Isan language

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Lao Isan; Northeastern Thai
ภาษาอีสาน, ภาษาไทยถิ่นอีสาน
Native toThailand
RegionIsan and adjacent portions of northern and eastern Thailand. Also Bangkok.
EthnicityIsan, Northern Khmer and Thai Chinese
Native speakers
(21 million cited 1995 census)[1]
2.3 million of these use both Isan and Thai at home[1]
Thai Noi and Tai Tham alphabet (formerly)[2]
Thai alphabet (de facto)
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3tts

Isan or Northeastern Thai (Thai: ภาษาอีสาน, ภาษาไทยถิ่นตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ, ภาษาไทยถิ่นอีสาน, ภาษาไทยอีสาน, ภาษาลาวอีสาน) is a group of Lao varieties spoken in the northern two-thirds of Isan in northeastern Thailand, as well as in adjacent portions of northern and eastern Thailand. It is the native language of the Isan people, spoken by 20 million or so people in Thailand,[1] a third of the population of Thailand and 80 percent of all Lao speakers. The language remains the primary language in 88 percent of households in Isan.[1] It is commonly used as a second, third, or fourth language by the region's other linguistic minorities, such as Northern Khmer, Khorat Thai, Kuy, Nyah Kur, and other Tai or Austronesian-speaking peoples. The Isan language has unofficial status in Thailand and can be differentiated as a whole from the Lao language of Laos by the increasing use of Thai grammar, vocabulary, and neologisms.[4] Code-switching is common, depending on the context or situation. Adoption of Thai neologisms has also further differentiated Isan from standard Lao.[5]



Wat Xieng Thong in Louangphabang. It was the first capital of Lan Xang.

The Tai languages originated in what is currently known as central and southern China in an area stretching from Yunnan to Guangdong as well as Hainan and adjacent regions of northern Vietnam. Tai speakers arrived in Southeast Asia around 1000 CE, displacing or absorbing earlier peoples and setting up mueang (city-states) on the peripheries of the Indianised kingdoms of the Mon and Khmer peoples. The Tai kingdoms of the Mekong Valley became tributaries of the Lan Xang mandala (Isan: ล้านซ้าง, RSTG: lan chang, Lao: ລ້ານຊ້າງ, BGCN: lan xang, /lȃːn sȃːŋ/) from 1354-1707. Influences on the Isan language include Sanskrit and Pali terms for Indian cultural, religious, scientific, and literary terms as well as the adoption of the Pallava alphabet as well as Mon-Khmer influences to the vocabulary.

Lan Xang split into the Kingdom of Vientiane, the Kingdom of Luang Phrabang, and the Kingdom of Champasak, but these became vassals of the Thai state. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, several deportations of Lao peoples from the densely populated west bank of the Mekong to the hinterlands of Isan were undertaken by the Thai armies, especially after the revolt of Anouvong in 1828, when Vientiane was looted and depopulated. This weakened the Lao kingdoms as the population was shifted to the kingdoms in Isan and small pockets of western and north-central Thailand, under greater Thai control.[6][7]

Development of Isan[edit]

Isan speakers became politically separated from other Lao speakers after the Franco-Siamese War of 1893 would lead Siam to cede all of the territories east of the Mekong to France, which subsequently established the French Protectorate of Laos. In 1904, Sainyabuli and Champasak Provinces were ceded to France, leading to the current borders between Thailand and Laos. A 25 km demilitarised zone west of the river banks allowed for easy crossings, and Isan remained largely neglected for some time. Rebellions against Siamese and French incursions into the region included the Holy Man's Rebellion (1901-1904), led by self-proclaimed holy men. The Lao people also joined in the rebellion, but was crushed by Thai troops in Isan.[8] At first, Isan was administered by Lao local rulers subject to the Siamese Court under the monthon system of administration, but this was abolished in 1933, bringing Isan under the direct control of Bangkok.[9]


Nationalistic aims to promote central Thai culture and language were directed at regional minorities, such as the Lao of Isan.

Heavy-handed nationalist policies were adopted in 1933 with the end of the absolute monarchy in Thailand. Many were instituted during the premiership of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (1938-1944). Although Lao languages were banned from education in 1871, a new public education and new schools were built throughout Isan, and only Thai was to be used by government and media. References to Lao people were erased and propagation of Thai nationalism was instilled in the populace. The language was renamed "Northeastern Thai".

Discrimination against the Isan language and its speakers was commonplace, especially when large numbers of Isan people began arriving in Bangkok in the latter half of the 20th century, permanently or for seasonal work. Although this blatant discrimination is rarer these days, most of these nationalistic Thaification policies remain in effect.[10]

Post-war period to present[edit]

Resistance to Thai hegemony continued. During the course of World War II and afterwards, the Free Thai Movement bases in Isan made links with the Lao Issara movement. After the implementation of Thaification policies, many prominent Isan politicians were assassinated, and some Isan people moved to Laos. The Communist Party of Thailand led insurrections during the 1960s and 1980s, supported by the communist Pathet Lao and some factions of the Isan populace.[11] Integration continued, as highways and other infrastructure were built to link Isan with the rest of Thailand. Due to population pressures and unreliable monsoons of the region, Isan people began migrating to Bangkok for employment. Isan speakers began to shift to the Thai language, and the language itself is absorbing larger amounts of Thai vocabulary. Universities such as Mahasarakham and Khon Kaen are now offering classes on Isan language, culture, and literature. Attitudes towards regional cultures have relaxed and the language continues to be spoken, but Thai influences in grammar and vocabulary continue to increase.[12][13]


Isan belongs to the Tai branch of the Tai–Kadai languages. Within Tai, Isan is a Southwestern Tai language, linking it with most Tai languages of Southeast Asia and immediately adjacent regions of southern China. Within this grouping, Isan is part of the Lao-Phuthai group, which includes the speech of the Lao, Phu Thai, and Nyaw. The national and official language of Thailand, by contrast, is in the closely related Chiang Saeng languages.[14] However, within Thailand, Isan is considered a regional dialect of Thai.[15] Outside of Thailand, the language is classified as either its own Lao-Phuthai language due to social and historical reasons or generally as just a distinct subset of the Lao language, mostly by linguists and often Isan speakers themselves. Thai, Isan, and Lao are all mutually intelligible to some degree, but Isan is closer to standard Lao than to standard Thai in ordinary speech.[16] Thai, Isan and Lao share most of their basic vocabulary as well as a large corpus of shared Sanskrit, Pali, and Khmer loanwords in academic language.

Identical vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai
"language" ภาษา, /pʰáː sǎː/, phasa ພາສາ, /pʰáː sǎː/, phasa ภาษา, /pʰaː sǎː/, phasa
"city" เมือง, /mɯ´ːaŋ/, mueang ເມືອງ, /mɯ´ːaŋ/, muang เมือง, /mɯaŋ/, mueang
"religion" ศาสนา, /sȁːt sáʔ nǎː/, satsana ສາດສະໜາ/Archaic ສາສນາ, /sȁːt sáʔ nǎː/, satsana ศาสนา, /sàːt sàʔ nǎː/, satsana
"government" รัฐบาล, /lāt tʰáʔ bàːn/, ratthaban ລັດຖະບານ/Archaic ຣັຖບາລ, /lāt tʰáʔ bàːn/, ratthabane รัฐบาล, /rát tʰàʔ baːn/, ratthaban
"heaven" สวรรค์, /sáʔ ʋǎn/, sawan ສະຫວັນ/Archaic ສວັນຄ໌, /sáʔ ʋǎn/, savane สวรรค์, /sàʔ wǎn/, sawan
"water" น้ำ, /nâm/, nam ນ້ຳ, /nâm/, nam น้ำ, /nám/, nam
"child" เด็ก, /dék/, dek ເດັກ, /dék/, dék เด็ก, /dèk/, dek
"to be happy" ดีใจ, /dìː tɕàːj/, di chai ດີໃຈ, /dìː tɕàːj/, di chai ดีใจ, /diː tɕaj/, di chai
"street" ถนน, /tʰáʔ nǒn/, thanon ຖະໜົນ/Archaic ຖນົນ, /tʰáʔ nǒn/, thanône ถนน, /tʰàʔ nǒn/, thanon
"sun" อาทิตย์, /ʔaː tʰīt/, athit ອາທິດ/Archaic ອາທິຕຍ໌, /ʔaː tʰīt/, athit อาทิตย์, /ʔaː tʰít/, athit


Isan people generally refer to their speech as phasa Lao (ภาษาลาว, /pʰáː săː láːu/, cf. Lao: ພາສາລາວ), the 'Lao language', but this is usually restricted to when speakers are addressing other Lao people, whether from Laos or elsewhere in Isan. It is also used when talking about the language with other minority groups in Isan. More poetically and informally, Isan speakers may use phasa ban hao (ภาษาบ้านเฮา, /pʰáː săː bȃːn háu/, cf. Lao ພາສາບ້ານເຮົາ, phasa bane hao), 'our home language' or 'our village language' This term distinguishes it from the Thai language sufficiently as the tones are different, and the Thai word for 'we/our/us' is rao (เรา, /rau/).

As a result of over a century of 'Siamification' and later 'Thaification' policies aimed at removing references to Lao people, language, and culture in the region, the Lao-speaking territories, culture, people, and language were renamed Isan, so speakers have come to refer to the language as phasa (Thai/thai) Isan (ภาษา[ไทย/ไท]อีสาน, /pʰáː săː [tʰáj] iː săːn/, cf. Lao: ພາສາ[ໄທ]ອີສານ, phasa [Thai/thai] isane), the 'Isan Thai language' or 'Isan peoples' language' however, in Isan Thai (ไทย) refers to Thailand and Thai culture whereas thai (ไท) refers to people in general, but are only distinguished in writing as both are pronounced the same. Use of ไท to refer to people has cognates in Laos but is very archaic and obsolete usage in Thai. Isan is of Sanskrit derivation, referring to the northeast direction (i.e., northeast of Bangkok), an aspect of the Hindu god Shiva as guardian of the northeast direction as well as a reference to Isanapura, an ancient kingdom of the Khmer people that once extended its influence into much of what is now the Isan region.


In Thailand, the Isan language is officially classified as a dialect of the Thai language. In scholarly, official, and academic usage, the language in Thai is referred to as phasa thai tawan ok chiang neua (ภาษาไทยตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ , /pʰaː săː tʰaj tàʔ wan ɔ`ːk tɕʰǐaŋ nɯːa/), the 'northeastern Thai language', or as the phasa Thai thin Isan (ภาษาไทยถิ่นอีสาน, /pʰaː săː tʰaj tʰìn ʔiː săːn/, the 'Thai dialect of Isan' or the 'Thai language of Isan.' More commonly, the language is known by its Thaified name phasa (Thai) Isan (/pʰaː săː [tʰaj] ʔiː săːn/), 'Isan (Thai) language.'

For the Lao-speaking peoples of Laos, the Lao refer to the Isan sub-group as phasa Lao (ພາສາລາວ, /pʰáː săː láːu/); phasa Lao Isan (ພາສາລາວອີສານ), the 'Lao language of Isan', phasa Lao Thai (ພາສາລາວໄທ, /pʰáː săː láːu tʰáj/) the 'Lao language of Thailand' and phasa Thai/thai Lao (ພາສາລາວໄທ), the 'Lao Thai language' or the 'Lao people's language' but phasa (Thai/thai) Isane (ພາສາ[ໄທ]ອີສານ, /pʰáː săː tʰáj/), the 'Isan Thai language' or the 'Isan people's language', is probably the most common term to refer to the Lao language as spoken in Isan. Also, the Lao word ไท refers to both 'Thailand' and 'Thai' things as well as 'people' in general.

Geographical distribution[edit]

A map showing the Isan Region in red. The region is a stronghold of the language.

The Isan language is spoken in the 20 provinces that make up the Isan region of north-eastern Thailand, approximately the size of England and Wales combined. It is also the native language of large portions of Uttaradit and Phitsanulok provinces of Northern Thailand and northern areas of most provinces of Eastern Thailand that border the Isan region. The preservation of the Lao language in Isan was aided by its isolation, as the region was separated from Thai speakers by the Phetchabun and Dong Phaya Yen mountain ranges to the west and the Sankamphaeng Range to the south-west of Isan. Lao speakers, as well as speakers of the archaic Northern Khmer language, were separated from Khmer speakers by the Dângrêk Mountains to the south. To the north and east of the region, the Mekong River serves as the 'boundary' with the Lao language proper as spoken in Laos, although the border has always been fairly porous with thousands of people crossing to the river every day for trade, travel and business.

The population of the region is predominately ethnic Lao and speakers of the Isan language, but the southern third has large minorities of Northern Khmer and Kuy, both Austroasiatic languages, and Khorat Thai, spoken in the mixed Thai, Lao and Khmer settlements of Nakhon Ratchasima Province, considered a dialect of Thai but noticeably influenced by Lao and Khmer. Although the overwhelming majority of the people are ethnic Isan, there are small pockets of other languages spoken in the region, such as the Austroasiatic Thavung, Nyah Kur (Eastern Mon), Bru and Mlabri and 'tribal' Tai languages such as Saek, Tai Dam, Nyaw, Phu Thai and Yoy languages. In addition, small communities of people speaking Central Thai, Chinese (mainly Teochew, Hokkien, Hainanese) and Vietnamese can also be found. The predominance of the Isan language in Isan is in stark contrast to the situation in Laos. Although the language enjoys official status and appears in writing, Lao speakers only make up half the population, and many Lao speakers are likely speakers of related Tai languages that use Lao as a second language. The Lao language is the primary language of riparian areas and most major cities, but is secondary to various Austroasiatic, tribal Tai-Kadai and Sino-Tibetan languages in the mountainous areas that cover most of the country.[17][18]

Legal status[edit]

Lao only enjoys official status in Laos. In Thailand, the local Lao dialects are officially classed as a dialect of the Thai language, and it is absent in most public and official domains. However, Thai has failed to supplant Lao as the mother tongue for the majority of Isan households. Lao features of the language have been stabilised by the shared history and mythology, mor lam folk music still sung in Lao, and a steady flow of Lao immigrants, day-labourers, traders, and growing cross-border trade.[19]

Language Status[edit]

The Lao (Isan) language in Thailand is classified by Ethnologue as a "de facto language of provincial identity" which is defined as a language that "is the language of identity for citizens of the province, but this is not mandated by law. Neither is it developed enough or known enough to function as the language of government business." It continues to be an important regional language for the ethnic Lao and other minorities that live beside them, but it does not have any official status in Thailand. Although the population of Lao speakers is much smaller in Laos, the language there enjoys official status, and it is the primary language of government, business, education, and inter-ethnic communication.[20] Even with close proximity to Laos, Isan speakers must master Thai and very few Isan people can read the Lao script due to lack of exposure.[12]

Written language usage and vitality[edit]

American linguist Joshua Fishman developed the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) to categorise the various stages of language death. The expanded GIDS (EGIDS) is still used to explain the status of a language on the continuum of language death.[21] The written language for Isan—both the secular Tai Noy script and the religious Tua Tham script—are currently at Stage IX which is described as a "language [that] serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency." Today, only a handful of monks in charge of the ancient temple libraries in Isan, some local professors, and a few experts are able to read and write the language.[12]:3-4[21]

Spoken language usage and vitality[edit]

The spoken language is currently at Stage VIA, or "vigorous", on the EGIDS scale, which is defined by Ethnologue as a language that is used for "face-to-face communication by all generations and the situation is sustainable". According to data from 1983, 88 percent of Isan households were predominantly Isan speaking, with 11 percent using both Thai and Isan at home, and only one percent using exclusively Thai.[12] Although this sounds promising for the continued future of the Isan language, there are many signs indicating that the language could reach Stage VIB, or "threatened", which is defined as a "language used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users". As a strong command of Thai is necessary for advancement in most government, academic, and professional realms, and in order to work in areas like Bangkok where Isan is not the local language. The negative perception of the language, even among native speakers, often causes speakers to limit use of the language unless they are in the company of other Isan speakers. Parents may view the Isan language as a detriment to the betterment of their children, who must be able to speak central Thai proficiently to advance in academia or other career paths besides agriculture. Although there are large numbers of Isan speakers, the language is at risk from Thai relexification.[12] There is also a generational gap, with older speakers using more normative Lao features, whereas the youth are using a very "Thaified" version of Isan or switching to Thai generally. Many academics and Isan speakers are worried that the language may decline unless it can be promoted beyond its status as a de facto regional language and its written script rejuvenated. [22]

Thai-influenced language shift[edit]

The greatest influence on the Isan language comes from Thai. This is because Isan has been the target of official assimilation policies aimed to erase the culture and language and force nationalism based around the Thai monarchy and Central Thai culture. Thai spoken and written language is the only language of television, most radio stations, signage, government, courts, hospitals, literature, magazines, social media, movies, schools and mandatory for job placement and advancement, participating in wider society, education and social rise. Through Thai, Isan has also absorbed influences from Chinese, mainly the Teochew dialect, as well as English. Thai has also begun to displace the language of city life in the provincial capitals and major market towns in the region.

Language shift is definitely beginning to take hold. There does exist a considerable gap in language use between current university age students and their parents or grandparents, who continue to speak relatively traditional forms of the language. Many Isan people growing up in Bangkok often are unfamiliar with the language, and a larger number of children, especially in Isan's major cities, are growing up speaking only Thai, as parents in these areas often refuse to transmit the language. Those young people who do speak the language often heavily code-switch and rely on Thai vocabulary. It is uncertain if any of these students are able to revert to a 'proper' Isan, as the language still suffers the stigma of a rural, backward language of people who could serve as a fifth column of Lao efforts to dominate the region.[22]

Isan essentially exists in a diglossia, with the high language of Central Thai used in most higher spheres and the low language, Isan, used in the villages and with friends and relatives. Formal, academic and pop culture often demand knowledge of Thai as, as few Isan people can read old texts or modern Lao ones and Isan does not exist in these spheres. The language in its older form is best preserved in the poor, rural areas of Isan, many of which are far from market towns and barely accessible by roads despite improvements in integration. Many Isan academics that study the language lament the forced Thaification of their language. Wajuppa Tossa, a Thai professor who translated many of the traditional Isan stories directly from the palm-leaf manuscripts written in Tai Noy noted that she was unable to decipher the meaning of a handful of terms, some due to language change, but many due to the gradual replacement of Lao vocabulary and because, as she was educated in Thai, could not understand some of the formal and poetic belles-lettres, many of which are still current in Lao.[22]


Isan speakers have the choice of choosing a language that is either Thai or Lao or somewhere in between, with code-switching between languages a prominent feature of typical Isan speech. For example, if an man asks his younger brother, 'What is that man drinking?', he may receive one of several following responses that all mean, 'Older brother, the man over there drinks tea':, ranging from one diglossic extreme, i.e., using only Standard Thai to the other, using only Lao vocabulary which is often distinct from Thai.

  • พี่ ผู้ชายนั่นดื่มน้ำชาครับ, phi phuchai nan deum namcha khrap /pʰîː pʰûː tɕʰaj nân dɯ`ːm nám tɕʰaː kʰráp/
    Standard Thai
  • พี่ ผู้ชายนั่นดื่มน้ำชาเด้อครับ, *phi phuchai nan deum namcha doe khap /pʰīː pʰȕː tɕʰáj nȃn dɯ̄ːm nâm tɕʰáː dɯ̂ː kʰāp/.
    Standard Thai, but switching over to Isan tones and use of the polite particle เด้อ, doe and a 'Lao-ised' pronunciation of the Thai male polite particle ครับ, khrap.
  • พี่ ผู้ชายนั่นกินน้ำซาเด้อครับ, *phi phuchai kin namsa doe khap /pʰīː pʰûː tɕʰaj nân kin nâm sáː dɯ̂ː kʰāp/
    Mainly Isan vocabulary, but with Thai pronunciation and tones for ผู้ชาย, phuchai, and intrusion of the Thai male polite particle after the Isan one.
  • อ้าย ผู้บ่าวพู้นกินน้ำซาเด้อ, *ai phubao kin namsa doe /ȃːj pʰȕː bāːo pʰûːn kin nâm sáː dɯ̂ː/
    Only using shared Lao vocabulary and pronunciation (devoid of Thai influence).
    Cf. Lao ອ້າຍ ຜູ້ບ່າວພູ້ນກິນນ້ຳຊາແດ່/Archaic ອ້າຽຜູ້ບ່າວພູ້ນກິນນ້ຳຊາແດ່, ay phoubao kin namxa dé /ȃːj pʰȕː bāːo pʰûːn kin nâm sáː dɛ̄ː/)


Isan has always been Thailand's poorest, less educated and most rural region, with the vast majority of the local population engaged in traditional wet-rice cultivation and animal husbandry despite the region's infertile, salty soils and unpredictable rains making the area prone to either drought or severe floods. Agriculture employs over half the population, with another quarter of the population engaged in it part-time. Although it contains one-third of the total population of Thailand, the region only generates 10.9 per cent (2013) of the country's GDP. As a result, millions of Isan people leave during the dry season to find temporary work in menial jobs whilst others emigrate for longer terms but still maintain permanent residences in the region, and Isan people can typically found as taxi drivers, porters, factory workers, construction workers, restaurant workers, salon assistants, sex workers, janitors and other professions that require few skills or education[23]

When Thai people can understand words and phrases, the language sounds very polite, for Isan tends to use pronouns more frequently and uses vocabulary that often has cognates in Thai formal or literary language, especially frozen expressions, but otherwise, many words in spoken Lao and Isan are cognates of terms that are no longer very polite in spoken Thai. For example, Thai has two words for 'wife', mia (เมีย /mia/) and phanraya (ภรรยา /pʰan ráʔ jaː/). In Thai, mia is used by men but it is impolite in mixed company and Thai women generally object to the term being used (such as hearing a group of men refer to their own wives as 'broad' or 'woman'), as it is often used in many Thai expressions and insults that are negative towards women, and phanraya is the everyday, polite form used in general conversation. Lao mia (ເມັຽ) and Isan (เมีย), /mía/, unlike Thai, did not evolve to have a negative connotation and continues as the common word for 'wife' in vulgar, casual and formal circumstances whereas Lao phanragna (Archaic Laoພັນຣຍາ/modern Lao ພັນລະຍາ) and Isan (ภรรยา), /pʰán lāʔ ɲáː/ sounds as 'bookish' as referring to someone's wife as a 'consort'. As there is little advantage to speaking Isan and by virtue of its negative perception, even amongst speakers, the language shift goes unabated.[24]

Continued survival[edit]

The Lao folk music molam (หมอลำ, /mɔ̆ː lám/, cf. Lao: ໝໍລຳ/ຫມໍລຳ or lam lao (/lám láːo/, cf. Lao: ລຳລາວ) has gained in popularity in Thailand, with many Isan singing artists featured during off-peak hours on Thai national television. Crown Princess Sirindhorn was the patron of the 2003 "Thai Youth Mo Lam Competition" and Isan-language variants of the central Thai luk thung (ลูกทุ่ง, /lȗːk tʰúŋ/, cf. Lao: ລູກທົ່ງ, /lȗːk tʰoŋ/, louk thông) music are accepted in national youth competitions. Within Isan, many students participate in mo lam clubs where they learn the music.[12] Universities are also now offering classes about Isan language, culture, former alphabets, and literature. The Isan people are also exposed to a steady trickle of Laotian immigrants, seasonal immigrants, students as daily visitors, merchants, traders, and fishers.[19] Isan is also connected with Laos by three bridges, which link the cities of Nong Khai-Viantiane (also by rail), Mukdahan-Savannakhét, and Nakhon Phanom-Thakhèk along the Thai-Lao border, respectively. The language will likely continue to have Thai relexification and gradual language shift as possible threats to its existence.[12]




Isan consonant inventory is similar to that of Lao; both languages have the [ɲ] sound and lack [tɕʰ].

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal [m]
Stop tenuis [p]
aspirate [pʰ]
voiced [b]
Fricative [f]
Approximant [l]
Trill [r]
* Implied before any vowel without an initial and after a short vowel without a final
** /tɕʰ/ and /r/ occur in loanwords from Central Thai.
***ฃ and ฅ are no longer used. Thus, modern Thai is said to have 42 consonant letters.


There are two relatively common consonant clusters:

  • /kw/ (กว)
  • /kʰw/ (ขว,คว)

There are also several other, less frequent clusters recorded, though apparently in the process of being lost:

  • /kr/ (กร), /kl/ (กล)
  • /kʰr/ (ขร,คร), /kʰl/ (ขล,คล)
  • /pr/ (ปร), /pl/ (ปล)
  • /pʰr/ (พร), /pʰl/ (ผล,พล)
  • /tr/ (ตร)


All plosive sounds are unreleased. Hence, final /p/, /t/, and /k/ sounds are pronounced as [p̚], [t̚], and [k̚] respectively.

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal [m]
Stop [p]


Approximant [w]
* The glottal stop appears at the end when no final follows a short vowel.


The vowels of the Isan language are similar to those of Central Thai. They, 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.

Front Back
Unrounded Rounded
short long short long short long
High /i/
Mid /e/
Low /ɛ/
-ะ, -ั-

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

The long-short pairs are as follows:

Long Short
Thai IPA Thai IPA
–า /aː/ –ะ /a/
–ี  /iː/ –ิ  /i/
–ู  /uː/ –ุ  /u/
เ– /eː/ เ–ะ /e/
แ– /ɛː/ แ–ะ /ɛ/
–ื-  /ɯː/ –ึ  /ɯ/
เ–อ /ɤː/ เ–อะ /ɤ/
โ– /oː/ โ–ะ /o/
–อ /ɔː/ เ–าะ /ɔ/

The basic vowels can be combined into diphthongs. For purposes of determining tone, those marked with an asterisk are sometimes classified as long:

Long Short
Thai script IPA Thai script IPA
–าย /aːj/ ไ–*, ใ–*, ไ–ย, -ัย /aj/
–าว /aːw/ เ–า* /aw/
เ–ีย /iːə/ เ–ียะ /iə/
–ิว /iw/
–ัว /uːə/ –ัวะ /uə/
–ูย /uːj/ –ุย /uj/
เ–ว /eːw/ เ–็ว /ew/
แ–ว /ɛːw/
เ–ือ /ɯːə/ เ–ือะ /ɯə/
เ–ย /ɤːj/
–อย /ɔːj/
โ–ย /oːj/

Additionally, there are three triphthongs. For purposes of determining tone, those marked with an asterisk are sometimes classified as long:

Thai script IPA
เ–ียว* /iəw/
–วย* /uəj/
เ–ือย* /ɯəj/


Although as a whole, the Isan dialects are grouped separately from Lao dialects in Laos by influences from the Thai language, dialectal isoglosses mirror the population movements from Lao regions. These regional varieties vary in tone quality and distribution and a small number of lexical items, but all are mutually intelligible. Up to fourteen regional variations can be found within Isan, but they can be grouped into five principal dialect areas:[12][25][26]

Lao Dialects
Dialect Lao Provinces Thai Provinces
Vientiane Lao (ภาษาลาวเวียงจันทน์) Vientiane, Vientiane Prefecture, Bolikhamxai Nong Bua Lamphu, Chaiyaphum, and parts of Nong Khai, Yasothon, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani.
Northern Lao (ภาษาลาวเหนือ) Louang Phrabang, Xaignabouli, Oudômxai, Phôngsaly, and Louang Namtha. Loei and parts of Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Phitsanulok, and Uttaradit.
Northeastern Lao/Tai Phuan (ภาษาลาวตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ/ภาษาไทพวน) Xiangkhouang and Houaphane. Parts of Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani.*2
Central Lao (ภาษาลาวกลาง) Savannakhét and Khammouane. Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and parts of Sakon Nakhon, Nong Khai and Bueng Kan.
Southern Lao (ภาษาลาวใต้) Champasak, Saravane, Xékong, and Attapeu. Ubon Ratchathani, Amnat Charoen, and parts of Yasothorn, Buriram, Si Sa Ket, Surin, Nakhon Ratchasima and portions of Sa Kaew, Chanthaburi
Western Lao (ภาษาลาวตะวันตก) Not spoken in Laos. Kalasin, Maha Sarakham, Roi Et and portions of Phetchabun.

Vientiane Lao dialect[edit]

The dialect of the capital of Vientiane, now shifting due to the movement of peoples from other regions of Laos, is the prestige dialect of Laos and is also the dialect, with a few minor differences, of the city of Nong Khai and other areas of Isan settled by the Tai Wieng (ไทเวียง, /tʰáj wíaŋ/, cf. Tai Noy/Lao: ໄທວຽງ), or "Vientiane people" on the Thai side of the border. Tai Wieng also refers to small groups found in a few pockets of western portions of central Thailand where people from Vientiane were forcibly settled and are reported to speak a very similar dialect.

Vientiane Dialect Six-Tone Distribution[27]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Rising Middle Low-Falling (Glottalised) Low-Falling Mid-Rising
Middle Low-Rising Middle High-Falling (Glottalised) High-Falling Mid-Rising
Low High-Rising Middle High-Falling High-Falling Middle (High Middle)

Northern Lao (Luang Prabang) dialect[edit]

The dialect spoken in Luang Prabang was the dialect of the royal capital and the Lao Royal Family. Although the dialects of Northern Thai are classified as Chiang Saen languages more akin to central Thai, Northern Thai and Isan are very similar in intonation and vocabulary, and in some ways more closely related with each other than with either Thai or the other Lao dialects.[citation needed] The tones are similar to those used in northern Isan provinces such as Loei, Udon Thani, and other regions settled by the Tai peoples of Luang Prabang. Unlike other dialects, with six or seven tones, Luang Prabang only uses five.

Northern Lao (Luang Prabang) Dialect Tone Distribution[28]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Mid-Falling Rising Middle High-Falling (Glottalised) High-Falling Mid-Rising
Middle Low-Rising Middle Mid-Rising (Glottalised) High-Falling Mid-Rising
Low Low-Rising Middle Mid-Rising Mid-Rising Middle

Northeastern Lao dialect (Tai Phuan)[edit]

Northeastern Lao is better known as Tai Phuan (RTSG)/Tai Phouane (BGN/PCGN) and is mainly associated with the Phuan, who are a distinct Lao people of Xiengkhouang and portions of Thailand such as Sakon Nakhon and Udon Thani. Phuan speakers are also found in a few small pockets in central Thailand where their ancestors were forcibly settled to provide labour for increased rice production and defend the capital in case of invasion. Tai Phuan is generally considered a dialect of Lao, but it is classified as a Chiang-Saen language, in the same group as Northern and Central Thai.

Northeastern Lao (Phuan) Dialect Tone Distribution[29]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Mid-Rising Middle High-Middle High Low
Middle High-Mid-Rising-Falling Middle High High Low
Low High-Mid-Rising-Falling High-Falling High High-Middle Low-Falling

Central Lao[edit]

The central Lao dialect groupings predominate in the Lao provinces of Savannakhét and Khammouane, and the Thai province of Mukdahan and other regions settled by speakers from these regions.

Central Dialect Tone Distribution (Savannakhét)[30]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Rising Middle Low-Falling Rising Low-Falling
Middle High-Falling Middle Rising-Falling Rising Low-Falling
Low High-Falling Middle Rising-Falling High-Falling Middle

Southern Lao[edit]

Southern Lao is the primary dialect of Champassak, most of the southern portions of Laos, portions of Thailand once under its control, such as Ubon Rachathani, and much of southern Isan, as well as small pockets in Steung Treng Province in Cambodia.

Southern Dialect Tone (Pakxé) Distribution[31]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High High-Rising Lower-Middle Low (Glottalised) Low High-Rising
Middle Middle Lower-Middle Low-Falling (Glottalised) Low High-Rising
Low Mid-Falling Lower-Middle Low-Falling Low-Falling Lower-Middle (shortened)

Western Lao[edit]

Western Lao does not occur in Laos, but can be found in Kalasin, Maha Sarakham, and Roi Et Provinces.

Western Lao Dialect Tone Distribution (Roi Et)[32]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Low-Rising Middle Low Low Low
Middle Rising-Mid-Falling Middle Mid-Falling Low Low
Low Rising-High-Falling Low High-Falling Middle Middle

Related languages[edit]

  • Central Thai (Thai Klang), is the sole official and national language of Thailand, spoken by about 20 million (2006).
  • Northern Thai (Phasa Nuea, Lanna, Kam Mueang, or Thai Yuan), spoken by about 6 million (1983) in the formerly independent kingdom of Lanna (Chiang Mai). Shares strong similarities with Lao to the point that in the past the Siamese Thais referred to it as Lao.
  • Southern Thai (Thai Tai, Pak Tai, or Dambro), spoken by about 4.5 million (2006)
  • Phu Thai, spoken by about half a million around Nakhon Phanom Province, and 300,000 more in Laos and Vietnam (2006).
  • Phuan, spoken by 200,000 in central Thailand and Isan, and 100,000 more in northern Laos (2006).
  • Shan (Thai Luang, Tai Long, Thai Yai), spoken by about 100,000 in north-west Thailand along the border with the Shan States of Burma, and by 3.2 million in Burma (2006).
  • (Lue, Yong, Dai), spoken by about 1,000,000 in northern Thailand, and 600,000 more in Sipsong Panna of China, Burma, and Laos (1981–2000).
  • Nyaw language, spoken by 50,000 in Nakhon Phanom Province, Sakhon Nakhon Province, Udon Thani Province of Northeast Thailand (1990).
  • Song, spoken by about 30,000 in central and northern Thailand (2000).

Writing system[edit]

Tai Noy alphabet[edit]

The consonants of the old Tai Noy alphabet. Letter shapes have been preserved, with few changes, in the modern Lao alphabet. The letters correspond to the following Thai/Lao letter groupings:
(Line 1) ก/ກ, ข-ฃ/ຂ, ค-ฅ-ฆ/ຄ, ง/ງ, จ/ຈ, ช-ซ-ฌ/ຊ, ญ-ย/ຍ, ด-ฎ/ດ, ต-ฏ/ຕ
(Line 2) ฐ-ถ/ຖ, ท-ฑ-ฒ-ธ/ທ, น-ณ/ນ, บ/ບ, ป/ປ, ผ/ຜ, ฝ/ຝ, พ-ภ/ພ, ฟ/ຟ
(Line 3) ม/ມ, ຢ/ย, ร/ຣ, ล-ฬ/ລ, ว/ວ, ส-ฉ-ศ-ษ/ส, ห/ຫ, อ/ອ, ฮ/ຮ.

The original written language of Isan was known as Akson Tai Noy (อักษรไทน้อย /ák sɔ̆ːn tʰáj nɔ̑ːy/, cf. Lao ອັກສອນໄທນ້ອຽ/Archaic ອັກສອນໄທນ້ຽ, Aksone Tai Noy), the 'Little Tai alphabet' or To Lao (โตลาว /láːo/, cf. Lao ໂຕລາວ, modern Isan Tua Lao ตัวลาว /tuːa láːo/, cf. modern Lao Toua Lao ຕົວລາວ), 'Lao letters.' In Laos, the older variety of the alphabet is generally known as Aksone Lao Deum (ອັກສອນລາວເດີມ /ák sɔ̆ːn láːo d̀ɤːm/, cf. Isan อักษรลาวเดิม), 'original Lao alphabet.' The original spelling conventions and letter shapes were more or less preserved in the modern Lao alphabet, its direct descendant. Both the Tai Noy—and its modern descendant—and the Thai alphabet both developed from early Tai scripts adapted from the Khmer script, with influences from Mon.

The Tai Noy script was the secular language used to write songs, poems, stories, records, religious literature aimed at the laity, signs and personal letters. The earliest known example in what is now Thailand is the Prathat Sribunruang inscription of 1510 AD, and the last known from 1840 AD, although large numbers of manuscripts were destroyed, many were simply lost as the palm-leaf manuscripts did not survive in the high heat and humidity. Changes in spelling also show how the Lao language changed over time.[33]

Use of the alphabet was officially banned in 1871 by royal decree, but as the region was so isolated and rural, monks operated schools and taught the old script in some areas up until the implementation of Thaification policies prior to World War II. Only a few individuals of advanced age, some monks in charge of the ancient temple libraries and academic experts are able to read the script today.[33]

The alphabet was in use by 1350 AD, when the kingdom of Lanxang rose to prominence, and usually considered the beginning of Lao history. In Isan, the earliest known example is the Prathat Sribunruang inscription of 1510 AD, with the last surviving inscription dating to 1840 AD. The use of the alphabet was banned by royal decree in 1871, but as Isan was rural and isolated, Buddhist temple schools taught the alphabet until Thaification policies and the implementation of the Thai public school system was carried out just before World War II.[34] The alphabet is only known to a few academic experts and monks in charge with preserving the ancient libraries. The alphabet was the secular script of the Lao people, used to record recipes, herbal healing guides, songs, poetry, stories, religious literature aimed at the laity, records and signs.[33]

The transition period from 1871 up until 1933, the Lao people of Isan began to lose the shared written language which continues to this day, as most Isan people are unable to read Tai Noy or modern Lao, instead having been forced to adopt the Thai written language and Thai alphabet, romanised according to an English-based scheme, whereas the Lao of Laos are able to read the old manuscripts with little difficulty and continue to use a descendant of the old alphabet, romanised according to various schemes, but still influenced by earlier French-based schemes.[35]

Thai alphabet[edit]

Isan written in Thai script for a morlam karaoke VCD. The same Lao text would be ໜີໄປບວດໃຫ້ມັນແລ້ວສາບໍ່.

With the ban on all but the Thai language and Thai alphabet in the classroom and public spheres, the Isan language lost its written language and Isan people slowly lost the ability to read material from Laos. However, Isan people developed an ad hoc writing system that uses the Thai alphabet and most cognate words as they are spelled in Thai spelling, including the use of clusters, which do not exist in traditional spoken Isan, and Thai etymological spelling, but where words differ, Isan spells words more or less as they are would appear in Laos in the Lao alphabet. To represent the various tones, some writers will use the rare tone marks, written over ""—"ก๋" and "ก๊"—are employed to approximate the tones of Isan to the tone rules of Thai spelling. Common features of this type of spelling include /h/ () for Lao words that are pronounced and written as /r/ () and /s/ () for words that are pronounced and written as /tɕʰ/ (), respectively, in Thai cognates.[36]

The use of the Thai alphabet and Thai spelling rules has many deficiencies for transcribing the Isan language. This system is unable to differentiate /j/ and /ɲ/, both represented by Thai "" but differentiated in Lao as "" and "", which is phonemic in Lao and Isan, as well as the unique tones of Isan, since reading leads to interference from Central Thai through its spelling and its role as the only language that appears in written form. This system also blurs the distinction between Isan and Central Thai, as most Central Thai speakers would find written Isan generally understandable, but would have great difficulty with its true spoken form. It also makes Isan appear as a lower form of Thai, since it deviates so much from the rules of Thai pronunciation.

As a result of the erasure of regional history and learning of local culture due to the Thaification policies, many Isan people are unaware that Isan was written in any other alphabet than the Thai one. In 2013, when the University of Khon Khaen, in the heart of Isan, introduced signage in Thai, English and Isan, in the Tai Noy script, only a handful of students were aware that Isan had its own writing system nor were they aware of a previous culture of literacy in the script. Despite its deficiencies, Isan people use this Thai system for informal communication, such as internet communication, SMS and, is ubiquitous as the lyrics displayed on popular karaoke videos and music videos from morlam artists in Isan.[34] The following examples are lyrics of songs known to Lao people in Laos and Isan, with Thai script as used in Isan, with the pronunciation in bold where pronunciation deviates from what the Thai script would suggest not taking into account tonal differences:

Lyrics to Phleng Baisri/Phlèng Basi
(traditional song of the baisri (Lao basi) ceremony used to call forth the protective guardian spirits)
Isan (Thai alphabet): หมู่ชาวเมืองมา เบื้องขวานั่งส่ายล่าย เบื้องซ้ายนั่งเป็นแถว ยอพาขวัญไม้จันทน์เพริดแพร้ว ขวัญมาแล้ว มาสู่คีงกลม
RTGS : Mu chao mueang ma, bueang khwa nang sailai, bueuang chai nang ben thaew yo pha khwan mai chan phroed phraew khwan ma laew ma su khing klom
Thai (Central) pronunciation: /mùː tɕʰaːu mɯaŋ maː bɯ̂aŋ kʰwǎː nâŋ sàːj lâːj bɯ̂aŋ sáːj pen thɛ̌ːw jɔ pʰaː kʰwăn máj tɕan pʰrɤ̂ːt pʰrɛ́ːw kʰwăn maː lɛ́ːw maː sùː kʰiːŋ klom/
Lao/Isan (Vientiane) pronunciation: /mūː sáːu mɯ́ːaŋ máː, bɯ̏ːaŋ kʰuːă nāŋ sâːj bɯ̏ːaŋ sāːj lāːj, bɯ̏ːaŋ sȃːj nāŋ pen tʰɛ̆ːw ɲɔ́ː pʰáː kʰuːăn mȃj tɕan pʰ[]ɤ̂t pʰ[]ɛ́ːw kʰuːăn máː lɛ̑ːw maː sūː kʰíːŋ k[]om/
Lao (Modern): ຫມູ່ຊາວເມືອງມາ ເບຶ້ອງຂວານັ່ງສ່າຍລ່າຍ ເບຶ້ອງຊ້າຍນັ່ງເປັນແຖວ ຍໍພາຂວັນໄມ້ຈັນເພີດແພວ ຂວັນມາແລ້ວ ມາສູ່ຄີງກົມ
Lao (Archaic): ໝູ່ຊາວເມືອງມາ ເບຶ້ອງຂວານັ່ງສ່າຽລ່າຽ ເບຶ້ອງຊ້າຽນັ່ງເປັນແຖວ ຍໍພາຂວັນໄມ້ຈັນທ໌ເພີດແພວ ຂວັນມາແລ້ວ ມາສູ່ຄີງກົມ
BGN/PCGN: Mou xao muang ma, buang khoa nang sailai gno pha khoan mai chan phuetphèo khoan ma lèo ma sou khing kôm

Lyrics to O Duang Champa/Ô Douang Champa
(old song popular in Thailand and Laos, especially the Lao-speaking peoples)
Isan (Thai alphabet): เห็นสวนดอกไม้บิดาปลูกไว้ตั้งแต่ใดมา เวลาหงอยเหงา ยังช่วยบรรเทาให้หายโศกา
RTGS Romanisation: Hen suan dokmai bida pluk wai tang tae dai ma. Wela ngoi ngao, yang chuai banthao hai hai soka.
IPA (Thai [Central Thai]): /hĕn sŭan dɔ`k máj bì daː plùːk wáj tâŋ tɛ`ː daj ma wɛ laː ŋɔ̆ːj ŋăo janŋ tɕʰûaj ban tʰao hâj hăːj sŏː kaː/
IPA (Lao/Isan [Vientiane]): /hĕn sŭːan dɔ̏ːk mâj bí daː p[]ȕːk vȃj tȃŋ tɛ̄ː daj máː vɛ´ láː ŋɔ̆ːj ŋăo ɲáŋ sɔ̄ːj ban tʰáo hȁj hăːj sŏː kaː/
Lao (Modern): ເຫັນສວນດອກໄມ້ ບິດາປູກໄວ້ ຕັ້ງແຕ່ໃດມາ ເວລາຫງອຍເຫງົາ ຍັງຊ່ອຍບັນເທົາໃຫ້ຫາຍໂສກາ
Lao (Archaic): ເຫັນສວນດອກໄມ້ບິດາປຼູກໄວ້ຕັ້ງແຕ່ໃດມາ ເວລາຫງຽເຫງົາ ຍັງຊ່ວຽບັຣເທົາໃຫ້ຫາຽໂສກາ
BGN/PCGN Romanisation: Hén souan dokmai bida pouk vai tang tè dai ma. Véla ngoi ngao, gnang souay banthao hai hai sôka.

Tai Tham[edit]

An example of the Tai Tham alphabet formerly used in Laos and Isan for religious literature.

The Tai Tham was historically known in the Lao-speaking world as tua tham (ตัวธรรม /tùa tʰám/, cf. Lao ຕົວທຳ/Archaic ຕົວທັມ, Toua Tham), 'dharma letters', due to their use primarily as the written language of Buddhist monks. The script was introduced into what is now Laos and Isan from Lan Na during the reign of King Setthathirath, who was crowned king of Lan Na and later became king of Lan Xang—although a prince of the latter—bringing both mandalas in personal union from 1546 until 1551. During this brief period, the large volumes of literature from the libraries in Chiengmai were either taken or copied and brought to the Lao people.[37]

Evidence of its use in what is now Isan include two stone inscriptions, such as the one housed at Wat Tham Suwannakuha in Nong Bua Lamphu, dated to 1564, and another from Wat Mahaphon in Maha Sarakham from the same period. The script was only used by the very religious or taught to the monks, as many sacred Pali sutras were preserved on palm-leaf manuscripts.[38] The script was generally not known to the laity, who would have instead used the Tai Noy script for most day-to-day things, although some, such as those who had joined the monastery for various lengths of time, as is the custom among males in various Therevada Buddhist Tai cultures. Despite its use as the religious language, often used to transcribe Pali texts, it was also used to write literature aimed at other monks and religious scholars, as well as notes and marginalia, in the Lao language.

Although Tua Tham is an abugida, spelling words according to the same general rules as Thai and Lao, the alphabet is unique in having a very different design, featuring round shapes, several ligatures, special vowels only used at the start of words, several consonants that have variant forms when at the end of a syllable and the habit of stacking letters, with the second letter in a sequence, where permissible, is written under the first. The Thai and Tai Noy/Lao scripts were derived from that of the Khmer, and are thus more sharply angled. Both the Mon and Khmer scripts share common descent from Brahmi via contacts with southern Indian traders, soldiers and religious leaders that used a Pallava script.[38]

As a result of its general suppression, Isan speakers use Thai-language and Thai-alphabet materials, although many monks in Isan offer advice or explanations in the Isan language, many of which are available for recordings, but transcriptions of these are now taken using the Thai alphabet and not Tai Noy or Tua Tham. Like Tai Noy, only a handful of experts and some older monks in charge of maintaining temple libraries are able to read the old texts. Although no longer in use in Isan, the alphabet is enjoying a resurgence in Northern Thailand, and is still used as the primary written script for the Tai Lü and Tai Khün languages spoken in the border areas where Thailand, Laos, Burma and southern China meet.[37]

Khom scripts[edit]

Inscription in the Khom script (Ancient Khmer script). This Khmer script, distinct from the devised script for secret messages of Ong Kommandam during the Holy Man's Rebellion, was used to write Buddhist, Brahmanic and ritual texts.

The Khom script (อักษรขอม /kʰɔ̆ːm/, cf. Lao ອັກສອນຂອມ, Aksone Khom) was not generally used to write the ancient Lao language of Isan, but was often used to write Pali texts, or Brahmanic rituals often introduced via the Khmer culture. Khom is the ancient Tai word for the Khmer people, who once populated and ruled much of the area before Tai migration and the assimilation of the local people to Tai languages. The modern Khmer alphabet is its descendant. It was generally not used to write the Lao language per se, but was often found in temple inscriptions, used in texts that preserve Brahmanic mantras and ceremonies, local mantras adopted for use in Tai animistic religion and other things usually concerned with Buddhism, Brahmanism or black magic, such as yantras and sakyan tattoos.

Also known by the same name is an obscure script that was invented for conveying secret messages that could not be deciphered by the French or Siamese forces that had divided Laos by Ong Kommandam, who had taken over as leader after the death of Ong Kèo during the Holy Man's Rebellion. As Ong Kommandam and many of his closest followers were speakers of Bahnaric languages spoken in southern Laos, most of the known texts in the language were written in Alak—Ong Kommandam's native language—and the Bahnaric Loven languages of Juk, Su' and Jru', and some in Lao.[39]

Although the shapes of the letters have a superficial resemblance to several writing systems in the area, it was not related to any of them. It enjoys some usage as a language of black magic and secrecy today, but only a handful of people are familiar with it. Although the word Khom originally referred to the Khmer, it was later applied to related Austroasiatic peoples such as the Lao Theung, many of which had supported Ong Kammandam.[39]

Overview of the relationship to Thai[edit]

Mutual intelligibility with Thai[edit]

Thai and Lao (including Isan varieties) are all mutually intelligible, neighboring, closely related Tai languages. They share the same grammar, similar phonological patterns and a large inventory of shared vocabulary. Thai and Lao share not only core Tai vocabulary but also a large inventory of Indic and Austroasiatic, mainly Khmer, loan words that are identical between them. Even though Thai and Lao have their own respective scripts, with Isan speakers using the Thai script, the two orthographies are related, with similar letter forms as spelling conventions. A Thai person would probably be able to understand most of written Isan (written in Thai with Thai etymologically Thai spelling), and may be able to understand the spoken language with a little exposure.

Although there are no barriers of mutual comprehension between a Lao speaker from Laos and an Isan speaker from Thailand, there are several linguistic and sociological factors that make the mutual intelligibility of Thai and Lao somewhat asymmetrical. First and foremost, most Lao speakers have knowledge of Thai. Most Lao speakers in Laos are able to receive Thai television and radio broadcasts and engage and participate in Thai websites and social media in Thai, but may not speak the language as well since Lao serves as the national and official state and public language of Laos. Isan speakers are almost universally bilingual, as Thai is the language of education, state, media and used in formal conversation. Isan speakers are able to read, write and understand spoken Thai, but their ability to speak Thai varies, with some from more remote regions unable to speak Thai very well, such as many children before schooling age and older speakers, but competence in Thai is based on factors such as age, distance from urban districts and education access.[40]

Thai speakers often have difficulty with some of the unique Lao features of Isan, such as very different tonal patterns, distinct vowel qualities and numerous common words with no Thai equivalent, as well as local names for many plants that are based on local coinages or older Mon-Khmer borrowings. A large number of Isan words and usages in Lao of Laos are cognates with old Thai usages no longer found in the modern language, or through drift, evolved to mean somewhat different things. Some Isan words are thus familiar to Thai students or enthusiasts of ancient literature or lakhon boran, soap opera-like serials that feature based on ancient Thai mythology or exploits of characters in previous periods, similar to the preservation of 'thou' and 'thee' in West Country English or modern students trying to parse the dialogue of Shakespeare's plays. The use of Thai etymological spelling of Isan words belies the phonological differences. Tones, which are phonemic in all Thai languages, are enough to make some words out of context to be perceived as something else. Same can be said for certain vowel transformations that took place in Lao after spelling came to be, that radically alter the pronunciation. Differences are enough that the film Yam Yasothon (แหยม ยโสธร Yaem Yasothon, Isan pronunciation /ɲɛ̑ːm ɲā sŏː tʰɔ́ːn/), 'Hello Yasothon'—better translated as 'Smile and Laugh Yasothon'—is shown in cinemas outside of Northeastern Thailand with Standard Thai subtitles. The movie, which features Isan actors and actresses, takes place in the Isan region, and surprisingly for a Thai movie with nationwide release, a predominately Isan dialogue.[41]

False cognates[edit]

Many Isan (and Lao) terms are very similar to words that are profane, vulgar or insulting in the Thai language, features which are much deprecated. Isan uses อี่ (/ʔīː/, cf. Lao: ອີ່) and อ้าย (/ʔâːj/, cf. Lao: ອ້າຍ/archaic ອ້າຽ), to refer to young girls and slightly older boys, respectively. In Thai, the similarly sounding อี, i (/ʔiː/) and ไอ้, ai (/ʔâj) are often prefixed before a woman's or man's name, respectively, or alone or in phrases which are considered extremely vulgar and insulting. This taboo expressions such as อีตัว "i tua", "whore" (/ʔiː nɔːŋ/) and ไอ้บ้า, "ai ba", "son of a bitch" (/ʔâj baː/).

In Isan and Lao, these prefixes are used in innocent ways as it does not carry the same connotation, even though they share these insults with Thai. In Isan, it is quite common to refer to a young girl named 'Nok' as I Nok (อี่นก, cf. Lao ອີ່ນົກ I Nôk or to address one's mother and father as i mae (อี่แม่, cf. Lao ອີ່ແມ່ I Mae, /ʔīː mɛ̄ː/) and I Pho (อี่พ่อ, cf. Lao ອີ່ພໍ່ i pho, /ʔīː pʰɔ̄ː/), respectively. Of course, as Thai only uses there cognate prefixes in fairly negative words and expressions, the sound of Isan i mae would cause some embarrassment in certain situations. The low status of the language is contributing to the language shift currently taking place among younger Isan people, and some Isan children are unable to speak the language fluently, but the need for Thai will not diminish as it is mandatory for education and career advancement.[22]

False Cognates
Isan Lao IPA Usage Thai IPA Usage
บัก, bak ບັກ, bak /bák/ Used alone or prefixed before a man's name, only used when addressing a man of equal or lower socio-economic status and/or age. บัก, bak /bàk/ Alone, refers to a "penis" or in the expression บักโกรก, bak khrok, or an unflattering way to refer to someone as "skinny".
หำน้อย, ham noy ຫຳນ້ອຍ/archaic ຫຳນ້ຽ, ham noy /hăm nɔ̑ːj/ Although ham has the meaning of "testicles", the phrase bak ham noy is used to refer to a small boy. Bak ham by itself is used to refer to a "young man". หำน้อย, ham noy /hăm nɔ´ːj/ This would sound similar to saying "small testicles" in Thai, and would be a rather crude expression. Bak ham is instead ชายหนุ่ม, chai num (/tɕʰaːj nùm/) and bak ham noy is instead เด็กหนุ่ม, dek num (/dèk nùm/) when referring to "young man" and "young boy", respectively, in Thai.
หมู่, mu ໝູ່, mou /mūː/ Mu is used to refer to a group of things or people, such as หมู่เฮา, mu hao (/mūː háo/, cf. Lao: ໝູ່ເຮົາ/ຫມູ່ເຮົາ), mou hao or "all of us" or "we all". Not to be confused for หมู, mu /mŭː/, 'pig', cf. Lao ໝູ/ຫມູ, mou or 'pig.' พวก, phuak /pʰǔak/ The Isan word หมู่ sounds like the Thai word หมู (/mŭː/), 'pig', in most varieties of Isan. To refer to groups of people, the equivalent expression is พวก, phuak (/pʰǔak/), i.e., พวกเรา, phuak rao (/pʰǔak rào/ for "we all" or "all of us". Use of mu to indicate a group would make the phrase sound like "we pigs".
ควาย, khway ຄວາຍ/archaic ຄວາຽ, khouay /kʰúaːj/ Isan vowel combinations with the semi-vowel "" are shorted, so would sounds more like it were written as ควย. ควาย, khway /kʰwaːj/ Khway as pronounced in Isan is similar to the Thai word ควย, khuay (/kʰúaj/), which is another vulgar, slang word for "penis".

Phonological differences[edit]

Isan speakers share the phonology of the Lao language of Laos, so the differences between Thai and Isan are the same as the differences between Thai and Lao. Even in shared vocabulary, differences in vowel distributions, tone and consonant inventory can hinder comprehension even with cognate vocabulary. In typical words, Lao and Isan lack the /r/ and /tɕʰ/, instead substituting /l/ and /h/ for instances of Thai /r/ and /s/ for Thai /tɕʰ/. Lao and Isan, however, include the sounds /ʋ/ and /ɲ/ which are replaced with Thai /w/ and /j/, respectively, in cognate vocabulary.

Simplification of consonant clusters C-/r/ or C-/l/[edit]

Words beginning with consonant clusters C/r/ and C/l/ in Thai are written the same way, if cognate vocabulary, by Isan speakers writing Isan using the Thai script, but are almost never pronounced unless switching to Thai or some high-brow vocabulary of educated speakers. In Thai, these are always pronounced in careful speech, but are occasionally dropped in casual speech, but this is generally considered a 'lazy' habit.

In Ancient Lao, the earliest texts show written clusters, indicating that they were pronounced or recently borrowed from languages that have them, and many Lao words have Sanskrit, Pali, Khmer, Mon or various Austroasiatic origins where they are featured. As the language developed, the clusters were lost in pronunciation and phased out of writing. In modern Lao, the most recent spelling reforms do not use them at all:

  • Thai '' /k/ 'K', 'กล' /kl/ 'KL' and 'กร' /kr/ 'KR' correspond to Isan '' /k/ 'K', 'กล' /k/ 'KL' and 'กร' /k/ 'KR' and Lao '' /k/ 'K'
  • Thai '' /kʰ/ 'KH', 'ขร' /kʰr/ 'KH-R', 'ขล' /kʰl/ 'KH-L' correspond to Isan '' /kʰ/ 'KH', 'ขร' /kʰ/ 'KH-R', 'ขล' /kʰ/ 'KH-L' and Lao '' /kʰ/ 'KH'
  • Thai '' /kʰ/ 'KH', Thai 'คร' /kʰr/ 'KH-R' and คล /kʰl/ 'KH-L' correspond to Isan '' /kʰ/ 'KH', Thai 'คร' /kʰ/ 'KH-R' and คล /kʰ/ 'KH-L' and Lao '' /kʰ/ 'KH'
  • Thai '' /p/ 'P', 'ปร' /pr/ 'P-R' 'ปล' /pl/ 'P-L' correspond to Isan '' /p/ 'P', 'ปร' /p/ 'P-R' and 'ปล' /p/ 'P-L' and Lao '' /p/ 'P'
  • Thai '' /pʰ/ 'PH', 'พร' /pʰ/ 'PH-R', 'พล' /pʰ/ 'PH-L' correspond to Isan '' /pʰ/ 'PH', 'พร' /pʰ/ 'PH-R', 'พล' /pʰ/ 'PH-L' and Lao '' /pʰ/ 'PH'
  • Thai '' /pʰ/ 'PH' and 'ผล' /pʰl/ 'PH-L' correspond to and Isan '' /pʰ/ 'PH' and 'ผล' /pʰ/ 'PH-L' and Lao '' /pʰ/ 'PH'
  • Thai '' /tr/ 'T' and 'ตร' /tr/ 'T-R' correspond to Isan '' /t/ 'T' and 'ตร' /t/ 'T-R' and Lao '' /t/ 'T'

Nevertheless, some older Lao people and many Lao people in the diaspora continue to, especially if they were well-educated, pronounce clusters in some technical, academic and high-brow vocabulary, but only to a limited degree and this rarely comes about in cognate Tai vocabulary. For instance, Lao prôkram (ໂປຣກຣາມ/rare ໂປຼກຼາມ /proːkraːm/) from French programme /pʁɔgʁam/, 'program' (US) or 'programme' (UK) and maitri (ໄມຕຣີ /máj triː/, 'friendship', from Sanskrit maitrī (मैत्री /maj triː/), but these are very rare exceptions and even these words appear and generally pronounced in modern Lao as ໂປກາມ /poːkaːm/) and ໄມຕີ /máj tiː/, respectively.


  • Thai พล phleng /pʰleːŋ/ and Isan พล /pʰéːŋ/, 'E-PH-L-NG'
  • Isan pronounced as *เพง
  • Lao ເພງ phéng 'E-PH-NG', /pʰéːŋ/

'Mount Meru'

  • Thai พระเมร Phra Men /pʰráʔ meːn/ and Isan พระเมร /pʰāʔ méːn/, 'PH-R-A E-M-R'
  • Isan pronounced as *พะเมร
  • Archaic Lao ພຣະເມຣ/ພຣະເມນ 'PH-R-A E-M-R'/'PH-R-A E-M-N' and modern Lao Phra Mén ພະເມນ 'PH-A-E-M-N', /pʰāʔ méːn/


  • Thai ลาง klang /klaːŋ/ and Isan กลาง /kàːŋ/, 'K-L-A-NG'
  • Isan pronounced as *กาง
  • Lao າງ kang /kàːŋ/, 'K-A-NG'


  • Thai ครอบครั and Isan ครอบครั /kʰɔ̑ːp kʰúːa/, 'KH-R-O-B-KH-R-AW'
  • Isan pronounced as *คอบคัว
  • Lao ອບຄົ khopkhoua /kʰɔ̑ːp kʰúːa/, 'KH-O-B-KH-O-W'

Replacement of /r/ with /l/ or /h/[edit]

Words which feature '' (/r/) in Thai are pronounced as '' /l/ or '' /h/ is Lao/Isan cognates. Many Isan speakers will often use '' to represent words with /h/ even though the Thai cognate would be '' and may be one of the few attempts at spelling words as they are pronounced in Isan using Thai. Most other words in Isan that are related to Thai words with syllable initial '' replace the sound in speech with /l/ but may continue to write ''.

Thai speakers, especially when speaking formal Standard Thai, or if they are native speakers of Southern Thai, Northern Khmer or other Austroasiatic languages, will pronounce /r/ for '' whereas pronunciation of /l/ instead of /r/ is common in uneducated speech, relaxed situations or by native speakers of Isan, Northern Thai or Teochew and the other southern Chinese dialects once commonly spoken by the Thai-Chinese. This habit is avoided in formal registers and careful speech.

'car' or 'automobile'

  • Thai rot rót/ and Isan /lōt/, 'R-T'
  • Isan pronounced as *ลด
  • Archaic Lao ຣົ 'R-O-TH' and modern Lao ລົ 'L-O-D', /lōt/

'to love'

  • Thai รั, rak /rák/ 'R-A-K' and Isan ฮั /hāk/ 'H-A-K'
  • ຮັ hak /hāk/ H-A-K

'hot' (temperature)

  • Thai ร้อน ron /rɔ´ːn/ 'R-O-N' and Isan ฮ้อน /hɔ̑ːn/ 'H-O-N'
  • Lao ຮ້ອນ hon /hɔ̑ːn/ 'H-O-N'


  • Thai รุ arun /àʔ run/ 'O-R-U-N' and Isan รุ /áʔ lún/, 'O-A-R-U-N'
  • Archaic Lao ອະຣຸ and 'O-A-R-U-N' and modern Lao ອະລຸ 'O-A-L-U-N', /áʔ lún/


  • Thai รื reua /rɯa/ 'E-R-UE-O' and Isan รื 'E-R-UE-O' /lɨ́aː/ or ฮื /hɨ́aː/ 'E-H-UE-O '(Isan pronunciation dependent on region)
  • Standard Vientiane Lao ຮື hua /hɨ́aː/ 'E-H-UE-O', but dialectal *ລື /lɨ́aː/ 'E-L-UE-O'

Replacement of /tɕʰ/ (or allophonic variant /ʃ/) with /s/[edit]

In Isan words related to Thai, the letters '' CH and '' 'CH', pronounced in Thai as /tɕʰ/ or sometimes /ʃ/, are pronounced as '' /s/ 'S'. With many words with '', Isan speakers have replaced the letter with '' to reflect Isan pronunciation, which is one of the adaptations of the Thai script to reflect Isan pronunciation in common use. A similar process occurs with Thai '' /tɕʰ/ 'CH' which is replaced by '' 'S' in pronunciation only, and only very rarely in spelling. In Lao, Thai '' 'CH' and '' 'CH' are replaced with '' /s/ 'X' and Thai '' is replaced with Lao '' /s/ which are analogues of Thai '' /s/ 'S' (but also Thai '' /tɕʰ/ 'CH') and '' /s/ 'S', respectively.

Educated speakers in Isan, and sometimes in Laos, will occasionally pronounce foreign loan words and educated or technical vocabulary from Sanskrit/Pali roots with /tɕʰ/, but /s/ is the most common. Due to Thai influence, many Isan speakers will use some words with /tɕʰ/ and /ʃ/, especially when code-switching to Thai. Also, unique to various romanisation systems of Lao, '' is generally written as x.


  • Thai ช้าง chang /tɕʰáːŋ/ 'CH-A-NG' and Isan ช้าง 'CH-A-NG' or ซ้าง S-A-NG /sâːŋ/
  • Lao ຊ້າງ xang /sâːŋ/ 'X-A-NG'

'meditative absorption'

  • Thai าน chan /tɕʰaːn/ and Isan าน /sáːn/, 'CH-A-N'
  • Isan pronounced as *ซาน
  • Lao ານ xan /sáːn/ 'X-A-N'


  • Thai บับ chabap /tɕʰàʔ bàp/ and Isan บับ /sáʔ báp/, 'CH-A-B-AB'
  • Isan pronounced as *สบับ
  • Archaic Lao ບັບ 'S-B-A-B' and modern Lao ະບັບ 'S-A-B-A-B', /sáʔ báp/

'finger cymbals'

  • Thai ฉิ่ ching /tɕʰìŋ/ and Isan ฉิ่ /sīŋ/, 'CH-I-NG'
  • Isan pronounced as *สิ่ง
  • Lao ສິ່ sing {{IPA}/sīŋ/}} 'S-I-NG'

Replacement of /j/ with /ɲ/ in certain words[edit]

The Thai letters that represent /j/ in Thai, viz. '' /j/ 'Y' and '' only a minority of specific terms have this sound in Isan, with most cases, the expected sound is /ɲ/, a sound absent in Thai. This distinction is also problematic for speakers of Northern Thai using the Thai alphabet as they too also share this phonemic distinction. The old Tai Noy and modern Lao alphabet circumvent this issue altogether with two separate letters that would correspond to Thai '' 'Y', with Lao consonant '' representing /ɲ/ 'GN' in the majority of words and '' 'Y', another Lao consonant that corresponds to the same Thai letter, but used in Lao only to represent /j/ 'Y'.

A large portion of Isan cognates of Thai words with '' /j/ Y and '', both /j/ Y. Although most of the time, the use of these words can be determined from context, in Lao this is potentially phonemic. In Isan, for instance, has ย่าง yang /ɲāːŋ/ Y-A-NG, 'to walk' (cf. Thai เดิน /dɤn/) and อย่าง yang /jāːŋ/ (cf. Thai อย่าง /jàːng/) which correspond to Lao ຍ່າງ gnang /ɲāːŋ/ and Lao ຢ່າງ yang /jāːŋ/, respectively.


  • Thai ผู้หญิ phuying /pʰûː jǐŋ/ and Isan ผู้หญิ /pʰȕː ɲíŋ/, 'PH-U-Y-I-NG'
  • Lao ຜູ້ຍິ phougning /pʰȕː ɲíŋ/ 'PH-U-GN-I-NG'

'paternal grandmother'

  • Thai ย่ ya /jâː/ Y-A and Isan ย่ /ɲāː/, 'Y-A'
  • Lao ຍ່ gna /ɲāː/ 'GN-A'
  • Not to be confused with Thai ya 'medicine' and Isan /ɲáː/, Y-A, and Lao ຢາ ya /jaː/, 'Y-A'


  • Thai ya /jaː/ and Isan /jaː/, 'Y-A'
  • Lao ya /jaː/ 'Y-A'
  • Not to be confused with Thai ย่ /jâː/ ya 'medicine' and Isan ย่ /ɲāː/, Y-A, cf. Lao ຍ່ gna 'paternal grandmother' /ɲāː/, 'GN-A'

Replacement of /w/ with /ʋ/[edit]

Isan speakers, similar to Lao speakers in Laos, often pronounce consonantal '' at the start of syllables as /ʋ/, a sound which does not exist in Thai, where the sound is /w/. In Laos, the Lao letter '' is often pronounced /ʋ/. This trait is considered provincial in Thailand as it deviates from the standard language, but in Laos, the pronunciation is common, but historically was the mark of erudition or nobility. There is no difference in spelling, as this variation is an allophone of /w/, but it is the more common pronunciation overall in Isan and Laos.

'sin' or 'transgression'

  • Thai เวร wen /weːn/ and Isan เวร /ʋéːn/, 'E-W-R'
  • Lao ເວນ vén /ʋéːn/ 'E-V-N'

'walled city'

  • Thai เวียง wiang /wiaŋ/ and Isan เวียง /ʋíaŋ/, 'E-W-I-Y-NG'
  • Lao wíaŋ viang /ʋíaŋ/, 'V-Y-NG'

Alteration of vowels following C-/w/[edit]

Some words with Thai cognates that contain C-/w/, the /w/ and the following vowel shift to a diphthong in related Lao and Isan words. In long vowels that contain /aː/, mainly '◌า' 'A' /aːj/ and '◌าย' /aːj/ 'A-Y', the words are pronounced C-/uːa/ and C-/uːa/-/j/. It affects following Thai-Isan/Lao consonant cluster pairs this process effects include กว/ກວ, ขว/ຂວ and คว/ຄວ.

In Thai words with the short vowels '◌ะ', '◌ั' and '◌ำ', a similar process also occurs in Lao and Isan cognates. The vowel '◌ัว' lengthens to /uː/ or /uːə/, thus making the Isan words งัว ngua /ŋúːə/, 'cattle', and งู ngu /ŋúː/, 'snake' near homophones, with the same scenario in Lao ງົວ ngoua /ŋúːə/ and ງູ ngou /ŋúː/, cf. Thai วัว wua /wua/ and งู ngu /ŋuː/.

The Lao spelling system still preserves a spelling that suggests the consonant cluster and vowel of Thai, thus indicating that diphthongisation of vowels after /w/ developed after the adoption of writing by the Tai peoples in the fourteenth century, and pronunciations that are closer to the written spelling are acceptable in the Standard Lao of Laos and spoken Isan without misunderstandings, but this feature is confusing to native speakers of Standard Thai who are not familiar with it. It is also important to note that these shifts do not occur with other vowels other than the aforementioned so Thai แขวง khwaeng /kʰwɛ̌ːŋ/ 'sub-district' (historically used to mean 'provincial district' in Isan and other areas) or 'province' (when referring to the provinces of Laos) does not undergo this shift in Isan cognate แขวง /kʰwɛ̆ːŋ/ and Lao cognate ແຂວງ /kʰwɛ̆ːŋ/, although the latter in Laos generally refers to Laos' provinces but also sub-districts of Bangkok.

'Xiangkhoang' (Province of Laos)

  • Thai เชียงขวาาง Chiangkhwang /tɕʰiaŋ kwăːŋ/ 'E-CH-I-Y-NG-KH-W-A-NG' and Isan เชียงขวา 'E-S-I-Y-NG-KH-W-A-NG' /síːaŋ kʰŭːaŋ/
  • Isan pronounced as *เชียงขวง
  • Lao ຊຽງຂວາ 'X-Y-NG-KH-W-A-NG' /síːaŋ kʰŭːaŋ/
  • Lao pronounced as *ຊຽງຂວງ

'to sweep'

  • Thai วา kwat /kwàt/ and Isan วา /kwȕːat/, 'K-W-A-D'
  • Isan pronounced as *กวด
  • Lao ວາ koat /kwȕːat/, 'K-W-A-D'
  • Lao pronounced as *ກວດ

'guardian angel'

  • Thai วัญ khwan /kʰwan/ and Isan วัญ /kʰǔːan/, 'KH-W-A-Y'
  • Isan pronounced as *ขวญ
  • Lao ຂວັນ khoan /kʰǔːan/, 'KH-W-A-N'
  • Lao pronounced as *ຂວນ

'to capsize' (a boat)

  • Thai คว่ khwam /kʰwâm/ and Isan คว่ /kʰuːām/, 'KH-W-AM'
  • Isan pronounced as *ค่วม
  • Lao ຄວ່ khoam /kʰūːam/, 'KH-W-AM'
  • Lao pronounced as *ຄວ່ມ

'animal' or classifier for groups of animals, letters, people (Lao and Isan only)

  • Thai ตั, tua /tua/ and Isan ตั /tuːə/ or /tuː/, T-A-W'
  • Isan pronunciation close to *ตู (Thai ตู tu /tu/ is an ancient pronoun which used to mean 'I' or 'me' but is now considered both archaic, but also rude unless used with close friends.)
  • Lao ຕົວ toua /tuːə/, 'T-O-V'

Increased vowel epenthesis[edit]

In abugida scripts, the inherent vowel /a/ is often unwritten, especially in many words from Sanskrit, Pali or Austroasiatic languages. Thai uses a number of Pali and Sanskrit roots to form new words, but just because the inherent vowels are pronounced in one word does not mean it will appear in another word with the same root. Thus, the pronunciation of many words of Indic derivation must be learned on a case-by-case basis, and little guides from spelling. For example, Thai 'ธรรม-' (from Sanskrit dharma धर्म /d̪ʱarma-/)appears as /tʰam máʔ/ in ธรรมนิตย์ thammanit /tʰam máʔ nít/ 'TH-R-R-M-N-I-T-[Y]', 'moral person' but as /tʰam/ in ธรรมเกษตร, thamkaset /tʰam kàʔ sèːt/ 'TH-R-R-M-E-K-S-T-R', 'land of justice'.

Lao tends to go the opposite direction, and with the required writing of all vowels in the most recent spelling reforms, this can be seen, with Lao ທຳມະນິດ thammanit /tʰám māʔ nīt/ 'TH-AM-M-A-N-I-D' and ທຳມະກະເສດ thammakasèt /tʰám māʔ ká sȅːt/ 'TH-AM-M-A-K-A-E-S-D'. Isan, follows Lao pronunciation, although educated speakers may pronounce the words in the Thai fashion. The Thai distinction is not justified by etymology, as both words derive from Sanskrit dharmanitya (धर्मनित्य /d̪ʱarmanit̪ja/) and dharmakṣetra (धर्मक्षेत्र /d̪ʱarmakʂetra/), originally meaning 'pious man' but adopted into Thai and Lao to refer to the land of pious people.

Nevertheless, the Isan pronunciation is considered provincial and uneducated, akin to the mispronunciation of English 'athlete' /ˈæθ liːt/ as *'athelete' */ˈæθ ə liːt/ in non-standard usage or 'arthritis' as *'arthuritis' */ɑːˈθ ə raɪ tɪs/ and is thus stigmatised. This process also effects sentences with Tai vocabulary, with /aʔ/ inserted after hard consonant to soften the sound and flow of speech, i.e., จักน้อยเด้อ, chak noy doe /tɕʰák káʔ nɔ̑ːj dɯ̄ː/, 'I shall in a little,' is often pronounced in Isan as *จักกะน้อยเด้อ *chakka noy doe /tɕʰák káʔ nɔ̑ːj dɯ̄ː/.
Cf. Lao ຈັກນ້ອຍນ້ອຽແດ່ chak noy dè /tɕʰák káʔ nɔ̑ːj dɛ̄ː/ vs. the casually pronounced *ຈັກກະນ້ອຍນ້ອຽແດ່, *chakka noy dè /tɕʰák káʔ nɔ̑ːj dɛ̄ː/.


  • Thai จิตวิทยา chitwittaya /tɕìt wít tʰáʔ yaː/ and Isan จิตวิทยา /tɕít táʔ ʋít tʰāʔ ɲáː/, 'CH-I-T-W-I-TH-Y-A'
  • Thai pronounced as *จิต-วิททะยา
  • Isan pronounced as *จิตตะวิททะยา
  • Archaic Lao ຈິຕວິທຍາ 'CH-I-T-V-I-TH-Y-A' and modern Lao ຈິດຕະວິດທະຍາ chitavitagna/chittavitthagna 'CH-I-D-T-A-V-ID-TH-A-GN-A', /tɕít táʔ ʋít tʰāʔ ɲáː/
  • Derives from Sanskrit cit (चित् /tɕ/it/), 'mind' or 'soul' and vidya (विद्या /ʋid̪jaː/), '-ology'.


  • Thai มัสยา matya /mát jaː/ and Isan มัสยา /māt sá ɲăː/, 'M-A-S-Y-A'
  • Thai pronounced as *มัส-ยา
  • Isan pronounced as *มัสสะยา
  • Archaic Lao ມັສຍາ 'M-A-S-GN-A' an modern Lao ມັດສະຍາ matsagna, /māt sá ɲăː/
  • Derives from Sanskrit matsya (मत्स्य /mat̪sja/)


  • Thai ปรัชญา pratya /pràt jaː/ and Isan ปรัชญา /pát sā ɲáː/, 'P-R-A-CH-Y-A'
  • Thai pronounced as *ปรัช-ญา
  • Isan pronounced as *ปัชซะญา
  • Archaic Lao ປຣັຊຍາ 'P-R-A-X-GN-A' and modern Lao ປັດຊະຍາ 'P-A-D-X-A-GN-A'
  • Derives from Sanskrit prajna (प्रज्ञा /praɟñaː/)

Retention of certain historical Lao pronunciations[edit]

'Mekong River'

  • Thai แม่ขง Maekhong /mɛˆː kʰǒːŋ/ and Isan แม่ขง /mɛ̄ː kʰɔːŋ/, 'AE-M O-KH-NG'
  • Isan pronounced as *แม่ของ
  • Lao ແມ່ຂ Mèkhong /mɛ̄ː kʰɔːŋ/ 'AE-M KH-O-NG'

'Chaiburi' (Thai name of the Lao province of Xaignabouli)

  • Thai ไชยบุรี Chaiburi /tɕʰaj bù riː/ and Isan ไซยบุรี /sáj ɲāʔ bú līː/, 'AI-CH-Y-B-U-R-I'
  • Isan pronounced as *ไซยะบุรี
  • Archaic Lao ໄຊຍບຸຣິ 'AI-X-GN-B-U-R-I' and modern Lao ໄຊຍະບູລີ Xaignabouri/Xaignabouli 'AI-X-GN-A-B-U-L-II' /sáj ɲāʔ bú līː/


  • Thai นุมาน Hanuman /hàʔ nú maːn/ 'H-N-U-M-AN' and Isan /หุลมาน/หุนละมาน Hunlaman /hŭn lāʔ máːn/ 'H-U-L-M-A-N'/'H-U-N-L-A-M-A-N'
  • Archaic Lao ຫຸມານ 'H-U-L-M-A-N' and modern Lao ຫຸນລະມານ 'H-U-N-L-A-M-A-N', /hŭn lāʔ máːn/
  • But also Isan นุมาน Hanuman 'H-N-U-M-A-N' and Lao ະນຸມານ Hanouman 'H-A-N-U-M-A-N'

Centralisation and lengthening of /ɯa/ to /ɨːa/[edit]

The Thai diphthong 'เ◌ือ' /ɯa/ is often pronounced as /ɨːa/ in Isan and is analogous to Lao ເxືອ, which begins with a lengthened close central unrounded vowel as opposed to the close back unrounded vowel of Thai. This vowel is written analogously in Lao. Depending on dialect or region, some speakers in Laos or Isan may also use /ɯa/.


  • Thai เดือน deuan /dɯan/ and Isan เดือน /dɨːan/
  • Lao ເດືອນ duan /dɨːan/


  • Thai เสือ seua /sɯ̌a/ and Isan เสือ /sɨ̆ːa/
  • Lao ເສືອ /sɨ̆ːa/


Comparison of Thai with Vientiane and Western Lao tonal patterns
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High (Thai/Vientiane) Rising/Low-Rising Low/Middle Falling/Low-Falling Low/Low-Falling Low/Mid-Rising
High (Thai/Western Lao) Rising/Low-Rising Low/Middle Falling/Low Low/Low Low/Low
Middle (Thai/Vientiane) Middle/Low-Rising Low/iddle Falling/High-Falling Falling/High-Falling Low/Mid-Rising
Middle (Thai/Western Lao) Middle/Rising-Mid-Falling Low/Middle Falling/Mid-Falling Falling/Low Low/Low
Low (Thai/Vientiane) Middle/High-Rising Falling/Middle High/High-Falling High/High-Falling Falling/Middle
Low (Thai/Western Lao) Middle/Rising-High-Falling Falling/Low High/High-Falling High/Middle Falling/Middle

Even Thai words with clear cognates in Lao and Isan can differ remarkably by tone. Determining the tone of a word by spelling is complicated. Every consonant falls into a category of high, middle or low class. Then, one must determine whether the syllable has a long or a short syllable and whether it ends in a sonorant or plosive consonant and, if there are any, whatever tone marks may move the tone.[42] Thai กา ka, crow, has a middle tone in Thai, as it contains a mid-class consonant with a long vowel that does not end in a plosive. In Standard Lao, the same environments produce a low-rising tone /kàː/ but is typically /kâː/ or rising-mid-falling in Western Lao.

Despite the differences in pattern, the orthography used to write words is nearly the same in Thai and Lao, even using the same tone marks in most places, so it is knowing the spoken language and how it maps out to the rules of the written language that determine the tone. However, as the Tai languages are tonal languages, with tone being an important phonemic feature, spoken Lao or Isan words out of context, even if they are cognate, may sound closer to Thai words of different meaning. Thai คา kha /kʰaː/, 'to stick' is cognate to Isan คา and Lao ຄາ, which in Vientiane Lao is pronounced /kʰáː/, which may sound like Thai ค้า kha /kʰáː/, 'to trade' due to similarity in tone. The same word in some parts of Isan near Roi Et Province would confusingly sound to Thai ears like ขา kha /khǎː/ with a rising tone, where the local tone patterns would have many pronounce the word with a rising-high-falling heavier on the rising. Although a native Thai speaker would be able to pick up the meaning of the similar words of Isan through context, and after a period of time, would get used to the different tones (with most Lao and Isan speech varieties having an additional one or two tones to the five of Thai), it can cause many initial misunderstandings.

Different speaking styles[edit]

Despite the similarities, the Thai and Lao languages have very different speaking styles. Thai speakers tend to use many euphemisms, cute expressions, word play or abbreviations and situations that require 'nuanced' usage or implied meanings. For instance, in relaxed and casual speech, pronouns are normally dropped unless needed for emphasis or disambiguation. With Bangkok serving as Thailand's primary city and home to the majority of media corporations, government, academic, entertainment and infrastructure as well as roughly a quarter of the population in its metropolitan area, the influence of Bangkok's urban slang permeates spoken language of most native Thai speakers.[43]

Lao conversations are often more direct. Although spoken Isan has its own set of flowery language, word play and strategic vocabulary, they are not as commonly invoked in speech but rather feature heavily in the lyrics of local musical forms such as molam and poetry. Lao speakers also tend to use most pronouns, especially the ones for 'I' and 'you' even in relaxed speech. In Thai and Lao, the increased usage of pronouns occurs in formal and polite usage whereas both reduce their usage in relaxed, casual speech. Thus, compared to Thai, Isan conversations can seem more abrupt, serious, formal to the point of distant to Thai speakers. This perception is nevertheless offset by the large number of Isan words that sound like or are cognate to Thai words that are considered vulgar, and the greater use of native Tai vocabulary which may seem simple compared to the generally larger proportion of Indic vocabulary in Thai.[43]

Lexical differences from Thai[edit]

Although the majority of Isan words are cognate with Thai, and Thai influences are even creeping into the vocabulary, many basic words used in everyday conversation are either lacking cognates in Thai, but share them with Lao. Some usages vary only by frequency or register. For instance, the Thai question word 'เท่าไหร่' is cognate with Isan 'เท่าใด' /tʰāo daj/ and Lao 'ເທົ່າໃດ' /tʰāo daj/, but Isan and Lao tend to use a related variant form 'ท่อใด' /tʰɔ̄ː dàj/ and 'ທໍ່ໃດ' /tʰɔ̄ː dàj/, respectively, more frequently, although the usage is interchangeable and preference probably more related to region and person.

In other areas, Isan preserves the older Tai vocabulary. For example, the old Thai word for a 'glass', such as a 'glass of beer' or 'glass of water' was 'จอก' chok /tɕ̀ɔːk/, but this usage is now obsolete as the word has been replaced by Thai 'แก้ว' kaew /kɛ̑ːw/. Conversely, Isan and Lao continue to use 'จอก' and 'ຈອກ' chok to mean 'glass' (of water) as /tɕ̀ɔ̏ːk/, but Isan 'แก้ว' /kɛ̑ːw/ and Lao 'ແກ້ວ' kéo /kɛ̑ːw/ retain the earlier meaning of Thai 'แก้ว' as 'gem', 'crystal' or 'glass' (material) still seen in the names of old temples, such as 'Wat Phra Kaew' or 'Temple of the Holy Gem'. Nonetheless, a lot of cognate vocabulary is pronounced differently in vowel quality and tone and sometimes consonant sounds to be unrecognisable or do not share a cognate at all. For example, Isan บ่ bo /bɔː/ and Lao ບໍ່ /bɔː/ bo are not related to Thai ไม่ /mâj/, mai

Identical vocabulary in Lao and Isan but distinct from Thai
English Isan Lao Thai
"no", "not" บ่, /bɔː/, bo ບໍ່, /bɔː/, bo ไม่, /mâj/, mai
"to speak" เว้า, /vâw/, wao ເວົ້າ, /vâw/, vao พูด, /pʰûːt/, phut
"how much" ท่อใด, /tʰɔ̄ː dàj/, thodai ທໍ່ໃດ, /tʰɔ̄ː dàj/, thodai เท่าไหร่*, /tʰâw ràj/, thaorai
"to do, to make" เฮ็ด, /hēt/, het* ເຮັດ, /hēt/, het ทำ*, /tʰam/, tham
"to learn" เฮียน, /hían/, hian ຮຽນ, /hían/, hian เรียน, /rian/, rian
"glass" จอก, /tɕɔ̏ːk/, chok ຈອກ, /tɕɔ̏ːk/, chok แก้ว*, /kɛ̂ːw/, kaew
"yonder" พู้น, /pʰûn/, phun ພຸ້ນ, /pʰûn/, phoune โน่น, /nôːn/, non
"algebra" พีซคณิต, /pʰíː sā kʰā nīt/, phisakhanit ພີຊະຄະນິດ/Archaic ພີຊຄນິດ, //, phixakhanit พีชคณิต, /pʰîːt kʰáʔ nít/, phitkhanit
"fruit" หมากไม้, /mȁːk mâj/, makmai ໝາກໄມ້, /mȁːk mâj/, makmai ผลไม้, /pʰǒn láʔ máːj/, phonlamai
"too much" โพด, /pʰôːt/, phot ໂພດ, /pʰôːt/, phôt เกินไป, kɤn paj, koenbai
"to call" เอิ้น, /ʔɤˆːn/, oen ເອີ້ນ, /ʔɤˆːn/, une เรียก, /rîːak/, riak
"a little" หน่อยนึง, /nɔ̄ːy nɯ¯ŋ/, noi neung ໜ່ອຍນຶ່ງ/Archaic ໜ່ຽນຶ່ງ, /nɔ̄ːj nɯ¯ŋ/, noi nung นิดหน่อย, /nít nɔ`ːj/, nit noi
"house, home" เฮือน, /hɨ´ːan/, heuan ເຮືອນ*, /hɨ´ːan/, huane บ้าน*, /bâːn/, ban
"to lower" หลุด, /lút/, lut ຫຼຸດ/ຫລຸດ), /lút/, lout ลด, /lót/, lot
"sausage" ไส้อั่ว, /sȁj ʔua/, sai ua ໄສ້ອ່ົວ, /sȁj ʔūa/, sai oua ไส้กรอก, /sâj krɔ̀ːk/, sai krok
"to walk" ย่าง, /ɲāːŋ/, [n]yang ຍ່າງ, /ɲāːŋ/, gnang เดิน, /dɤːn/, doen
"philosophy" ปรัซญา, /pát sā ɲáː/, pratsaya ປັດຊະຍາ/Archaic ປັຊຍາ, /pát sā ɲáː/, patsagna ปรัชญา, /pràt jaː/, pratya
"oldest child" ลูกกก, /lûːk kók/, luk kok ລູກກົກ, /lûːk kók/, louk kôk ลูกคนโต, /lûːk kʰon toː/, luk khon to
"frangipani blossom" ดอกจำปา, /dɔ̏ːk tɕam paː/ ດອກຈຳປາ, /dɔ̏ːk tɕam paː/ ดอกลั่นทม, /dɔ`ːk lân tʰom/
"tomato" หมากเล่น, /mȁːk lēːn/, mak len ໝາກເລັ່ນ, /mȁːk lēːn/, mak lén มะเขือเทศ, /mâʔ kʰɯ̌ːa tʰêːt/, makheuathet
"much", "many" หลาย, /lǎːj/, lai ຫຼາຍ, /lǎːj/, lai มาก, /mâːk/, mak
"father-in-law" พ่อเฒ่า, /pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw/, pho thao ພໍ່ເຖົ້າ, /pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw/, pho thao พ่อตา, /pʰɔ̑ː taː/, pho ta
"to stop" เซา, /sáw/, sao ເຊົາ, /sáw/, xao หยุด, /jùt/, yut
"to like" มัก, /māk/, mak ມັກ, /māk/, mak ชอบ, /tɕʰɔ̂ːp/, chop
"good luck" โซกดี, /sôːk diː/, sok di ໂຊຄດີ, /sôːk diː/, xôk di โชคดี, /tɕʰôːk diː/, chok di
"delicious" แซบ, /sɛ̂ːp/, saep ແຊບ, /sɛ̂ːp/, xèp อร่อย, /ʔàʔ rɔ`j/, aroi
"fun" ม่วน, /mūan/, muan ມ່ວນ, /mūan/, mouane สนุก, /sàʔ nùk/, sanuk
"really" อี่หลี, /ʔīː lǐː/, ili**** ອີ່ຫຼີ, /ʔīː lǐː/, ili จริง*, /tɕiŋ/, ching
"elegant" โก้, /kôː/, ko ໂກ້, /kôː/, หรูหรา, /rǔː rǎː/, rura
"ox" งัว, /ŋúaː/, ngua ງົວ, /ŋúaː/, ngoua วัว, /wua/, wua
  • 1 Thai เท่าไหร่ is cognate to Isan เท่าใด, thaodai and Lao ເທົ່າໃດ, thaodai, /tʰāo daj/.
  • 2 Thai แก้ว also exists as Isan แก้ว, kaew, and Lao ແກ້ວ,kèo /kɛ̑ːw/, but has the meaning of "gem".
  • 3 Thai ทำ also exists as Isan ทำ, tham and Lao ທຳ, tham, /tʰám/.
  • 4 Lao ເຮືອນ and Isan เฮือน also exist as formal Thai เรือน, reuan /rɯːan/.
  • 5 Thai บ้าน also exists as Isan บ้าน, ban, and Lao ບ້ານ, bane, /bȃːn/.
  • 6 Thai จริง also exists as Isan จริง, ching, and Lao ຈິງ, ching, /tɕiŋ/.

Overview of the relationship with standard Lao[edit]

Whereas Thai and Isan are mutually intelligible with some difficulty, there are enough distinctions between the two to clearly separate the Thai and Isan languages based on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation differences, with even Isan written in Thai recognizable as Isan due to the preponderance of Lao words with no equivalent Thai cognate or have come to mean different things. Isan houses the majority of Lao speakers and the affinity of shared culture with Laos is palpable in the food, architecture, music and language of the region. In its purest spoken form, the Isan language is basically the same as what is spoken in Laos.[44]

Using just tone and some lexical items, there are at least twelve distinct speech varieties of Isan, most of which also continue across the Mekong River into Laos. In fact, the different speech varieties on roughly the same latitude tend to have more affinity with each other, despite the international border, than to speech varieties to the north and south. Only a handful of lexical items and grammatical differences exist that differentiate Isan as a whole, mainly as a result of more than a century of political separation, but most of these terms were introduced in the 1980s when the region was better integrated into Thailand's transportation and communication infrastructure.[44]

Spelling and orthography[edit]

These now-obsolete Lao letters were once used to spell words of Pali and Sanskrit derivation, but were removed, reducing the consonant inventory and the similarity of spelling between Thai and Lao.

Isan and Lao have drifted away from each other mostly in terms of the written language. The Isan people were forced to abandon their traditional Tai Noy script and have come to use the Thai written language, or Isan written in Thai, for communication. In Laos, Tai Noy was modified into the modern Lao script, but several spelling changes in the language during the transition from the Lao monarchy to the communist rule moved Thai spelling and Lao spelling of cognate words further apart. Isan, writes all words with Thai cognates as they exist in Thai, with clusters, special letters only found in obscure Sanskrit words and etymological principles that preserve silent letters and numerous exceptions to Thai pronunciation rules although a small handful of Isan words, with no known or very obscure Thai cognates, are spelled more or less the same as they are in Lao.

Lao spelling in Laos was standardised in the opposite direction. Whilst previously written in a mixture of etymological and phonetical spellings, depending on audience or author, the language underwent several reforms that moved the language towards a purely phonetical spelling. During the restoration of the king of Louang Phabang as King of Laos under the last years of French rule in Laos, the government standardised the spelling of the Lao language, with movement towards a phonetical spelling with preservation of a semi-etymological spelling for Pali, Sanskrit and French loan words and the addition of archaic letters for words of Pali and Sanskrit origin concerning Indic culture and Buddhism.

Spelling reforms under the communist rule of Laos in 1975 were more radical, with the complete abolition of semi-etymological spelling in favour of phonetical spelling, with the removal of silent letters, removal of special letters for Indic loan words, all vowels being written out implicitly and even the elimination or replacement of the letter '' /r/ (but usually pronounced /l/) in official publications, although older people and many in the Lao diaspora continue to use some of the older spelling conventions. The examples demonstrate the differences between Lao and Isan, using Thai orthography, but also that between archaic and modern Lao, as well as the general pronunciation and spelling practices between Standard Thai and Standard Lao in general.[45]

Silent letters: Lao removal and Thai retention[edit]

Numerous loan words from other languages, particularly Sanskrit and Pali, have numerous silent letters, sometimes even syllables, that are not pronounced in either Thai, Isan or Lao. In most cases, one of the final consonants in a word, or elsewhere in more recent loans from European languages, will have a special mark written over it (Thai ''/Lao '' known in Isan as karan (การันต์)and Lao as karan/kalan (ກາລັນ/archaic ກາຣັນຕ໌ /kaː lán/).

In reforms of the Lao language, these silent letters were removed from official spelling, moving the spelling of numerous loan words from etymological to phonetical. For instance the homophones pronounced /tɕan/ are all written in modern Lao as ຈັນ CH-A-N, chan, but these were previously distinguished in writing as ຈັນທ໌ CH-A-N-[TH] or ຈັນທຣ໌ CH-A-N-[TH]-[R], 'moon'; ຈັນທ໌ CH-A-N-[TH] or ຈັນທນ໌ CH-A-N-[TH]-[N], 'sandalwood' and ຈັນ CH-A-N, 'cruel.' In Isan, using Thai etymological spelling, the respective spellings are จันทร์ CH-A-N-[TH]-[R], จันทน์ CH-A-N-[TH]-[N] and จัน, CH-A-N, with the latter being a shared Lao-Isan word with no Thai cognate.


  • Thai เวียงจันทน์ /wiaŋ tɕan/, wiangchan and Isan เวียงจันทน์ /ʋíaŋ tɕàn/, E-W-I-Y-NG-CH-A-N-TH-[N]
  • Archaic Lao ວຽງຈັນທນ໌/ວຽງຈັນທ໌ V-Y-NG-CH-A-N-[TH]/V-Y-NG-CH-A-[TH] and modern Lao ວຽງຈັນ V-Y-NG-CH-A-N, /ʋíaŋ tɕàn/
  • Derives from Lao ວຽງ, viang or 'walled city' and Sanskrit chandna (चन्दन tʃand̪ na/), 'sandalwood'.


  • Thai เกียร์ /kia/, kia and Isan เกียร์ /kiːa/, E-K-I-Y-[R]
  • Archaic Lao ເກັຽຣ໌ E-K-I-Y-[R] and modern Lao ເກັຽ E-K-I-Y, /kiːa/
  • Derives from English 'gear' /ɡɪə/ (UK) or /ɡɪər/ (US).


  • Thai สัตว์ /sàt/, sat and Isan สัตว์ /sát/, S-A-T-[W]
  • Archaic Lao ສັຕວ໌ S-A-T-[W] and modern Lao ສັດ S-A-D, /sát/
  • Derives from Sanskrit सत्त्वं, sattvam (/sat̪ tʋam/), 'living being'.

Consonant clusters: Lao removal and Thai retention[edit]

The oldest texts in the Tai Noy corpus show that the earliest stages of the Lao language had consonant clusters in some native words as well as many loan words from Khmer, Mon, other Ausroasiatic languages, Sanskrit and Pali. Although most of these were maintained in Thai pronunciation, these clusters were quickly abandoned, indicating that the Tai dialects that became the Lao language lacked them or that they lost them through separate language development. Unlike the Thai script, Lao preserves a subscript version of /l/ and /r/ ' ຼ ' that was commonly used in the ancient Tai noy script when these clusters were pronounced and written.

Some consonant clusters were maintained in the Lao language for some vocabulary, mostly of Sanskrit and Pali derivation and used in royalty or religious settings, but the most recent spelling reforms in the Lao language removed most of them. The Thai language has preserved all of them, and when Isan is written in Thai, cognates of Thai words are spelled as if they are pronounced in Thai, with consonant clusters that are usually not pronounced in Isan except some religious and technical terms.


  • Thai กระเทียม krathiam /kràʔ tʰíam/ and Isan กระเทียม /káʔ tʰíam/, K-R-A-E-TH-I-Y-M
  • Ancient Lao ກຼະທຽມ/ກຣະທຽມ K-L/R-A-T-Y-M/K-R-A-T-Y-M and modern Lao ກະທຽມ K-A-T-Y-M, kathiam /káʔ tʰíam/


  • Thai ประเทศ phrathet /pràʔ tɛ̂t/ and Isan ประเทศ /páʔ tʰɛ̂t/, P-R-A-E-TH-S
  • Ancient Lao ປຼະເທສ/ະເທສ P-L/R-A-E-TH-S/P-R-A-E-TH-S and modern Lao ປະເທດ P-A-E-T-D, phathèt /páʔ tʰɛ̂t/
  • Derives from Sanskrit pradeśa (प्रादेश /prād̪eɕā/), 'country' or 'nation'

'to be entertained'

  • Thai พลินจิต ploenchit /pʰlɤn tɕìt/ and Isan พลินจิต /pʰɤ́n tɕít/, E-PH-L-I-N-CH-I-T
  • Ancient Lao ພີຼນຈິຕ/ພລີນຈິຕ E-PH-L/R-I-N-CH-I-T/E-PH-L-I-N-CH-I-T and modern Lao ເພີນຈິດ E-PH-I-N-CH-I-D, phuenchit /pʰɤ́n tɕít/

'to be finished'

  • Thai สร็ set /sèt/ and Isan สร็ /sét/, E-S-R-CH
  • Ancient Lao ເສັຼດ E-S-L/R-D modern Lao ເສັດ E-S-D, /sét/
  • Derives from Khmer srac (ស្រេច /sratɕ/)


  • Thai พระพุทธเจ้า, Phra Phuttha Chao /pʰráʔ pʰút táʔ tɕâu/ and Isan พระพุทธเจ้า /pʰūt tʰāʔ tɕâu/, PH-R-A-PH-U--TH-TH-E-CH-A
  • Archaic Lao ພຣະພຸດທະເຈົ້າ/(rare) ພຼະພຸດທະເຈົ້າ PH-R-A-PH-U-D-TH-A-E-CH-A/PH-L/R-A-PH-U-D-TH-A-E-CH-A and modern Lao ພຣະພຸດທະເຈົ້າ/ະພຸດທະເຈົ້າ PH-R-A-PH-U-D-TH-A-E-CH-A/PH-A-PH-U-D-TH-A-E-CH-A, Phra Phouttha Chao /pʰūt tʰāʔ tɕâu/
  • Derives from Lao ພຣະ, phra or 'holy/royal', Sanskrit/Pali Buddha (बुद्ध /bud̪d̪ʱa/) and Lao ເຈົ້າ, chao or 'prince/lord.'

Explicit gemination in Lao[edit]

As consonants may have one value at the start of a consonant and one at the end, occasionally the same letter will be used to end one syllable and begin the next. This remains common in many loan words from Sanskrit and Pali, and was once the case in Lao orthography, but now the different consonant sounds are written out explicitly and no longer implied from older and confusing rules of spelling. Thai, with its etymological spelling, preserves the implied pronunciation of these geminated consonant groupings.

'girl of noble birth'

  • Thai กุนารี kunlanari /kun láʔ naː riː/ and Isan กุนารี /kun lāʔ náː lí/, K-U-L-N-A-R-I
  • Archaic Lao ກຸນາຣີ/ກຸນລະນາຣີ K-U-L-N-A-R-I/K-U-N-L-A-N-A-R-I and modern Lao ກຸນລະນາລີ K-U-N-L-A-N-A-L-I, kounlanari /kun lā náː líː/
  • Derives from Sanskrit kulanārī (कुलनारी /kulanaːriː/)

'good fortune'

  • Thai วานา watsana /wâːt sàʔ năː/ and Isan วานา /ʋȃːt sáʔ năː/, W-A-S-N-A
  • Archaic Lao ວານາ/ວາດສນາ V-A-S-N-A/V-A-D-S-N-A and modern Lao ວາດສະໜາ V-A-D-S-A-HN-A, vatsana /ʋȃːt sáʔ năː/
  • Derives from Sanskrit vasna (वस्न /ʋasna/

'wife' (formal)

  • Thai รรยา phanraya /pʰan ráʔ jaː/ and Isan รรยา /pʰán lāʔ ɲáː/, PH-R-R-Y-A
  • Archaic Lao ພັະຍາ ພັນຣະຍາ PH-A-R-A-NY-A/PH-A-N-R-A-NY-A and modern Lao ພັນລະຍາ, phanragna /pʰán lāʔ ɲáː/
  • Derives from Sanskrit bharya (भार्या /bʱarja/)

Lao retention of Tai Noy vowel symbols[edit]

Lao uses two vowel symbols inherited from Tai Noy, one of which '' or the nikkhahit (ນິກຄະຫິດ /nīk kʰāʔ hĭt/) is used to denote the vowel /ɔː/ in open syllables where that is the final sound in the syllable and the other '' or mai kan (ໄມ້ກົງ /mȃj koŋ/) which is used to denote the vowel /o/, both of which are sometimes implied in Thai orthography. The latter symbol is also used with some vowels with various meanings. The viram (Archiac ວິຣາມ/ວິລາມ /ʋī láːm/) was formerly used as a variant of Lao letter '' in a word as well as several other uses.

'person' or 'people'

  • Thai คน khon /kʰon/ and Isan คน /kʰón/, KH-N
  • Lao KH-O-N, khôn /kʰón/

'litter' or 'palanquin'

  • Thai wo /w/ and Isan /ʋɔː/, W-O
  • Lao V-O, vo /ʋɔ́ː/


  • Thai มรกต morakot /mɔː ráʔ kòt/ and Isan มรกต, M-R-K-T
  • Archaic Lao ຣະກ M-O-R-A-K-O-T and modern Lao ລະກ, morakôt /mɔ́ː lāʔ kót/
  • Derives from Sanskrit mārakata (मारकत /maː ra ka t̪a/)


  • Thai น้อย noi /nɔ́ːj/ and Isan น้อย /nɔ̑ːj/, N-O-Y
  • Archaic Lao ນ້ N-Y and modern Lao ໜ້ອຍ/ຫນ້ອຍ noy HN-O-Y/H-N-O-Y, /nɔ̑ːj/

'to write'

  • Thai khian /kʰĭan/ and Isan /kʰǐan/, E-KH-I-Y-N
  • Lao KH-Y--N, khian /kʰǐan/


  • Thai khiao /kʰĭau/ and Isan /kʰĭau/, E-KH-I-Y-W
  • Lao KH-Y-V, khio /kʰĭau/

Lao simplification of terminal consonants[edit]

Both Thai, Lao and Isan only permit the final cosonants /k/, /ŋ/, /t/, /n/, /p/, and /m/, with many letters beginning a syllable with one sound and ending a syllable or word with another. Spelling reforms in Laos restricted the final consonants to be spelled '', '', '', '', '' and '' which correspond to Thai letters '', '', '', '', '' and '', respectively. As Thai has retained these final consonants according to etymology, this has further moved Lao spelling from Thai and Isan written in Thai in a large number of common words.

'to draw a picture'

  • Thai วาดภา watphap /wâːt pʰâːp/ and Isan วาดภา /ʋȃːt tʰāʔ pʰȃːp/, W-A-D-PH-A-PH
  • Archaic Lao ວາດພາ V-A-D-PH-A-PH and modern Lao ວາດພາ V-A-D-PH-A-B, vatphap //ʋȃːt pʰȃːp//


  • Thai ความสุ khwam suk /kʰwaːm sùk/ and Isan ความสุ /kʰuːám súk/, KH-W-A-M-S-U-KH
  • Archaic Lao ຄວາມສຸ KH-V-A-M-S-U-KH and modern Lao ຄວາມສຸ KH-V-A-M-S-U-K, khoam souk /kʰuːám súk/
  • Derives from Lao ຄວາມ and Sanskrit sukh (सुख /suːkʰ/)

'ancient times'

  • Thai อดีกา aditkan /ʔáʔ dìːt kàːn/ and Isan อดีกา /ʔáʔ dȉːt tʰāʔ kaːn/, O-D-I-T-K-A-L
  • Archaic Lao ອະດີກາ/ອະດີກາ O-D-I-T-K-A-L/O-D-I-T-K-A-N and modern Lao ອະດີກາ O-D-I-D-K-A-N, /ʔáʔ dȉːt kaːn/
  • Derives from Sanskrit atitkala (अतीतकाल /at̪iːt̪kaːla/)

Lao vowel reduction[edit]

The archaic vowels 'xັຽ' and 'xັມ' were replaced with existing vowels '' and '' as these pairs both represented /aj/ and /am/, respectively. The Lao vowel 'ໄxຽ' was also replaced by ''.

'to update'

  • Thai ตามสมั tam samai /taːm sàʔ măj/ and Isan ตามสมั /taːm sáʔ mȁj/, T-A-M-S-M-A-Y
  • Archaic Lao ຕາມສມັ/ຕາມສ T-A-M-S-M-A-Y/T-A-M-AI-S-M and modern Lao ຕາມສະ/ຕາມສະຫມ T-A-M-S-A-AI-HM/T-A-M-S-A-AI-H-M, tam samay /taːm sáʔ mȁj/.


  • Thai พระธรร phra tham /pʰrá tʰam/ and Isan พระธรร /pʰāʔ tʰám/, PH-R-A-TH-R-R-M
  • Archaic Lao ພຣະທັ/ພຼະທັ PH-R-A-TH-A-M/PH-L/R-A-TH-A-M and modern Lao ພຣະທ/ພະທ PH-R-A-TH-AM/PH-A-TH-AM, phra tham /pʰāʔ tʰám/
  • Derives from Lao ພຣະ phra or 'holy' and Sanskrit dharma (धर्म /d̪ʱarma/) via Pali dhamma

'disciplined' or 'educated person'

  • Thai เว wenai /wɛ naj/ E-W-AI-N-Y and Isan เว /ʋī náj/
  • Archaic Lao ວິ/ວິນັ V-I-AI-N-Y/V-I-N-A-Y and modern Lao ວິ, vinay /ʋī náj/

Lao explicit vowels[edit]

In the abugida systems, open syllables are assumed to have /a/ or /aʔ/ following them. Modern Lao spelling requires that all vowels are written out, altering the spelling of numerous words and furthering the language from Thai. As this can alter the tone of the words, sometimes tone marks or silent /h/ are used to either represent the actual pronunciation of the word or restore it to its original pronunciation.


  • Thai นคร nakhon /náʔ kʰɔːn/ and Isan นคร, N-KH-R /nāʔ kʰɔ́ːn/
  • Archaic Lao ນຄ/ນຄຣ N-KH-O-N/N-KH-R and modern Lao , nakhone /nāʔ kʰɔ́ːn/
  • Derives from Sanskrit nagara (नगर /na ga ra/)


  • Thai ถนน thanon /tʰaʔ nǒn/ and Isan ถนน /tʰáʔ nŏn/
  • Archaic Lao ຖນົນ TH-N-O-N and modern Lao ໜົນ/ຫນົນ TH-A-HN-O-N/TH-A-H-N-O-N, thanône /tʰáʔ nŏn/
  • Derives from Khmer tʰnɑl (ថ្នល់ /tʰnɑl/)


  • Thai สวรรค์ sawan /sàʔ wăn/ and Isan สวรรค์ /sá ʋăːn/, S-W-R-R-[KH]
  • Archaic Lao ສວັນຄ໌/ສວັນ S-V-A-N-[KH]/S-V-A-N and modern Lao ວັນ S-A-H-V-A-N, savane /sá ʋăːn/
  • Derives from Sanskrit svarga (स्वर्ग /sʋarga/


  • Thai สระ sara /sàʔ ráʔ/ and Isan สระ /sáʔ lāʔ/
  • Archaic Lao ສຣະ/ສະຣະ S-R-A/S-A-R-A and modern Lao ລະ S-A-L-A, sara /sáʔ lāʔ/
  • Derives from Sanskrit sara (सर /sara/)

Lao ligatures[edit]

Lao uses a silent letter '' /h/ in front of consonants '' /ŋ/, '' /ɲ/, '' /n/, '' /m/, '' /l/, '' /r/ or /l/ and '' /ʋ/ to move these consonants into the high tone class, used to alter the tone of a word. This is analogous to the use of '' /h/ before the equivalent '' /ŋ/, '' /j/ (but in Isan, sometimes represents /ɲ/ and also '', which is /j/ in Thai and represents /ŋ/ in Isan), '' /n/, '' /m/, '' /l/, '' /r/ (generally /l/ when in a digraph in Isan) and '' /w/ (generally /ʋ/ in Isan.

As a legacy of the Tai Noy script, Lao writers can use the special ligature '' HN instead or, when typesetting or rendering unavailable, it can be optionally be written 'ຫນ' H-N as well as '' HM and modern alternative 'ຫມ'. Both 'ຫລ' H-L and 'ຫຣ' H-R have the same ligature form 'ຫຼ' HL/R. Previous versions of the script also had special ligatures 'ພຽ' PHY ('' + '' /pʰj/) and 'ຫຽ' HY ('' + '' /hj/) with the latter replaced by 'ຫຍ' HY /j/ (high class tone). Former ligatures such as SN and ML have disappeared or were split into syllables as consonant clusters were generally lost or replaced. For example, Archaic Lao ສນອງ SN-O-NG and ມຼບຼີ ML-A-BR-I have become in the modern language ສະໜອງ S-A-N-O-NG sanong /sáʔ nɔ̌ːŋ/, 'message' (derived from Khmer snaang ស្នង /snɑːŋ/) and ມະລາບີ M-A-L-A-B-I malabi /mā láː biː/, approximation of endonym of the Mlabri people. Thai preserves writing the consonants together, although in the modern Thai language these consonants are separated by a vowel according to the current pronunciation rules.

Both Tai Noy and the current Lao alphabet lack equivalents to the Thai vowel ligatures '', 'ฤๅ', '' 'ฦๅ' and are mainly used to represent the sounds /rɯ/ or /ri/, /rɯː/, /lɯ/ and /lɯː/, respectively, although the latter two symbols are obsolete in modern Thai. These symbols were used to represent loanwords from Sanskrit '' /r̥/, '' /r̥̄/, '' /l̥/ and '' /l̥̄/, respectively, but these are relatively rare sounds in Sanskrit.

'Louang Phrabang'

  • Thai หลวงพระบาง Luang Phrabang /lŭaŋ pʰráʔ baːŋ/ and Isan หลวงพระบาง /lǔːaŋ pʰāʔ bàːŋ/, H-L-W-NG PH-R-A-B-A-NG
  • Archaic Lao ຫຼວງພຣະບາງ HL/R-V-NG PH-R-A-B-A-NG and modern Lao ຫຼວງພະບາງ/ຫລວງພະບາງ HL/R-V-NG PH-A-B-A-NG/H-L-V-NG PH-A-B-A-NG, Louang Phrabang /lǔːaŋ pʰāʔ bàːŋ/


  • Thai หน nu /nŭː/ and Isan หน /nǔː/, H-N-U
  • Lao /ຫນ HN-U/H-N-U


  • Isan หมาก mak /mȁːk/ H-M-A-K (cognate of Thai มะ- ma-, prefix in certain fruit names)
  • Lao າກ/ຫມາກ HM-A-K/H-M-A-K, mak /mȁːk/


  • Thai ดู ruedu /rɯ́ duː/ and Isan ดู /lāʔ dùː/, RUE-D-U
  • Archaic Lao ຣະດູ R-A-D-U/L-A-D-U and modern Lao ລະດູ L-A-D-U,radou/ladou /lāʔ dùː/
  • Derives from Sanskrit ṛtū ( /r̥tuː/


  • Thai ฤาษี, ruesi /rɯː sĭː/ and Isan ฤาษี /lɯ̄ː sǐː/, RUE-S-I
  • Archaic Lao ຣືສີ R-UE-S-I and modern Lao ລຶສີ L-UE-S-I, rusi/lusi
  • Derives from Sanskrit ṛṣi or 'rishi' (ऋषि /r̥̄ʂiː/)


  • Archaic Thai กลับ LEU-K-L-A-B and modern Thai ลึกลับ, lueklap /lɯ́k láp/ and Isan ลึกลับ, L-EU-K-L-A-B
  • Lao ລຶກລັບ L-EU-K-L-A-B, luklap /lɯ́̄k lāp/


  • Archaic Thai ฦๅชา LUE-CH-A and Modern Thai ลือชา L-UE-O-CH-A leucha /lɯː tɕʰaː/ and Isan ลือซา, L-UE-O-S-A /lɯ́ː sāː/
  • Lao ລືຊ່າ luxa /lɯ́ː sāː/

Typographical differences[edit]

Traditionally, no punctuation exists in either Thai or Lao, with spaces used to separate lists, sentences and clauses, but otherwise words are written with no spaces between them. A few symbols include the cancellation mark 'x໌' used to mark letters in loan words that are not pronounced, the repetition symbol '' used to indicate words or phrases are to be repeated, an ellipsis-like symbol '' used to shorten lengthy phrases, such as royal titles or to indicate that following portions have been removed and the equivalent to the et cetera symbol 'ຯລຯ'. These all have equivalents in the Thai script as 'x์', '', '' and 'ฯลฯ'.

Other Thai symbols, such as '', used for marking the beginning of texts, lines or stanzas, '' to mark the end of chapters, 'ฯะ' to mark the end of stanzas and '' to mark the end of sections. These symbols could be combined to provide meaning. A similar system was in use in Laos but was later abolished. The system is mostly archaic in Thai texts, but is still taught as many old texts feature these symbols.

Lao only uses two of the tone marks 'x່' and 'x້', although 'x໊' and 'x໋' may occasionally be used to record idiosyncratic or emotional speech, as aids to capture tones of different dialects or onomatopoeia. In Thai, the equivalent tone marks are 'x่', 'x้', x๊ and x๋, respectively. Although in Thai, the third and fourth tone markers are rare, they are frequently used to approximate the tones of hundreds of Chinese (mainly Teochew, Hokkien and Hainanese) loan words, dialectal expressions and onomatopoeia.

'soy sauce'

  • Thai ซีอิ๊ว si io /siː íu/ and Isan ซีอิ๊ว /síː íu/
  • Lao ສະອິວ sa io /sá íu/ S-A-O-I-W
  • Derives from Chinese (Teochew) si iu (豉油 /si˩ iu˥/)

'Chinese noodle soup'

  • Thai ก๋วยเตี๋ยว kuay tiao /kŭaj-dtĭeow/ and Isan ก๋วยเตี๋ยว /kȗːaj tiaːw/
  • Archaic Lao ກ໋ວຽຕຽວ kouay thio /kȗːaj tiaːw/, mostly replaced in modern Lao by ເຝີ feu /fɤ̏ː/
  • Derives from Chinese (Teochew) guė diou (粿條 /kue˥˨ tio˥/

In modern writing, Thai and Lao have both adopted the question mark "?", exclamation point "!", comma ",", parentheses "()", hyphen "-", ellipsis "...", and period "." from their respective English and French sources. Since Isan adopted the Thai punctuation via English, the quotation marks """" are used instead of guillemets, "«»", and spaces are not inserted before terminal punctuation marks. Although Lao speakers in Laos will often use French-style punctuation, English-style punctuation is increasingly becoming more commonplace in Laos.

  • English: She says, "I am not leaving for the market!"
  • Isan: เขาบอกว่า, "ข้อยบ่กับไปตลาดดอกเด!"
  • Lao : ເຂົາບອກວ່າ «ຂ້ອຍບໍ່ກັບໄປຕະຫລາດດອກເດ» !
  • Thai: เขาบอกว่า, "ดิฉันไม่กลับไปตลาดค่ะ!"

Grammatical differences[edit]

Formal language[edit]

Since the use of Central Thai is deemed polite and mandatory in official and formal settings, Isan speakers will often use the Thai ครับ, khrap (/kʰráp/), used by males, and ค่ะ, kha (/kʰaʔ/), used by females, sometimes in place of or after the ones shared with Lao. Isan speakers, however, do not use the very formal particle ข้าน้อย, khanoy (/kʰȁː nɔ̑ːj/, cf. Lao: ຂ້ານ້ອຍ/archaic ຂ້ານ້ຽ) at the end of sentences. Also, the use of เจ้า, chao (/tɕâo/, cf. Lao: ເຈົ້າ) and formal โดย, doy (/doːj/, cf. Lao: ໂດຍ/archaic ໂດຽ, dôy), to mark the affirmative or "yes" is no longer used in Isan, instead this is replaced with the general ending particles or the equivalent Thai expression.

Word order[edit]

A very few compounds in Lao are left-branching, but most of the time they are right-branching, as they are almost always in Thai and Isan.

  • Isan หมูส้ม mu som (/mŭː sȍm/, but Lao ສົ້ມໝູ/ສົ້ມຫມູ som mou, "sour pork", (/sȍm mŭː/. Cf. Thai หมูแหนม, mu naem (/mŭː nɛˇːm/).
  • Isan ไก่ปิ้ง kai ping (/kāj pȋːŋ/), but Lao ປີ້ງໄກ່, ping kai, "barbecued chicken", (/pȋːŋ kāj/). Cf. Thai ไก่ย่าง, kai yang (/kàj jâːŋ/).

Lexical comparison with Lao[edit]

Lao and Isan share most of their vocabulary, tone, and grammatical features, and the barriers of comprehension that would exist between a Thai speaker and a Lao speaker are absent between speakers of Isan and Lao. Technical, academic, and scientific language, and different sources for loan words have diverged the speech to an extent. Isan has borrowed most of its vocabulary from Thai, including numerous English and Chinese (Min Nan) loan words that are commonly used in Thai. Lao, on the other hand, has influences from French and Vietnamese that come from the establishment of the Protectorate of Laos and its inclusion in French Indochina. In ordinary and casual speech, only a few lexical items separate Isan and Lao, and many dialects do not end at the border.[46]

Thai influences[edit]

The main thing that differentiates Isan from Lao is the use of numerous Thai words. The process accelerated with greater integration of Isan into Thai political control in the early 20th century. Thai words make up the bulk of scientific, technical, governmental, political, academic, and slang vocabularies that have been adopted in Isan. Many words used in Isan have become obsolete, such as the use of ขัว, khua (/kʰŭa/) and น้ำก้อน, nam kon (/nȃm kɔ̑ːn/), which exist in Laos as ຂົວ and ນ້ຳກ້ອນ, but replaced by Thai forms สะพาน, saphan, and น้ำแข็ง, nam khaeng, respectively. Thai, Isan, and Lao share vocabulary, but sometimes this can vary in frequency. For instance, Lao speakers use ສະພານ, saphan, as a more formal word for "bridge". The very formal Thai word for "house", เรือน, reuan (/rɯan/) is cognate to the common Isan เฮือน, heuan, and Lao ເຮືອນ, huan (/hɯ´an/). Although many Lao speakers can understand and speak Thai due to exposure to Thai publications and media, the official status of the language in Laos, pressure to preserve the Lao language, and unique neologisms and other influences differentiate the language from Thai. A few neologisms in Laos are unique coinages.

Thai Loan Words in Isan
English Isan *Non-Existent Isan Lao Thai
"politburo" โปลิตบูโร, /poː līt buː lóː/, politburo *กมการเมือง, */kòm kàːn mɯ´aŋ/, *komkammeuang ກົມການເມືອງ, /kòm kàːn mɯ´aŋ/, komkammuang โปลิตบูโร, /poː lít buː roː/, politburo
"washing machine" เครื่องซักผ้า, /kʰɯ¯aŋ sāk pʰȁː/, khreuang sakpha *จักซักเครื่อง, */tɕák sāk kʰɯ¯aŋ/, *chak sakkhreuang ຈັກຊັກເຄື່ອງ, /tɕák sāk kʰɯ¯aŋ/, chak xakkhuang เครื่องซักผ้า*, /kʰrɯˆaŋ sák pʰâː/, khreuang sakpha
"aeroplane", "airplane" (US) เครื่องบิน, /kʰɯ¯aŋ bìn/, khreuang bin *เฮือบิน, */hɯ´a bìn/, *heua bin, ເຮືອບິນ, /hɯ´a bìn/, hua bin เครื่องบิน, /kʰrɯˆaŋ bin/, khreuang bin
"provincial sub-district" ตำบล, tambon, /tam bon/ *ตาแสง, */taː sɛ̆ːŋ/, *tasaeng ຕາແສງ, tasèng, /taː sɛ̆ːŋ/ ตำบล, tambon, /tam bon/

Lack of French influences[edit]

The French gunboat Lutin helped bring Laos under French control.

The incorporation of Isan into Siam prevented the Lao language spoken there from the adoption of French loan words. From 1893 till 1954, the French language was the administrative language of the Protectorate of Laos. The language continues to remain a second language of international diplomacy, higher education, government, and the old elite. Laos has been affiliated with La Francophonie since 1972, with full-member status in 1992. As of 2010, 173,800 people, approximately 3% of the population, were counted as French speakers.[47] French-language content is occasionally found on Lao national radio and television, as well as in the weekly La Renovateur and alongside English in publications of Khaosane Pathét Lao News.[48] In Isan, most words of European origin have entered the language via Thai, especially from English, which helps to differentiate the speech on either side of the Mekong River.

Lack of French Influences in Isan
English Isan *Non-Existent Isan Lao Thai French
"necktie", /ˈnek taɪ/ เนคไท, /néːk tʰáj/, nek thai *การะวัด, */kàː lāʔ ʋāt/, *karawat ກາລະວັດ/Archaic ກາຣະວັດ, /kàː lāʔ ʋāt/, karavat เนคไท, /nêːk tʰaj/, nek thai cravate, /kʀa vat/
"cinema", "movie theater" (US) โรงภาพยนตร์, /lóːŋ pʰȃːp pʰāʔ ɲón/, rong phapayon *โฮงซิเนมา, */hóːŋ sīʔ nɛ´ː máː/, *hong sinema ໂຮງຊີເນມາ, /hóːŋ sīʔ nɛ´ː máː/, hông xinéma โรงภาพยนตร์, /roːŋ pʰȃːp pʰaʔ jon/, rong phapayon cinéma, /si ne ma/
"dictionary" พจนานุกรม, /pʰōt tɕáʔ náː nū kom/, photchanukrom *ดิซอนแนร์*, */diː sɔ́ːn nɛ́ː/, *disonnae ດີຊອນແນ/Archaic ດີຊອນແນຣ໌*, /diː sɔ́ːn nɛ́ː/, dixonnè พจนานุกรม, /pʰót tɕàʔ naː nú krom/, photchanukrom dictionnaire, /dik sjɔ˜ nɛʀ/
"whale", /ʰweɪl/ ปลาวาฬ, /paː ʋáːn/, pla wan *ปลาบาแลน, */paː baː lɛ́ːn/, *pla balaen ປາບາແລນ, /paː baː lɛ́ːn/, pa balèn ปลาวาฬ, /plaː waːn/, pla wan baleine, /ba lɛn/
"postman", "mailman" (US) คนส่งไปรษณีย์, /kʰón sōŋ pàj sáʔ níː/, khon song praisani *ฟักเตอร์, */fāk tɤː/, *faktoe ຟັກເຕີ/Archaic ຟັກເຕີຣ໌*, /fāk tɤː/, fakteu คนส่งไปรษณีย์, /kʰon sòŋ praj sàʔ niː/, khon song praisani facteur, /fak tœʀ/
"Africa", /ˈæ frɪ kə/ ทวีปแอฟริกา , /tʰāʔ ʋîːp ʔɛ̏ːp fīʔ kaː/, thawip aefrika *ทวีปอาฟรีก, */tʰāʔ ʋîːp aː f(r)īk/, *thawip afrik ທະວີບອາຟິກ/Archaic ທວີບອາຟຣິກ, /tʰāʔ ʋîːp aː f(r)īk/, thavip afrik ทวีปแอฟริกา, /tʰáʔ wîːp ʔɛ`ː fríʔ kaː/, thawip aefrika Afrique, /a fʀik/
"apple", /ˈæp pl/ หมากแอปเปิล , /mȁːk ʔɛ̏ːp pɤˆːn/, mak aeppoen *หมากป่ม, */mȁːk pōm/, *mak pom ໝາກປົ່ມ/ຫມາກປົ່ມ, /mȁːk pōm/, mak pom ผลแอปเปิล, /pʰŏn ʔɛ`ːp pɤːn/, phon aeppoen pomme, /pɔm/
"wine", /waɪn/ ไวน์, /ʋáj/, wai *แวง, */ʋɛ́ːŋ/, *waeng ແວງ, /ʋɛ́ːŋ/, vèng ไวน์, /waj/, wai vin, /vɛ̃/
"butter" เนย, /nɤ`ːj/, noei *เบอร์, */bɤ`ː/, *boe ເບີ/Archaic ເບີຣ໌, /bɤ`ː/, beu เนย, /nɤːj/, noei beurre, /bœʀ/
"centimetre", "centimeter" (US), /ˈsɛn tɪ miː tə/ เซนติเมตร, /sén tìː mēːt/, sentimet *ซังตีแมตร, */sáŋ tìː mɛ́ːt/, *sangtimaet ຊັງຕີແມດ/Archaic ຊັງຕີແມຕຣ໌, /sáŋ tìː mɛ́ːt/, xangtimèt เซนติเมตร, /seːn tì méːt/, sentimet centimètre, /sɑ̃ ti mɛtʀ/
"billiards", /bɪl jədz/ บิลเลียด, /bin lîat/, binliat *บียา, */bìː yàː/, *biya ບີຢາ, /bìː yàː/, biya บิลเลียด, /bin lîat/, binliat billard, /bi jaʀ/
  • 1 Lao ພົດຈະນານຸກົມ/Archaic ພົຈນານຸກົມ, phôtchananoukôm (/pʰōt tɕáʔ náː nū kom/), exists as an alternate of Thai cognate พจนานุกรม.
  • 2 Also exists as Lao ຄົນສົ່ງໜັງສື, khône sông nangsue (/kʰón sōŋ năŋ sɯˇː/.

Lack of Vietnamese Influences[edit]

The French brought Vietnamese to Laos to boost the population of the larger cities and Vietnamese administrators to help govern the region. Large numbers of Vietnamese troops were stationed in Laos during at various times in Laos' history. This has enriched Lao with more Vietnamese influences which are not present in Isan.

Lack of Vietnamese Influences in Isan
English Isan *Non-Existent Isan Lao Thai Vietnamese
"noodle soup" ก๋วยเตี๋ยว, /kŭaj tǐaw/, kuai tiao *เฝอ, */fɤˆː/, *foe ເຝີ, /fɤˆː/, feu ก๋วยเตี๋ยว*, /kŭaj tǐaw/, kuai tiao phở, /fə ̉ː/
"to abstain" เยื้อน*, /ɲɯˆaːn/, yeuan *เกียง, */kiaŋ/, *kiang ກຽງ, /kiaŋ/, kiang งดเว้น, /ŋòt wéːn/, ngot wen kiêng, /kiə̯ŋ/
"to work" เฮ็ดงาน*, /hēt ŋáːn/, het ngan *เฮ็ดเวียก, */hēt ʋîak/, *het wiak ເຮັດວຽກ, /hēt ʋîak/, het viak ทำงาน*, /tʰam ŋaːn/, tham ngan việc, /viə̯̣k/
  • 1 ก๋วยเตี๋ยว comes from Teochew 粿條, kué tiāu (/kwɛ˧˥tiau˥/)
  • 2 Isan เยื้อน exists in Lao as ເຍື້ອນ, gnuane (/ɲɯˆaːn/)
  • 2 Isan เฮ็ดงาน exists in Lao as ເຮັດງານ (/hēt ŋáːn/)
  • 3 Thai ทำงาน exists in Isan as ทำงาน and in Lao as ທຳງານ, tham ngane (/tʰám ŋáːn/)

Uniquely Isan[edit]

A small handful of lexical items are unique to Isan and not commonly found in standard Lao, but may exist in other Lao dialects. Some of these words exist alongside more typically Lao or Thai usages.

Unique to Lao in Isan
English Isan *Non-Existent Lao Lao Thai Isan Variant
'to be well' ซำบาย, /sám báːj/, sambai *ຊຳບາຍ, */sám baːj/, *xambai ສະບາຍ/Archaic ສະບາຽ, /sáʔ báːj/, sabai สบาย, /sàʔ baːj/, sabai สบาย, /sáʔ báːj/, sabai
'fruit' บัก, /bák/, bak *ບັກ, */bák/, *bak, ໝາກ/ຫມາກ, /mȁːk/, mak ผล, /pʰŏn/, phon หมาก, /mȁːk/, mak
'lunch' เข้าสวย, /kʰȁo sŭːəj/, khao suay *ເຂົ້າສວຍ, */kʰȁo suːəj/, *khao souay ອາຫານທ່ຽງ, /ʔaː hăːn tʰīaŋ/, ahane thiang อาหารกลางวัน, /ʔaː hăːn klaːŋ wan/, ahan klangwan เข้าเที่ยง, /kʰȁo tʰīaŋ/, khao thiang
'traditional animist ceremony' บายศรี, /baːj sĭː/, baisri *ບາຍສີ, */baːj sĭː/, *baisi ບາສີ, /baː sĭː/, basi บวงสรวง, /buaŋ suaŋ /, buang suang บายศรีสู่ขวัญ, /baːj sĭː sūː kʰŭan/, baisri su khwan
'ice cream' ไอติม, /ʔaj tím/, ai tim *ໄອຕິມ, */ʔaj tím/, *ai tim ກາແລ້ມ, /kaː lɛ̂ːm/, kalèm ไอศกรีม, /ʔaj sàʔ kriːm/, aisakrim N/A

Other Isan-Lao Lexical Differences[edit]

Comparison of Isan and Lao
'ice' น้ำแข็ง /nȃm kʰɛ̆ːŋ/, nam khaeng ນ້ຳກ້ອນ* /nȃm kɔ̑ːn/, nam kone น้ำแข็ง* /nám kʰɛ̆ːŋ/, nam khaeng
'bridge' สะพาน /sáʔ pʰáːn/, saphan ຂົວ* /kʰŭa/, khoua สะพาน* /sàʔ pʰaːn/, saphan
'window' หน้าต่าง /nȁː tāːŋ/, na tang ປ່ອງຢ້ຽມ /pɔ̄ːŋ jîam/, pongyiam หน้าต่าง* /nàː táːŋ/, na tang
'paper' กระดาษ /káʔ dȁːt/, kradat ເຈ້ຍ/Archaic ເຈັ້ຽ /tɕîa/, chia กระดาษ* /kràʔ dàːt/, kradat
'book' หนังสือ /năŋ sɯˇː/, nangsue ປຶ້ມ /pɯˆm/, peum หนังสือ* /năŋ sɯˇː/, nangsue
'January' มกราคม /mōk kʰáʔ láː kʰóm/, mokkharakhom ມັງກອນ* /máŋ kɔ̀ːn/, mangkone มกราคม* /mók kàʔ raː kʰom/, mokkarakhom
'province' จังหวัด /tɕàŋ ʋát/, changwat ແຂວງ* /kʰwɛ̌ːŋ/, khwèng จังหวัด /tɕaŋ wàt/, changwat
'plain' (adj.) เปล่า /pāo/, plaw ລ້າ /lâː/, la เปล่า /plàːw/, plaw
'motorcycle' มอเตอร์ไซค์ /mɔ́ː tɤ̀ː sáj/, motoesai ລົດຈັກ/Archaic ຣົຖຈັກ /lōt tɕák/, lot chak มอเตอร์ไซค์* /mɔː tɤˆː saj/, motoesai
'citronella grass', 'lemongrass' ตะไคร้ /táʔ kʰáj/, takrai ຫົວສິງໄຄ /hŭa sĭŋ kʰáj/, houa singkhai ตะไคร้ /tàʔ kʰráj/, takrai
'papaya' บักฮุ่ง* /bák hūŋ/, bak hung ໝາກຫຸ່ງ/ຫມາກຫຸ່ງ /mȁːk hūŋ/, mak houng มะละกอ* /máʔ láʔ kɔː/, malako
  • 1 Lao ນ້ຳກ້ອນ formerly existed as Isan น้ำก้อน, nam kon (/nȃm kɔ̑ːn/), but usage now obsolete.
  • 2 Thai and Isan น้ำแข็ง also exists as Lao ນ້ຳແຂງ, nam khèng (/nȃm kʰɛ̆ːŋ/).
  • 3 Lao ຂົວ formerly existed as Isan ขัว, khua (/kʰŭa/), but usage now obsolete.
  • 4 Thai and Isan สะพาน also exists as formal Lao ສະພານ, saphane (/sáʔ pʰáːn/).
  • 5 Thai and Isan หน้าต่าง also exists as Lao ຫນ້າຕ່າງ/ໜ້າຕ່າງ, natang (/nȁː tāːŋ/).
  • 6 Thai and Isan กระดาษ also exists as Lao ກະດາດ/Archaic ກະດາສ, kadat (/káʔ dȁːt/).
  • 7 Thai and Isan หนังสือ also exists as Lao ໜັງສື/ຫນັງສື, nangsue (/năŋ sɯˇː/).
  • 8 Lao ມັງກອນ also exists as Isan มังกร, mangkon (/máŋ kɔ̀ːn/), referring to the dragon but not the month named after it.
  • 9 Thai and Isan มกราคม also exists as Lao ມົກກະລາຄົມ/Archaic ມົກກະຣາຄົມ, môkkarakhôm (/mōk káʔ láː kʰóm/).
  • 10 Lao ແຂວງ also exists as Thai and Isan แขวง, khwaeng (/kʰwɛ̌ːŋ/), when referring to provinces of Laos.
  • 11 Thai and Isan จังหวัด exist as Lao ຈັງຫວັດ, changvat (/tɕaŋ ʋát/), when referring to provinces of Thailand.
  • 12 Thai and Isan variant of มอเตอร์ไซค์, รถจักรยานยนต์, rot chakkrayanyon (/rót tɕàk kràʔ jaːn yon/), similar to Lao ລົດຈັກ[ກະຍານ]/Archaic ຣົຖຈັກຍານ, lôt chak[kagnane] (/lōt tɕák [káʔ ɲáːn]/).
  • 13 Isan บัก is a local variant of Isan หมาก and Lao ໝາກ/ຫມາກ, mak (/mȁːk/).
  • 14 The มะ in Thai มะละกอ is cognate to Isan หมาก and Lao ໝາກ/ຫມາກ, mak (/mȁːk/).


Isan words are not inflected, declined, conjugated, making Isan, like Lao and Thai, an analytic language. Special particle words function in lieu of prefixes and suffixes to mark verb tense. The majority of Isan words are monosyllabic, but compound words and numerous other very common words exist that are not. Topologically, Isan is a subject–verb–object (SVO) language, although the subject is often dropped. Word order is an important feature of the language.

Although in formal situations, standard Thai is often used, formality is marked in Isan by polite particles attached to the end of statements, and use of formal pronouns. Compared to Thai, Isan sounds very formal as pronouns are used with greater frequency, which occurs in formal Thai, but is more direct and simple compared to Thai. The ending particles เด้อ (doe, dɤː) or เด (de, deː) function much like ครับ (khrap, kʰráp), used by males, and คะ (kha, kʰaʔ), used by females, in Thai. (Isan speakers sometimes use the Thai particles in place of or after เด้อ or เด.) Negative statements often end in ดอก (dok, dɔ̀ːk), which can also be followed by the particle เด้อ and its variant.

  • เพิ่นเฮ็ดปลาแดกเด้อ (phoen het padaek doe, pʰɤn het paːdɛːk dɤː) He makes padaek.
  • บ่เป็นหยังดอก (bo pen nyang dok, bɔː peːn ɲaŋ dɔːk) It does not matter.


Nouns are not marked for plurals, gender nor are they declined for cases, and do not require an indefinite nor definite article. Plurals are often indicated with the use of classifiers, words to mark the special classes that nouns belong to. For instance, หมา (mǎː, ma) "dog" has the classifier โต (to, toː) which, as its meaning "body" implies, includes all things with legs, such as people, animals, tables, and chairs. "Three dogs" would be rendered as หมา ๓ โต (ma sam to, mǎː sǎːm toː), literally "dog three classifier".

Isan Classifiers
Isan Thai Lao Category
คน (ฅน), kʰon คน (ฅน), kʰōn ຄົນ, kʰon People in general, except clergy and royals.
คัน, kʰan คัน, kʰān ຄັນ, kʰán Vehicles, also used for spoons and forks in Thai.
คู่, kʰuː คู่, kʰûː ຄູ່, kʰūː Pairs of people, animals, socks, earrings, etc.
ซบับ, saʔbap ฉบับ, tɕʰaʔbàp ສະບັບ, saʔbáp Papers with texts, documents, newspapers, etc.
โต, toː ตัว, tūa ໂຕ, tòː Animals, shirts, letters; also tables and chairs (but not in Lao).
กก, kok ต้น, tôn ກົກ, kók Trees. ต้น (or Lao ຕົ້ນ) is used in all three for columns, stalks, and flowers.
หน่วย, nuɛj ฟอง, fɔ̄ːŋ ໜ່ວຍ, nūɛj Eggs, fruits, clouds. ผล (pʰǒn) used for fruits in Thai.

Verbs are easily made into nouns by adding the prefixes ความ (khwam/kʰwaːm) and การ (kan/kːan) before verbs that express abstract actions and verbs that express physical actions, respectively. Adjectives and adverbs, which can function as complete predicates, only use ความ.

  • แข่งม้า (khaengma/kʰɛ̀ːŋ.máː) "to horserace" (v.) nominalises into การแข่งม้า (kan khaengma/kːan kʰɛ̀ːŋ.máː) "horseracing" (n.)
  • เจ็บ (chep/tɕèp) "to hurt (others)" (v.) nominalises into ความเจ็บ (khwam chep/kʰwaːm tɕèp) "hurt (caused by others)" (n.)
  • ดี (di, diː) "good" nominalises into ความดี (khwam di, kʰwaːm diː) "goodness" (n.)

Pronouns Pronouns are often dropped in informal contexts, and are often replaced with nicknames or kinship terms, depending on the relation of the speaker to the person to whom is being spoken. Pronouns can also change depending on the register of speech, with many of the more formal pronouns borrowed from formal Thai speech registers. The more formal the language, the more likely that pronouns will not be dropped and that formal pronouns would be used. Pronouns can be pluralised by adding พวก (phuak, pʰuak) in front of the pronoun, e.g., พวกข้อย (phuak khoy/pʰuak kʰɔːj) is the same as เฮา (hao) or พวกเฮา (phuak hao/pʰuak haw). Age and status is important in determining usage. Younger boys and girls names are often prefixed with บัก (bak, bak) and อี่ (i, iː) respectively. Older males and females use อ้าย (ai, aːj) and เอี้อย (euay, ɯːaj) respectively instead. People who are much older may be politely addressed as aunt, uncle, mother, father, or even grandmother or grandfather depending on their age. Isan age-based name prefixes are often identical to or similar to vulgar, disparaging age-based name prefixes in Central Thai and should be avoided outside of Lao speaking regions in Thailand.

Pronoun Thai Royal/IPA Thai Equivalent Meaning
ข้อย khoy/kʰɔːj ฉัน I/me (informal, general)
ข้าน้อย khanoy/kʰaːnɔːj ผม (m.), ดิฉัน (f.) I/me (formal)
เฮา hao/haw เรา we/us
เจ้า chao/tɕaw คุณ you (general)
ท่าน than/tʰaːn ท่าน you (very formal)
เขา khao/kʰaw เขา he/him/she/her (formal, general)
ขะเจ้า khachao/kʰaʔ.tɕaw พวกเขา they
เพิ่น phoen/pʰɤn เขา he/him/she/her (very formal)
มัน man/man มัน it (very rude if used on a person)

Adjectives and adverbs[edit]

There is no general distinction between adjectives and adverbs, and words of this category serve both functions and can even modify each other. Duplication is used to indicate greater intensity. Only one word can be duplicated per phrase. Adjectives always come after the noun they modify; adverbs may come before or after the verb depending on the word. There is usually no copula to link a noun to an adjective.

  • เด็กหนุ่ม (dek num, dek num) A young child.
  • เด็กหนุ่ม ๆ (dek num num, dek num num) A very young child.
  • เด็กหนุ่มที่ไว้ (dek num thi vai, dek num tʰiː vaj) A child who becomes young quickly.
  • เด็กหนุ่มที่ไว้ ๆ (dek num thi vai vai, dek num tʰiː vaj vaj) A child who becomes young quickly.

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

  • เด็กหนุ่มกว่าผู้แก่ (dek num kwa phukae, dek num kwaː pʰuːkɛː) The child is younger than an old person.
  • เด็กหนุ่มที่สุด (dek num thisut, dek num tʰiːsut) The child is youngest.

Because adjectives or adverbs can be used as predicates, the particles that modify verbs are also used.

  • เด็กซิหนุ่ม (dek si num, dek siː num) The child will be young.
  • เด็กหนุ่มแล้ว (dek num laew, dek num lɛːw) The child was young.


Verbs are not declined for voice, number, or tense. To indicate tenses, particles can be used, but it is also very common just to use words that indicate the time frame, such as พรุ่งนี้ (phung ni, pʰuŋ niː) tomorrow or มื้อวานนี้ (meu wan ni, mɯː vaːn niː) yesterday.

Negation: Negation is indicated by placing บ่ (bo, bɔː) before the word being negated.

  • อีน้องกินหมากเลน (i nong kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ kin maːk len) Younger sister eats tomatoes.
  • อีน้องบ่กินหมากเลน (i nong bao bo kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ bɔː kin maːk len) Younger sister does not eat tomatoes.

Future tense: Future tense is indicated by placing the particles จะ (cha, tɕaʔ) or ซิ (si, siː) before the verb.

  • อีน้องจะกินหมากเลน (i nong cha kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ tɕaʔ kin maːk len) Younger sister will eat tomatoes.
  • อีน้องซิกินหมากเลน (i nong see kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ siː kin maːk len) Younger sister will eat tomatoes.

Past tense: Past tense is indicated by either placing ได้ (dai, daj) before the verb or แล้ว (laew, lɛːw) after the verb or even using both in tandem for emphasis. แล้ว is the more common one, and can be used to indicate completed actions or current actions of the immediate past. ได้ is often used with negative statements and never for present action.

  • อีน้องได้กินหมากเลน (i nong dai kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ daj kin maːk len) Younger sister ate tomatoes.
  • อีน้องกินหมากเลนแล้ว (i nong kin mak len laew, iːnɔːŋ kin maːk len lɛːw) Younger sister (just) ate tomatoes.
  • อีน้องได้กินหมากเลนแล้ว (i nong dai kin mak len laew, iːnɔːŋ daj kin maːk len lɛːw) Younger sister (definitely) ate tomatoes.

Present progressive: To indicate an ongoing action, กำลัง (kamlang, kam.laŋ) can be used before the verb or อยู่ (yu, juː) after the verb. These can also be combined for emphasis. In Isan and Lao, พวม (phuam, pʰuam) is often used instead of กำลัง.

  • อีน้องกำลังกินหมากเลน (i nong kamlang kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ kam.laŋ kin maːk len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • อีน้องกินอยู่หมากเลน (i nong kin yu mak len, iːnɔːŋ kin juː maːk len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • อีน้องพวมกินหมากเลน (i nong phuam kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ pʰuam kin maːk len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.

The verb 'to be' can be expressed in many ways. In use as a copula, it is often dropped between nouns and adjectives. Compare English She is pretty and Isan สาวงาม (literally lady pretty). There are two copulas used in Isan, as in Lao, one for things relating to people, เป็น (pen, pen), and one for objects and animals, แม่น (maen, mɛːn).

  • นกเป็นหมอ (Nok pen mo, Nok pe mɔː) Nok is a doctor.
  • อันนี้แม่นสามล้อ (an née maen sam lo, an niː mɛːn saːm lɔː) This is a pedicab.

Questions and answers[edit]

Unlike English, which indicates questions by a rising tone, or Spanish, which changes the order of the sentences to achieve the same result, Isan uses question tag words. The use of question words makes use of the question mark (?) redundant in Isan.

General yes/no questions end in บ่ (same as บ่, "no, not").

  • สบายดีบ่ (sabai di bo, saʔbaj diː bɔː) Are you well?

Other question words

  • จั่งใด (changdai, tɕaŋdaj) or หยัง (nyang, ɲaŋ) เฮ็ดจั่งใด (het changdai, het tɕaŋ.daj) What are you doing?
  • ใผ (phai, pʰaj) ใผขายไขไก่ (phai khai khai kai, pʰaj kʰaːj kʰaj kaj) Who sells chicken eggs?
  • ใส (sai, saj) Where? ห้องน้ำอยู่ใส (hong nam yu sai, hɔːŋnam juː saj) Where is the toilet?
  • อันใด (andai, andaj) Which? เจ้าได้กินอันใด (chao kin andai, tɕaw gin an.daj) Which one did you eat?
  • จัก (chak, tɕak) How many? อายุจักปี (ayu chak pi, aːju tɕak piː) How old are you?
  • ท่อใด (thodai, tʰɔːdaj) How much? ควายตัวบทท่อใด (khwai ɗua bot thodai, kʰwaj bot tʰɔːdaj) How much is that buffalo over there?
  • แม่นบ่ (maen bo, mɛːn bɔː) Right?, Is it? เต่าไวแม่นบ่ (Tao vai maen bo, ɗaw vai mɛːn bɔː) Turtles are fast, right?
  • แล้วบ่ (laew bo, lɛːw bɔː) Yet?, Already? เขากลับบ้านแล้วบ่ (khao kap laew bo, kʰaw gap baːn lɛːw bɔː) Did he go home already?
  • หรือบ่ (loe bo, lɤː bɔː) Or not? เจ้าหิวข้าวหรือบ่ (chao hio khao loe bo, tɕaw hiw kʰaw lɤː bɔː) Are you hungry or not?

Answers to questions usually just involve repetition of the verb and any nouns for clarification.

  • Question: สบายดีบ่ (sabai di bo, saʔbaj diː bɔː) Are you well?
  • Response: สบายดี (sabai di, saʔbaj diː) I am well or บ่สบาย (bo sabai, bɔː saʔbaj) I am not well.

Words asked with a negative can be confusing and should be avoided. The response, even though without the negation, will still be negated due to the nature of the question.

  • Question: บ่สบายบ่ (bo sabai bo, bɔː saʔbaːj bɔː) Are you not well?
  • Response: สบาย (sabai, saʔbaj) I am not well or บ่สบาย (bo sabai, bɔː saʔbaːj ) I am well.


The Tai languages of Thailand and Laos share a large corpus of cognate, native vocabulary. They also share many common words and neologisms that were derived from Sanskrit, Pali, Mon and Khmer and other indigenous inhabitants to Indochina. However, there are traits that distinguish Isan both from Thai and its Lao parent language.

Isan is clearly differentiated from Thai by its Lao intonation and vocabulary. However, Isan differs from Lao in that the former has more English and Chinese loanwords, via Thai, not to mention large amounts of Thai influence. The Lao adopted French and Vietnamese loanwords as a legacy of French Indochina. Other differences between Isan and Lao include terminology that reflect the social and political separation since 1893 as well as differences in neologisms created after this. These differences, and a few very small deviations for certain common words, do not, however, diminish nor erase the Lao characters of the language.

Identical vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai English Lao Lao Thai
"language" ภาษา, pʰáː sǎː ພາສາ, pʰáː sǎː ภาษา, pʰaː sǎː "city" เมือง, mɯ´ːaŋ ເມືອງ, mɯ´ːaŋ เมือง, mɯːaŋ
"religion" ศาสนา, sȁːt sáʔ nǎː ສາສນາ, sȁːt sáʔ nǎː ศาสนา, sàːt sàʔ nǎː "government" รัฐบาล, lāt tʰáʔ bàːn ຣັຖບາລ, rāt tʰáʔ bàːn รัฐบาล, rát tʰàʔ baːn
"heaven" สวรรค์, sáʔ vǎn ສວັຣຄ໌, sáʔ vǎn สวรรค์, sàʔ wǎn "to be well" สบาย, sáʔ bàːj ສະບາຽ, sáʔ bàːj สบาย, sàʔ baːj
"child" เด็ก, dék ເດັກ, dék เด็ก, dèk "to be happy" ดีใจ dìː t͡ɕàːj ດີໃຈ, dìː t͡ɕàːj ดีใจ, di: tɕaːj
"street" ถนน, tʰáʔ nǒn ຖນົນ, tʰáʔ nǒn ถนน, tʰàʔ nǒn "sun" อาทิตย์, ʔaː tʰīt ອາທິຕຍ໌, ʔaː tʰīt อาทิตย์, ʔa: tʰít
Identical vocabulary in Lao and Isan but distinct from Thai
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"no", "not" บ่, bɔː ບໍ່, bɔː ไม่, mâj "to speak" เว้า, vâw ເວົ້າ, vâw พูด, pʰûːt
"how much" ท่อใด, tʰɔ̄ː dàj ທໍ່ໃດ, tʰɔ̄ː dàj เท่าไหร่, tʰâw ràj "to do, to make" เฮ็ด, hēt1 ເຮັດ, hēt ทำ, tʰam
"to learn" เฮียน, hían ຮຽນ, hían เรียน, rian "glass" จอก, t͡ʃɔ̏ːk ຈອກ, t͡ʃɔ̏ːk แก้ว, kɛ̂ːw
"yonder" พู้น, pʰûn ພຸ້ນ, pʰûn โน่น, nôːn "fruit" หมากไม้, mȁːk mâj ໝາກໄມ້, mȁːk mâj ผลไม้, pʰǒn láʔ máːj
"too much" โพด, pʰôːt ໂພດ, pʰôːt เกินไป, kɤn paj "to call" เอิ้น, ʔɤˆːn ເອີ້ນ, ʔɤˆːn เรียก, rîːak
"a little" หน่อยนึง, nɔ̄ːy nɯ¯ŋ ໜ່ອຽນຶ່ງ, nɔ̄ːj nɯ¯ŋ นิดหน่อย, nít nɔ`ːj "house, home" เฮือน, hɯ´ːan2 ເຮືອນ, hɯ´ːan บ้าน, bâːn
"to lower" หลุด, lút ຫຼຸດ (ຫລຸດ), lút ลด, lót "sausage" ไส้อั่ว, sȁj ʔua ໄສ້ອ່ົວ, sȁj ʔūa ไส้กรอก, sâj krɔ̀ːk
"to walk" ย่าง, ɲāːŋ ຍ່າງ, ɲāːŋ เดิน, dɤːn "older child" ลูกกก, lûːk kók ລູກກົກ, lûːk kók ลูกคนโต, lûːk kʰon toː
"frangipani blossom" ดอกจำปา, dɔ̏ːk t͡ʃam paː ດອກຈຳປາ, dɔ̏ːk t͡ʃam paː ดอกลั่นทม, dɔ`ːk lân tʰom "tomato" หมากเล่น, mȁːk lēːn3 ໝາກເລັ່ນ, mȁːk lēːn มะเขือเทศ, mâʔ kʰɯ̌ːa tʰêːt
"much", "many" หลาย, lǎːj ຫຼາຍ, lǎːj มาก, mâːk "father-in-law" พ่อเฒ่า, pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw ພໍ່ເຖົ້າ, pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw พ่อตา, pʰɔ̑ː taː
"to stop" เซา, sáw ເຊົາ, sáw หยุด, jùt "to like" มัก, māk ມັກ, māk ชอบ, tɕʰɔ̂ːp
"good luck" โซกดี, sôːk diː ໂຊຄດີ, sôːk diː โชคดี, tɕʰôːk diː "delicious" แซบ, sɛ̂ːp ແຊບ, sɛ̂ːp อร่อย, ʔàʔ rɔ`j
"fun" ม่วน, mūan ມ່ວນ, mūan สนุก, sàʔ nùk "really" อิหลี, ʔīː lǐː4 ອີ່ຫຼີ, ʔīː lǐː จริง, tɕiŋ
"elegant" โก้, kôː ໂກ້, kôː หรูหรา, rǔː rǎː "ox" งัว, ŋúaː ງົວ, ŋúaː วัว, wua

  • ^1 Also appears in Isan ทำ and Lao ທຳ, /tʰám/.
  • ^2 Very formal Thai word เรือน (rɯːan) is cognate. Thai word also appears in Isan บ้าน and Lao ບ້ານ /bâːn/.
  • ^3 Also known as เขอเคอ in Isan and ເຂືອເຄືອ in Lao, /kʰɤˇːa kʰɤˇːa/.
  • ^4 Also appears as จริง (Lao: ຈິງ) /t͡ʃiŋ/.

Shared Thai and Isan vocabulary distinct from Lao
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"ice" น้ำแข็ง, nâm kʰɛ̌ːŋ ນ້ຳກ້ອນ, nâm kɔ̂ːn5 น้ำแข็ง, náːm kʰɛ̌ŋ "plain" (adj.) เปล่า, paw ລ້າ, lâː เปล่า, plàːw
"necktie" เน็กไท, nēk tʰáj ກາຣະວັດ, kaː rāʔ vát6 เน็กไท, nék tʰáj "province" จังหวัด, t͡ʃàŋ vát ແຂວງ, kʰwɛ̌ːŋ7 จังหวัด, tɕaŋ wàt
"wine" ไวน์, váj ແວງ vɛ́ːŋ8 ไวน์, waːj "pho" ก๋วยเตี๋ยว, kuǎj tǐaw ເຝີ, fɤ̌ː9 ก๋วยเตี๋ยว, kuǎj tǐaw
"January" มกราคม, mōk káʔ ráː kʰóm ມັງກອນ, máŋ kɔ̀ːn มกราคม, mók kàʔ raː kʰom "paper" กะดาษ, káʔ dȁːt ເຈັ້ຽ, t͡ɕìa กระดาษ, kràʔ dàːt
"window" หน้าต่าง, nȁː tāːŋ ປ່ອງຢ້ຽມ, pɔ̄ːŋ jîam หน้าต่าง, nâː tàːŋ "book" หนังสือ, nǎŋ.sɨ̌ː ປຶ້ມ, pɨ̂m หนังสือ, nǎng.sɯ̌ː
"motorcycle" มอเตอร์ไซค์, mɔ́ː tɤ̀ː sáj ຣົຖຈັກ, rōt t͡ʃák มอเตอร์ไซค์, mɔː tɤː saj10 "butter" เนย, /nɤ´ːj/ ເບີຣ໌, /bɤ`ː/11 เนย, /nɤːj/

  • ^5 Formerly น้ำก้อน, but this is now archaic/obsolete.
  • ^6 From French cravate, /kra vat/
  • ^7 Thai and Isan use แขวง to talk about provinces of Laos.
  • ^8 From French vin (vɛ̃) as opposed to Thai and Isan ไวน์ from English wine.
  • ^9 From Vietnamese phở /fə̃ː/.
  • ^10 From English "motorcycle".
  • ^11 From French beurre, /bøʁ/

Generally distinct vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"to work" เฮ็ดงาน, hēt ŋáːn ເຮັດວຽກ hēt vîak12 ทำงาน, tʰam ŋaːn "papaya" บักหุ่ง, bák hūŋ ໝາກຫຸ່ງ, mȁːk hūŋ มะละกอ, màʔ làʔ kɔː
"fried beef" ทอดซี้น, tʰɔ̂ːt sîːn ຂົ້ວຊີ້ນ, kʰȕa sîːn เนื้อทอด, nɯ´ːa tʰɔ̂ːt "hundred" ร้อย, lɔ̂ːj ຮ້ອຍ, hɔ̂ːj ร้อย, rɔ́ːj
"barbecued pork" หมูปิ้ง, mǔː pîːŋ ປີ້ງໝູ, pîːŋ mǔː หมูย่าง, mǔː jâːŋ "ice cream" ไอติม, ʔaj tim ກາແລ້ມ, kaː lɛ̂ːm ไอศกรีม, ʔaj sàʔ kriːm

  • ^12 Lao ເຮັດ, to do + Vietnamese việc, to work, /viək/ (ວຽກ).


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Further reading[edit]

  • Hayashi, Yukio. (2003). Practical Buddhism among the Thai-Lao. Trans Pacific Press. ISBN 4-87698-454-9.
  • เรืองเดช ปันเขื่อนขัติย์. ภาษาถิ่นตระกูลไทย. กทม. สถาบันวิจัยภาษาและวัฒนธรรมเพื่อการพัฒนาชนบทมหาวิทยาลัยมหิดล. 2531.

External links[edit]