Thai Language History
Are you learning Thai and interested in Thai language history? Perhaps you’re travelling to Thailand and want to know more about the Thai language before visiting. Or you might be interested in discovering the origins of the unique Thai writing system used for the Thai language. Regardless of your motivations, there are many facts to uncover about the history of this major Thailand language.
Today, Thai is considered the dominant Thailand language. The Thai language is spoken by around 88% of the population of Thailand (about 59 million people) and holds official status in the country, with Thai writing used for all official communications. For a country with 72 living languages, this is a huge achievement! It is also a dominant language in Vietnam and Laos, where there are 1.5 million and 500,000 speakers, respectively.
Interestingly, the Thailand language has the highest percentage of second-language speakers among all major languages. An astonishing 67% of Thai speakers speak it as a second language. This is true even within Thailand—twice as many people are learning Thai as a second language than are speaking it as a first language. There are also minority Thai-speaking populations in the US, UAE, and Singapore, and some are learning Thai as a second language globally.
Nevertheless, Thai is – above all else – the Thailand language. But many questions about the Thai language remain: How did the Thai language dominate a country with so many indigenous languages? Where did the unique Thai writing system emerge from, and when? And where did the Thai language originate from initially? This article takes you on a journey through history to answer these questions and more!
Origins & Roots of the Thai language
The Thai language (also referred to historically as Siamese) belongs to the Tai language family. This family of languages is a part of the broader Kra-Dai language family, which includes other languages spoken in Southeast Asia. The Thai language was thought to have originated from the region that is today the border between Vietnam and China—an ongoing academic debate.
According to this theory, the language spoken in Southern China was Proto-Tai. This is the ancestor of all languages in the Tai language family. Proto-Thai integrated various Chinese and Vietnamese loanwords into its vocabulary, evolving into Proto-Southwestern Tai. In the 1200s, this language merged with the language of the Sukothai Kingdom, known as Old Khmer. The resulting language was known as Old Thai.
It was around this time that Thai writing was introduced. The Thai writing system was established by King Ramamhaeng the Great in the third Sukothai and helped improve the literacy of people that spoke the Thailand language. The script has remained essentially unchanged over the past 800 years and uses the same characters taught when learning Thai today.
Modern “Thai Language”
The ancient Thailand language used in the 1200s evolved over countless years into what we now refer to as the Thai language. Thai writing has mostly stayed the same since 1283, and the major changes between Old Thai and Modern Thai were vowel developments. The length of vowels in Modern Thai is phonemic, and a new ɤ was introduced through borrowing and sound changes.
Not all sound changes occurred across all of Thailand, either. The Thai language developed into three major dialect groups: Northern, Central, and Southwestern Tai. There are still various types of Thai in use now based on geographic region, but the Thai language generally refers to the Central dialect spoken in the capital Bangkok. It is also known as Central Tai or Standard Thai. When learning Thai, you’re likely learning this Central dialect.
Aside from this standardised version of the Thai language, the Northeast dialect known as Isan is also used widely in the country. Even though it is still the Thailand language, it has numerous Lao features, including some unusual vocabulary and grammar. Comparatively, the Northern and Southern Thai dialects only differ slightly from the national Modern Thai language.
Alphabets & Writing System
The writing system for the Thai language emerged in 1283 under King Ramamhaeng’s reign, known as the Thai script (อักษรไทย). It was derived from the Khmer script, which originated from the Pallava alphabet used in Southern India. Although the Thai script is informally known as the Thai alphabet, the script is not an alphabet – it is an abugida or “pseudo-alphabet.”
Abugidas are syllabic writing systems where combinations of consonants and vowels are written as units. Each unit represents a syllable based on a consonant letter, and vowel notation is secondary. The Thailand language uses 44 consonant symbols and 16 standard vowel symbols, plus vowel diphthongs. It is also the first script to use tone markers, which aren’t present in other related scripts.
The earliest record of the written Thai language is the Sukothai Inscription, which dates to 1292. Unlike most other modern languages, Thai writing has hardly changed since its conception. As a result, this and other ancient inscriptions can be understood by new speakers learning Thai today! However, many learners fail to master the complexities of the unfamiliar Thai alphabet. Even among native speakers, literacy rates are at around 93%.
Thai Language Dialects
Thailand has 73 living languages! Thai is the official Thailand language based on the Bangkok dialect. When learning Thai, this is the version of the language taught. It is spoken by around 88% of the country’s population. However, only 33% of Thai language speakers use it as their native language; most people in Thailand speak another dialect or version of the language.
The main Thai dialects to know are Bangkok Thai spoken in Central Thailand (and used as the language standard); Isan Thai spoken in Northeastern Thailand; Southern Thai spoken in South Thailand; and Northern Thai spoken in North Thailand. There are also many less widely spoken dialects, including Phu Thai, Song, Nyaw, Phuan, and Lu.
There is enough variation between particular Thai dialects to make them not mutually intelligible – people in different regions might struggle to communicate when speaking their native tongue. In fact, there is so much variety in the Thai language that some dialects are considered minority languages. However, they also use the Thai writing system and are a type of Thai. On the other hand, some communities in Thailand speak other languages altogether, such as Yawi, Teochew, and Lao.
Thai Translation Services
Even for those that have been learning Thai for years, Thai is considered a challenging language to translate. It has a unique script and writing pattern, and the various Thai dialects make translations even more complex. An understanding of Thai culture is also crucial for accurate translations.
Renaissance Translations has a team of experienced linguists who are experts in the Thai language, Thai writing system, and Thai culture. With years of translation experience, they can adapt various types of content into the Thai language. This includes specialised translations, such as those in the fields of medicine, engineering, finance, and business.
Whether you need a translation into Standard Thai or another indigenous Thailand language, our team can help. Get in touch to discuss your project, or request a quote online today.