By Sahara Al-Madi
The Thai language and Korean language both have something in common. They both had their written systems established by a king!
The former King Ramkhamhaeng the Great who ruled the Sukhothai Kingdom from 1279-1298 initiated the Thai inscription in 1292. By promoting the use of the writing system, he changed the future of the country. This is one of the reasons why people hold the written Thai language in high esteem and gratitude.
Written Thai consists of 44 consonants and 32 vowels. It is a tonal language, uninflected, and predominantly monosyllabic. Most polysyllabic words in the vocabulary have been borrowed, mainly from Khmer, Pali, or Sanskrit. This is respectfully credited to the relationship of these classical languages with Theravada Buddhism and Indian Hinduism which greatly influence Thai culture. The inscription is considered to be a seminal source of Sukhothai history as well as a masterpiece of Thai literature. Central Thai is the official language, with other dialects being spoken in the country. There are four main dialects that are recognized. They consist of Northern “khammuang”, Northeastern “lao”, Southern “tai”, and Central “klang”. Since Thai is a tonal language, this means any given syllable can have different meanings depending on the inflection with which it is pronounced. Central Thai has five tones.
Watch this video of a Thai teacher explaining the 5 tones using 1 sentence
There are different Thai language variations depending on the region. It is important to discuss the inhabitants of various geographic regions because their own communities influence the very nature of the language spoken such as the tone and lexicon. Let’s discuss a brief overview of Thailand’s linguistic history.
There are 9 recognized indigenous Thai communities. They are the Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Mien, Akha, Lahu, Lua, Thin and Khamu. The estimated Indigenous population in Thailand is around five million people.
The linguistic landscape of central Thailand prior to the 13th century was radically different from today. It is generally believed that the area was predominantly Mon-Khmer speaking. O’Connor (1995) suggests that the Tai migration into Southeast Asia started in the first millennium A.D. Diller (2000) suggests that the southwest-ward migration of Tai speakers started in the 10th century. Pittayawat, an associate professor of linguistics at Chulalongkorn University, discusses when and how Old Thai came to replace aboriginal languages of the area.
Old Thai is described as the language attested in 14th-15th century inscriptions. By examining its development from Proto-Southwestern Tai (Pittayaporn 2009), he argues that Old Thai was first spoken in central Thailand some time before the oldest surviving Thai text was inscribed, perhaps in the 13th century. This hypothesis is based on linguistic and genetic evidence that the Thai language came to dominate central Thailand mainly through migration of the Tai-speaking population, rather than ethnolinguistic assimilation of indigenous non-Tai speakers. You can hear more of Pittayawat’s lecture on YouTube here.
Watch this heartwarming video of a native Thai speaker making a cake for Elephants at an Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand!
Commentary on the relationship between Lao and Thai
There are many discussions made on the similarities between Thai and Lao. Thai and Lao share a similar lexicon since they are sister languages of the Southwestern Tai-Kadai language branch which evolved from the Tai language. All members of the Tai-Kadai language family evolved from a common ancestor language called Proto-Tai which is thought to have originated in the area between Northern Vietnam and Southeastern China.
Thai in popular culture
Thai food dishes vary depending on the region. Something that remains similar among all regions is that the cuisine consists of rice, noodles, curries, vegetables which are paired with proteins such as poultry, beef, and seafood mixed with spicy pepper and peanut sauces. Most Thai families share evening meals together. The majority of Thai families eat in a communal style. It is customary for each person to have a bowl of rice while other dishes are placed in the center of the table and shared by everyone.
Watch this American couple experience colorful Thai cuisine on a tour in Thailand!
According to 2010 estimates, the majority of the Thai population identify with Theravada Buddhism. However, Buddhism is commonly thought of as a way of life rather than a religion by many Thai. Although it is the dominant religion in Thailand, freedom of religious choice and expression is protected by law. Of the remaining population, 4.9% identify as Muslim, 1.2% identify with Christianity, and 0.3% either associate with some other or no religion.
An important feature of Buddhism in Thailand is its syncretism with other faiths. Buddhism, as practiced in Thailand, borrows elements from Animism and Hinduism. Noticeable manifestations of Animism in Thai Buddhism are the spirit houses throughout Thailand. Often resembling Buddhist temples, spirit houses are small model houses and serve as homes for the spirits associated with the site. It is common for Thais to offer considerations for spirits and ghosts they believe to be present. For example, Thai homes will often have spirit houses to appease the spirits that were disturbed in the building of the house, and daily offerings of food and flowers will be made to these spirits.
The Thai language is greatly influenced by many factors including the implementation of a written script in 1292, variations of tone and lexicon depending on geographical regions with diverse communities, as well as historical religious texts. Every detail influences the greater outlook of Thai culture which can be seen in their various food dishes to the deep respect they show to the inhabitants of the land including spirits. If given an opportunity to expand research on Thai, I would love to explore Thai literature and the economic trade that might have been influenced by the implementation of the writing script.
Kerdsub, Chanikarn. “An Analysis on the Comparison of Thai and Lao Language.” Www.academia.edu, www.academia.edu/31583818/An_Analysis_on_the_Comparison_of_Thai_and_Lao_Language. Accessed June 2023.
“Thailand | Culture, Facts & Travel | – CountryReports.” Www.countryreports.org, www.countryreports.org/country/Thailand.htm.
AFS-USA. “Thailand: Exploring Thai Culture and Customs.” AFS-USA, www.afsusa.org/countries/thailand/#afs-nav-people.