Friday, May 18, 2018

Should Thais Consider Spaces Between Words?

Thai is a continuous language, which means that every sentence consists of all of its component words pressed right up against one another with no spaces in between. There are two spaces between sentences. Thais seem to favor long sentences, so a paragraph presents a huge block of almost all letters with very few spaces. This works better than you would imagine, at least for native speakers.

There is a big controversy going on now about the optimal number of spaces after a period in an English paragraph. The arguments between those who favor using only one space, and those who would prefer to use two spaces, are really quite furious, with a considerable amount of name calling on both sides. So let's agree that the idea of spaces in general is worthy of our consideration.

No less a light than Benjamin Franklin weighed in on the subject. I read one time, and it just might be true, that he suggested that English, too, should give up the spaces between words. He was a printer, after all, and he would appreciate the economy of it. That, by the way, is also the big argument of the “one space” crowd: it saves paper.

Not separating words with spaces is not as foolish as it sounds. If you have a good enough vocabulary to know all of the words in the piece, your brain can find them with very little trouble. Watch what happens when I render a long sentence without spaces or punctuation (have I mentioned that Thai has no capital letters, and no punctuation, either?):


Microsoft Word treats the sentences as though there were one word, so I could not accurately recreate the effect of a Thai paragraph. And note that Thai books arranged on the page so that words are not broken up between two lines, i.e., they are carried over in one piece to the next line. But you get the idea. It might take you a bit of effort to get used to it, but after a few days you'd be reading fine. Like the Thais do. They get along fine without spaces between every word.

It's time for my standard disclaimer about foreigners in Thailand: I did not come to Thailand to give the Thai people advice! Thai style in all of its manifestations is just fine with me! I am here to learn from you, my wonderful Thai friends, not to bother you all the time with suggestions!

And please note, I am not in any way suggesting that Thais give up their own alphabet. No, don't change that! King Ramkhamhaeng gave us that alphabet, and it's a good one. When I started learning Thai I was just grateful that there was an alphabet. The real nightmare is having to learn five-thousand pictograms in order to read Chinese. Thank God that Thai has an alphabet! It's a good one, too. In some ways it's better than the ABCs. There are only twenty six letter in the Roman alphabet, and it isn't enough. There are more sounds than that. Think of the vowels, there are only five (or six) vowels in English. So this “A,” what sound does it make? There are a few alternatives there. Thai has forty-four consonants, and another twenty-two or so vowels. (No one is really sure about the number of vowels in Thai.) So there are letters to go with almost any sound that you can think of. And you can learn the Thai alphabet without too much trouble. About six weeks should do it, working at it every day with a pencil in your hand, some paper on the table, and a neighborhood teenager to help you with pronunciation. That's how it went for me, anyway.

But maybe spaces are worth considering. The one space versus two after a period argument had taken place mostly in the abstract, but recently academics at a few institutions have been applying the scientific method to the problem. They are discovering that having two spaces after every period has advantages for reading speed and comprehension. The brain can more easily see the end of the sentence coming. I myself prefer the two space method, but I think that owes mainly to the fact that as an adult I took a three credit course called “Secretarial 101.” That was in the days of the IBM Selectric typewriter, before computers. We learned to type, sure, but we also learned a great deal about formatting business documents. Two spaces after a period, period. There was no doubt in our teacher's mind. By now I only use one space, but that's only because I hate to get yelled at. The one space people are more aggressive and prone to ad hominem attacks.

If two spaces after a period can assist in reading speed and comprehension in English, maybe putting spaces in between Thai words could assist Thai readers as well.

I can guarantee you that it would assist foreigners who are learning to read Thai. When I read Thai, the first thing that I do is go through the text with a pencil and mark the spaces between the words as best I can. My demarcation is never entirely accurate, because there are complications.

Most Thai words are either monosyllabic, that is, they consist of one syllable, or they are compound words consisting of more than one monosyllabic word. There are a vastly greater number of monosyllabic words than there are syllables, because of the available tones. There are five tones in Thai, with long and short versions of each. That's ten right there, and it gets even worse. There are at least fourteen words made from the syllable “kaow.” If you know the Thai alphabet, and the tone markers, and a handful of rules, you can correctly pronounce any Thai word on the page. Almost any word, anyway. The problem is that when you are looking at the unbroken strings of words on the page, what you are really looking at are unbroken strings of syllables. If you are Thai, and you have a good vocabulary, the words still kind of jump out at you. The learner is not so lucky.

Take the following word for example:


This is the Thai word, “mai-mee-crai,” meaning “nobody.” The first time that I came across this word while reading, I put my pencil marks in between the mai, the mee, and the crai, because each of those syllables was a word that I recognized.

Mai is the designator for the negative, like our no, or not, etc.
Mee means to have, to have something.
Crai is the question word for who.

So I'm looking at this sentence trying to figure out how to fit “no have who” into the meaning of it. It took a minute for context to inform me that it meant nobody. Having the word “mai-mee-crai” set off by spaces would have helped me enormously.

Just for fun, let's assume that the spaces in between words would be totally superfluous for Thai people reading newspapers, or for any kind of casual reading at all. They know all of the words, they have time to spare, they're accustomed to reading that way, God bless them. But please allow me to suggest that in more stressful and demanding reading situations the spaces might come in handy.

Consider the reading that becomes necessary in academic and professional situations. The volume of material that must be examined can grow to impossible proportions. Notice that I used the term, “examined.” Many times, for lawyers, or doctors, or other professionals, there is just too much to actually read, word for word. There are not enough hours in the day to read everything that is contained in those seventy-five boxes. But you must be able to find the good stuff, by whatever means necessary. At law school, they knew that this situation was coming for all of us, so they intentionally assigned so much reading that we could not possibly read all of it. They wanted us to learn to go fast. You do this by scanning, or by skimming. “Scanning” is where you look over each paragraph trying to spot certain key-words that are known to you. “Skimming” is when you look at the material paragraph by paragraph trying to quickly establish whether that entire page is worthy of an additional expenditure of time. Both scanning and skimming would be slowed down to a crawl by paragraphs that had no spaces between the words. At that point, the practice of continuous writing becomes unsustainable.

Putting spaces in between Thai words would not be so great a change, all things considered. Look at the ways in which the countries surrounding Thailand have modified their reading habits over time. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines all had alphabets that were similar to the Thai. All were derived from models imported from India, and were lost in the colonial period. Thailand was very lucky to have escaped the yoke of colonialism. I'm just saying that those alphabets were lost without too much inconvenience for the Malays, the Sumatrans, or the Filipinos. And how about those Communists up in Lao? They mercilessly streamlined the Lao alphabet. They not only got rid of all of the duplication, they got rid of the raw-rua entirely! No more “R” sound! People didn't use it anyway! Languages change over time, and usually the goal is to simplify things. If you asked Vietnamese people on the street how they felt about their current use of a modified Roman alphabet, I'm sure that it would take them a minute to figure out what you meant. Then, I'm sure, no one would say that it would be better to go back to the various systems of trying to render Vietnamese words in Chinese characters that were used over the centuries. The alphabet is working just fine, thanks.

Yes, all languages change over time, with the goal of simplicity. I'd almost bet that within one hundred years American English will consist entirely of emojis.

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