Thailand's Royal Institute (ราชบัณฑิตยสถาน), the government agency charged with promoting the proper use of Standard Thai, announced this morning the first major changes to the basic Thai writing system since the aborted spelling reforms of the Phibunsongkhram administration during World War II.
In a move that mirrors those changes, starting today, ten consonants will become officially obsolete, in addition to the two already no longer used, ฃ ขวด and ฅ คน. The newly retired letters are: ฆ ระฆัง, ฌ เฌอ, ญ หญิง, ฎ ชฎา, ฏ ปฏัก, ฐ ฐาน, ฑ มณโฑ, ฒ ผู้เฒ่า, ณ เณร, and ฬ จุฬา. This brings the total number of defunct consonants to twelve, paring the Thai alphabet down from 44 to 32, which is considered an auspicious number in Thai culture.
The choices, they explained in a press conference this morning, are based on a careful study of letter and word frequency in Thai. Only the least commonly used consonants are being retired, in an effort to boost literacy, without sacrificing the breadth of expression that makes Thai the elegant and diverse language it is.
The consonants ฆ ฌ ญ ฎ ฏ ฐ ฑ ฒ ณ and ฬ are to be replaced with their sound-alike counterparts ค ช ย ด ต ถ ท น and ล. For example, under the reform the word ญาติ will now be spelled ยาติ, ปฏิรูป will become ปติรูป, and so forth.
This announcement was made jointly with the Ministry of Education and the Tourism Authority of Thailand, as part of a new push to reinvigorate the flagging tourism industry. It is believed that the simplifications to the writing system will boost foreign interest in Thailand and the Thai language, which is frequently cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn, in large part due to the complicated script.
All Ministry of Education textbooks are required to be updated within the end of calendar year 2010, and the government is expected to offer tax concessions and other incentives to publishers to help defray the large costs of updating their publications over the next several years. The public sector deadline is longer, set at the end of calendar year 2015.
Whether this initiative will be successful remains to be seen, but clearly this is a huge step for Thailand.
[Source: Complete transcript of the Royal Institute press conference]