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What is Thai?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Thai is a language spoken throughout Thailand and parts of Cambodia and Laos. It is spoken by approximately 50 million people worldwide. It is part of the Tai language group, along with languages such as Nung, Lao, Isan, and Shan.

The primary dialect spoken in Thailand is known as Standard Thai, and is spoken by more than 20 million people. The Isan language of northern Thailand is also closely related to Thai, although technically its own language. It shares a great deal of similarities with the Lao language spoken in Laos, which is also a distinct language. Though each of these languages are separate, they are also mutually intelligible, because of the great deal of similarities between them – both in vocabulary and in grammar.

Other languages in the Tai family also use the word Thai in their name, even though they are distinct languages and not usually considered dialects of the Thai language itself. Northern Thai, for example, is a language spoken in northern Thailand and parts of Laos. Phu Thai is a dialect of the Lao or Isan language. However, since Lao and Thai exist on what is often called a dialect continuum — much like the situation among Chinese dialects — they are usually mutually comprehensible.

Thai is a tonal language, which tends to make it rather difficult for speakers of non-tonal languages such as English to learn. As in Mandarin, the meaning of a word will differ depending on the tone and stress pattern used when pronouncing it. The word suea, for example, may mean ‘clothing’ if the tone trails off, ‘mat’ if the tone stays low throughout, or ‘tiger’ if the tone rises. For speakers of languages in which tone is used more as a way of setting a cadence to their speech, or to show excitement or emotion, adopting the habits of a tonal language can be very difficult.

This language has five tones: rising, falling, low, middle, and high. The tones are written in the alphabet by using a combination of opening and closing consonants and the internal vowel; they may also be marked using one of four different tone marks. Words are mostly single syllable words, which are linked together to convey more complex meanings. Some learners find this a welcome relief from languages such as English or German with distinct words that can be extremely long.

The alphabet is derived from the Khmer alphabet of the ancient Khmer empire — and still used in the Khmer language of Cambodia — and is modeled somewhat on the Sanskrit alphabet of India. There are 44 consonant letters in the Thai alphabet, each one having an inherent vowel, and another 24 vowel sounds which are written using diacritic marks.

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