OVERVIEW OF THE THAI LANGUAGE
The Thai language (sometimes referred to as Siamese) is related to Lao of Laos, to Shan of Myanmar and to several languages of north Vietnam. It is the largest of the Tai-Kadai languages, once thought to belong to Sino-Tibetan, but now considered an independent family. The ancestral home of the Thais might have been in the area straddling the border between northern Vietnam and southeastern China. From there, they migrated into central Thailand in the 13th century where they founded Sukhothai, their first major kingdom, and converted to Theravada Buddhism. Like all Tai-Kadai languages, Thai is monosyllabic and tonal, having no inflectional morphology.
Thai is the official national language of Thailand and is used in schools, the media and the government. Thai is spoken in all regions of Thailand by about 56 million people, representing 80 % of the total population of the country’s 70 million people. Some Thai nationals speak other languages of the Tai family and others are minorities who speak non-Tai languages. Standard Thai is spoken in Bangkok and the central plains, Northern Thai (Kam Muang or Yuan) in the north, Southern Thai in the south, and Northeastern Thai (Lao, Isan) in the north-east.
Thai Linguistic Features
Thai is essentially a monosyllabic language. Non-monosyllabic words are either loans or compounds. A syllable consists of a vocalic nucleus (short or long vowel) and a tone. In addition, one or two initial consonants and/or a final consonant (frequently a nasal) may or may not occur.
Vowels: Thai has three front vowels and six back vowels, the latter divided into rounded and unrounded. Each vowel may be short or long. The long vowels have a duration of about twice as long as the short vowels. Vowel length is phonemic, i.e., signals a difference between words. Each of the high vowels (short or long) can be followed by /a/ to produce the diphthongs /ia, ɨa, ua/. In most of them the first vowel is long.
Consonants: Thai has twenty consonants plus a glottal stop whose phonemic status is debatable. Stops and affricates may be unaspirated or aspirated (the latter represented by an h superscript). -All twenty consonants may appear in initial position. In final position only p, t, k, m, n, ŋ, w, j/ occur, and no consonant clusters are allowed. The glottal stop appears before a vowel that lacks an initial consonant or after a short vowel not followed by a final consonant.
Tones. Thai is a tonal language and its tones are phonemic, serving to make lexical distinctions. Each syllable in Thai carries one of five tones: mid, low, falling, high, and rising. In addition to these five tones there is a variant of the high tone (higher and longer), used in emphatic utterances, that may replace any one of the other tones (marked with a tilde).
Stress. It falls on the final syllable.
New words can be produced from other words by several derivational processes like affixing (adding special prefixes or suffixes to nouns and verbs), compounding (compound words may include nouns, adjectives, numerals and verbs and reduplication), reduplication (repetition of a word or part of a word). Most nouns are monosyllabic. They are not inflected for case, gender or number.
Thai has a complex pronoun system which distinguishes age, sex, social position and attitude of the speaker. Kinship terms frequently replace personal pronouns. Thai verbs are not inflected for tense and number. The simple present is expressed by the verb alone. Other tenses by the use of particles or expressions of time.
The most common word order is Subject-Verb-Object. Attributive adjectives follow their nouns. Due to lack of inflections, syntactical functions are determined, mainly, by word order and prepositions.
Script, Orthography, and Lexicon
Thai is written with an alphabetic script that derives, ultimately, from the Brāhmī script of India. Its creation is credited to King Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhotai who, a few years before 1292 (date of the earliest extant Thai inscription), borrowed the characters from Khmer (also derived from Brāhmī) adding a number of new ones. He preserved symbols for Sanskrit sounds, useful for the many Sanskrit loanwords that have crept into Thai. Among the new symbols he included those for tones and Thai sounds absent in the original script. He also divided the consonants of the new alphabet into high, mid and low in order to indicate tone in spelling. As a consequence, many characters in the Thai alphabet are redundant i.e., some sounds have more than one character. It has no independent vowel signs, the vowel signs are diacritics placed above, below, to the right or to the left of a consonant.
A Few Little Known Facts About Thai Language & Culture
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized by a European nation. Throughout history Thailand was actually called Siam throughout until 1939 when the name changed to Thailand.
Siamese cats are native to Thailand. In Thai they are called wichen-maat meaning “moon diamond.” A 14th-century book of Thai poems describes 23 types of Siamese cats; today only six breeds are left. Giving a pair of Si Sawat cats (a type of Siamese cats) to a bride is supposed to bring good luck to the marriage.
The national flag of Thailand is raised every morning at 8:00 and lowered every evening at 6:00. Its two horizontal red stripes symbolize the land and its people. The white horizontal stripes represent the purity of Buddhism, the nation’s main religion. The wide blue band across the center stands for the monarchy.
The Thai national anthem is played every day at 8am and 6pm. Every TV and radio station plays it, and everybody is supposed to stand up still until the end of the song, if it is convenient. The royal anthem is played before the beginning of every movie shown in Thailand’s cinemas as well as before the commencement of the first act in plays, musicals, concerts, and most other live performances of music or theater in Thailand, and everyone is supposed to stand up for the duration of the anthem.
It’s a crime to step on any Thai currency because there is the image of the king on it.
Thailand is a stronghold of Buddhism. Buddhists believe that life does not begin with birth and end with death, but rather that every person has several lives based upon the lessons of life not yet learned and acts committed (karma) in previous lives. Buddhists believe that selfishness and craving result in suffering and that compassion and love bring happiness and well-being. The true path to peace is to eliminate all desire, a condition which Buddhists define as ‘nirvana’, an indescribable state free of desire, suffering, or further rebirth, in which a person simply is, and is completely at one with his surroundings. Buddhism is practiced in Thailand by over 90% of the population.
Business attire is conservative. Men should wear dark colored conservative business suits. Women should wear conservative business suits or dresses. Women need not wear hosiery. Since Thai’s judge you on your clothing and accessories, ensure that your shoes are always highly polished.
A Touch of Classic Thai Literature
Great indeed is the power of the dragon as the sun,
Yet humbly and slowly it meanders its way shy,
Minuscule indeed is the power of the tiny scorpion,
Yet it swaggers its tail and boasts to the sky.
Ripened figs are pretty and pleasing to the eyes,
Their colors seduce both the sight and palate,
Alas, the cores rot with maggots inside.,
For evils are but false fronts and gilded waste.
-Old Thai Verses