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I am attempting to trace the origin of "rachasap" (Thai: ราชาศัพท์; Lao: ລາດຊະຊັບ).

What is "rachasap"?

Rachasap is an entire body of words that are used with deity, royalty, or monks. For example, when speaking of a body part for one of these entities, rachasap is used in place of the normal word; e.g. "พระเนตร/pra-ned" for "eye" in place of "ตา/dta" as normal. The "พระ/pra" prefix is common in rachasap, as is the use of a special helping verb before verbs (which may also be in rachasap form themselves, i.e. a completely different word than the normal verb). Some might call rachasap "royal language."

Specifically, I am interested in knowing how deeply rachasap may be connected to Buddhism, and why or how rachasap began in the first place. Tai-kadai languages have been heavily influenced by Pali and Sanskrit, both languages closely related to Buddhism. But I do not know Pali or Sanskrit, and am not aware of any good etymological sources for these.

I am seeking recommendations on source materials for the etymology or history of rachasap, and/or similar information about it.

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    are you interested in the etymologies of this alternative lexicon, or the origin of this distinct register? I'll also note that the Tai-Kadai/Kra-Dai languages do not have roots in Pali or Sanskrit, but are an independent language family unrelated to Indo-European. Many Tai-Kadai/Kra-Dai languages have borrowed a significant amount of vocabulary fro Pali and Sanskrit, but that is a very different thing
    – Tristan
    Apr 25 at 10:48
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    Edited the title as there's a close-vote for "contextless etymology" while this question is about the phenomenon itself, not about the term. Apr 25 at 11:07
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    @Biblasia "common knowledge" is frequently incorrect, or a misunderstanding of fact. Raw percentages of vocabulary are not a good metric for descent, and statements that a language "derives from" another are generally interpreted as referring to genetic descent, not lexical proximity. From a linguistic perspective, the claim that Tai-Kadai/Kra-Dai languages "have roots in Pali and Sanskrit" is simply incorrect. As stated in my original comment the correct statement is that they have borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Pali and Sanskrit
    – Tristan
    Apr 25 at 11:19
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    To add to @Tristan’s comment, note that the Wikipedia quote (correctly) says that over half of its vocabulary (i.e., individual words) is derived or borrowed from Pali, Sanskrit, Mon and Khmer – not that the language itself is derived from any of those. More than half of the vocabulary of English is derived or borrowed from Latin or its Romance descendants (primarily French), but that does not mean English has French/Romance/Latin roots or is derived from it: English has Germanic roots and is derived from Proto-Germanic, via various intermediate stages. Apr 25 at 11:44
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    I’ve edited the question to avoid further derailment on this relatively minor tangent. Apr 25 at 13:03

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ราชาศัพท์ raa-chaa-sàp itself is a Pali-derived word, ราชา raa-chaa (राज rājā "king, monarch") + ศัพท์ sàp (originally from Sanskrit शब्द śabda "word"); hence, "Royal Language". However, it is commonly interpreted in modern Thai culture as referring to the whole honorific system of modern Thai, although strictly speaking it refers to royal honorifics, both speaking to and speaking about the royal family.

Cultural borrowings between Thai and Khmer are extremely well known, with two-way interchange connected to the history of the peoples around the Chao Phraya River Valley, and especially when it came to royal culture. As one scholar put it:

For centuries, Khmer and Thai existed in veritable symbiosis.

Putting this into a greater liturgical context of Theravada Buddhism, with the liturgical language being Sanskrit and Pali, we see an extra layer of honorificity and formality in the Thai language, what can be called clerical honorifics.

Interestingly, old Tai Lü (Tai Lue) manuscripts (written in Tai Tham script) do not show evidence of royal honorifics, even though they date from a similar period with the Sukhothai Thai language manuscripts from the 13th century CE. Rather, we see the rise of ราชาศัพท์ raa-chaa-sàp, in the early Ayutthaya era (from the Gregorian Year 1351 onwards) as the "court language", and was officially enshrined in the Law of the Civil Hierarchy by King Baromtrailokanat.

However, indications that there was a "court language" even in the time of the Sukhothai, as seems to be evident in the writings of Maha Thammaracha I as Li Thai. On the other hand, there is no evidence of it in the inscriptions of Ramkhamhaeng.

The honorific systems in Thai, Khmer, Tibetan and also Javanese are principally based on lexical substitution; the substitutions here are much more extensive in the vocabulary than the few substitutions in the primarily morphological honorific systems in e.g. Japanese and Korean. Different items of vocabulary are used to refer to various registers, and often whole turns of phrase are reworded to be more appropriate to the sociolinguistic register.

E.g. for "to sleep":

  • นอน nɔɔn (inherited from Proto-Tai)
  • จำวัด jam-wát (Khmer-based compound, lit. "confine in a temple")
  • ผทม/บรรทม/ประทม pà-tom/ban-tom/bprà-tom (from Old Khmer; in modern Khmer ផ្ phtum is also part of "royal language")
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  • +1 Thank you. This has provided links to some good sources. I do wish, however, that I had clearer answers on my principal question: "Specifically, I am interested in knowing how deeply rachasap may be connected to Buddhism, and why or how rachasap began in the first place." It appears from materials linked in your answer that rachasap began with a king (U-thong --> Ramathibodi) wanting to promote himself as god.
    – Biblasia
    Apr 26 at 2:24

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