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 Home > About Thailand > The National Language

The National Language

The official national language, spoken by almost 100 per cent of the population, is Thai, classified by linguists as belonging to a Chinese-Thai branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. It is a tonal language, uninflected, and predominantly monosyllabic. Most polysyllabic words in the vocabulary have been borrowed, mainly from Khmer, Pali or Sanskrit. Dialects are spoken in rural areas. Principal other languages are Chinese and Malay. English, a mandatory subject in public shoools, is widely spoken and understood, particularly in Bangkok and other major cities.

Richly diverse in origin, the Thai language in use today is the end-result of a centuries-long maturation.

Early Thai settlers in the late Dvaravati period gradually enlarged their own Chinese-influenced, tonal, monosyllabic language by borrowing and adapting certain Mon and Khmer words. Later, the Thais absorbed polysyllabic Sanskrit (the classical language of Hindu India) and Pali words as Brahmanism and Theravada Buddhism asserted their shaping influences. Foreign traders and Chinese immigrants made minor additions in later centuries. Today, standard Thai is spoken nationwide with regional dialects differing widely from north to west.

King Ramakamhaeng of Sukhothai created the first Thai alphabet in 1283, basing it on Mon and Khmer scripts which, in turn, were derived from a South Indian script. With minor modifications - Particularly individual character envolution into more refined shapes - Ramkamhaenge's alphabet survived in tact through the centuries so that the modern Thai can read 13th century inscriptions as easily as could his ancestors.

Importantly, Ramkamhaeng's achievement afforded the Thais a vital sense of unity and lent impetus to a distinctive Thai cultural identity. Indeed, several major literary workds, mainly Buddish is character, were written during the followin century.

The spoken Thai language lends itself to alliteration. Similar sounding words create plaesing rhythmic patterns and form a poetic language which is commonly used in everyday conversation. Indeed, poetry is a major Thai art, and until 1850 all Thai literary works were in verse form. Spoken and written similes are especially popular and parables are commonly employed, particularly for trainning children.

A gregarious race that loves to joke and laugh, the Thais greatly appreciate puns and double-enterdres which, besides enlivening everyday vernacular, spice and propel outrageous dialogue in popular art forms such as folk theatre.

The written Thai language, read horizontally from left to right, as in English, consists of 44 consonants and 32 vowels that combine to formulate sysllabic sounds. The sounds are combined with five different tones-even, high, low, rising and falling-to produce a melodious, lyrical language.

Generally speaking, spoken grammar is simple. The basic structure of Thai sentences is subject/verb/object with adjectives following nouns. In many case, verbs can be changed into nouns with the use of a prefix, e.g. khit (think) with the prefix kwam becomes kwam khit (thought).

Each Thai word is complete inasmuch as there are no Thai suffixes, genders, articles, declensions or plurals. Tenses are indicated by standard auxiliaries, e.g. pai (go) with the auxiliary ja becomes ja pai (will go); with the auxiliary kamlang becomes kamlang pai (am going); and with the auxiliary laew becomes pai laew (go already (went)).

Different pronouns (at least 47, including some 17 I's and 19 you's) and different qualifying nouns and verbs are used by different class - royalty, ecclesiastics and lay people. Because Thai's pronominal structure illustrates rank and intimacy, there are, in effect, four different langrages - a royal language, an ecclesiastic language, a polite everyday vernacular and an earthy, pungent slang.

Illustrative of this wide range of variations is the verb to 'eat'. In royal language, the word is sawuy; in ecclesiastic Thai, chan; rappratan is a formal word used on engraved invitations and its shortened from, tan is everyday polite usage. Kin is a colloqauial form used between friends; to use it with a new acquaintance woule be viewed as presumptuous and perhaps rude. Even father down are several vulgarisms which are offensive except when used between ma le intimates in informal situations. (In the written language it is important to understand that words within sentences are not separated, punctuation is rare and grammar can be complicated.)

The most unusual of Thailand's "four languages" is the royal language, rachasap. Royalty uses special words for common actions and for parts of the body. This special, formal language is a mixture of words of Khmer, Pali and Sanskrit origin c omplemented by specially-coined Thai words. The Khmer-derived words are the same as those commonly begin spoken throughout Cambodia today.

Rachasap is usually reserved for formal and state occasions, most royalty making use of standard Thai, slightly modified, for everyday conversation among themselves.

In conventional spoken Thai, two or more words are often combined to form literal descriptions of common objects. Thus, 'ice' is nam khaeng (solid water) and 'match' is mai keet fai (stick/strike/fire).

Although satisfactory for common objects, this system is inadequate for coining new Thai words that can accurately convey Western concepts or recent scientific terms. Accordingly, the Royal Institute, a government body responsible for publishing the T hai encyclopedia, employs its commitee of language experts to coin equivalent Thai words by drawing upon Pali and Sanskrit sources.

As a consequence, Thailand keeps pace with international trends and scientific developments, proof that, in one important respect, Thai is still a growing language.

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