Unlikely but True Origins of the Thai Script

Origins of the Thai script…

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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We can trace the Thai script back in time and space (mostly going West) to the Phoenicians, whose alphabet is the mother of all European and Indic systems of writing, including Greek, Hebrew and Arabic! These people were great traders and had links to lands beyond the river Indus. So East went their written words…

But back to the Thai script (we are NOT referring to the language here!). Modern Thai letters are an evolution from the old form used in Sukhothai and they were devised under the King Ramkhanhaeng transforming the Khmer characters in use at that time, when the Thais broke free from the Khmer kingdom.

Some were just inversed, others had to be doubled to accommodate the different tones (see the difficulty of adapting a non tonal alphabet previously only used by polysyllabic tongues for a tonal, essentially monosyllabic language!). Strict concern for the faithful rendition of Sanskrit and Pali vocabulary was applied (not the case with Lao). That is why we find those “useless” letters at the tail of Sanskrit and Pali words.

Old Khmer was itself derived from the Pallawa of South India of about the 6th century.That was a local evolution from the Gupta script of North India (4 AC) which itself came from the Brahmi used by Emperor Ashoka (circa 2 BC).That Brahmi alphabet had been sequenced under the very logical and clever Sanskrit system (a language and NOT a script!) By classifying each letter according to the area of the human organs of speech where they are formed, into five series of five letters (plus some): Guttural, retroflex, palatal, dental and labial (thus moving from the throat to the lips). Brahmi itself came from the writing of the land now known as Lebanon: Phoenician, circa 1000 BC.

Now going in the sense of time and going East, we see that its evolution in diverse regions gave birth to forms as diverse as Devanagari of North India, Ranjana, Tibetan, Bengali, Panjabi, Gujerati, Orissi, Telugu/Kannara, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhala, old Javanese and Balinese, Mon and Burmese, Khmer, Lao, Tham and related Shan and Dai, old Cham.

The amazing fact about all those scripts, apart from the fact that they are traceable in an almost unbroken line across time and space, is that they still all follow the original Sanskrit ordering (except for Old Javanese and Balinese because a very clever poem was created using the phonemes for easy and fun memorizing).


So, just allowing for the small changes to the specific phonemic necessities of each language, we always find these five series of five sounds, plus some: YA RA LA WA HA SA SHA ShA A, mentioned earlier (starting with Guttural: KA, KHA, GA, GHA, NGA of Sanskrit, becoming, for instance: KA, KHA, KHA, KHA, NGA in Thai).

Are we amazed?… Well, I, for one, am!

Michel Boismard

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28 thoughts on “Unlikely but True Origins of the Thai Script”

  1. Michael Sir,
    I am a member of the Tai-Ahom community from Assam and have read your post. It was really good to learn the ideas. In North-East India, we have a few more Tai populations apart from Ahom, i.e., Khamti, Phake, Shyam, Aiton Turung and Khamyang. Our script varies slightly from Thai and our language has more monosyllabic words than Thai. We and our Turung kinsfolk have almost lost our language in case of daily use. Among Ahoms, the language has become only ritual-oriented, for the language we use here in our state Assam is Assamese with a script other than Bengali. The mistaken views about our language is due to the similarities in the Bengali and Assamese scripts, and that Assamese has been derived from Bengali is a view created by the British East India Company officials as our state was the last to be colonised and using officials of Bengal was easy for them for office work.
    We are actually not descendants of the Thai but a close relative branch with more affinities with the Burmese and Chinese Shan and Dai. Hope further research on the Tai of North-East India will be undertaken. Thank you for reading.

  2. @Chris G the mention of the Ivarsson book was very helpful. Regarding claiming that Thai was adopting the Lao alphabet, I believe that has to do with proposed changes to the Thai alphabet (which did not materialize), having followed the proposed changes to the Lao alphabet (which also did not materialize, fully). The book is a fascinating tale of political and linguistic considerations in the formation of the modern Lao alphabet. Worth the read.

  3. Good points made,Jeff.But Egyptian hieroglyphics predate both Phoenician and Kharosthi and its object-representative formula cannot be related to any phonemic (alphabetic) system.As to Brahmi having been influenced by Kharosthi,it appears not,the script is very different from Phoenician and was abandoned in favor of the latter as numismatics,for one, clearly testify.Again,a simple glance at a table of Indic alphabets will persuade you of the direct and exclusive paternity of Phoenician on the Brahmi.

  4. Hi Boismard, from what I understand, Kharosthi is a descendant (or was influenced by) proto-Sinaitic. Proto-Sinaitic itself has an odd name and place in the lineup. It seems to be a intermediate step between the Phoenician Alphabet and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Phoenician is considered to be the first true alphabet, historically. But there are many other scripts that existed at the same time, and tend to influence each other. Phoenician is much older than Kharosthi, but there is significant overlap. One estimate is that Kharosthi was in use between apx. 400 BCE-300 CE. Phoenician was in use 1200 BCE-150 CE. And Brahmi (at least the earliest variant) from 300 BCE-500 CE. So each of these scripts were in existence at the same time (for perhaps more than 400 years). We tend to think along parent-child lines, but sometimes child scripts can have influence on their parent scripts. In any case, yes, Kharosthi and/or Phoenician could be related/have influenced Brahmi, in terms of a timeline. More evidence beyond the family resemblances would be useful to have, especially in terms of geographical transmission, or intermediate languages, or bi-lingual/multi-lingual artifacts.

  5. Jeff,could that Proto-Sinaitic script be related to Karoshti,which found its way East beyond the Indus around the same time as Phoenician ? This was also a Semitic script but I have no clue as to who vehiculated it to India.Rival traders to the Phoenicians ?

  6. One strong evidence is actually available to all when faced with tables of both scripts : The unmistakable likeness of script forms for most letters of the Phoenician and the Brahmi.The link has been validated by specialists and is no more an hypothesis.Thai scholars are also convinced of the fact,and there are charts figuring the evolution of Indic scripts clearly showing Phoenician as a starter which are used in Thai universities.I happen to have one of them.You may also search for Indian epigraphy books for the same.Have fun !

  7. Sorry to come to this discussion so late, but is there any reference regarding the Phoenician link? I’ve only seen tenuous conjecture regarding Brahmi’s origins/parentage. I think the Proto-Sinaitic is a reasonable guess (and perhaps Phoenician) but there is no strong evidence, as far as I can tell.

  8. Interesting comments,Chris.I was unaware of this and just posited that this issue could easily serve as fuel for some nationalist’s propaganda or other,as history tells us.Let us,instead,remain sane and cool,relying on historical,not hysterical,evidence !

  9. Merci Beaucoup Michel,
    A lot of this go over my head, since I have not really studied other Indian abugida scripts. I was merely referring to some academic sources I read a long time ago, which claimed that Lao scripts was dated back earlier (actually I think wikipedia also claims this). For most Thais, reading lao requires just a bit of imagination. Reading Khmer is however admittedly more difficult. I am sure it makes sense to think of some Thai scripts as derived from Khmer because Thais needed scripts that could represent Sanskrit’s and Pali’s orthographical spellings.

  10. Regarding origins of Thai versus Lao script: there’s an interesting discussion in Soren Ivarsson’s “Creating Laos” about the nationalist considerations in reforming the Thai and Lao scripts during the 20th Century, with the Phibun-era Thai government trying to construct a pan-Thai identity and the Lao (and French colonizers) trying to construct and independent Lao national identity. Some Lao intellectuals even claimed that Ramkhanhaeng and his script were in fact Lao, and the cultural heritage later appropriated by the Siamese. There’s a full-text pdf of Ivarsson’s book floating around online, although I’m not sure if it’s pirated or distributed with the permission of the author and publisher.

  11. My erroneous and confusing bit up there,Methaya ! That “pho” letter in either Burmese,Tham ,Shan or Dai script could never have gone through “that reform of the ancient Khom script”,simply because they all derived from the ancient Mon alphabet and not from ancient Khmer !….But true,in the era of that ancient Mon script,the Khom (Khmer) writting appeared very similar to it and to the South Indian Pallawa script from where they both evolved.But I guess you know that well.

  12. Methaya,you’d have to check that “earlier” Lao script you mention : Do you have definite proof that it predates that of king Ramkamhaeng of Sukhothai ? And then which Lao kingdom at that time would have devised their own script from the existing khmer (khom) ? That of Luang Phra’Bang ? (Is there a claim from Lao institutions that this is an historic fact ?…now we may be getting into the slippery slope of nationalist tall claims ! Let’s just be aware of this,while objectively researching the truth.) But overall,your question may be easily satisfied by looking at a chart of ancient Indic scripts,they are well repertoried and dated by eminent specialists in any denomination.They have them in Thai university libraries,or alternatively a good book on Indian epigraphy written well away from the area in question.You will be able to check the graphic progression of every letter.The letter “pho”,in Thai “พ”,for example,is the upside-down form of the Khmer equivalent,which,still today, looks like a “M” and not like a “W”. ( and the Burmese,Tham and Shan letter for that phoneme which did not go through that reform of the ancient Khom script still have that “M”-like shape.)Have fun with your research !

  13. Hi Michel,

    Thanks for your further comments.
    Lately, I have been wondering about the influence of Lao in Thai writing system. Most sources claim that it was the Khmer script from which Thai alphabets were based. However, if you look at the Lao script, they are much more similar to Thai. But since the Lao script inscriptions were dated earlier than Thai, I feel that it may be the Laos that first adopted their writing system from Khmer and then Thai script emerged from the former afterward. Thai and Lao are pretty much mutually intelligible after all. The thing about Laos is that, while they have immense amount of oral literature (such as Jao Hung epic poetry), they don’t write or print many books and there were few books published in Laos until quite recently.

  14. I am not well informed about the Tai Ahom culture in Assam nor it’s preceding influences,save that it was (became) a Hindu kingdom not influenced by the Khmer at all.At present the Bengali script reigns supreme around the Brahmaputra.Did the Ahom adopt its precursor when they settled there or did they carry over a system from China ? I simply do not know but will do some research on that.But whatever scripts would have been used by the ethnic groups of China you are mentioning,Joel,cannot be linked in any way with neither the classical Thai script nor the northern Tham alphabet used in Lanna and further North by the Shan and Dai of Sipsongphanna,which are all clearly traceable to the Pallava of South India.

  15. I got here looking for reference to a precursor to Thai script – that of the Tai Mao of Ruili, Dali, Nanzhao, some of whom pushed west into Assam in the early 1200s CE. I have not been able to come up with much, but would love to learn more! Some posit rulers there from India; I have my doubts about that, as well as about influence there from Angkor. Unfortunately, this kind of info seems to involve touchy political controversy, and while trying to find a refutation of an article about early dog domestication in Mongolia, found the article blocked by the Thai government! Hard to imagine why, but not so hard to imagine why some info about local language is similarly hard to access.

  16. Thanking you,Methaya for your precisions.
    I only have one objection,that the Thai script is solely a development of the ancient Khmer script at the time of King Ramkhamhaeng,and not from the ancient Mon,which only gave rise to the Tham script of Lanna as well as the modern Burmese.Checking the shapes of these old alphabets will make it unmistakely clear.Some of these Khmer letters have been reformed bottom up,such as the “pha” / พ ,which is still found in modern Khmer in reverse,as originally written.

  17. Regarding the Pali and Sanskrit elements in Thai, (I am a lawyer not a linguist but I will try to explain) it is safe to say that Thais model their literature after the Sanskrit tradition and borrow Pali terms for religious purpose. Keep in mind that as time went by the two distinctions started to blur and only educated Thai or academics pay attention to the orthography.

    Words with “r” (ร) or “rr” (รร) came from Sanskrit. This is why Thais use “ธรรมะ” (Dharma) for every day use but will use “ธัมมะ” (Dhamma) for religious purpose. The same is true for “กรรม” (Karma), the word whose the Sanskrit form dominates every day use. If a Pali spelling is used it tends to have an ending in accordance with Pali grammar (e.g. Gammo กัมโม [genitive form] or Gamman กัมมัง [accusative] ).

    My own name “Sirichit” is quite funny because it’s spelled in Thai “ศิริจิตร” – a Sanskrit spelling. But in English I spell it more like Pali (Sirichitta).

    In general, I must say that literary uses affect contemporary language more than liturgical words. That is why many of Thai loan words look like they have a Sanskrit spelling, even when used in religious contexts. I have seen modern Bhiksuni movements that encourage a “pure” Pali-Thai orthography for religious liturgy and abhidhamma teaching. Using Pali spelling has a political statement in the sense of advocating the Buddhist idea of harmony and non-discrimination. Whereas Sanskrit terms denote a culture of privilege that has been associated with the castes system, with Hindu gods and the cult of holy kingship. Many members of this movement are ex-professor or former academics who became Bhiksunis. So I guess they have too much learning for their own good. In fact it’s not that important at all.

  18. I am a Thai and I can say that every Thai school kid knows that the Thai alphabets were derived from Mon and Khmer scripts. But in actuality it may be more complicated than that since the spellings are different. The Thais appear to have a complicated writing system that preserve etymology of the Sanskrit and Pali words, for example.

    The Thai language itself is a tonal mono-syllabic language. It’s in fact closer to Chinese that to Sanskrit. Thus learning to speak Chinese is easy for most Thais (although reading will take a fair amount of learning). I am often perplexed when westerners complain that Chinese is difficult. This may also explain why Thais are not predisposed to learn the languages of the neighborhood like Khmer or Burmese. It’s not just about nationalism. These languages are more different from Thai when compared with Chinese.

    Regarding the Pali and Sanskrit elements in Thai

  19. You talk about the “useless” letters when Pali is written with Thai characters. In my experience with Pali written in English, the final sounds are pronounced. So we have “dhamma” instead of “tham,” Buddhadasa instead of something like Buddhadhat, etc. Does anybody know if these endings were pronounced in the original Pali?

  20. I regret some of my English language errors as well as some typos which found their ways in my text and comments.

  21. Alex,your question is best answered in my profile,by: Archives/Interviews/Comments. Also for Jorgen if he is still around.That topic remains mysteriously out of tuition manuals while fundamental for anyone eager to dive deeper into Thai than the “pho chai dai”(no need to bother further)type!..

  22. I have very limited knowledge on the history of writing systems, but your post got me intrigued because I wasn’t aware that some Indic scripts can be traced back to the Phoenician one. Thanks again for an interesting post!

    Thanks also for the remarks about หลักภาษาไทย; I’ll check it out next time I have a chance.

    BTW, wikipedia is crowd sourced… if you have expertise, go ahead and contribute! :))

  23. …But it is entirely possible that Kharosthi was a developpement of the ancestor of Phoenician somewhere along its course,although to my knowledge,no trace of that elusive script has survived to our days.
    Talking about nationalistic theories,there had been an attempt by Bengali intellectuals striving to uphold a rather grandiose vision of Bharat(India)during the”Free India”period,to link the Indus valley script to Devanagari.That unconvincing theory has been irremediably dismissed by all scholars today,Indian and westerners alike,save maybe some B.J.P.idealists(the eternal dualism between wishful thinking belief and hard fact rationality!).Hard to see how an ideographic system would morph into a phonemic one,to start with!

  24. To Andrej:Right,good ideas tend to thrive,spread and last.Old sage Darwin would not disagree there!(although let’s not discount the historical vitality of ideographic writing spanning millenniums)
    I have never read anywhere that the Aramaic script Kharosthi was derived from Phoenician.Wikipedia stuff has proven to be unreliable at times,so you might want to check other”slower”sources before making up your mind.
    The book หลักภาษาไทย loads a very thorough analysis of the language and is meant for Thai people.I find it difficult to understand but has some revealing bits and pieces that a specially nosy foreign student might want to check out.

  25. What I meant to express was that this one idea, to represent phonemes instead of, say, words or word parts, seems to have caught on far and wide. Wikipedia says that the Kharoshti script as well was based on the Aramaic one, which in turn was derived from the Phoenician alphabet, so even here we seem to have the same ancestor. Maybe alphabets were indeed invented completely independently several times in history, that I wouldn’t know. But it seems that a large number of writing systems across Europe and Asia have been inspired by one single source, the Phoenician alphabet. And that’s really cool.

    Yes, I wouldn’t expect Thais to go so far and change facts to serve their nationalism. It’s more about what is told and what is left out, as you also point out. I may be too critical here, the average 8-year old may not have the capacity to appreciate that different languages in their region are written with similar scripts derived from the same older script; maybe that’s something better left to middle school to explain.

    This book, หลักภาษาไทย, is that a good one? Is it worth checking out?

  26. It may be amazing indeed,Andrej,but it could not have been”one smart idea”,just a matter of historical randomness instead!For the Asian link,there was another dominant script used at the time of the Mauryas of North India:the Kharoshti,another semitic system.It so happened that it lost to Brahmi which became the mother of a myriad alphabets by slow local transformations.Perhaps it proved to be more rational with its vocalic affixes or simply more esthetic.
    But Thai academia is well aware of the Phoenician original matrix.You may find epigraphic charts for Thai students showing the gradual evolution in time and places from that alphabet.There is a grammar book in Thai named หลักภาษาไทย by กำชัย ทองหล่อ showing that evolution starting with อักษรเฟนิเชีย to อักษรพราหมีครั้งพระเจ้าอโศก and ปัลละวะ on to อักษรขอมเมื่อราว พ.ศ.๑๑๐๐ leading to อักษรไทยครั้งพ่อขุนรามคำเเหง พ.ศ.๑๘๓๕ .But as you know,politics is mostly a self-serving endeavour so the eraser of “irrelevant”truths is never far away!..

  27. It’s amazing that both our Latin alphabet we use and Thai and all those other scripts have the same origin, putting an end to cuneiform, hieroglyphs and other cumbersome inventions. That was one smart idea!

    I’m working through Thai school books on and off, and the only thing they say about the origins of the Thai script is that it was “created” by King Ramkhanhaeng (at least up until ป.3) when in fact is was a modification of an existing script. Thais often prefer to ignore the cultural ties they share with their neighbors, but that’s a completely different discussion.


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