The linguist and the King of Siam: Yale in the history of Thai linguistics

The linguist and the King of Siam: Yale in the history of Thai linguistics

Rikker Dockum, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics, Swarthmore College 

The earliest linguistic study of the Thai language has numerous connections to Yale and New Haven, which I will cover in this talk. One notable example is Cornelius Beach Bradley (1843-1936) who taught on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, for several decades. Bradley conducted some of the earliest linguistic studies of Thai, including the first instrumental phonetic study of any tonal language. But before he became an academic, he was born to protestant missionary parents, Dan and Emilie Bradley, in Bangkok, Siam. Bradley the elder brought the first Thai-language printing press to Siam, and became a prolific translator. It was in this environment that Cornelius Bradley grew up as a first language speaker of both English and Thai, laying the roots for his foundational linguistic work on the language.

Although Cornelius never lived here, the Bradley family has roots in New Haven predating its incorporation, and several generations of Bradleys are buried in the Grove Street Cemetery. It is this family connection that led to the Dan and Cornelius Breach Bradley papers being donated to the Yale Archives by Cornelius’s granddaughter-in-law in the 1950s.

Among the Bradley papers is a 1917 longhand letter from Cornelius Bradley to King Vajiravudh, Rama VI of Siam. Bradley gives the king constructive feedback on a new alphabet that the king had designed for the Thai language, an alphabet that was ultimately never adopted. In critiquing this alphabet, Bradley describes details of the Thai language as spoken a century ago, some of which were previously unknown. The letter provides new evidence for dating the emergence of certain vowel splits in Thai, which we can now establish must have happened decades earlier than previously thought

Dr. Rikker Dockum is Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University in 2019, with a dissertation on the tone systems of the Tai languages. His research focuses on historical linguistics, language contact, and language documentation in Southeast Asia. With support from the NSF and the Southeast Asia Council at the MacMillan Center, he spent summers 2014-2018 working on the first in-depth, in-residence documentation of the dialect of Tai Khamti spoken in Khamti Township, Sagaing Region, Myanmar. Prior to studying at Yale, he spent several years working on the SEALang website, helping to create numerous digital dictionaries, language corpora, and archival resources for the study of Southeast Asian languages.


Wednesday, January 25, 2023
12:00 Noon

Room 203, Luce Hall
34 Hillhouse Avenue

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