump around a lot, but I hope I won't be scaring too many readers away if I use it as an outlet for topics that grab my interest in the course of my research.

Finally, I'll reiterate that this project would not be underway if it weren't for the Fulbright Program, which saw some value in letting me loose on a topic that I'm not "qualified" to tackle. I know I have something to contribute, though, so I'm grateful for the opportunity. I'm really jumping in the deep end here, but I'm loving it. Stay tuned.


  1. Congratulations!

    It's definitely a 'can of worms' assignment, but one that will hopefully go to answer many of the questions floating around out there.

    Hope we get a chance to catch up while you're here in BKK.

  2. Thanks. It's really essential work for me, because it starts to lay the foundation for future projects about historical Thai that I'm interested in.

    I'll be here for all of 2009, btw, so drop me a line to let me know when you've got the time. I know you keep pretty busy yourself.

  3. wow language study on a different level! by the way, you could blog about the contents and merits of these texts as well.

    Off: I'm currently reading a book 'Japanese Death Poems', and I thought the Chinese and Japanese might have influenced Thai culture in this way. Also it seems to me that the moment of death often inspires the dying themselves, regardless of cultural traditions. But I'm just speculating here. Have you encountered in Thai culture (modern or not) something that would resemble the jisei or "death poems" of the Japanese and Chinese?

  4. Congratulations, sounds like an interesting project, but also a lot of work. As you mention inscription number one - maybe you could write something on that inscription numbering, which seem to go back to Prince Damrong.

  5. great project.
    you mention thai-thai & thai-english glossaries of Sukhothai Thai. would you recommend any in particular?
    also are you aware of any translation into english or standard thai of the จารึก? i know that the ไตรภุมิ has been translated into french and english, but did not find any translation of the inscriptions.

  6. The only Thai-English glossary that exists (as far as I know) is Yoneo Ishii et al., 1989, A Glossarial Index of the Sukhothai Inscriptions (expanded from a dissertation Ishii wrote in the 1970s). It's pretty rare. I work from a photocopy made at a Thai library.

    The Royal Institute publishes a Ramkhamhaeng glossary(พจนานุกรมศัพท์วรรณคดีไทย สมัยสุโขทัย ศิลาจารึกพ่อขุนรามคำแหงมหาราช หลักที่ 1), but it's only that one inscription.

    The rest of the Thai-Thai content is scattered in footnotes by many authors in many volumes.

    The Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre has done much to compile and type up all of this information in Thai. I'm working with their data (including correcting typos in their texts). See their database: http://www4.sac.or.th/jaruk/

    As for translation, many of the Sukhothai inscriptions were translated into English by A.B. Griswold and Prasert Na Nagara and published in the Journal of the Siam Society in the 60s and 70s.

    These were compiled in 1992 as:
    Epigraphic and Historical Studies. The Historical Society Under the Royal Patronage of H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn: Bangkok. ISBN 974-88735-5-2.

    The only source I know for French translations is the original works by George Coedes, 1924, Recueil des Inscriptions du Siam. Two volumes: vol.1 is Sukhothai inscriptions, vol.2 is Dvaravati, Srivijaya, Lavo.

    Coedes translated these into Thai as ประชุมศิลาจารึก ภาคที่ ๑ and ภาคที่ ๒. Later Thai scholars continued the work. There are 7 volumes, but only covering a few hundred inscriptions. None of the subsequent volumes are available in French or English, as far as I know.

  7. thanks A LOT.
    most of these are available from Chula's library, where I am studying.