Language, Orthography and Buddhist Manuscript Culture of the Tai Nuea - an apocryphal jātaka text in Mueang Sing, Laos


David Wharton

PhD defended at: 

University of Passau


The focus of this study is a single manuscript in a Tai Nuea village near Mueang Sing in northwestern Laos, copied in 1935 and entitled Pukthanusati (Pali buddhānussati) ‘the Recollection of the Buddha.’ It is written in the Tai Nuea language and Lik Tho Ngok or ‘Bean Sprout’ script, and is in the form of a jātaka or narrative story of a former lifetime of the Buddha, the most popular genre for recitation. The thesis examines the lay manuscript culture of which it is a part and the language and orthography of its contents, and then provides a phonemic transcription and annotated English translation of the text together a complete glossary of terms and images of the manuscript.
The detailed study of a single manuscript provides an entry point for a broader investigation of Lik manuscript culture as found in Mueang Sing today, including the distinct roles of the Lik and Tham orthographies, scribal vocation, manuscript production, uses and functions, and the contents of the texts. The Pukthanusati text is then the basis for examination of phonological aspects of language use in the recitation of Lik manuscript literature and the historical context of the dialect’s phonemes as well as Burmese and Indic forms occurring as loanwords. The Lik Tho Ngok orthography is also placed in context through an overview of its historical development, including possible prototypes and phonological influences, the twentieth century reforms of some traditional orthographies and the question of orthographic depth. The Lik Tho Ngok orthography as found in the manuscript studied is then described in detail, with tables and accompanying notes illustrating the inventories of consonant and vowel glyphs, consonant clusters, ligatures and special orthographic forms, use of subscripts and superscripts, numerals, punctuation, and the Tai Nuea spelling system. The phonemic transcription and annotated English translation of the text illustrate the rhyming structure and other features of language use in Lik manuscript culture.
The Tai Nuea and a number of closely related Tai groups have generally been overlooked in the field of Buddhist Studies. The study of this manuscript culture therefore contributes to our understanding of local practices on the northern periphery of Theravāda Buddhist influence in mainland Southeast Asia in addition to responding to an urgent need to examine and document this endangered scribal tradition and its specialised use of language and orthography.