Have you ever seen those brilliant kids in the national spelling bees? When given a word to spell, the first thing they ask for is the word’s origin. Knowing the “Latin”, or “Greek”, or any of the many other roots to our English words they immediately not only know the word’s basic meaning but they have a big head start on how to spell it correctly. Well, Thai is also a language whose roots come from many other languages.
The latest of these of course is English. But with English, Thai usually borrows the complete word. In Thai, these are referred to as ทับศัพท์ /táp sàp/ or borrowed words. It is amazing that without ever studying Thai you will already know hundreds of Thai words, albeit borrowed from English.
The way they are pronounced might make them a little hard to recognize though. My golf caddie (Don’t blame me, I’m retired and supposed to be playing golf) the other day was talking about a “dy wat”. It took me a while to realize that she was talking about a “divot” that I had just made in the fairway. But when she called out the Thai word “on”, it didn’t take me long to figure out that I had hit my ball “on the green”.
The Thai Royal Language, ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/, borrows a great deal from the Cambodian Royal Language. And of course Thai has lots of Chinese influence. But the languages with the most impact on Thai, especially the roots of Thai words, are the Indian languages of Pali and Sanskrit.
Although both are “dead” languages, similar to Latin, you can still hear Pali spoken daily as it is the language of the Buddhist scriptures and chants. All men who join the monkhood must learn some Pali in order to take part in the Buddhist chanting and rituals. That is not so different from the time when all Roman Catholic masses were held in Latin.
I am always looking for ways to help me increase my Thai vocabulary. And the fact that so many Thai words have their origins in Pali and Sanskrit can help with that. Just like those spelling bee kids, if we can learn the roots of a word we can get a head start on figuring out its meaning and maybe even remembering it.
By the way, the two Thai words used above both have roots in Pali and Sanskrit. The root ศัพท์ /sàp/ in each means “word”. ทับศัพท์ /táp-sàp/ = (borrowed) word.
ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/ has the extra benefit of having two roots. ราชา /raa-chaa/ means royal or pertaining to the king. So ราชาศัพท์ /raa-chaa sàp/ = royal words. The root ราชา /raa-chaa/, meaning “royal”, can also be seen in the English phrase “the British Raj” or in the word “Maharaja”. The “maha” in “maharaja” is another root meaning “great”. So “maharaja” = “great king”.
As you can see, one root will lead to another. This could go on for a while. That is why I have been compiling a list of Thai words that have Pali and Sanskrit roots.
I am still adding to this list so if you come across any roots that I don’t have yet please drop a line and we’ll try to incorporate them. For now, just have fun with the language.
See if you can find the Pali and Sanskrit roots to Thai words that also are roots to English words. There are quite a few, showing that the Thai and English languages are in fact distant cousins. Here are a few below (although some are merely guesses on my part).
(Pali) royal, of or pertaining to king
British Raj, Raja, Maharaja, Rajasthan
(Pali) great; omnipotent; large; many; much; maximal; paramount; exalted
Maharaja (great king), Mahatma (Great Soul, Atma = soul) as in Gandhi.
death; the act of dying; cessation
mortal, mortality, immortal
(Pali) maternal; relating to mother
The word for mother in so many languages start with “m”. This is just one more.
(Sanskrit) Aryan race; civilized person; honorable person; honest person
(Pali) science; knowledge; learning; philosophy
Possibly related to wit, witty
(Sanskrit, Pali) human; relating to human
Possibly related to human, man, woman, humanity
(Sanskrit?) remote, over a distance
Pronounced toh-rá when used in compound words. Possibly related to “tele” which is a Greek root meaning remote, over distance. The Thai words with this same prefix are so close to English. Just replace the “r” sound with an “l” and you will see.
Telephone: โทรศัพท์ /toh-rá sàp/
ศัพท์ is the Pali word for “word”
Television: โทรทัศน์ /toh-rá-tát/
ทัศน์ is the Sanskrit root for “vision”
Telegraph: โทรเลข /toh-rá lâyk/
เลข is the Pali root for “writing”
Telescope: โทรทรรศน์ /toh-rá-tát/
ทรรศน์ is the Sanskrit root for “see”