August 19, 2008

A look at the Ramkhamhaeng script

Old Tai scripts are fascinating. The script traditionally considered to be the first Thai script, adapted from Khmer, is known as Ramkhamhaeng script, because it is found on the stone inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng (พ่อขุนรามคำแหง) of Sukhothai.

[Click on an image for a larger version]

A photograph of the first several characters of the inscription.

A tracing of the same characters.

A handwritten rendering in modern script, but with original ordering.

And finally, the same phrase in modern script and spelling.

This section translates as 'My father's name is Sri Indraditya', the opening words of line 1, face 1 of the Ramkhamhaeng stele. If you say this to virtually any Thai person, they can continue where you left off: แม่กูชื่อนางเสือง 'My mother's name is Nang Sueang' (and probably much further).

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Ramkhamhaeng script, which also turn out to be a feature that brought its authenticity into question, is that all vowels are on the same line as consonants. It is not disputed that Thai script is adapted from Khmer, but in all of the common regional scripts of that time (13th Century A.D.), superscript and subscript vowels were the norm.

Those who believe the stone is authentic cite this as an example of Ramkhamhaeng's genius. Those on the other side of the issue cite it as an indicator of possible European influence, and thus the stone is likely to be a 19th Century forgery. (This is but one of a number of issues that critics have with the stele.)

The Ramkhamhaeng stele includes a date in the text, 1835 B.E., corresponding to 1292 A.D. Whether this inscription is authentic or not, other inscriptions also date to roughly this period, meaning Thai writing has been around for around 700 years.

Here are a couple of tables showing all the characters of the Ramkhamhaeng script, with the modern Thai equivalent given for reference.

 Charts courtesy of SAC, but I'm not sure exactly which book 
they scanned them from (similar charts exist in many).

Some characters that don't appear in the text were not invented yet, such as ฮ. นกฮูก.

Notice that there were only two tone marks in this script, shaped like modern ไม้เอก and ไม้จัตวา. Most vowels are remarkably similar to modern Thai, even the complex ones.

Differences to take note of:
  • The equivalents of modern เ-ือ and เีย have an extra อ and ย, respectively.
  • No อ is necessary for the vowel -ื in an open vowel. So ชื่อ was written ชื่ (this can be seen until very recently, in fact).
  • Modern -ัว is written -วว. There was no -ั (ไม้หันอากาศ) at this time, so this fits in with the larger pattern of simply reduplicating a consonant to indicate the short /a/ vowel followed by that consonant. So -งง would equal -ัง (e.g. Ramkhamhaeng ญงง = modern ยัง). Thus, -วว = -ัว. This may tell us something about the pronunciation of this vowel at that time, too, but that's just conjecture on my part.


  1. Interesting. Do you know if the similar Lao script is also based on Khmer script?

  2. Yeah, Lao is also based on (Old) Khmer script, which itself is based on Mon script, which is based on Brahmi script. (Burmese script was also comes from Mon.)

    As I understand it, the script today known as 'Lao' is descended from the script known in Thailand as Thai Noi (ไทน้อย or ไทยน้อย). (See chart of Thai Noi consonants and vowels.)

  3. Very interesting.

    On a recent trip, I was very interested to see this stone in the Sukhothai historical museum and learn a little about the evolution of Thai script. It's a fascinating subject.

    The AUA Reading book has an appendix about the historical logic behind Ramkhamhaeng's invention. I haven't read it yet, and I left my copy in the states. When I return, I'll see what it says.

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  5. May I kindly adress two different questions. Perhaps they are naive and alreay adressed extensively at other places. But two issues I do not understand well:

    1. Ramkhamhaeng/Sukhothai script differentiated in-between so suea, so sala, and so ruesi (or their counterparts, respectively). The s in sri, however, is without any doubt in the original (and in the second row transliteration) a so suea. However, no sri but only a zri exist in Sanskrit. You wrote the sri in modern Thai ("accordingly") with so sala. What is the phenomenon behind? Something like a "post-hoc sanskritization" that occured in modern Thai?

    2. Although I know that the name of the father is given in Thai with ศรีอินทราทิตย์ --- wouldn't give the term ศรีอินทราแทตย์ (sara ae for the sanskrit ai), zrI indrA daitya slightly more sense? I have, however, to admit that there is no evidence from the Sukhothai writing that here an ae (or an ai) could be meant. Or is it simply zri indra Aditya (son of the sun) with a lacking o ang?

  6. 1. The ศ in the modern version is used to reflect the current spelling, which is also the etymologically correct spelling. I don't know why, despite there being instances of ศ and ษ in Ramkhamhaeng script, ศรี is written สรี. I haven't taken a close look to see when ศ and ษ start cropping up in this inscription, but I'll try to. Sounds like an interesting survey to make.

    2. As written, อินทราทิตย์ would be a sandhi (สนธิ) compound of อินทร 'Indra' and อาทิตย 'sun'. According to sandhi rules, when you combine indra + aditya, you get indraditya, so the Thai อ disappears when it becomes the compound อินทราทิตย์.

    This is an area I'm very interested in, but still relatively ignorant in. So we're learning together here.

  7. Thanks a lot for your reply. In the case you find out why in the original so suea but in modern Thai so sala is used I would be very interested in knowing the reasons.Concerning sandhi (สนธิ): Clearly my mistake. It is, in principle, the same issue as in the full name of "Bangkok"(กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลกภพ นพรัตน์ราชธานี บุรีรมย์อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์) where มหินทรายุธยา is not mahIndrA yodhya but mahIndra-a-yodhya (=NOT to be fought or overcome or subdued). We discussed this already at another place in relation to อยุธยา, A-yut-tha-ya (Ayodhya).

    The inscription of the King Ramkhamhaeng stele have been published at SeaSite. Do you have other sources for Ramkhamhaeng/Sukhothai script in general?

    Btw: How to insert an immage in a comment. Tag img appears to be not allowed?!

  8. Having learned to read Khom and Tamil, as well as Thai, and then learning Thai Khom (using Khom to write Thai language is a separate subject which can be studied), i find this post extremely fascinating. Looking at modern Thai written language and considering Por Ramkamhaengs concoction of letters, it becomes evident to see how he took some Khom letters some Sanskrit letters and whatever else he took (if anything).

    I have started to look at memorizing the Devanaghiri alhabet due to the fact that half of it is already recognizable from having studued Tamil script. So manyt letters in Thai have a likeness to one of the three languages, and it is fascinating to see this procession from side to side writing become an under, over, left or right placement for vowels as the Thai grammar developed in time. I commend you for this post it is very valuable for etymologists and language buffs such as myself