The Tai languages are widely spoken in South-East Asia, parts of China and even parts of Northern India. They’re fascinating and interesting languages to learn.Although many language families are very familiar, even to non-linguists, some are less well-known to lay people outside of the area where the languages themselves are spoken.One such is the Tai language family.
The Tai language family (or sub-group of the wider Tai-Kadai language family) covers a number of languages spoken in the area of South-East Asia, South-Western China and parts of North-east India.It includes specific languages such as Thai/Siamese, Laotian, Shan (Burma) and the Zhuang tongue spoken across wide areas of adjacent areas of China.The Tai-Kadai family is usually divided into three major branches – Northern, Central and South Western.
Sometimes terminology in the language family or group can be a problem. This is partly to do with nationalistic concerns (for example, some scholars argue that the group should be called ‘Lao’) and also the effects of post-colonial change such as Thai/Siam, Burma/Myanmar, Lao/Laotian and so on.These debates though should not distract attention away from the mainstream of the linguistic group’s relationships and shared origins.
As is often the case with linguistic archaeology, linguists aren’t in total agreement about origins and dates.It seems likely that the three main groups started to diverge sometime after the first or second century CE. However, dates for their origin have been suggested as being as late as the 11th or 12th century.
All the language sub-groups had their origin in a reconstructed ancestor called ‘Proto-Tai’. There are no written sources for this language which was reconstructed in the 1970s. It’s assumed by many that the proto-language and at least some of its constituent peoples had their origins in South-Western China and migrated to south and west, integrating with other languages it encountered. The dates are speculative but may have been in the last centuries BCE.
Features of Tai Languages
Some of the individual languages of the group are mutually intelligible. For example, speakers of Thai and Laotian can understand each other even though the languages are written using moderately different scripts.
Many languages of the group use scripts that are recognised to have come originally from Brahmic Indian. For non-native speakers, learning the script can be challenging but rewarding.
These languages are tonal languages and in Thai itself there are five different tonal inflections to master.
Most of these tongues also share a language-segmentation whereby different forms of language are used depending upon the social context. So, using Thai again as a reference point, it uses:
Common – used in family circles or with good friends
Formal – For official communication and used in the media
Rhetoric – this is a form usually reserved for addressing larger groups of the pubic, for example in political speech
Religious – usually reserved for religious subjects or when communicating with monks or temple officials
Royal -as the name suggests, this is usually reserved for discussion with members of the royal family.
This is based upon a single language of the sub-group and these structures may vary though in principle, the differentiations will be found in many.Although this may sound strange, such distinctions exist in many languages and are imbedded into the language structure, as in the Romance languages.
These languages usually contain many single syllable words – in Thai itself, they’re the norm. To avoid errors, it’s therefore important for students to master both tones and stresses.
The final interesting pointis the use of formal ‘polite’ formsin these languages. For example, ‘Thai’ people use words like “kráp” for men (the ‘R’ is usually though not always silent) and “kâ” for women which should be said at the end of every sentence in order to be polite. Failing to do so can cause offence even though people in all cultures usually make allowances for foreigners learning their language!
This structure also extends into the language itself where various forms of word can exist and will be used depending upon the degree of politeness you’re trying to convey (or otherwise).The words are used as per five categories outlined above and they need to be learnt!