Thai language explained

Nativename:ภาษาไทย phasa thai
States:Thailand, Northern Malaysia, Cambodia, Southern Myanmar, Laos
Speakers:60–65 million
Fam4:East Central
Fam5:Chiang Saeng
Agency:The Royal Institute

Thai (Thai: ภาษาไทย,, transcription: phasa thai, transliteration: ;), is the national and official language of Thailand and the mother tongue of the Thai people, Thailand's dominant ethnic group. Thai is a member of the Tai group of the Kradai language family. The Kradai languages are thought to have originated in what is now southern China, and some linguists have proposed links to the Austroasiatic, Austronesian, or Sino-Tibetan language families. It is a tonal and analytic language. The combination of tonality, a complex orthography, relational markers and a distinctive phonology can make Thai difficult to learn for those who do not already speak a related language. Thai is mutually intelligible with Lao.

Languages and dialects

Standard Thai, also known as Central Thai or Siamese, is the official language of Thailand, spoken by about 65 million people (1990) including speakers of Bangkok Thai (although the latter is sometimes considered as a separate dialect). Khorat Thai is spoken by about 400,000 (1984) in Nakhon Ratchasima; it occupies a linguistic position somewhere between Central Thai and the Isan on a dialect continuum, and may be considered a variant or dialect of either. A majority of the people in the Isan region of Thailand speak a dialect of the Lao language, which has influenced the Central Thai dialect.

In addition to Standard Thai, Thailand is home to other related Tai languages, including:

Statistics are from Ethnologue 2003-10-4.

Many of these languages are spoken by larger numbers outside of Thailand. Most speakers of dialects and minority languages speak Central Thai as well, since it is the language used in schools and universities all across the kingdom.

Numerous languages not related to Thai are spoken within Thailand by ethnic minority hill tribespeople. These languages include Hmong-Mien (Yao), Karen, Lisu, and others.

Standard Thai is composed of several distinct registers, forms for different social contexts:

Most of the Thais can speak and understand all of these contexts. Street and Elegant are the basis of all conversations; rhetorical, religious and royal Thai are taught in schools as the national curriculum.


See main article: Thai alphabet.

The Thai alphabet is derived from the Khmer alphabet, which is modeled after the Brahmic script from the Indic family. The language and its alphabet are closely related to the Lao language and alphabet. Most literate Lao are able to read and understand Thai, as more than half of the Thai vocabulary, grammar, intonation, vowels and so forth are common with the Lao language. Much like the Burmese adopted the Mon script (which also has Indic origins), the Thais adopted and modified the Khmer script to create their own writing system. While the oldest known inscription in the Khmer language dates from 611 CE, inscriptions in Thai writing began to appear around 1292 CE. Notable features include:

  1. It is an abugida script, in which the implicit vowel is a short /a/ in a syllable without final consonant and a short /o/ in a syllable with final consonant.
  2. Tone markers are placed above the consonant just before the vowel sound of the syllable.
  3. Vowels sounding after a consonant are nonsequential: they can be located before, after, above or below the consonant, or in a combination of these positions.


There is no universal standard for transcribing Thai into the Latin alphabet. For example, the name of King Rama IX, the present monarch, is transcribed variously as Bhumibol, Phumiphon, phuuM miH phohnM, or many other versions. Guide books, text books and dictionaries may each follow different systems. For this reason, most language courses recommend that learners master the Thai alphabet.

What comes closest to a standard is the Royal Thai General System of Transcription (RTGS), published by the Thai Royal Institute.[1] This system is increasingly used in Thailand by central and local governments, especially for road signs. Its main drawbacks are that it does not indicate tone or vowel length. It is not possible to reconstruct the Thai spelling from the RTGS transcriptions.


The ISO published an international standard for the transliteration of Thai into Roman script in September 2003 (ISO 11940) By adding diacritics to the Latin letters, it makes the transcription reversible, making it a true transliteration. This system is intended for academic use, but is rarely used in any context.


From the perspective of linguistic typology, Thai can be considered to be an analytic language. The word order is Subject Verb Object, although the subject is often omitted. The Thai pronominal system varies according to the sex and relative status of speaker and audience.

Adjectives and adverbs

There is no morphological distinction between adverbs and adjectives. Many words can be used in either function. They follow the word they modify, which may be a noun, verb, or another adjective or adverb. Intensity can be expressed by a duplicated word, which is used to mean "very" (with the first occurrence at a higher pitch) or "rather" (with both at the same pitch) (Higbie 187-188). Usually, only one word is duplicated per clause.

Comparatives take the form "A X กว่า B" (kwa,), A is more X than B. The superlative is expressed as "A X ที่สุด" (thi sut,), A is most X.

Because adjectives can be used as complete predicates, many words used to indicate tense in verbs (see Verbs:Tense below) may be used to describe adjectives.


Verbs do not inflect (i.e. do not change with person, tense, voice, mood, or number) nor are there any participles. Duplication conveys the idea of doing the verb intensively.

The passive voice is indicated by the insertion of ถูก (thuk,)) before the verb. For example:

To convey the opposite sense, a sense of having an opportunity arrive, ได้ (dai,, can) is used. For example:

Note, dai (and), though both spelled ได้, convey two separate meanings. The short vowel dai conveys an opportunity has arisen and is placed before the verb. The long vowel dai is placed after the verb and conveys the idea that one has been given permission or one has the ability to do something. Also see the past tense below.

Negation is indicated by placing ไม่ (mai, not) before the verb.

Tense is conveyed by tense markers before or after the verb.

Present can be indicated by กำลัง (kamlang,, currently) before the verb for ongoing action (like English -ing form), by อยู่ (yu,) after the verb, or by both. For example:

Future can be indicated by จะ (cha,, will) before the verb or by a time expression indicating the future. For example:

Past can be indicated by ได้ (dai,) before the verb or by a time expression indicating the past. However, แล้ว (laeo, :, already) is more often used to indicate the past tense by being placed behind the verb. Or, both ได้ and แล้ว are put together to form the past tense expression, i.e. Subject + ได้ + Verb + แล้ว. For example:

Nouns and pronouns

Nouns are uninflected and have no gender; there are no articles.

Nouns are neither singular nor plural. Some specific nouns are reduplicated to form collectives: เด็ก (dek, child) is often repeated as เด็กๆ (dek dek) to refer to a group of children. The word พวก (phuak,) may be used as a prefix of a noun or pronoun as a collective to pluralize or emphasise the following word. (พวกผม, phuak phom,, we, masculine; พวกเรา phuak rao,, emphasised we; พวกหมา phuak ma, (the) dogs) Plurals are expressed by adding classifiers, used as measure words (ลักษณนาม), in the form of noun-number-classifier (ครูห้าคน, "teacher five person" for "five teachers"). While in English, such classifiers are usually absent ("four chairs") or optional ("two bottles of beer" or "two beers"), a classifier is almost always used in Thai (hence "chair four item" and "beer two bottle").

Subject pronouns are often omitted, while nicknames are often used where English would use a pronoun. There are specialised pronouns in the royal and sacred Thai languages. The following are appropriate for conversational use:

ผมphomI/me (masculine; formal)
ดิฉันdichan)I/me (feminine; formal)
ฉันchanI/me (masculine or feminine; informal)
คุณkhunyou (polite)
ท่านthanyou (polite to a person of high status)
เธอthoeyou (informal), she/her (informal)
เราraowe/us, I/me/you (casual)
เขาkhaohe/him, she/her
พวกเขาphuak khaothey/them
พี่phiolder brother, sister (also often used loosely for older cousins and non-relatives)
น้องnongyounger brother, sister (also often used loosely for younger cousins and non-relatives)
ลูกพี่ ลูกน้องluk phi luk nongcousin (male or female)

The reflexive pronoun is ตัวเอง (tua eng), which can mean any of: myself, yourself, ourselves, himself, herself, themselves.This can be mixed with another pronoun to create an intensive pronoun, such as ตัวผมเอง (tua phom eng, lit: I myself)or ตัวคุณเอง (tua khun eng, lit: you yourself).

Thai does not have a separate possessive pronoun. Instead, possession is indicated by the particle ของ (khong). For example, "my mother" is แม่ของผม (mae khong phom, lit: mother of I). This particle is often implicit, so the phrase is shortened to แม่ผม (mae phom).

Above is only a short list. Thai language has many more pronouns. Their usage is full of nuances. For example:


The particles are often untranslatable words added to the end of a sentence to indicate respect, a request, encouragement or other moods (similar to the use of intonation in English), as well as varying the level of formality. They are not used in elegant (written) Thai. The most common particles indicating respect are ครับ (khrap,, with a high tone) for a man, and ค่ะ (kha,, with a falling tone) for a woman; these can also be used to indicate an affirmative.

Other common particles are:

จ๊ะchaindicating a request
จ้ะ, จ้า or จ๋าchaindicating emphasis
ละ or ล่ะlaindicating emphasis
สิsiindicating emphasis or an imperative
นะnasoftening; indicating a request



There are five phonemic tones: middle, low, high, rising and falling. The table shows an example of both the phonemic tones and their phonetic realization, in the IPA.

midนาa paddy
lowหน่า(a nickname)
highน้าaunt/uncle(younger than your parents)


Thai distinguishes among three voice/aspiration patterns for plosive consonants:

Where English has only a distinction between the voiced, unaspirated and the unvoiced, aspirated, Thai distinguishes a third sound which is neither voiced nor aspirated, which occurs in English only as an allophone of, approximately the sound of the p in "spin". There is similarly an alveolar,, triplet. In the velar series there is a, pair and in the postalveolar series the, pair. (These are laminal, but not palatalized like Chinese .)

In each cell below, the first line indicates International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the second indicates the Thai characters in initial position (more letters appearing in the same box have identical pronunciation).








ฉ, ช, ฌ


The basic vowels of the Thai language, from front to back and close to open, are given in the following table. The top entry in every cell is the symbol from the International Phonetic Alphabet, the second entry gives the spelling in the Thai alphabet, where a dash (–) indicates the position of the initial consonant after which the vowel is pronounced. A second dash indicates that a final consonant must follow.













-ะ, -ั


The vowels each exist in long-short pairs: these are distinct phonemes forming unrelated words in Thai, but usually transliterated the same: เขา (khao) means he or she, while ขาว (khao) means white.

The long-short pairs are as follows:

Thaicolspan=2IPAGlossThai scriptcolspan=2IPAGloss
–า'to slice'–ะ'to dream'
–ี 'to cut'–ิ 'dagger'
–ู 'to inhale'–ุ 'rearmost'
เ–'to recline'เ–ะ'ligament'
แ–'to be defeated'แ–ะ'goat'
–ื 'wave'–ึ 'to go up'
เ–อ'to walk'เ–อะ'silver'
โ–'to fell'โ–ะ'thick (soup)'

The basic vowels can be combined into diphthongs. analyze those ending in high vocoids as underlyingly and . For purposes of determining tone, those marked with an asterisk are also classified as long:

–ายไ–*, ใ–*, ไ–ย

Additionally, there are three triphthongs, all of which are long:


For a guide to written vowels, see the Thai alphabet page.


Other than compound words and words of foreign origin, most words are monosyllabic. Historically, words have most often been borrowed from Sanskrit and Pāli; Buddhist terminology is particularly indebted to these. Old Khmer has also contributed its share, especially in regard to royal court terminology. Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, the English language has had the greatest influence. Many Teochew Chinese words are also used, some replacing existing Thai words.

Thailand also uses the distinctive Thai six hour clock in addition to the 24 hour clock.

See also


External links

Notes and References

  1. Royal Thai General System of Transcription