This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
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.
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38 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Does Written Thai Need Spaces?”
Spaces in Thai? To Hugh:You can hardly modify a complex system such as a written language without causing yet more modifications as everything is tightly interwoven and interdependant.
One more reason I see for not barging in with an introduction of spaces between words is the case of conjunct Sanskrit words:Take the complex words ราชทูต,ศาสตราจารย์,พลธนู to name a few.They read: “raatchathoot”,”saattraajaan” and “phonlathanoo” respectively.Now if those were written separate,as: ราช ทูต,ศาสตร อาจารย์,พล ธนู we’d read:
“raat thoot”,”saat aajaan”,”phon thanoo”.I guess you could get the population to reluctantly cope with the new chopped written system but not to have them change their pronunciation to match it as well!
I bet the pundits would agree to shelve this nonstarter for good…
Thanks to Hugh to keep his space open!..Are you interested in this ?
To POP: It’s about time we got out of the fallacious Judeo-Christian notion that animals only have instinct (nature)and no culture.Surely as we should know by now,your chimps have evolved a CULTURE of tonality of their own,exactly as some human colonies have.Raising our pitch for interrogation is just one conventional option some groups of speakers chose,nothing NATURAL about it.Tonal and atonal speakers both use tones of voice for two very distinct aims and those cannot overlap.And a tonal language has to be monosyllabic for obvious reasons.”The use of particles have nothing to do with tones”,but only tones used for expressing affect!
Now you write”…stem from roots in China”:That’s a very different statement than your former”mostly of Chinese descent”.The Thai s (ethnic T’ai)originally living in what is now China(Altai mountains) have,as all other tribal people there ,evolved their own medium,the only common factor they share with Han Chinese being the monosyllabic/tonal model.Actual Chinese vocabulary is very limited in Thai.
In your 4th paragraph,POP,I am a bit lost:Surely history is full of stories about the conqueror imposing his own cultural system,language included.Now is that necessarily a progress? And no one is trying to”put a wall around a nation to keep it frozen in time”,me included! To stand against evolution is silly and futile,but the will to destroy the linguistic homogeneity of a people for a perceived progress,be it scientific,smacks of futile old style missionary colonialism to me! Languages being mostly of the”natural”model,evolve much less by will and clear logic than by fancy and the randomness of history(even by misuses and loanwords).This is what makes them so interesting,being full of images and connotations.The new craze for squeaky clean efficiency would rather raze them down to an easily digestible but tasteless mash.
As for Sanskrit(an artificial language),it has always been the cultural/religious vehicle of the Brahmins and its transmission was traditionally oral within that caste only.It never”died out”as you write,precisely because it never was fully”alive”as a popular communication medium,neither in Cambodia nor in Siam.(Had it been,its pronunciation would not have been so drastically altered there.)
7th paragraph:Levels of speech from slang to deferencial (my”hierarchy of form”)seem evident in most languages.Which research has discredited that?
To tail it off,POP,you seem to believe that there are”good”languages that you would keep as is and”bad”ones that need forceful reform for the perceived benefit of the population.Is not striving to understand and by that,letting ourselves be transformed a more worthwile endeavour? Interesting thought:the fallacy that we do undertand the past,be it our own or any people’s.And we would not be able to predict the “side effects”of the drastic moves we want to impose.Evolution does not have to be consciously planned.Enough to see the mess holy do-gooders have wrecked all along history!(The”way of water”instead ?)
U: “What you call”the natural use of tones”do not seem to exist at all,but what does is merely the aping of western ways from popular culture.”
Me: so all those studies with chimps should be thrown out the door eh? 🙂 They must have got their use of pitch, tone and volume from us nasty western humans. And all those ancient a-tonal languages must have come about as a consequence of time-machine travel – reaching forward to pinch our clever language tech? And all those languages that have been through major bottle-necks (like population recovery after massive decline) and emerged as atonal languages – that must have been a consequence of them hearing the western gods dictating “though shalt speak as the future leaders of the world speak” (probably Mandarin nyet?)
U: Tonal speakers traditionally just use extra words to express affect.Nothing “natural”,it’s all cultural instead.
Me: they use inflected particles yes i’m aware of it na? But such use of particles has little to do with tones. Te Reo Maori grammar is almost entirely based on the use of particles. Japanese uses them liberally also.
U: Thai is essentially a monosyllabic/tonal language.Monosyllables do not mainly come from Chinese at all,they form its original roots.Polysyllables we find in today’s Thai mainly come from Khmer,Pali and Sanskrit,and have reluctantly been incorporated as such,in fact Thai people have strived to make them sound as monosyllables when they do not chop them off altogether for size(more than 2 syllables typically).See more rooty versions of Thai-Kadai idioms for proof.
Me: Yes the common working class words stem from roots in China and the more clumsy words from Sanskrit (whether via Pali or Khmer). I’m very familiar with syllable shedding – i live in the south and most everyday words have their syllables shortened – “bit du” instead of “bit pradu” but what has that to do with either spaces in written Thai or the use of tones? I note that the use of simple words like near and far shed light on their tonal utility – we use far a lot lot more than we use near – electing instead to say not far.
U: Finally,I fail to see how the drastic reform you envision(a cultural destruction,rather!)would usher the country into a new era of prosperity and equality.Remember the utopian experiment of Esperanto that was supposed to bring world peace and understanding among all nations?Linguistic reforms,history tells us,do not alter the fabric or pace of societies significantly.
Me: What about Hangul and what about modern Hebrew? History tells us quite clearly that linguistic reforms, however imposed, have everything to do with the evolution of social fabric – you have written nonsence. History is a rich tapestry of language imposition – one group injects not only their genes but also their languages. Trying to put a wall around a “nation” to keep it frozen in time is not only wrong but pointless. Eventually all languages evolve towards greater utility shedding useless words and grammar for new ones. Always led by the young and always fought by the old.
U: Thais do not seem to have a problem with the complexities of their language,love it as it is and thus do not need any nudge to alter it,specially from outside(I get a whiff of stalinism as I read your suggestions!) .Let’s consider also that atonal languages typically have much more demanding grammars to master for anyone,so that it’s a matter of where the troubles lay instead.And the troubles in learning Thai are not the same for a Thai child than for an adult foreigner.
Me: I read in a journal of linguistics once about a language that could only be learned as a child because it was too complex to learn as an adult. Very useful language right? I also read that Sanskrit died out because the complexity of the language demanded such a large infrustructure of education that once that infrustructure collapsed the use of the language evaporated. Just because a language can be learnt as a child does not make it therefore a great language. I don’t think English is so great – i’ve studied much better languages but at least it has spaces and at least it leaves the tone use to the speaker as do hundreds of other languages.
U: Finally,I have trouble seeing”elitism”in wanting to keep the status quo
Me: Right, you wouldn’t would you. “Thou shalt not evolve” – yeh right buddy good luck with that. If you had your way we’d have no cars, telecoms, internet, GPS etc. The church used to try and suppress heliocentric system – that worked great right? The US GOP leaning elites want to suppress science – and they go to extremes to do so. Why? Stupid? Evil? Or just that they like to keep the status quo?
U:Which language does not possess a hierarchy of form?
Me: ah, sorry, but that line of thinking has been quite recently discredited in the research.
U: People everywhere have learnt to use the level corresponding to their usefulness in their own micro-society.
Me: that is one of the true things you have written. Agreed. Does not make it right or wrong though.
U: I fail to see where Thai s would be trampled under by a supposed arcane version of their idiom! That smacks of a conspiration theory to my mind…
Me: people conspire in many ways – knowing and un-knowing. For good or ill. But not working for the benefit of your fellow beings (well-guided or otherwise) is at the heart of what Confuscious defined as a lesser man.
Just a few remarks from your post to,perhaps,close the chapter,POP:
What you call”the natural use of tones”do not seem to exist at all,but what does is merely the aping of western ways from popular culture.
Tonal speakers traditionally just use extra words to express affect.Nothing “natural”,it’s all cultural instead.
Thai is essentially a monosyllabic/tonal language.Monosyllables do not mainly come from Chinese at all,they form its original roots.Polysyllables we find in today’s Thai mainly come from Khmer,Pali and Sanskrit,and have reluctantly been incorporated as such,in fact Thai people have strived to make them sound as monosyllables when they do not chop them off altogether for size(more than 2 syllables typically).See more rooty versions of Thai-Kadai idioms for proof.
Finally,I fail to see how the drastic reform you envision(a cultural destruction,rather!)would usher the country into a new era of prosperity and equality.Remember the utopian experiment of Esperanto that was supposed to bring world peace and understanding among all nations?Linguistic reforms,history tells us,do not alter the fabric or pace of societies significantly.
Thais do not seem to have a problem with the complexities of their language,love it as it is and thus do not need any nudge to alter it,specially from outside(I get a whiff of stalinism as I read your suggestions!) .Let’s consider also that atonal languages typically have much more demanding grammars to master for anyone,so that it’s a matter of where the troubles lay instead.And the troubles in learning Thai are not the same for a Thai child than for an adult foreigner.
Finally,I have trouble seeing”elitism”in wanting to keep the status quo:Which language does not possess a hierarchy of form? People everywhere have learnt to use the level corresponding to their usefulness in their own micro-society.I fail to see where Thai s would be trampled under by a supposed arcane version of their idiom! That smacks of a conspiration theory to my mind…
Michael you argue as an elitist.
Who should a language best serve? The Majority or the educated elite who find joy in esoteric minutiae?
As for tones – I live in Thailand and observe constantly how Thais must deal with the natural human use of tones around a tonal language. It’s almost as if tonal languages are an impediment to natural use of tones. Suppression of what you can say so that you might not so easily say what you think. I see how young people de-tonalise the language so that they are more free to inflect – to the point that young people talking amongst themselves are using a different language.
I was once told that Chinese elite speak amongst themselves in Cantonese because it frees up the use of natural tone use.
Whatever – the issue is not tones but the use of spaces between words to reduce cognitive load and increase reading ability. The other weaknesses in the written form could be addressed at the same time or not.
I note that advertisers make much more use of spacing – because they know that the faster a message is delivered the more likely it will lead to sales.
Elitism is a form of fundamentalism – suppression of evidence based progress on behalf of those who benefit from suppressing it.
Thailand needs a LOT of progress. It has terrible suffering and poverty for such a wealthy country.
When succession comes i can think of no more lasting a contribution to the welfare of the Thai people than to make rationlisation of the written language a primary objective.
And incidentally, Thai is not monosyllabic – it has a large number of single syllable words (mostly of Chinese descent, not Sanskrit) but much of the lexicon is polysyllabic.
Oops! I bypassed your stated wish for”elimination of tones”!
Any monosyllabic language gets the semantic diversity it needs precisely from those tones.There do not seem to be any other way(can you offer us any?),except maybe with the tongue of some hypothetical isolated forest tribe with very little need for diversity(although I guess they would have many more items than we do for expressing the rich biological diversity they have to know).But then again,if Thai was not essentially a monosyllabic language,wouldn’t that be peak ?…
To”Peak oil poet:”Silliness of the written language”:A quite superficial remark to my eyes…Those”duplicate”consonants are neither interchangable nor purposeless they simply reflect etymology,an essential element of any mature language.To do away with them would be tantamount to severing the past from that language.But what you advocate here has been done with the Lao idiom:Its reform allows for just one character by any given phoneme.The results? Clearly easier mastery of the language by children of various ethnic backgrounds but as soon as someone wants to know the original meaning of,say,more than a quarter of its vocabulary,he/she has to fetch a Thai dictionary,where the totality of original letters has been preserved!
Now,to be fair and consistent,you’d have to want the same for any European tongue,English included.”philosophy”would have to be written”filosofy”.Too bad for the Greek “Phi”link! And then you’d have to insist on just one sound per vowel:exit the two sounds in”live”,or as in”potato”and”tomato”,and so forth.
Those Greek and Roman roots in Western languages correspond to Sanskrit in Thai and a host of other Eastern tongues.And that antiquated language is a trove of concepts that we do not have,therefore precious to keep.But ultimately Thai s have to decide whether they opt for fast food or gastronomy. The only reform that would not do any damage to their written language is the harmonizing of tonal markers,yielding the same tone for any given consonantic class.But then they’d have two distinct systems any child would have to learn:the reformed AND the old,without which no pre-reform material could be read!….Well well!…How about keeping the good old status quo instead?(So as to keep it”peaky and oily”)
Interesting is that most of the comments have been either by people with “skin in the game” or by those who failed to back up their thinking with some simple on-line research.
As well as there having been many complex neurolinguistic & psycholinguistics studies there have been some rather telling relatively easy studies.
The simplest study is one where you artificially introduce spacing into Thai and then examine the effect on reading speed and comprehension by native Thai readers.
Seems pretty clear that spaces allow Thais to read faster and with better comprehension suggesting that cognitive load is reduced.
Reducing cognitive load on complex tasks like reading allows you to process more information in a shorter time. Think about how even to an experienced driver an automatic transmission makes driving easier.
If spaces were not advantageous we’d have likely never seen most languages adapt them – after all they would have been quite a real cost when the added paper and printing requirements were a very real expense.
I’ve raised two families – one in English and one in Thai. Watching kids learn Thai has been an eye-opener. It’s way way more demanding for children and requires considerably more input from parents and teachers resulting in less time spent on learning widely because so much time is devoted to getting the reading and writing right.
Any suggestion that cultural aspects should be considered seems to me to be just elitism. Farangs that have learned to read Thai value their efforts and defend the silliness of the written language. It has also crossed my mind that keeping Thais dumbed down by an overly challenging writing and cultural curriculum keeps the working class from gaining too much intellectual power.
Seems to me that the greatest achievement by any Thai leadership would be to really clean up the written system. Spaces, elimination of duplicate consonants, replacing consonant classes with a re-rationalised tone mark system (and even eventual elimination of tones) could quite likely see the Thais become as productive as the Koreans who rationalised their written form some time ago.
Buddhism teaches that attachment is at the core of all suffering.
I’d suggest that attachment to an antiquated written form is a source of suffering and poverty for the whole nation.
I have recently been thinking a lot about the lack of space between words in Thai language. I have even written up a “test document” with a multiple choice quiz over the information to research this question. I have only recently opened my access to the internet and am not sure if my original info is still active.
I see the arguments on both sides.
An experiment might be enlightening, though. Print the same exams (in Thai) in two sets – one with and one without spaces. Administer each set to two equivalent schools, and compare the resulting marks. If spaces are any use to comprehension, the marks there should be significantly higher.
– Roger –
Aom, you caught me at just the right time, so, instant response 🙂
Thank you for the offer. I am very interested in the variables. Shoving an entire nation into one pot doesn’t work and hinders understanding. And if you’d like to share it in a post, better still!
Ta for the kudos. I owe a lot to guest authors like Hugh, Todd, Rikker, and many others. Only having my views would get mighty tedious. Those contributing make it a more interesting read.
Nice to meet you., Catherine. Wow, that’a quick response.
Oh talking about introvert, I am definitely one. Those things i reflected are just from experiencing in the past, growing up at school or even in a semi-conservative Thai family. On the other side, I’m more like stuck in the middle zone of not-so-Thai and not so -western mind either. Growing up as a “real Thai” collective side until 15 then lived and studied abroad in Australia dor 3 yrs, back spent 4 yrs in international program at Thammasat U, then went to work in USA, and then anoter 2 yrs of further edu in Japan, and now I’m back working in regional org. Those experiences forced me into understanding both Thai and outside perspectives on things…and like you,I always wonder what each side’s perspective on the same topic. So those response earlier are from the Thai side and i mean Thai that doesn’t really have a chance to associate with Farangs.
Coz one thing I observed, Thai people who are associate and like to hang out with Farangs are different from the group that are not…in the way they think. I have 3 group of close friends though time which are, Thai-Thai in Thailand, Thai people but growing up in international schools here or abroad, and the foreigners who been here and never been here so if you want to know the view from any of the group that knows Thailand well but different angle, let me know ….:)
Have a nice day…I really like ur blog by the way
Hi Aom, thanks for pitching in with your local experiences, and a megga welcome to the site.
“We do but it’s just not rooted in the “collective” society sense, when you are sitting alone, away from each other, instead of mingling…i don’t know if it makes sense to you.”
I’m an introvert, which is supposed to be about as far as one can get from Thai society. I enjoy quiet and being mostly on my own. And when Thai friends find out they often mull over our differences. But they accept me and give me space. On long car trips it’s not a problem for me to go off into my head while they are left to chatter on.
I’m an avid reader too. And I know studious Thais who are alway studying but they work as a group, helping each other. So I sometimes wonder what Thai introverts do.
A little late runner for discovering this blog. Wow, impressive though. I’m Thai with international experience, as in living, studying, working, and traveling and been using bothe Thai and English in my everyday life for more than 14 yrs. Anyhow, with the space beween the words, that is how we start to learn how to read. By separating word and there is space in between, yes, it’s easier but as we grown up, I don’t think it wouldn’t be a good idea to put space in all words, only some particular emphasizing words on…let’s say, time and expression words.
Still, I don’t think with or without spaces has anything to do with helping Thai people to read. Westerners are born and grow up with a book culture. You were assigned to do at schools, discuss about history, about writers, about movies that based on the original books and so on. We don’t. We were focusing on making a living, on getting together as a group, singing, dancing, going to temples, etc. So it is not that we could not read. We do but it’s just not rooted in the “collective” society sense, when you are sitting alone, away from each other, instead of mingling…i don’t know if it makes sense to you.
Yes, your probably right about ‘expensive’. Most books considered expensive to the majority of Thai people, I guess. I’m among the crazy-for-books and all form of reading so many of my friends at a young age would say…Geez, you are nerd, boring or…can’t you just finish that and hang out with your friends. You know. So my point is, after all it’s about culture, perception and so on. Now that people are able to afford and have access to information, we are reading more. The annual national book fair in Bangkok is one of the most crowded and popular, even than travel fairs.
After all, this is just reflecting from my observation from being the minority of Thai who lovesssss reading!
i will say this. when i started to read thai, i didn’t get flustered over the no spaces aspect of it. i just tried to remember the letters and rules!
it’s a challenge and that is not always a bad thing.
my mom likes to read. yes, they are magazines and newspapers so maybe thais are a ‘short story’ kind of culture. i don’t know. i feel like thailand’s literary culture is ready to take off and when it inevitably does, i’m not sure if spaces between the words will be part of it. . .does it really matter?
I was enjoying reading my Sookie Stackhouse vampire mystery Dead Until Dark on my Android tablet (I’m retired, I can do that kind of stuff.) when I heard this “bing” indicating an email arrival. Lo and behold it was another comment from Bill Rini.
Now I don’t want this debate to become too boring, but since I try to answer everyone who has taken the time to comment on my posts, I will try to make this entertaining or at least a bit amusing with an anecdote or two.
Bill Rini, I thought my attaching a link with a list of argument fallacies last time would have slowed you down some. But now you are using an “ad hominem” (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/ad-hominem.html) or a personal attack. That was naughty. We’ll get to that later. Let’s get to the debate.
Using your logic, you are saying about me that “you are in effect also saying that Thais love reading”. Hey, if your logic tells you that, go for it. I challenge you to find anywhere in my hundreds of publishings about Thailand, its culture, and its people, where I have ever made a blanket statement such as that. That is something that I have always tried to avoid, starting when I began writing about Thailand as a regular contributor to the Bangkok Post in the 1980s, and to magazines such as The Asia Magazine, Sawasdee (Thai Ariways in-flight magazine), Chiang Mai City Life, the Far Eastern Economic Review, and of all places The Mother Earth News ) and for fun check out their picture gallery to see what we looked like back then ).
I feel very strongly about stereotyping. So when someone says that “Thais aren’t great readers.” then, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “That is something, up with which I will not put.”
But you have a right to feel this way. I myself will not make a statement about this one way or the other. I mean, break down the sentence, “Thais”. Now exactly to whom are we referring, ajarns, provincial governors, taxi drivers, farmers, people who use dating services and social networking sites? What about “Great”? Does that mean good, skilled, literate, prolific? And “Readers”? Do they read for enjoyment, for their job, for information, to kill time? You see why I can’t make a blanket statement? Too many variables.
Now to the “ad hominem” fallacy. You wrote, “I’m sure that if you just hang out in your own social circle that you would get a very warped impression of what the ‘average’ Thai is doing.” So, only conjecture here, if I don’t “hang out” with the people that you have decided are the “average” Thais, then I don’t know what the hell I am talking about. Just a guess at what you are getting at. I could be wrong.
Well…I have known a few Thais in my more than 43 years of being associated with the country. For a lot of that time I was a teacher (high school, university, director of a language school). I did a count once and I figured that I had more than 5,000 former students. My students have gone on to become, teachers themselves, university deans, government officials, doctors, PhDs, police generals and navy admirals, and there is probably a taxi driver, farmer, and a bar girl thrown in there too (Anecdote alert: I once opened a class for “Women of the Night” because I figured that if they knew more English then they could charge more, have a better class of clientele, and thus increase their income and be safer. The school administration nixed that idea though. But I digress.) Maybe I don’t hang out with them all but I have spent lots of time with them.
Most of my “friends and colleagues” may be in the higher status group, but does that mean those are the only people I have known (I am sure there is another logic fallacy there somewhere)? Yes Virginia, I have met people from all walks of life in my time here.
So, according to you, I “don’t have the experience of interacting with people outside your social class” and I am “handicapped” in understanding Thais. Let me put it bluntly, I don’t understand Thais at all.
Just like, because they are probably a separate species from me, I don’t understand women. Kudos to you if you understand either.
I write about what my impressions are about living in Thailand, and how to navigate through the cultural and linguistic minefield here. And even though about 98% of all my communication with Thais is done in their language (As you seem to understand Thais so much better than I, I am sure that your mastery of the Thai language is comparable if not better.), I don’t have a clue what they are thinking. I know what they say they are thinking, but I know what my wife says she is thinking and I still don’t understand her – and we’ll be married for 40 years this November.
To conclude, I hope, I simply know that I will not make blanket statements about Thais, their culture, or their reading habits.
After the revolution in 1932 there was an attempt to change the Thai script and get rid of some of the little used characters (those crazy Pali and Sanskrit ones). The attempt completely failed.
Changing the way Thai is written would be an act of cultural barbarism, carried out in the name of mechanistic efficiency.
If you add spaces to make it more readable, then you might as well go ahead and get rid of the extra Pali-Sanskrit consonants, and outlaw implied vowels as well, in the name of rationalisation (along the lines that Lao has gone).
But the script is part of Thai history and culture, and rationalising it would be the same as changing English to improve literacy, by those who fermlee be’leev th`at Inglish iz th`ee optimum way tue solv auer litera’see problem, and th`e moest practicul way tue simpli’fie th`ee English spelings.
I said that you were “under the impression that Thais love reading” because you said:
Are Thais really not ‘great readers’? There are literally dozens of daily and weekly newspapers in Thailand and many more magazines.
Why else would they read? Why does anyone read? People read because they enjoy it. Avid readers love reading. So since you advocate the position that Thais read quite a bit then you are in effect also saying that Thais love reading.
And your response to Talan totally answers all my questions about why you’re wrong on this issue. Thailand is a country of 70 million people and the overwhelming majority are not “university graduates, teachers, civil servants, business men, and the like.” They are farmers, manual laborers, taxi drivers, construction workers, etc.
I’m sure that if you just hang out in your own social circle that you would get a very warped impression of what the *average* Thai is doing. It doesn’t make you a bad guy because you don’t have the experience of interacting with people outside your social class but it does handicap you in understanding what the other 40 or 50 million people in Thailand think.
Thanks and I hope your Thai teacher is correct. Remember, I said that it is the Thai’s prerogative to make any changes in their language. My argument was not whether Thai should have spaces, it was whether we visitors should dictate those changes.
If they do make the change then it might make reading lots easier, especially for beginning foreign students of Thai.
Devil’s advocate: I wonder if conventional wisdom might be wrong here though. Maybe putting spaces in Thai won’t make it easier to read. Speed readers are taught to look at whole phrases at a time. I once had a friend who didn’t see individual words, or even sentences. He said he could see a whole page of a book at once. He could read a whole book in about 15 minutes. I believe him. He got a 1600, a perfect score, on his SATs, and then went to MIT on a full scholarship. I am not sure if I am of the same species as he though.
Thai sort of forces one to look at large chunks of writing at a time (remember there are spaces between phrases and sentences). Maybe, if we break Thai writing up into syllables or words by adding spaces then people would begin to read more slowly since they would be looking at only a word at a time. It would be an interesting experiment.
As to how old children are when they begin reading, instead of saying “Most Thai children…” I probably should have said, “Most Thai children that I know…”. Thanks for the correction.
My children began reading Thai (and English) at about 3 or 4. Most of my Thai friends and colleagues are university graduates, teachers, civil servants, business men, and the like. This group of people tend to begin early. They begin “anubaan” or kindergarten (the big thing now is to get your kid into the right anubaan – sound familiar?), at about 3 and usually go for 3 years before entering 1st grade. By that time they are reading. It is my bad (and it may be because Thai is such a regimented, class conscious culture)that I do not have close friends who are at other levels of society. So I really don’t know what they are doing. I would guess that those without the means to send their children to early childhood education would have a tougher time reading at a young age.
This is exactly what was happening in the U.S. and why we established the “Head Start” programs to help poorer American children begin learning as young as possible. Now that Head Start is beginning to be unfunded, I wonder if the poorer American children will have the same problems as the not so affluent Thai students are having.
I would bet that the library-card-carrying bar girl was reading early though. Why don’t you ask her and get back to us and let us know? Good for her. I love to hear that sort of thing.
Hugh, great post. Lots of great comments as well but I do disagree with a few things.
The argument about spacing between words in the Thai language is not just a falang one. My Thai teachers have expressed an opinion that there should be spaces and have also told me there is a quiet movement going on to change how Thai is written. It must be very quiet as I have heard nothing but they seem to know what they are saying.
The numbers given to Thai reading can’t be correct just from my meager observations…while there is a lot of newspaper reading going on there are many Thai’s that I have met that don’t understand a lot of what they read in the paper. As far as books I would think comic books are the most read in Thailand and have verifiable evidence to that effect.
“Most Thai children by the age of 3 or 4 know the alphabet and have already begun reading”
I don’t believe this to be true. I have been around countless children this age and while they do know or are learning the alphabet and how to speak Thai they aren’t formally learning to read. That holds true in Issan as well as Pattaya.
All that being said I know a bar girl that has a library card and goes to the library every other day to check out a new book…she doesn’t watch tv and loves to read.
Whatever the case this was a great post Hugh and definitely sparked a thoughtful conversation.
You don’t give up do you?
To quote you, I am “under the impression that Thais love reading”. Now, exactly where did I say that? You are an advocate of good reading I believe, but it would appear that you didn’t do a good job of reading my post (which isn’t about Thais reading Thai at all but about foreigners reading Thai).
Putting words into a writer’s mouth (or keyboard) and then trashing them by criticizing those words is an interesting way to make an argument. I’m sure it must be listed under the common argument fallacies I learned about in Philosophy 101 (http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/). I think this technique might be related to “Factual Errors”.
But I digress. Maybe you haven’t been attacking me as you say (sure feels like it though).
So, let’s end this here. It would appear that reading anything other than what you believe is quality reading material is judged to be a worthless endeavor. How about James Joyce’s Ulysses? Would that be quality enough? Well(and get ready for an anecdote), I tried reading it once and got through 60 pages before I tossed the book across the room. Wasn’t really sure it was English since I didn’t understand anything that was happening. So I stick with detective stories (that’s not really true as in the last 45 years I have read on average between 100 and 200 books per year, but I like detective stories and mysteries best – try The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy). My point, people, me included, read what they like and are comfortable with. And it isn’t for me to judge them for it.
Good luck with the dating service and social networking site. Sounds like it could be a lucrative undertaking. I for one do all my online writing completely gratis (except for a few Google Ads which pay for my service provider). As with most writers, good or otherwise, all I really want is to be read. Thanks for reading.
You are taking this as an attack on you but it’s not intended as such. You are correct in that you presented the question of whether or not the Thai language should include spaces. But where you went astray is using facts to support your position which are untrue.
Basically, you said, The sky is blue because grass is red. I’m pointing out that the grass is not red.
Here are your words:
And so far I have kept presenting both hard facts as well as some anecdotal evidence that shows that this is wrong.
The fact of the matter is that if Thais wanted to read books there would be a thriving pirate book market. You would be able to buy pirated books as easily as you can buy pirated DVDs.
But there is a difference between reading Harry Potter and the latest fashionista magazine. I don’t see how you can argue that someone reading a gossip rag is a “great reader.” Back home would you take someone seriously that told you that they consider themselves well read if their only reading was of The National Enquirer or People Magazine?
And the difference between reading a magazine, even a more challenging magazine, is that, on average, most stories are only 1 – 2 pages in length. When I used to live in Spain I would often pick up a complementary magazine or newspaper if I was sitting around with nothing to do. My Spanish was horrible but I could manage my way through and article and get the general gist of what it was about.
But I wouldn’t attempt that with a book. With a book you have to not only get the gist but understand what it means. It requires a different kind of reading. And that’s why I would consider The Economist a much more difficult to read than People Magazine. You can’t just get the gist and look at the accompanying photo and sort of get it. You have to focus in order to make sure you understand.
And you call my comments stereotypical judgments when Richard Barrow, the Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand, and former Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont have all said the same thing. You’re the only one who seems to be under the impression that Thais love reading and the only thing holding them back from devouring books is the cost.
“We prefer listening and watching rather than reading, so we are more interested in television and the radio.” — Publishers and Booksellers Association of Thailand (PUBAT) president Risuan Aramcharoen
And my website, is a dating AND social networking site. It’s been around since 2003 and has 75,000 members. Some people use the site to try to find the love of their life (and many have) but many people use it as a social network to share information, ideas, opinions, etc about Thailand, Thai culture, farang culture, and life in general.
So, we have a very diverse mixture of Thais and farangs on the site. And the link I previously shared about the number of books read per year was discussed on the site. Here is what a Thai female who has an advanced degree and has been living and working in Sweden for about 20 years had to say:
And as far as the numbers you’re quoting from Barrow, I believe those are “of people who read regularly.” Otherwise, I have a difficult time believing 55 million newspapers are sold in Thailand each day.
It’s fair to ask why you see newspaper/magazine kiosks if nobody is reading. But it’s not a matter of “nobody” reading. I’ve never claimed that nobody reads. It’s an issue of how many magazines and newspapers are sold and whether or not Thailand’s reading habits classify them as “great readers” as you seemed to imply.
According to Wikipedia, Thai Rath and Daily News account for 50% of the total newspaper circulation in Thailand. Thai Rath reports a circulation of 1 million and Daily News has about 900,000. So let’s call it an even 2 million and double that since they are 50% of the market which gives you a total newspaper circulation of 4 million. So roughly 5.7% of the population of Thailand reads a daily paper. Obviously more than one person can read a newspaper but I think the point can be illustrated 5.7% is not that “great.”
Just as a point of contrast the NY Times has a circulation of 950,000 (1.4 million for Sunday NY Times). That’s just one newspaper aimed at market of population of approx 20 million (compared to Thailand’s 70 million). When you start adding in the NY Post, NY News, Buffalo News, News Day, and all of the local city papers (of which there are over 40) it’s safe to say that the total number of newspapers sold in just the state of New York eclipses the number of newspapers sold in Thailand.
So, my point still stands, Thais do not tend to read as much as many other countries and it has nothing to do with the price of books.
I am sure affordability is one of the determining factors. I’m not very good at determining why people do what they do, but I like to observe. Books are quite expensive in Thailand. Nevertheless, the book fairs in Bangkok and other cities have been growing steadily and those rent-a-book shops are very popular, a book costing less than a movie rental.
I did read something recently that has made me think. Thais are a quite gregarious people and rarely do anything alone. In fact, when they prefer to be alone people will think that they might be ill. Novel reading is a very solitary endeavor. The writer was saying that maybe Thais would prefer doing activities with other people over being alone.
Also, I have noticed that many people here will read stuff that is important to them (most likely not The Economist or a 300+ book). But a bar girl will read about fashion and makeup, a mechanic might read an auto magazine, a farmer might read about the latest fighting cock breeds (forgive me Bill Rini but these are anecdotes about things I have actually seen).
I myself am more concerned in advocating that we visitors learn to read as much as we can. Under a separate email I will send you a free copy of my eBook, A Field Guide to Reading Thai Roadside Signs. Ity’s lots of fun and will help build vocab and word recognition. Anyone else who would like a copy drop me an email from retire2thailand.com and I’ll email it back to you.
Hugh, I’ve been watching this debate with great interest. I have to ask, IF one were to question the statistics on how many people are reading what in Thailand…could affordability be a determining factor?
As a westerner, on a tight budget, I’ve baulked at some of the prices of the books in local stores. And let’s face it, newspapers are usually cheap. If lower socioeconomicic groups in the community, were gifted books…I wonder how the statistics would differ?
By the way…I’m really enjoying reading what little Thai I can read!
Opps Bill Rini!
I forgot that you asked me about an argument that I brought up about who is reading the newspapers and magazines and to quote you “You brought up this argument so it’s your responsibility to defend it with some facts.”
Here is a quote from your own link (http://www.thailandqa.com/forum/showthread.php?9519-Why-don-t-Thais-like-reading – Did you by chance read it yourself?)
“A recent survey showed that 72.9% read newspapers, followed by 45.4% novels and comics, 36.9% magazines, 10.2% textbooks, and 5.7% religious books.”
I don’t really know what these numbers mean, they come from you.
And BTW, it wasn’t an argument, it was a question, “But I do have a question: Who’s reading all those Thai newspapers and magazines I see at every newsstand?” As an essayist I am sure you know the difference.
So, Bill Rini, let’s end this discussion here. The worst thing a writer can be is boring.
Thanks again for your incite and criticism.
I only had one argument in my post and that was to answer “Does Written Thai Need spaces?” And my answer, If they want them, otherwise it’s not for me to tell them what to do with their language.
I think for some reason you want to discuss whether Thais read a lot or not; not something I particularly care about. And now you are commenting on the quality of what they read. I for one do not, and have not in any of these writings, criticized Thailand, its people, or its culture, including its language (to check this out simply Google my name).
If you want to stick with the idea that “Thais don’t like to read.” then that is fine and you are free to do so. I myself do not make blanket stereotypical judgments like that and I definitely will not judge a person on what he/she reads simply because it isn’t “The Economist”. Remember, I read about vampires. I merely try to describe what I see around me and attempt to give suggestions on how to navigate through the Thai landscape more easily (90% of what this and most of my posts are about).
BTW, as to my writing style, using anecdotes, etc., what with my contributing to WLT, my own blog, my website, my retirement column for Chiang Mai City Life magazine (from which I have retired), and contributions to other popular rags (I will appear in an interview in an upcoming Bloomberg.com essay about retiring abroad), I have been read by an average of about 25,000 – 35,000 people per month. I know how important it is to catch people’s attention and to try to keep it while one gets ones point across. Stories and anecdotes help me do this. So please forgive me when I occasionally use one.
With your stern criticism of my writing style it would seem that you know a lot about essay writing. Good luck with your own writing. I see by the link on your name that you are associated with a Thai dating service ). I may be wrong but I am guessing that a few anecdotes strategically thrown in would go far in creating a successful posting on the service.
I also see that you are connected in some way with the writings of the Reverend Buddhadasa (pronounced พุทธทาส /pút~ta tâat/ – the servant or slave of the Buddha). I have read many of his books, in English. His writings are as clear as a bell and he makes liberal use of stories and anecdotes, as of course did the Buddha himself, which also help to make his writings easily accessible. It would be a shame if we dispensed with all the stories. (see for lots of Buddhist stores). I recommend the Reverend Buddhadasa’s “Handbook for Mankind” as a great primer on understanding the basic concepts of Buddhism. It is something that keeps me calm under the barrage of very critical readers.
And all I want is to be read.
As I stated originally, you started off a thesis using the issue about Thai reading habits as a support for that thesis. In fact, it was point #1 which is generally reserved for the most important supporting pillar in a well written argument.
I read and understand your post. In fact, I mentioned in my comment that it is not up to me to suggest what Thais should do with their own language. I simply think you’ve buttressed your argument with incorrect facts about Thai reading habits.
I’m not sure what American reading habits or the habits of one colleague of yours has to do with this argument either. You’re just throwing random stuff against the wall to see what sticks. In my career back home I was a very highly paid technical project manager. I used to order books off of Amazon by the dozen. I probably read 40 – 50 books per year. So I’ve just canceled out your anecdotal argument right there.
Your argument was that Thais are not, not great readers. You pointed to the literacy rate as somewhat proof of this fact. All I was doing was pointing out that having a high literacy rate which is a measure of whether you can pass a predictable test and enjoying reading to the point you would spend your spare time doing it are two completely different things. That is very relevant to what you said and my links basically negated one of the main foundations of your argument.
And maybe I am elitest but unless we’re talking about The Economist or something of similar quality then most Thai (as well as western) magazines are crap. I have a photo of a Thai magazine cover in which they answered the pressing question of “How to bling your boobs.” Do you consider that quality reading? Seriously, I have the picture if you want to see it.
So a lot of what you’re citing is really just comfort reading. A magazine filled with pictures of pretty girls in nice clothes that people buy so they can see the latest fashions and learn what Chompoo is up to this week. Personally, I really don’t consider that reading. A 300+ page book is reading. A 50 page magazine which is 50% advertising with the remaining 50% dominated with photos doesn’t really put any real requirements on the reader, does it?
You ask who is reading all of these newspapers and magazines. Do you have any sort of distribution numbers? How many are actually sold? Just because you see something for sale doesn’t mean that it actually sells. And how do those numbers compare to other countries? You brought up this argument so it’s your responsibility to defend it with some facts.
Similarly, do you have any stats on how many people read your books for personal education vs. how many are forced to for their job? It’s an unfair question because no data exists but I think your books would be pirated far more often because people need them in order to advance in their careers. Which, again, is different from reading for the pleasure of reading.
Believe me, if there was demand for books Thais would find a way to offer them cheaper. So your argument that they don’t read many books because they can’t afford this is just untrue. They love watching movies and buying them at full retail would be too expensive so a thriving piracy market has developed. Where is the thriving pirate book market? Where is the pirate bookstore in Pantip? JJ’s? Sukhumvit?
Or, tell me how often do you see a Thai on the BTS reading/carrying a book that isn’t a school book or instructional? How many are reading the newspaper? Now compare that to say, London (Tube). New York (Subway). Paris (Metro).
And have you asked any Thais aboute this? I have. I’ve asked everyone from MBA’s to high school grads. Most will tell you they simply don’t enjoy it. Many complain of getting headaches from reading too much. None has ever mentioned the price of the books.
Thanks for the comments. I agree with both of your issues.
First, whatever we think about “dictating how a nation writes its language” it is a moot point. The Thais are not going to allow us to do anything of the sort. So I am one that is in favor of dancing with the one you came with. And because we can’t do anything about it, let’s learn how to make reading Thai easier, which is what the majority of the post is about.
Also, I would be the last to dissuade anyone from voicing their opinion. But I don’t have to agree with them – and don’t expect everyone to agree with me. The discussions are fun though.
Second, I agree that adding spaces would make reading easier, and I said this. If you take a look at my eBook “Reading Thai Newspapers” (http://ebooksinthailand.com/, you can download a free lesson) you’ll see that the first thing I do is break the sentences into words and add spaces between them. But then we go back and take the spaces out and practice reading normally.
BTW, as I am sure you know we do use a base 60 system in our everyday life. It’s called the clock.
Thanks for the input.
One small correction though: I don’t believe I introduce any facts(except those from UNICEF), mostly just opinions and descriptions. And didn’t I say that Thais don’t read many books (maybe you miss that)? My argument was with the comment that if there were spaces between Thai words that Thais would read more – which I doubt.
I think you missed the point of the post “Does Written Thai Need Spaces?”. A more in depth reading of the post would show you that my argument was “to space or not to space” (the original title of the piece) not about whether Thais read or not or whether they read more than the Vietnamese do.
Here is a fact though: One in four Americans didn’t read any books last year. And of the ones who did they read between 4 and 7 books ). Americans don’t read much more than the Thais. Looks like the Vietnamese are beating everyone.
As an aside: I have had many careers, one of which was as a computer consultant for large U.S. corporations. I once asked a colleague, MS computer sciences, brilliant technician, making big bucks, which books he was reading or which he enjoyed most. His answer, he never read except for technical manuals. And English has spaces, right?
But I do have a question: Who’s reading all those Thai newspapers and magazines I see at every newsstand? I guess an elitist would argue that they really aren’t worth reading. Maybe “reading” means “reading books” to some people. Well, I am currently reading a Sookie Stackhouse Mystery, a vampire story that has been made into the TV series “True Blood”. I wonder if people would think that was reading. It’s not Tolstoy, but it’s fun. And I am reading it on my Android tablet – would that be considered a book?
As to the Thai educational system (why someone would think that my post had anything to do with that I am not sure), I taught in the Thai school system for 8 years and know a little about their methodology. This post has nothing to do with that.
As to book piracy in Thailand, I currently have 4 books in print here (silkwormbooks.com) and I can tell you from experience that book piracy is a huge problem here. Just go to any photocopy center and see what they are doing in the back. Using the logic stated above then Thais would be “avid readers” because piracy is so rampant. Somehow I think that that logic is flawed
Thanks again, interesting links, and they should be read, even though they are off topic.
Two issues here, firstly should we dictate how a nation writes it’s language? I would say no but writing an article about it and discussing the issues should be fine.
Does word spacing aid readability then the answer apparently is yes. The description of this book gives some background European languages typically were written without word spacing originally as pointed out in the article. This issue has been analysed already and the consensus appears to be it does.
I have found the subject particularly interesting ever since I started learning Chinese, but have to say that the nature of Chinese is that it bears no little or no relevance to word spacing in Thai.
As a learner I can say that Hindi using the Devanāgarī script is much closer to issues when comparing to Thai (the scripts even share some common features and elements). Word spacing in Hindi helps the learner a lot, and I can’t see how it wouldn’t help and encourage more autonomous silent reading. I would be interested to know how much reading Hindi speakers (that are rated fluent) do compared to Thai speakers (that are rated fluent) naturally you may have to factor in something for availability of reading material.
Measuring the ability to read on some scale is vastly different from measuring the education, language learning and other benefits acquired from reading regularly. The former just cares about how good an administration or system looks and whether most of the population can get by with standard media, documentation, signs and government proclamations etc.
If you want to look at the potential benefit of word spacing you should factor out traditionalists, those that have already mastered it and those that simply think it “looks better” one way or another. Much of the history of writing is about the elite and many times practices has been instigated to maintain that elite educated status quo. It is not for nothing that two centuries ago most written Chinese was virtually a different language but now like many other languages the style has evolved to something much closer to how it is spoken.
So yes I believe that word spacing would help both Thai and non-Thai. Which is not me saying that that government should change it, that is a different issue. On this basis why wouldn’t somebody want people to have a better reading experience?
Perhaps we should never have stopped using Roman numerals (people still managed to do maths with them but it was hard and hard to learn). Or as Sumerian script was mentioned maybe we should work in number base 60 still (harder to learn but actually a very sensible number base for calculations)?
I think your stats are a bit off. I can’t find it but I remember reading something in the Bangkok Post or The Nation about a study which showed how many books people read on average. The number was something like 40 books per year in Vietnam and in Thailand it was about 2.
Oh, here I found a reference to the article. I was wrong the average Vietnamese reads 60 books per year. Thailand is still only at 2.
And in that thread is a link to an forum post written by Richard Barrow (who I think we can say, knows a little about Thailand) basically saying that Thais don’t read. He says that things are improving but mostly just in Bangkok. Out in the provinces (where 70% of the population lives) reading books is not common.
And the Thai literacy rate is a number that is provided by Thailand. As any teacher can tell you students are taught to pass exams. They are not necessarily taught the skills to master the subject. So, if a high literacy rate is important they simply teach people who to be able to pass the reading/writing exam.
I’m not implying that Thais are illiterate though. I’m just saying that in most western cultures we learn an appreciation for literature. Well crafted and interesting stories. But if you’re constantly being taught only to pass the next exam then you lose a certain appreciation for writing styles, deeper meaning, etc.
Also, I’ll note that if you go to Vietnam they sell pirated books everywhere. They have people who walk around with books stacked a meter high trying to sell them to tourists. Believe me, if Thais were avid readers the book piracy market would be thriving in Thailand as well. It’s not about the cost of the books. It’s about the demand.
Should Thailand incorporate spaces between words? I don’t know. It would make it easier for me to read but I didn’t grow up reading this style of writing so I’m not really qualified to say one way or the other. But in trying to defend your position you have introduced some facts which are not correct which overall hurts your thesis as it indicates you don’t really understand the topic.
Hugh, Catherine, I also read that same article and was a little taken aback by the audacity of the author. Sure, in the beginning, spaces separating words would be useful for us farang. And, if you learn by reading children’s books, like the Marnee series, there are in fact spaces. But, once you begin to learn the rules (like Hugh has stated), it becomes clear(er) as to where the words start and finish. I enjoy the diversity, it certainly makes for a less boring world.
Hugh, thanks for the list and the link to Spacing in the Thai Lanuage.
This is an interesting article. Thanks. I personally find Thai is rather easy to read once you start learning it. It’s usually obvious where one word starts and another ends. There have been numerous attempts – I believe – to reform the language. Apparently, King Rama VI wanted to make vowels come after consonants instead of wrapping around them: such as sara aow (เอา) or euu (เออ) – but it never caught on. Besides, I rather like the unique form of Thai; it makes it interesting. Why should all languages be homogenous and uniform??
Typical “language imperialism” : you English speakers analyze your language in what you call words, it is so natural to you that you think it can apply to every language on earth, so it would be easy to split “scriptura continua”.
But of course it’s not that simple and the way of thinking about units of language vary from culture to culture.
In Chinese there is no such thing as a word : in a Chinese way of thinking, the word “mainly” would not be 1 word but 2 units of language : “mean” and “ly”.
Thai is somewhere in between : what would you do with เสียใจ? With ขี้เกียจ?
Hi Martyn, it’s all on one line so it won’t wrap. It’s going off the code…
Here you go:
Hugh and Catherine I can see the arguments for both sides here. Leaving spaces would help many of us in the early learning stages of the Thai language but Hugh is right that we shouldn’t try to change a whole nation’s language or culture. A 98% literacy rate is pretty impressive figures and should make us realise that we can conquer the Thai language too. I hope a Thai who is trying to learn to read English views this comment because revenge is a very sweet tasting thing.
When I remember I put spaces between words in the posts I write. This is not just to make the Thai script easier to read but to help readers understand which word combinations make new words.
Btw – today is Hugh’s birthday. Happy Birthday Hugh!
Hugh and Catherine
My lengthy comment has only partially appeared. I’m not sure what went wrong there. I hope you get the gist of it.
Nice post Hugh.