Thai Language – A Brief Overview

Thai Language

Thai language is the official and primary language of Thailand. It is also known as Siamese, Central Thai, or simply “Thai”. It is spoken by almost 80% of the population of the country, around sixty million people in Thailand. Although mainly used in Thailand, it is also used in other places such as Singapore, the UAE, and the USA.

History of the Thai Language

Though subject to dispute, it is believed that the Thailand language is one of the oldest languages in East and South-East Asia. According to language scholars, it may even predate the Chinese. This may be due to the similarities between the languages, given that both are monosyllabic and tonal.

Chinese influence on the Thai language was strong until the 13th century when the use of Chinese characters was abandoned. It was then replaced by writing Thai in Pali (Theravada Buddhism’s classical language) and Sanskrit (Indian Hinduism’s classical language) scripts.

The spoken form of the Thai language is said to have originated within the area of the border between Vietnam and China. This idea is also associated with the origins of the Thai people, something which is subject to debate even today.

The ruler of the Sukhothai Kingdom from 1278 to 1298, King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, started Thai transcription in 1292. The Royal Thai General System of Transcription or the RTGS published by the Royal Institute is the standard used in transcribing Thai into the Latin alphabet. This standard is commonly used by Thailand’s local and central government for road signs.

Throughout history, the Thai language has gone through significant changes particularly in terms of tones and consonants. The difference is between the form of Thai spoken at the time it was first transcribed and the form written and spoken in the present.

Spoken Thai: Regional variations

The four primary dialects of the Thai language correspond to the northern (Yuan), north eastern (Lao), southern, and central regions of Thailand. Central Thai or Bangkok Thai used in the central region is what is widely understood in most regions, taught in schools, and used in the media. There are other minor dialects used by a small percentage of the population such as Phuan and Lue, but the four major dialects are the ones commonly spoken.

The use of each variation does not necessarily depend on the place where it is used, but more on what it is used for or when it is used. Different situations call for the use of different dialects. Some words are used for everyday interactions with family and close friends, some used when referring to Buddhism or conversing with monks, and others used only when addressing royalty or discussing their activities.

Thai people value respect and courteous behaviour. In normal conversation, men and women will use first names and terms used for relatives or family members such as younger/older brother or sister, or uncle or aunt to address someone.

In settings where formality is required, men will use the words “phom” and for women “dee-chan” in lieu of the pronoun “I”. And instead of shaking hands, Thais greet each other with a “wai” by slightly bowing with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like manner. This is a sign of respect and is initiated by those that are younger than the person that they are greeting.

Even though the Thai language has been influenced by so many, the years have changed and shaped it to what it is today; a language unique to the Thais, a reflection of their history and their culture.

Thai Language: How Is It Different from English?

The written form of the Thai language is read from left to right just like English. Aside from this, there are not that many similarities between the two languages. In fact, there are more differences than similarities between the two languages. These include the following:

Pitch and Tone

Linguists classify the Thai language under the Chinese-Thai branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. It is tonal, monosyllabic, and uninflected. This means speakers can change the meaning of a word by simply changing the pitch and tone of their voice.

Phonetics

Some consonant and vowel letters are pronounced differently in Thai from the English language, and vice versa. For example, th and ph sounds are pronounced as t and p respectively; not th and f.

Verbs

Unlike English, Thai does not have past, present, or future tenses. Instead, some words are usually added to connote time.

Adjectives and adverbs

These parts of speech are used interchangeably in the Thai Language. They may be used to function as either. Unlike in the English language, adjectives are placed after the noun they are modifying instead of before. Same goes for adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs can also function as verbs. For example, the Thai word for “tall” (adjective) and “to be tall” (verb) are the same.

Nouns and Pronouns

In Thai, nicknames are used in exchange of pronouns that would otherwise be used in English. There are no singular or plural nouns in the Thailand language. They do not indicate gender and are uninflected. Classifiers are usually used to express plurals, so instead of saying “two glasses of wine” in English, it would be “wine two glass” in Thai; or “five chairs” in English, and “chair five item” in Thai.

English speaking people might find it difficult to learn the language. However, people from Laos, Yunnan, Vietnam, and Burma won’t. The spoken languages of these countries (particularly with the dialects used in the north or north eastern regions of Laos) are closely related to the Thai language.