Thai

Thai

The impact of Arabic on the Thai language is modest but raises issues of phonological, sociolinguistic, and historical interest. Arabic loanwords of two general types can be distinguished. One type consists of items in general Thai usage, mainly the result of early trade contact. The second type includes lexical items relating specifically to Islamic institutions and culture. The latter vocabulary would naturally be especially familiar to Thailand's Muslim population, about 3 percent of the total.

In the Thai words transcribed here, colon and circumflex accent denote long vowels. Thai tones are marked by superscript numerals: 1 for low tone; 2, falling; 3, high; 4, rising; unmarked, mid. High and low back unrounded vowels are represented respectively by u' and o'. The transcription indicates modern spoken Thai, in which final /r/ and /l/ in borrowed items are assimilated to final /n/ and final /s/ to /t/, although the written language may retain etymologically conservative spelling.

Arab and Persian traders were established in Southeast Asia more than a millennium ago. The Persian term bazaar was known in Bali and elsewhere in the archipelago well before a cognate occurred about seven hundred years ago in the first Thai written sources. Although Islam was not to become the dominant religion of the Thai court, the king regularly appointed Muslim officials to oversee maritime trade and associated taxation. One Persian family in particular became trusted royal counselors. For several centuries, senior members of this dynastic group, the Bunnags, were admitted into the highest ranks of the Thai nobility, participated in state councils, and even had influence in determining royal succession.

Descendants of these traders and government officials have tended to be bicultural, many speaking Thai fluently and integrating into Thai society, while retaining their ancestral faith. For vocabulary referring to trade items, this group would have been pivotal in consolidating Arabic loans in common Thai usage.

The context of pluralistic language contact in which trade was conducted raises a methodological issue for diachronic linguistic analysis relevant throughout Southeast Asia. Some Arabic loans in Thai would have been introduced directly by Arabic speakers, while others would be indirect loans acquired by way of Persian, Malay, Javanese, Khmer, and other languages. Even English may be implicated, as in Arabic safar ‘journey’, passing through Swahili and English into Thai as safari: ‘safari (suit)’.

A more remote ultimate source is yet another possibility. Thus, Roman contact with Germanic in early empire times is held to account for the Latin sâpo, gen. sâpônis ‘soap’. This should be kept in mind when considering Arabic ṣābūn, Thai sabu:1 , Portuguese sabão, Malay sabun, etc. Thai krada:t1 ‘paper’ invites comparison with Arabic qirṭās ‘chart’ as well as with Spanish and Portuguese forms. Thai rian 4 ‘coin’ (< Arabic riyāl?), sak1kala:t1 ‘flannel’ (but not necessarily ‘scarlet’ in color, < Persian saqerlāt), and farang1 ‘Westerner’ (not restricted to French or Frank, < Arabic ʾifranj‘Franks, Europeans’) raise similar problems. Tracing exact provenance for many items such as these may not be possible and in any case is beyond the present scope.

Similarly, early Indian Ocean contact between speakers of Arabic and Sanskrit-related languages needs to be kept in mind: Arabic nīl ‘indigo’, Vedic Sanskrit nīla ‘indigo color, dark blue’ may be compared with Thai nin ‘dark blue; precious dark stone’; Arabic kāfūr ‘camphor’, Sanskrit karpûram with Thai ka:rabu:n.

Aromatics and spices would have been traded in the early Thai bazaars. Thus Arabic kammūn ‘cumin’, zaʿfarān ‘saffron’ gave rise, directly or indirectly, to Thai khamin 2 and ya: 2 -fran1 . The latter illustrates partial reanalysis, as the Thai word ya: 2 refers generically to grasses and herbs. In accordance with Thai syntactic principles, ya: 2 forms a number of [head + modifier] compounds, e.g. ya: 2 -kha: ‘thatch grass’. The Arabic has been assimilated to this semantic set.

Common in Thai daily usage is kalam1-pli: ‘cabbage’, i.e. Brassica oleracea (Cruciferae). This form is undoubtedly cognate with Arabic kurumb, karumb ‘cabbage, cauliflower’ and shows the change /r/ > /l/, attested in Thai more widely. The second component pli: in the Thai compound refers to a bulb-like outgrowth and is perhaps facilitated by the final labial in the Arabic form. In Thai, ‘cauliflower’ is distinguished from ‘cabbage’ by change of suffixal pli: to do':k1 ‘flower’: kalam1-do':k1 .

Exotic fabrics supplied to the Thai court by Arab traders included satin: Arabic ʾaṭlas, Thai at1talat1 . This has undergone semantic specialization, as the Thai version implies interwoven threads of gold and silver. Gold embroidery is also specified for the Thai cloth khem 2 -kha:p1 lit. ‘dark + blue’, formerly used for officials’ coats; this is perhaps a folk etymology based on Arabic kamḥā ‘damask’.

A luxury for perfumery would have been Arabic ʿambar ‘ambergris’, Thai amphan. The substitution /b/ > /ph/ relates to a regular Thai devoicing with aspiration of the 15–16th centuries, indicating a date for this loan prior to contact with Western languages.

Apart from trade, another route of entry for Arabic loans into Thai was through literature, especially the Javanese Panji tales, which were the basis for the 18th-century Thai literary classic called Inao, along with translations of the Arabian nights. Thus it is through Javanese that Arabic ʿaraq ‘juice’ appears in Thai as a:ra 3 (with glottal final), implying a fermented drink (arrack). Arabic xanjar ‘dagger’ probably entered Thai through a similar route as kan 2 yan1 . Such literary items may no longer be widely understood.

Distinct from the group of trader and court heritage mentioned above, a numerically larger Thai Muslim subgroup is centered in the southernmost Thai provinces bordering Malaysia. This area was formerly the Malay-speaking port state of Pattani, Islamic, and for several hundred years in vassal relations with the Thai kingdom prior to incorporation in the 19th century. Here, Malay is still written in an Arabic-derived script referred to as Jawi – a practice once normal throughout the Malay world. A local variety of Malay is still spoken in the Pattani area as first language, with varying degrees of Thai bilingualism.

It is mainly in this context that a second category of Arabic loans is encountered, words applying specifically to Islamic institutions and culture. Included are many vocabulary items such as ima:m1, kur'a:n1 , etc. Forms are phonologically assimilated. For bisyllabic loans, Thai low tone is commonly assigned to the second syllable, as illustrated also in the ethnonym a:rap1 ‘Arab’ itself. Such items may be encountered in Thai mass media, but unlike Arabic loans of the first category, not all of those in the second would occur in standard Thai dictionaries.

Anthony Diller (Australian Academy of the Humanities)

Wilaiwan Khanittanan (Thammasat University)

  • Recommend Us