Reforming Thai language structure

I recently posted a comment on New Mandala which included a reference to the structure of Thai language. It drew a mixed response. Here I would like to expand on the two central points of the post. The first is the question of scriptura continua, or writing without a break between words. The second is the ideological content of Thai language courses aimed at foreigners.

Firstly, then, an extract from Nicholas Carr’s book, ‘The Shallows‘ (Chapter 4, p. 61-63):

It’s hard for us to imagine today, but no spaces separated the words in early writing … in what is now referred to as scriptura continua …

By the thirteenth century, scriptura continua was largely obsolete. Punctuation marks, which further eased the work of the reader, began to become common too …

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of these changes … The placing of spaces between words alleviated the cognitive strain involved in deciphering text, making it possible for people to read quickly, silently, and with greater comprehension.

Such fluency had to be learned. It required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain, as contemporary studies of young readers reveal …

As the brain becomes more adept at decoding text, turning what had been a demanding problem-solving exercise into a process that is essentially automatic, it can dedicate more resources to the interpretation of meaning …

By altering the neurophysiological process of reading, word separation freed the intellectual faculties of the reader …

Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became more attentive.

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? 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.

Now, of course, language and culture better understood come under an ever intensifying spotlight, which brings me to my second point.  Peter Jackson in The Ambiguous Allure of the West (previously reviewed on New Mandala) alerts us to the micromanagement of the Thai language by the powers that be (p. 200).

I was constrained to comment on the content of many Thai language courses when I read a link from the always excellent http://2bangkok.com/ It bore out a suspicion that I had incubated since finishing a seven month Thai language course last year. Of course it does not apply to all courses.

The link, posted on 6 April 2011 took me to a lesson on Kreng Jai (เกรงใจ- being considerate).  The lesson itself was well enough structured by a teacher using the Skype system. However, when you start to deconstruct what is going by following the links on the page you get a different picture.

When describing herself, the no doubt excellent teacher begins by informing us that she was born in Bangkok, so therefore her accent is Bangkok standard. This provoked a series of posts from foreigners on the question of accents, interesting enough but without any apparent appreciation of the social status of different accents in Thailand.

The concept of Kreng Jai is presented as a characteristic of all Thai people as a whole. This was illustrated in a bizarre fashion when I followed another link that told me the following:

Being flexible… in not doggedly forcing and asserting one’s own desire at times of potential differences and conflicts, is of prime importance in the Thai society. Besides, showing of Nam jai (literally means `water from the heart’, ie., kindness, consideration, and sincere concerns) in being Kind and helpful, is something to give out without any expectation in return. The Thai are not calculative in the showing of kindness and help. This is why it has been overtly observed by foreigners that Thai interactions are usually smooth pleasant, and “often accompanied by genuine kindness and an interest in the well-being of the other.”

There are countless daily examples to illustrate this Thai social interaction behavioral pattern. This pattern retains even at unusual events, like coup d’état. The coup d’état in Thailand, as often as we have, are not like anywhere else. As expressed by the Japanese ambassador to Thailand in a television interview, they are “friendly changing of government leaders” or Palace guards, hardly bloody. The deposed Prime Ministers were often escorted out of the country to live for a period of time, before they were allowed back.

The following exchange from the interview with the teacher is quite revealing:

But Kreng Jai ( เกรงใจ) is not just for juniors showing respect to seniors. Doesn’t it go in the other direction and between equals as well?

Yes, เกรงใจ is also a consideration between equals and someone lower than you. (My emphasis)

Kreng Jai is being represented as a universal interaction when in reality it is no more than an option for the powerful. When talking about this concept with members of my Thai family they were adamant that although an underling may on the surface be displaying Kreng Jai, more often than not the underlying motivation is fear.

For a whole number of reasons many foreigners do not have the time to reflect on the content of their Thai language courses. I am not aware of any academic studies on this issue. Perhaps someone can add information to the debate.