April 1, 2009

Royal Institute announces simplifications to Thai alphabet

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]


  1. How do you spell April Fool in Thai?

  2. yeah u almost had me for half a second. but well done. good post.

  3. Ha ha, excellent post Rikker, วันโกหก indeed.

  4. This is not an April Fools - it is a fantasy for anyone who has ever tried how to read and write Thai :)

  5. J'espère que ça n'est qu'un poisson d'avril!

  6. haha, you got me there. Nice one.

  7. While they're at it, they should remove the consonant classes and mark tones outright.

    In all seriousness, I could probably make an argument supporting the sentiment being lampooned. But I've heard arguments against spelling reform in English and Japanese that I think could apply. (For one, they make it easy to recognize sanskrit/pali words which follow different pronunciation rules.)

  8. When I read the title I thought, OH NO! Because I'll never get all that stuff out of my head.

    Then I quickly came to the same logic as others.

    In no way is Thailand going to make sense out of the alphabet.

  9. For leaning Thai Slang has anyone heard if the book "Outrageous Thai" is any good??

    I am a ABT (American Born Thai, we like to say ^^) and was hoping to learn some of the modern slang before I head back this summer to visit my grand parents' family.

    The write up in Amazon seems to be okay:


    best, Som

  10. WOW.. you know i have been fooled by this for the past couple of days

    i chatted to at least 3 thai friends, asking what they thought of the changes... all of them said they had been surprised, and one said that a lot of thai people were annoyed about changing their signs and books

    says a lot about thai culture..

    but wow i am stupid.. i was even telling everyone today that no one played an april fools joke on me.. (how wrong i was)


  11. says a lot about thai culture..

    How so? I think *anyone* would be annoyed to have to change their signs and books.

  12. I'd actually hate to see this happen. It failed miserably in the 1940s, and it would fail miserably if tried today. The Royal Institute today wouldn't dream of actually suggesting it, though.

    And certainly in real life it would be a huge public debate with plenty of uproar and backlash. :)

    It made for a good April Fools joke, though, because so many farangs struggling to learn to read wish it were true.

    "Weird" spellings are actually useful, because they disambiguate homophones (a headache in modern Lao), and make it easy to recognize foreign loanwords, especially Pali and Sanskrit, English, to a certain extent Khmer (e.g. final จ indicates a Khmer loan), and others.

    Dear Thai language: I love you just the way you are. :P

  13. (says a lot about thai culture..

    How so? I think *anyone* would be annoyed to have to change their signs and books.)

    oh sorry if that was unclear, of course anyone would be annoyed that everything had to be changed (i would be). What i meant was that each of the three people acted like they already knew about changes, and spoke as if they had already been talking to other thai people about the changes. That's why my friend said that many thai people were annoyed.

    I just thought it was a common cultural feature of thailand. That is, how people won't correct you if your wrong, or disagree with you. in fact they will lie (from a western perspective) to keep the peace. And that is seen as the better option.

    thats all i was trying to say.. just that cultural differences were clearly revealed in my converstaions


  14. Yay! Bring back the 50's (or whenever they tried that last). Oh. April's Fool? How reactionary of me :(

  15. Hmm... I read this one day late, so I wouldn't know if I would fall for it. :)

    Rikker, thanks for "Dear Thai language: I love you just the way you are. :P" I agree with you.

    James, I am not going to comment on your perspective of Thai culture (some I agree, some I would like to argue) but I would like to ask about your last line (55555+) Was that a big laugh? Only people who understand Thai would smile when they see 5555 :)