It has been brought to my attention that this blog is becoming Russocentric to a degree (I use the phrase in its original sense), so I thought I’d ruminate on a different part of the linguistic universe altogether.

For a long time I was confused by the terms “Thai language” and “Tai languages”: what was up with the h, and what was the relation between the two terms? Eventually (once I got out of the sandbox of Indo-European) I discovered that the Tai family of closely related languages spread from Assam in eastern India (named after invaders who spoke the now extinct Ahom language) to the mountains of northern Vietnam, and from southern China (whence they originated) to the Malay Peninsula. The best-known of them is of course Thai, the official language of Thailand; I’m not sure when and how the h came in (probably the Brit tendency to add it to foreign terms to make them look more exotic, cf. dhal), but it does come in handy to differentiate the terms, which are both from a T(h)ai word meaning ‘free’ (“Thailand” is half translated from prathet tai ‘country of the free’). Eastwards from India we find Shan (in Burma), Northern (or Lanna) Thai (in northern Thailand), Lao (the official language of Laos, but the majority of its speakers are in Thailand, where it is often called Northeastern Thai), and Red Tai, Black Tai, and White Tai (in northern Vietnam—no formal-wear jokes, please). An interesting point is that an alternate ethnic designation is at the base of Assam/Ahom, Shan, and Siam, as well as the Cambodian term Siem (the name of the town Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, means ‘defeat of the Thai’).


  1. The “h” in Thai reflects the standard pronunciation with [tʰ]; Thai has a three-way distinction of unvoiced unaspirated, unvoiced aspirated, and voiced stops which may go back to Proto-Tai. The terms “Tai” and “Daic” reflect related languages that use an unvoiced unaspirated stop in the cognate word.

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