Genealogy of southern Brahmic scripts

I’m slowly piecing together the evolution of the writing systems of Southeast Asia, especially those derived from Old Mon and Old Khmer, which have been used in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I’m interested in how, when and why scripts branched off from one another, and what influenced the identity of each.

This is really a work in progress. In some cases, a script evolved into something else, in some cases it was supplanted by something else, so at the moment the nature of the links is tentative, serving as a framework for investigation rather than a strict evolutionary tree.

In some cases (as with Khmer or Tham), the sub-branches are more akin to script ‘dialects’ or styles of writing, rather than different scripts. Indeed there’s not really a boundary between a script and a style of a script. These sub branches may be more akin to the links between Roman square capitals and rustic capitals, or uncial and fraktur, which are all of course styles of the Latin script.

Tree of Brahmic writing systems

My idea would be to have the arrows annotated somehow to show the nature of the links between scripts, and reference where more information can be found. It would be great to have some representation of the letterforms, and possibly an indication of where and when the scripts were used, but the complexity of all this on a two-dimensional plan like this overstretches my abilities with infographic design. Other ideas very welcome.


Reading list:

  • Buakhampan, P (2014) Hidden cultural diversity in the Tham-Lanna script in Granshan design & identity, Boris Kochan (ed.), Munich, pp192–213.
  • Burnell, A C (1994) Elements of south Indian palaeography from the 4th century to the 17th century AD, Madras.
  • Dani, A H (1986) Indian palaeography, New Delhi.
  • Gutman, P (1976) Ancient Arakan with special reference to its cultural history between the 5th and 11th centuries, unpublished PhD thesis, Australian National University.
  • Herbert, P & Milner, A (1989) Southeast Asia: languages and literatures: a select guide. University of Hawaii Press.
  • Hosking, R F & Meredith-Owens, G M (eds) (1966) A handbook of Asian scripts, British Museum.
  • Hutangkura, T (2014) King Ramkhamhaeng’s inspiration for the design of the prototype of the Thai alphabet in Granshan design & identity, Boris Kochan (ed.), Munich, pp166–179.
  • Igunma, J (2013?) Aksoon Khoom: Khmer Heritage in Thai and Lao Manuscript Culture in Tai Culture vol. 3.
  • Ijima, A  (2009) Preliminary notes on the cultural region of Tham script manuscripts in Senri ethnological studies 74: Written Cultures in Mainland Southeast Asia pp15–32.
  • Johnston, E H (1944) Some Sanskrit inscriptions of Arakan in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 11, № 2.
  • Kourilsky, G & Berment, V (undated) Towards a computerisation of the Lao Tham system of writing.
  • Lafont, P (1962) Les écritures ‘tay du Laos in Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême Orient. Vol. 50 № 2, pp367–393.
  • Lafont, P (1962) Les écritures du Pali au Laos in Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême Orient. Vol. 50 № 2, pp395–405.
  • Lamduan, S, Chantachon, S & Jambadaeng, S (2011) The development of the alphabet, characters and orthography in the stone inscriptions of Isan in European Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 22 № 4.
  • Lorrillard, M (2005?) The diffusion of Lao scripts in The literary heritage of Laos: preservation, dissemination and research perspectives. (ed. National Library of Laos): Vientiane, pp. 366–372.
  • Lorrillard, M (1989) Scripts and history: the case of Laos in Senri ethnological studies 74: written cultures in mainland Southeast Asia pp33–49.
  • Payaksri, D (2014) Transmission and survival of the Khom Thai script in a sacred context in Granshan design & identity, Boris Kochan (ed.), Munich, pp180–191.
  • Penth, H (1986) On the history of Thai scripts in Siam Society Newsletter Vol.2 №3.
  • Penth, H (1989) Difficulties with inscription № 1 in The Journal of the Siam Society, vol. 77, № 1.
  • Ronnakiat, N (1992) Evidence of the Thai Noi alphabet found in inscriptions from The Third International Symposium on Language and Linguistics.
  • Sai Kam Mong (2004) The history and development of the Shan scripts, Silkworm Books, Thailand.
  • San damuni Bhikku (2007) The origin and development of Arakanese (Rakhine) script, PhD thesis, University of Calcutta.
  • San Tha Aung (197?) Arakanese alphabets used in AD4 and before it.
  • Singaravelu, S (1969) A note on the possible relationship of King Rama Khamhaeng’s Sukhodaya script of Thailand to the Grantha script of South India in Journal of the Siam Society Vol. LVII.
  • Singer, N F (2008) Vaishali and the Indianization of Arakan, New Delhi.
  • Stargardt, J (1991) The ancient Pyu of Burma, Vol 1 Early Pyu cities in a man-made landscape, PACSEA Cambridge.
  • van Schaik, S (2011) A New Look at the Invention of the Tibetan Script in Old Tibetan Documents Monograph Series, vol.III, Tokyo pp 45–96.
  • van Schaik, S (2012) The origin of the headless script (dbu med) in Tibet in Medieval Tibeto-Burman languages IV, Nathan Hill (ed.), Brill, pp411–446
  • Vasishtha, R K (2001) Brahmi script: its palaeography from third century AD to sixth century AD, New Delhi.
  • Vickery, M (1991) The Ram Khamhaeng inscription: a Piltdown skull of Southeast Asian history? in The Ram Khamhaeng Controversy, ed. J.R. Chamberlain, pp3–52. The Siam Society.
  • Wimonkasem, Kannika (1981) Fakkham scripts found in northern Thai inscriptions (unpublished MA thesis, Silpakorn University).
  • [unattributed] Diagram of post-Pallava script evolution, from Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, Bangkok.





2 thoughts on “Genealogy of southern Brahmic scripts

  1. You have Burmese branching to Chakma and to Ahom, etc. Assuming this branching it would make more sense to have Old Burmse -> Chakma,
    Old Burmese -> Ahom; Khamti Shan; Tai Aiton; Tai Phake
    Old Bumese -> Modern Bumese, Modern Shan, etc

    Although Ahom genealogy and connections with other scripts may be more complex.

    • Thanks, Andrew! I hadn’t thought of including Old Burmese, that’ll definitely help with that branch. Would you also have Modern Mon descending from Old Burmese?

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