Musa for Thai



The Thai script (in green above) is one of the most beautiful scripts in the world. And it is intimately associated with the history, culture, and identity of the Thai people and with Thai Buddhism. But it is also a very complicated way to write the sounds of Thai, and as a result it's very hard to learn, for Thais as well as for foreigners.

When people first started writing the Thai language, they used the writing system for Khmer, which is from a different language family. The Khmer system, in turn, had been an adaptation of the Brahmi script developed for Indo-Aryan languages, yet another language family. And Brahmi, in turn, was adapted from the Aramaic script, a fourth language family. So Thai writing was never designed for the Thai language in the first place. Of course, that's true of most languages!

At the same time (thirteenth century CE) that Thais adopted Buddhism, they brought into their language many words from Sanskrit and Pali, with many new sounds. Even as these words became domesticated, the letters used to write the foreign sounds were kept (kind of like English ph as a way of writing the f sound in words from Greek). Since then, changes in Thai have made the situation even worse: what was once a voicing distinction has become a tonal distinction, so that tones are now marked by a combination of accent marks and choice of letters.

The result is that Thai uses 42 letters to write its 21 consonants, but only 16 letters to write its 24 vowels and 16 diphthongs. Many of the consonants represent different sounds in initial and final position. Every written word has only one reading, but spoken words have many potential written forms (homophones) like English right rite wright write.

Thai script also has some graphical problems. There's no space between words, so readers have to figure them out. ThisiswhatEnglishwouldlooklikewithoutspaces - yes, we can read it, but it's harder. In addition, many Thai letters look alike: the differences are subtle, like the direction of the little loops. For example, here are four different Thai letters:

ค ฅ ด ต

The end result is that Thai orthography is much more complex than it needs to be. Chinese is in a similar situation, with a script that doesn't indicate sound at all. And like Chinese, Thai could profit from an auxiliary orthography: for foreigners, for Thai children learning to read and write, to write Thai names in other languages, to indicate pronunciation, and to simplify sorting and looking up. This last is especially true because, in the early days of digitalization, it was decided that vowels which appear to the left of the consonant would be encoded before the consonant, even though phonetically, they belong after the consonant.

Musa would be a good choice for that role, although so far not so many foreigners can read it - hopefully, that will change. Foreigners are already perplexed by the six different romanizations for Thai: some transcriptions and some transliterations. They all use Roman letters in unexpected ways, and thus cannot be read correctly without training. Thai children could probably learn Musa in about three years less than it now takes them to learn the Thai script (based on English experience), and then transition to Thai script once they already know how to read and write and know the inventory of sounds. Knowing Musa would also make it much easier for them to learn foreign languages.

Thai transcribed in Musa is easier to read, easier to write and much easier to learn, both for foreigners and for Thais. Musa writes tones and vowel length, it separates syllables and words, and it makes no attempt to capture historical pronunciations or Thai spelling. As an addition benefit, Musa can also be used to write the other languages of Thailand, for which the Thai script lacks letters.


Here are the consonants of Thai, with the current letters in black and IPA in green:

Voiced Plosives b ฎด d ʔ
Unvoiced Plosives p ฏต t ʨ k
Aspirated Plosives ผพภ ฐฑฒถทธ ฉชฌ ʨʰ ขฃคฅฆ
Unvoiced Fricatives ฝฟ f ซศษส s หฮ h
Nasals m ณน n ŋ
Liquids ลฬ l r
Semivowels w ญย j .

In final position, the voiced and aspirated plosives and the fricatives all collapse to the corresponding unvoiced plosive (shown by the pink boxes). The affricates collapse to t, and the liquids collapse to n. The result is that only those consonants on pink above can be final. Final p t k are unreleased, but this isn't shown in the Musa spelling.

Thai permits only eleven initial consonant clusters:

 ปร- pr  ปล- pl
 พร- pʰr  ผล- พล- pʰl
 ตร- tr
 กร- kr  กล- kl  กว- kw
 ขร- คร- kʰr  ขล- คล- kʰl  ขว- คว- kʰw


The Thai vowels form a neat system, with three series - front spread, back spread and back rounded. Each series features a close vowel, a close-mid vowel, and an open-mid vowel, although in the back spread series it's a fully open a. And all nine occur in both short and long versions. Musa writes the long vowels with the Long mark.

Front Spread Back Spread Back Round
Short Long Short Long Short Long
Close ◌ิ i  ◌ี ◌ึ ɯ  ◌ื ɯː ◌ุ u  ◌ู
(Close-)Mid เ◌ะ e  เ◌ เ◌อะ ɤ  เ◌อ ɤː โ◌ะ o  โ◌
Open(-Mid) แ◌ะ ɛ  แ◌ ɛː ◌ะ a  ◌า เ◌าะ ɔ  ◌อ ɔː

In addition, Musa writes the "inherent" vowels that aren't written in the current script: a in open syllables and o in closed syllables.

In Thai, as in Khmer and Vietnamese, there are centering diphthongs that function as monophthongs. They use the wh letter as an offglide:

Short  เ◌ียะ ia̯  เ◌ือะ ɯa̯  ◌ัวะ ua̯
Long  เ◌ีย iːa̯  เ◌ือ ɯːa̯  ◌ัว uːa̯

All these monophthongs, both short and long, combine with y or w offglides to form diphthongs :

Backing Fronting Fronting
Short Long Short Long Short Long
 เ◌ียว ia̯w  เ◌ือย ɯa̯j  ◌วย ua̯j
 ◌ิว iw  ◌ุย uj  ◌ูย ːuj
 เ◌็ว ew  เ◌ว eːw  เ◌ย ɤːj  โ◌ย oːj
 แ◌ว ɤːw  ◌อย ɔːj
 เ◌า aw  ◌าว aːw  ใ◌ ไ◌ aj  ◌าย aːj


Thai has five tones, written in Musa with an accent on the vowel, as follows:

Tone Mid tone Low tone Falling tone High tone Rising tone
Thai ปา ป่า ป้า ป๊า ป๋า
Musa     

Fangzi Gait

Thai is written in Fangzi gait, with spaces between words.

The Catch , representing a glottal stop ʔ, is used to represent both the initial when there is no initial consonant, and the มาตรา mātrā after a short vowel when there's no final consonant or offglide. But a long vowel with no final consonant or offglide is followed by a Break , so that every syllable ends in a final.


Now that you've learned the letters, why don't you try reading a phrase?

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