Does Written Thai Need Spaces? Not!
I recently read a post titled Reforming Thai Language Structure which advocated changing the Thai written language by adding spaces between words to make written Thai easier to read. The writer mentions that written Thai is a “scriptura continua” language, one that does not use spaces between words.
He goes on to say:
It is common knowledge that Thais are not great readers. Might this not be due in part to the difficult way the language is organised?(sic) Abandoning scriptura continua would, in my view, be a win win situation for Thais and foreigners alike. Thais would be better prepared to tackle individual words encountered in English and other languages, whilst foreigners would be assisted in understanding Thai language and culture.
So if we add spaces between words in written Thai then 1) Thais would become better readers because the language is currently not well organized. And 2) Adding spaces would help Thais read English and other languages better. And 3) Foreigners would understand the Thai language and culture better.
This all sounds logical until ones digs deeper.
1) Are Thais really not ‘great readers’? There are literally dozens of daily and weekly newspapers in Thailand and many more magazines. Books are not as popular, probably because they are quite expensive (a novel costs around 300 baht or 2 days minimum wages, the equivalent of $120 in earnings in the U.S.). But the Thais deal with this problem with ‘Books for Rent’ shops all over the country. Somebody must be reading them.
Most Thai children by the age of 3 or 4 know the alphabet and have already begun reading. The Thai’s literacy rate is pretty universal and according to UNICEF statistics it is 98% for those between 15 and 24.
2) Would putting spaces between Thai words help Thais read English? Can you make an apple pie with oranges?
3) By putting spaces between words will foreigners learn more Thai and understand Thai culture better? Possibly. But I believe that learning a foreign language and its culture has more to do with an individual’s motivation and hard work than how a specific language is organized. I mean, someone must have been reading Sumerian cuneiform at one time – no spaces there.
Should we be telling Thais how they should change their language?…
I write about the Thai language but I don’t feel that I am an expert enough linguist nor do I have enough audacity to tell a whole people how to change their language. I have a hard enough time just describing it! So why not deal with the Thai language as it is and not tell a whole culture that we know better on structuring their language?
Written Thai already uses spaces…
If you have heard that written Thai doesn’t use spaces then, like Rick was about the waters of Casablanca, you are mistaken.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of when a space is required in written Thai. For lots more examples check out Suphawut (Bryan) Wathabunditkul’s article called Spacing in the Thai Language.
Sorry we are going to get a little long and technical here. Quiz on Friday.
- Add one space when you finish a phrase, clause or sentence, and wish to start a new idea.
- One space after “ว่า” that is used in combination with such verbs of speech as กล่าว (including กล่าวไว้ and ได้กล่าว), พูด, เห็น, รายงาน, แถลง, ยืนยัน, etc.
- One space between a series or set of words or phrases.
- One space after a comma.
- One space before and after a parenthesis or a pair of parentheses.
- One space after a colon.
- One space after a question mark.
- One space before and after a pair of single and double quotation marks.
- One space before and after the repetition mark (ๆ).
- One space after the minor omission mark (ไปยาลน้อย or ฯ).
- One space before and after a major omission mark (ไปยาลใหญ่ or ฯลฯ which reads “และอื่น ๆ อีกมากมาย”).
- One space before and after ฯพณฯ (which reads พะ-นะ-ท่าน).
- One space before and after the preposition ณ and the 3rd person pronoun ธ.
- One space between a person’s military or social rank and his/her name.
- However, leave no space between นาย, นาง, นางสาว, น.ส., คุณ, ครู, อาจารย์ and his/her name.
- One space before and after a person’s rank and his/her name.
- However, if the person is a professor, associate professor or assistant professor without any military rank or doctorate degree, leave no space between his/her academic rank and name. If those academic ranks are abbreviated, leave no space, except between the first and last names.
- One space before and after the names of mass media, titles of books, magazines, newspapers.
- One space before and after the official name of a building.
- One space before and after the words บริษัท, company name, จำกัด and (มหาชน).
- One space before and after the basic mathematic signs.
- One space before and after a digit, time and unit of currency.
- One space before and after date, month and year (era).
- One space before and after เช่น, อาทิเช่น, เป็นอาทิ, ได้แก่, เป็นต้น, เป็นต้นว่า and ตัวอย่างเช่น.
- One space before and after any foreign words, phrases or sentences inserted into the Thai and vice versa.
- One space after the pre-determiners นี้, เหล่านี้, นั้น, เหล่านั้น, etc.
- One space before a long relative clause that is preceded by ที่, ซึ่ง or อัน.
- One space before a clause or phrase preceded by ด้วย, โดย, ตาม, เพราะ and มี.
- One space before the conjunctions และ, หรือ and แต่.
- One space after adverbial phrases ทันใดนั้น, อย่างไรก็ตาม, อย่างไรก็ดี, กระนั้น, ทว่า, โดยส่วนตัวแล้ว, จะว่าไป, ในการนี้, ทั้งนี้, อนึ่ง, etc.
- When writing a long sentence, you should consider spacing after the subject clause, verb clause, modifying clause and object clause to break down the sentence.
- One space after the verbs of definition, for example หมายถึง, หมายความถึง, แปลว่า, คือ and กล่าวคือ.
- One space before and after a clause modifying a person’s name
- One space before and after an interjection or onomatopoeia.
Knowing where one word ends and another begins…
So how’s a poor Thai language student supposed to know where a word begins and where one ends without the use of spaces? Get ready, there’s a quiz after this one too. At this point we should start talking about Thai syllables instead of words, since individual syllables are the ones that are more easily recognizable.
Here are a couple of syllable rules:
- The following vowels (เ แ โ ใ ไ) start a syllable.
- The vowel ะ usually ends a syllable.
- The vowel ำ ends a syllable.
- Acceptable Thai consonant clusters begin a syllable.
- Unacceptable consonant clusters usually indicate that one syllable has ended and another begun.
So here is a simple example of using the above to figure out where one syllable ends and another begins:
pǒm mâi chôp bplaa
I don’t like fish.
- The ไ always begins a syllable so ผม and ไม่ are two separate syllables.
- ม่ and ช do not make an acceptable Thai consonant cluster so they are the boundaries of two syllables ไม่ and ชอบ.
- บ and ป is also not an acceptable Thai consonant cluster so that means that they end and begin two different syllables ชอบ and ปลา.
- ป and ล do make up an acceptable Thai consonant cluster so the last word begins with ปล – ปลา /bplaa/ (fish).
Put it all together and you get (pardon my arbitrary word separator) ผม˚ไม่˚ชอบ˚ปลา.
After a little practice this all becomes natural – just like it does for Thai 3 and 4 year olds. Would adding word and/or syllable separators make Thai easier for me to read? Sure. But Thai, like English and all languages, will evolve on its own. If written Thai changes, it should be the Thais who change it, for their own reasons, not because it makes it easier for Farangs to learn.