June 4, 2009

Abhisit urges the Royal Institute: let's face facts

An interesting tidbit from The Nation last week (link|cache):

PM urges Royal Institute to accept changes made to Thai language by Internet

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva Monday urged the Royal Institute to face changes caused to the Thai language by usage of the language on Internet and accept the changes.

Abhisit said the Royal Institute must regulate and create standard for the changes in the language while campaigning for the correct usage of the language.

The prime minister said his government would also make it a national agenda to campaign for Thai youths to love reading.

The Nation

I have no idea what prompted this urging. And I can't seem to find any mention of this in the Thai press.

The Royal Institute is in charge of creating and promoting language standards, which in most cases includes trying to hold back the tide of change in the modern language.

There is a general attitude of disapproval among the older generation about how young folks speak (and especially write) Thai these days.

There's nothing uniquely Thai about this, of course. The same discussions are going on in the U.S. about "proper (American) English" those darn whippersnappers and their text messages and cellular telephones and all the LOL on the series of tubes that make up the interwebs. Heh.

The difference, of course, is that there is no organization in Englishdom that has a mandate to "protect" the language. In Thailand, that's where the Royal Institute comes in (and many other countries have similar organizations to set standards for their own national languages).

But since virtually all Royal Institute Fellows (ราชบัณฑิต) are retirement age, and some are nearing the century mark, they basically embody the (multi-)generation gap.

In addition to the many books it publishes, the public relations outreach of the Royal Institute involves annual awards for excellence in the use of the Thai language, regular radio spots with language tidbits, and most recently, a short cartoon segment teaching proper language that is to air each evening. They have also begun the process of producing a language quiz show program for NBT. In other words, it's all very 20th century.

So basically what Abhisit is asking, I think, is for them to stop ignoring the fact that the internet is perhaps the single greatest cause of language change. But it's also interesting that he is reported to have urged them to "accept the changes".

Somehow I don't really see that happening. However, I agree that somebody should at least be paying attention to new language trends instead of dismissing them as "incorrect" internet Thai.

One of the reasons given for the Royal Institute's Dictionary of New Words project (volume 1 was released October 2007, and volume 2 is in the pipeline) was to record the modern language (without legitimizing it, however), so that at least those who look back on the language of this day will be able to make sense of it.

That seems like a decent reason, but of course the approach is extremely narrow. A group of perhaps a dozen committee members sit around a table and try to come up with "new" words they've heard. Just as with their main dictionary, there is no systematic attempt to comb things like the internet or comic books to assure adequate coverage of the words in use in the real world. Not to mention variant spellings, and new senses constantly being given to existing words.

Keeping up with the language is a daunting task. For an organization with as much expertise as it has, the Royal Institute remains largely irrelevant in the modern Thai world.

Perhaps Abhisit realizes that, and that prompted his statement. But it stands to be seen whether the Royal Institute itself will realize it. If not, they'll continue trying to instruct people who simply aren't listening.


  1. What other languages have such stewards of prescriptivism? I only know of French for certain.

    The whole idea of policing language seems silly and arrogant to me. Language changes over time... deal with this! These organizations seem completely ignorant of the basic facts of language, and IMHO, deserve to be as irrelevant as possible.

  2. They should follow the example of the Royal Institute for the English language -- there isn't one.

    English is robust exactly because it is a mongrel of Celtic/Latin/Norse/Norman++, and every loan word strengthens the language.

    Trying to maintain a 'pure' language has repeatedly been shown to be unsustainable.

    Stronger languages welcome neologisms; weaker ones fear them.

    'Tis the vicious cycle at work.

  3. I'm on the same page as both of you, theoretically. Knowing that it's unlikely that there will ever *not* be a Royal Institute in Thailand, though, I try not to be pessimistic about their role.

    English is the exception rather than the rule, at least for major world languages. See the Wikipedia article "List of language regulators" and you'll see what I mean.

    The Royal Institute does much valuable academic work. They compile books like encyclopedias, dictionaries, and gazetteers.

    Language planning is a legitimate function for an organization like this, and people need conventions, especially in academic fields with huge numbers of neologisms. The Royal Institute, like the French Academy it was modeled upon, tries to coin "native" equivalents (in the Thai case usually Pali/Sanskrit-based terms), instead of adopting the foreign neologisms wholesale. Since we're talking about neologisms anyway, I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with that. But I think it's misguided to think you can really affect the vernacular much.

    It's not just the Royal Institute that sees it as a problem. Plenty of average people think the language is going down the toilet. To put it into perspective, if the Royal Institute were in charge of English, they'd be promoting things like the proper distinction between there/their/they're or to/two/too, avoidance of split infinitives and dangling participles, and proper punctuation and diction.

    In Englishdom this is all taken care of by the free market, essentially, where you have best-sellers like Eats, Shoots and Leaves, which I think is a pedantic nitpickfest. But you also have old standards like Strunk & White or the Chicago Manual of Style. There's no formal standard, but you better believe people in the English-speaking world are just as concerned about conventions and *perceived* correctness. They're much worse about it, frankly, because they get so darn hot under the collar about grammar and spelling, and there's even less justification for it there than in Thailand, exactly because there's no single formal standard.

    We're all just convinced the way we do it is the right way. Heh. In the US we also talk about "the dictionary" as if there *is* some standard work, when of course there isn't. I mean come on, Merriam & Webster lost the trademark on "Webster's" way back in 1917. How many people know that? You buy a Webster's dictionary and it means zero about authority or quality.

    I think somehow we're programmed to want an authority, even when we don't have one. The Royal Institute has done much to guide the Thai language into modernity, but it's only when it starts trying to actively change or "fix" it that I think it's really on the wrong path.

  4. 1) Do you know that members of RI [สมาชิก, not the ภาคีสมาชิก]have to apply for the position before they are considered for membership? They are not nominated.
    2) Thai -> English transliteration of "อิว" was changed from "iu" to "io" a few years back. I asked someone at the RI website, who kindly explained that the RI wanted to maintain the "consistency" because "o" = "ว" -- as in "อาว" = "ao", "เอียว" = "ieo". I was flabbergasted.

  5. RTGS has gone through a number of significant changes since the 1930s. I consider it a sort of necessary evil. It's often not pretty (take เหนื่อย = nueai -- four consecutive vowels!), but at least it's a standard of some sort, so I support its use in contexts like road signs. It's use is still nowhere near standard, though.

    I wasn't aware of a membership type called simply สมาชิก. As far as I know, the three types of membership are ภาคีสมาชิก "member", ราชบัณฑิต "fellow", and ราชบัณฑิตกิตติมศักดิ์ "honorary fellow". These three categories are collectively referred to as สมาชิก, though.

    As I understand the process, the ภาคีสมาชิก apply (you will see periodic announcements on the RI website announcing openings). The ราชบัณฑิต, however, are nominated from among the ภาคีสมาชิก and presented to the Prime Minister. The PM then takes the names(s) to His Majesty the King for royal appointment as ราชบัณฑิต.