The Thai language and people have an intricate history stretching back thousands of years. Despite a vast history, modern-day Thailand did not take its current name or establish its current borders until well into the 20th century.
Throughout the many changes the Thai people have faced throughout the country’s complex history, they have managed to preserve an amazingly vibrant culture and language that continues to attract both scholars and tourists.
Classification and Early History of the Thai Language
The Thai language is classified as a member of the Tai language group within the Tai-Kadai language family, which originated in what is now southern China.
Around the 10th century AD, peoples from present-day China migrated southeast into the northern areas of the Indochinese Peninsula. The Thai peoples who today inhabit India, Laos, Vietnam, southern China, Myanmar, and – of course – Thailand, are believed to have descended from these migrants.
It is important to note that these migrants from southern China were not the first people to inhabit the region of present-day Thailand. Peoples had been living there since prehistoric times, probably speaking a variety of Mon-Khmer languages. It is believed that the Thai people incorporated themselves into this area, mixing with the peoples already living there, from the 10th and 11th century on.
Early Written Thai Language
The Thai language consists of 42 consonant signs, as well as vowel and tone markers, and is written using an alphabet based on the Khmer alphabet, which is derived from the ancient family of Brahmic scripts. The Thai adopted and modified the Khmer script to create a writing system appropriate to the expression of the Thai language. Thai is written from left to right, using spaces to indicate punctuation.
The earliest known inscriptions of the Thai language are dated to about 1292 AD and consist of inscriptions of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great. These are generally to be considered the oldest examples of Thai script.
King Ramkhamhaeng the Great: Father of the Written Thai Language?
According to Thai tradition, King Ramkhamhaeng the Great was responsible for the creation of the Thai script in the late 13th century. Considered one of the greatest kings in all of Thai history, Ramkhamhaeng achieved fantastic levels of cultural achievement during his reign. Under Ramkhamhaeng’s rule, the Kingdom of Sukothai underwent massive expansion and became a vibrant cultural and political center for the Thai people.
Located between present-day Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Sukothai is now known for its extensive historical ruins, which were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site after their restoration was completed.
From the Kingdom of Ayutthaya to “Siam”
By the mid-14th century, a new center of power had arisen for the Thai people: the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. Founded in 1351 by King Ramathibodi, the kingdom quickly prospered thanks to its strategic island location, which allowed trade with ships from Japan, China, India and Persia. In its early days, Ayutthaya defeated some of its primary rivals including Sukothai in 1438.
In 1569, however, Ayutthaya was conquered by the Burmese kingdom, today known as Myanmar. The period of warfare that followed lasted decades, ending with Ayutthaya’s winning its independence in the 1590s. Ayutthaya’s trade subsequently increased once again and now included contact with the Dutch East India and English East India companies. Thanks to contact with these European traders, Ayutthaya became known by visitors as “Siam.”
Resistance of Western Influence
Siam successfully resisted Western influence for more than 100 years and has always remained an independent state. The monarchs King Mongku, who took the throne in 1851, and his son Chulalongkom, who took power in 1868, made major efforts to appease the West, avoiding colonization.
In 1855, for example, Siam signed the Bowring Treaty, which yielded free trade and other privileges to Britain. Similar treaties were signed with France, Japan, and the US, among others, helping to secure Siam’s independence. While Vietnam and Cambodia came under French colonial rule, Siam remained an independent state.
Developments in Modern Thailand
Although Siam managed to retain its independence, it was in a subordinate position to Western colonial powers. This continued until the 1930s, when Thailand gained complete control over its internal and external affairs. Surges of Thai nationalism led to a bloodless coup in the early 1930s and in 1932, modern-day Thailand instituted a constitutional regime in place of an absolute monarchy.
Seven years later, the country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand. From this period onward, Thailand underwent rapid industrialization and urbanization, as well as educational improvement and increased literacy rates.
Relationship Between the Lao and Thai Languages
The Thai language is closely related to the Lao language of Laos. The two languages and their alphabets exhibit notable similarities in grammar, vocabulary, vowel usage, and intonation. Both members of the Tai language family, Thai and Lao are similar to the extent that most literate Lao are capable of understanding the written Thai language, and vice versa.
Thai Language and Dialects Today
The modern Thai language is spoken by an estimated 55 million people in Southeast Asia, most of them in Thailand, where Thai serves as the official national language.
Dialects in the Thai language vary by region. Primary dialects include the Northeaster, Northern, and Southern. The standard Thai, also known as Central Thai or Siamese, is based primarily on the dialect spoken around Bangkok and surrounding central areas.
Outside Influences on the Thai Language
The Thai language makes free use of foreign words and has incorporated a significant number of loanwords from a wide variety of languages over time.
The oldest loanwords are believed to derive from the Chinese. Additional loanwords have been taken from Sanskrit, Khmer (the official language of Cambodia), and Portuguese. In more recent years, Thai has also taken loanwords from the English language.
Thai Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Central Tai, Standard Thai, Thaiklang, Siamese
Language Family: Tai-Kadai, Kam-Tai, Be-Tai, Tai-Sek, Tai, Southwestern, East Central, Chiang Saeng
Official Language of: Thailand
Spoken by Approximately 20,230,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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