One of the more annoying nomenclature problems in the world of language is that of the Tai (sometimes called “Thai”) language family, whose most prominent member is Thai (sometimes called “Tai”). The two English words are both from the self-designation of T(h)ai-speakers; the orthographic distinction is basically a convenient device to differentiate language and family, although it also reflects the fact that the name is pronounced in some languages with an aspirated t and in some with an unaspirated one.

But even if we have the family name straight, what are the main languages included in the Tai family? George L. Campbell’s Concise Compendium of the World’s Languages gives a nice, compact answer: “[Thai] is the most important member of the Tai family which also includes Lao, Shan, and Yuan.” I nodded my head at Lao and Shan and shook it in bewilderment when I hit Yuan. I knew of no such language. I went to Andrew Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages and found:

The South-western division includes the two best known, Thai or Siamese, spoken in central Thailand, and Lao of Laos and north-eastern Thailand. A continuum of dialects in areas to the north of these begins with Ahom, an extinct language of the Indian state of Assam, and Shan; it continues eastwards with Lanna Thai and ends with the minority languages of Laos and Vietnam usually known as Black Tai, Red Tai and White Tai.

(I pause for the inevitable black-tie jokes.) No help here. So I went to the “Tai Languages” chapter of The World’s Major Languages and read the more detailed description there:

Southwestern, including Ahom (extinct), Khamti, Tai Nuea (Chinese Shan, Dehong Dai), Tai Long (Shan), Khuen, Tai Lue (Xishuangbanna Dai), Kam Muang (Tai Yuan, Northern Thai), Thai (Siamese, Central Thai), Southern Thai, Lao (Lao dialects in Thailand are also called “Northeastern Thai”), White Tai, Tai Dam (Black Tai), Red Tai and several other languages…

At first my eyes glazed over, then I buckled down and focused—and I saw it: Tai Yuan, a parenthetical variant of “Kam Muang.” I’d never heard of the latter, but the other parenthetical variant, “Northern Thai,” was familiar to me; Dalby had an entry on it under the rubric “Lanna Thai, Khün and Lü.” And sure enough, The entry begins “The Lanna or Tai Yuan language of northern Thailand…” So we have our Top Four: Thai, spoken by about 25 million people; Lao, spoken by 15 million; Lanna/Yuan/Northern Thai, spoken by 6,500,000; and Shan, spoken by 3 million. (The Northern Tai [n.b.] language Zhuang may be spoken by over 10 million people in southern China, but it’s hard to tell because the Zhuang people, in Dalby’s words, “have not, historically, been anxious to project a distinct ethnic identity. They wanted to be Chinese—and Chinese they have largely become.”)

If you’d like to see where these languages are located, there’s a map about halfway down this page; unfortunately, although a number of minor languages are shown, neither Northern/Lanna Thai nor Southern Thai (spoken near the Malaysian border) is there. Such are the perils of investigating one of the least studied of the major language families.


  1. As I understand, the relationships of most East Asian languages except Tiberto-Burman and Turkic is problematic. Korean, Japanese, Cambodian, Vietnamese — the Thai group is OK I think, but its relationships (or not) to the others is unclear.
    Hsu’s “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” is about a highly-Sinified Chinese minority people (Bai Yi, I think, which I believe was a Lolo branch — don’t take my word for it). The young Chinese anthropologist showed up at the tribe’s front door and was found out to his dismay that, by golly, they sure seemed like Chinese to him. So he did an anthropological investigation of Chinese life.

  2. I remember running across a story about that spelling distinction. If memory serves, either William J. Gedney or Li Fang Kuei made a conscious decision to spell the family “Tai” and the specific language “Thai,” published it, and it stuck. Well, among the scholarly types, anyway.
    Have you read Haudricourt’s articles about tonogenesis in Vietnamese? I’m not up (at all) on the literature of SE Asian languages, really, so perhaps his theory is now out of date, but the article is one of my favorite in linguistics. I mention it because it does a lot of comparison with Thai.
    (Also don’t miss the Proto-Tai’o’Matic with (hooray!) Unicode.)

  3. There are some Tai Dam speakers here where I live. The Hmong get divided up by color qualifiers, too. In Laos, the folks get divided up by where they live: high-, low-, and midland.

  4. Not that it has anything to do with Tai vs. Thai, but Lahu is another ethnic group that has a largely color-coded subdivision–red, black, white, yellow, etc.
    As for the groups in Laos, dividing them in terms of altitude of settlement is pretty useless linguistically, other than you know that all the lowland peoples will be Lao (Tai) speakers.

  5. Coming from NE Thailand, “yuan” refers to Vietnamese, I don’t know why but it seemed to be the offensive way to refer to them. Kum Muang I know is an area north of the Mae Khong river, north of Nakorn Panom province of Thailand. That is some two hours drive away from my place of birth. My mother tells me of our family’s history that our great-great grandfather was a village leader and headed a village migration from Kum Muang area to Thailand. My guess searching through history is that probably happened because of war or famine some 200 years ago. In NE Thailand, a region referred to as “Isan”, we are classified as speaking Lao, (which by the way, the Isan people find offensive, because of their strong loyalty to Thailand). However, having travelled extensively in this region and lived in three locations, I have noted that there are several different “dialects” of Isan Lao. Upon hearing each other’s “accents” the people of Isan can distinguish which part of Isan you are from. The Lao of Sakolnakorn, where I come from, is sometimes called “Putai”. It has a very distinctive tilt and marks itself as different from other Lao accents. “Putai”, by the way, means mountain tais.
    I would like to recommend two books from White Lotus publications which you may find intersting. “The Tai Race: Elder Brother of the Chinese”, by William Clifton Dodd (reprint, 1996), and “Ethnic Groups of Thailand: Non-Tai-Speaking Peoples”, by Joachim Schliesinger, 2000. The second book has an interesting diagram of three linguistic superstock of SE Asia, which is adapted from James A. Matisoff, “Linguistic Diversity and Language Contact” in John McKinnon and Wanat Bhrukasri, eds. “Highlanders of Thailand” (Oxford University Press, KL, 1983). And a great book that might help put the whole picture together is “Naga: Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific”, by Sumet Jumsai.

  6. Very interesting, and I thank you for the book recommendations! Now, my question is: does Northern Thai (Kam Muang) seem to you a different language or a dialect of Standard Thai (assuming you’ve heard it spoken)?

  7. Central (i.e., Standard) and Northern (Lanna) Thai share the same syntax, but a lot of the words are different.
    The phonology’s also a bit different. In the Lanna region at least, you get an extra tone in addition to the four of Central Thai. The cool thing is that if you know a few phonological rules, you can figure out what a lot of the words mean. For example, the Central /ruu/ (“know”) becomes /huu/ in Northern. /rian/ (“study”) becomes /hian/. So you can try replacing word-initial /r/s with /h/s until people start to look confused.
    Northern Thai even has its own alphabet (which looks a lot like this (cf. some other Tai alphabets)), but you hardly see it outside of monasteries and Ye-Olde-Lanna-type stores.
    What Nui T. (sawasdee ja!) says about the accents in Isaan is true as well in Lanna: you can tell what province or even what town people are from by how they say things. Knowing a little Kam Muang, however, will get you a long way when traveling in the rural parts of that region (N, NE Thailand – Laos – Xishuangbanna – NE Burma).

  8. Thank you – it’s great to get this detailed information!

  9. Sawasdee ka, Languagehat and Chula. I would say standard Thai was the dialect of the larger Tai group of languages. ; ) Standard Thai includes mixtures of so many languages in it that you know it’s a language that evolved out of something older. For example, the word bread, ‘kanom pang” actually had its origin in the Portuguese/latin word of “pan”, the word was introduced in the Thai language around the time of Ayudhaya (mid 14th-late 18th century) through the wife of a missionary who would cook sweets and bring them to the Thai court, and obviously they loved her bread the most! I find looking for the roots of the Thai language fascinating. The thing is that one can be deceived to think that the Tai group of languages (?) are ‘different'(?) because they use different alphabets. (Sorry, I’m not a linguist.) I believe the Tai group of language to be an old spoken language shared by a migratory group of people, (not nomads however, one thing they all have in common is that they all grew rice) ,and written forms were developed only recently like some 500-700 years ago. History books says that King Ramkamhaeng ‘invented’ the Thai script (he actually adapted Sri Lankan script) in 1283. By this time the Thai language has had already substantial influences of mostly sanskrit and phali, but also Kmer, Malay, Mon, and Chinese words. The Tai speaking people of Burma then have a different script, I think, the Tai people in Laos, use a script similar to Thai. And I think in Southern China, there is a differentiation between written (Chinese) and spoken language (Tai-based) – Chula, maybe you can confirm that. So each Tai group develop different variations according to the location and influences they found themselves in.
    And by the way, Chula- in Thai, refers to a kind a special kind of kite we play with, and we had a King by that name – Chulalongkorn. And ‘sawasdee’ are two words, ‘sawasd’, comes from sanskrit or phali, I’m not sure, means to come or go, ‘dee’ means good. Swasdee is used to say hello or good-bye.

  10. Pichet Kullavanijaya says

    This past weekend was the first time I have read your very interesting exchanges of thoughts and views on the subject of the Thai language. I have been doing quite a bit of reading on the history of the Dai/Tai speaking people who appears to have originated in Yunan and some where along the Yangzee River valley. I didn’t know that there are a host of Chinese ethnic groups that speak variations of the Dai/Tai language. Most interestingly, I didn’t realize that people who speak this language are spread over a wide area as far west as possibly Tibet to Burma, Southern China, Laos, Cambodia, and parts of Vietnam.
    Incidentally, I have an Aunt who is a Ph.D. at the Chulalonkorn Univeristy. She happens to be a linguist. I remember one of her remarks she made when I was younger. A common language does not necessary define an ethinic group. I suppose if we were to look at this hypothesis in a Western sense, English was the language of the British empire that encompassed large parts of the globe. Nevertheless, much of Her Majesty’s former subjects have little in common, culturally speaking, of course, other than the benefit of having been subjugated and aculturated into King’s English (BBC English).
    Then the question that runs through my mind become, “Of the people who are Dai/Tai speaking, what do we have in common? Are we genetically similar to each other? Are we to be classified as same specie? Do we share common DNA?” I mean, scientists have collected large samples of blood of peoples from Southwestern Africa where they insist that mankind originated, and compared their DNA with the people of Coastal India all the way to Australia and concluded that they share in statistically significant way common ancestors going back to Africa.
    The question I wish one of you can answer is, “As a people who are Dai/Tai, is there something genetically unique about us that set us apart from the Han Chinese, Khamer, East Indians, and other groups that put us ‘in a class by ourselves’?”
    There you have it! Humour this Thai guy who lives in the in U.S. for almost 30 years, and trying to find a connection with the larger Thai reality.
    Thanks. P. Kullavanijaya – suburban Chicago, IL.

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