Tai languages

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Not to be confused with Tai language (New Guinea).
Southern China (esp. Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan and Guangdong), Southeast Asia
Linguistic classification: Tai–Kadai
  • Southern
    • Be–Tai
      • Tai
Proto-language: Proto-Tai
ISO 639-2 / 5: tai
Glottolog: daic1237[1]
Distribution of the Tai–Kadai language family.

The Tai languages are:

  Northern Tai / Northern Zhuang
  Central Tai / Southern Zhuang
  Southwestern Tai / Thai

The Tai or Zhuang–Tai[2] languages (Thai: ภาษาไท or ภาษาไต, transliteration: p̣hās̛̄āthay or p̣hās̛̄ātay) are a branch of the Tai–Kadai language family. The Tai languages include the most widely spoken of the Tai–Kadai languages, including standard Thai or Siamese, the national language of Thailand; Lao or Laotian, the national language of Laos; Burma's Shan language; and Zhuang, a major language in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.


Cognates with the name Tai (Thai, Dai, etc.) are used by speakers of many Tai languages. The term Tai is now well-established as the generic name in English. In his book The Tai-Kadai Languages Anthony Diller claims that Lao scholars he has met are not pleased with Lao being regarded as a Tai language.[3] For some, Thai should instead be considered a member of the Lao language family.[3] One or more Ancient Chinese characters for ‘Lao’ may be cited in support of this alternative appellation.[3] Because Tai is homophonous with Thai, the national language of Thailand, some linguists such as Gedney and Li continue to use Siamese for the latter.[3] Similarly, the terms Dai and Daic have fallen somewhat out of favor as the name for the entire family, with either Tai–Kadai or Kra–Dai being more common.[4]

Many of the languages are called Zhuang in China and Nung in Vietnam.


Citing the fact that both the Zhuang and Thai peoples have the same exonym for the Vietnamese, kɛɛuA1,[5] Jerold A. Edmondson of the University of Texas, Arlington posited that the split between Zhuang (a Central Tai language) and the Southwest Tai languages happened no earlier than the founding of Jiaozhi in Vietnam in 112 BCE but no later than the 5th–6th century.[6] However, based on layers of Chinese loanwords in Proto-Southwestern Tai and other historical evidence, Pittayawat Pittayaporn (2014) suggests that the separation between Proto-Southwestern Tai and Proto-Tai must have taken place sometime between the 8th–10th centuries.[7]

Tai alphabets. The phrase is kind elephant rider.

Internal classification[edit]

Haudricourt (1956)[edit]

Haudricourt[8] emphasizes the specificity of Dioi (Zhuang) and proposes to make a two-way distinction between the following two sets. The language names used in Haudricourt's (1956) original are provided first, followed by currently more widespread ethnonyms in brackets.


Tai proper: Ahom, Shan, Siamese, Lao, White Tai, Black Tai, Tho (Tày), Longzhou, Nung

Dioi group: Po-ai (Bo-ai) Zhuang, Tianzhou (Baise), Dioi (Bouyei), Wuming

Characteristics of the Dioi group pointed out by Haudricourt are (i) a correspondence between r- in Dioi and the lateral l- in the other Tai languages, (ii) divergent characteristics of the vowel systems of the Dioi group: e.g. 'tail' has a /a/ vowel in Tai proper, as against /ə̄/ in Bo-ai, /iə/ in Tianzhou, and /ɯə/ in Tianzhou and Wuming, and (iii) the lack, in the Dioi group, of aspirated stops and affricates, which are found everywhere in Tai proper.

As compared with Li Fang-kuei's classification, Haudricourt's classification amounts to consider Li's Southern Tai and Central Tai as forming a subgroup, of which Southwestern Tai is a sister: the three last languages in Haudricourt's list of 'Tai proper' languages are Tho (Tày), Longzhou, and Nung, which Li classifies as 'Central Tai'.


Northern Tai

Central Tai

Southwestern Tai

Li (1977)[edit]

Li Fang-Kuei divided Tai into Northern, Central, and Southwestern (Thai) branches. However, Central Tai does not appear to be a valid group. Li (1977) proposes a tripartite division of Tai into three sister branches. This classification scheme has long been accepted as the standard one in the field of comparative Tai linguistics.


Northern Tai

Central Tai

Southwestern Tai

Gedney (1989)[edit]

Gedney (1989) considers Central and Southwestern Tai to form a subgroup, of which Northern Tai is a sister.


Northern Tai

Central Tai

Southwestern Tai

Pittayaporn (2009)[edit]


In a 2009 Ph.D. dissertation, Pittayawat Pittayaporn classifies the Tai languages based on clusters of shared innovations (which, individually, may be associated with more than one branch) (Pittayaporn 2009:298). In Pittayaporn's classification system, the Zhuang dialects of Chóngzuǒ in Guangxi have the most internal diversity. Only the Southwestern Tai branch remains unchanged from Fang-Kuei Li's 1977 classification system, and several of the Southern Zhuang languages allocated ISO codes are shown to be paraphyletic. The classification is as follows:[9]

G (Nung–Thai)
O (Sapa–Thai)
Q (Southwest = Thai)

Southwestern Tai (Laos, Thailand, Burma)

R (Sapa)

Tay of Sa Pa (Vietnam)

P (Tày)

Tày of Bảo Yên, Tày of Cao Bằng, Dai Zhuang of Wenma (文马)

L (Nung)

Yang Zhuang of Debao (德保), Yang Zhuang of Jingxi (靖西),
(Western) Nung of Muong Khuong, Nong Zhuang of Wenshan (文山), Nong Zhuang of Yanshan (砚山)


Daxin Zhuang (Zuojiang Zhuang of Daxin 大新), Longming Zhuang (Zuojiang Zhuang of Longming 龙明)


Longzhou Zhuang (Zuojiang Zhuang of Longzhou 龙州), Leiping Zhuang (Zuojiang Zhuang of Leiping 雷平)


Ningming Zhuang (Zuojiang Zhuang of Ningming 宁明)


Chongzuo Zhuang (Yongnan Zhuang of Chongzuo 崇左), Shangsi Zhuang (Yongnan Zhuang of Shangsi 上思), Caolan (Vietnam)

I (Qinzhou)

Qinzhou Zhuang (Yongnan Zhuang of Qinzhou 钦州)

M (Yongnan)

Wuming Zhuang (Yongbei Zhuang of Wuming 武鸣), Yongnan Zhuang proper (邕南), Long'an Zhuang (Yongnan Zhuang of Long'an 隆安), Fusui Zhuang (Yongnan Zhuang of Fusui 扶绥)

N (Northern)

Northern Tai: Saek, Bouyei, and other Northern Zhuang

Standard Zhuang is based on the dialect of Shuangqiao (双桥), Wuming County.

Sites surveyed in Zhang (1999), subgrouped according to Pittayaporn (2009):      N,      M,      I,      C,      B,      F,      H,      L,      P

Sound changes[edit]

The following phonological shifts occurred in the Q (Southwestern), N (Northern), B (Ningming), and C (Chongzuo) subgroups (Pittayaporn 2009:300–301).

Proto-Tai reflexes
Proto-Tai Subgroup Q[10] Subgroup N[11] Subgroup B Subgroup C
*ɤj, *ɤw, *ɤɰ *aj, *aw, *aɰ *i:, *u:, *ɯ: *i:, *u:, *ɯ:
*ɯj, *ɯw *i:, *u:[12] *aj, *aw[13] *i:, *u:
*we, *wo *e:, *o: *i:, *u: *e:, *o:[14] *e:, *o:[15]
*ɟm̩.r- *br- *ɟr- *ɟr-
*k.t- *tr- *tr-
*ɤn, *ɤt, *ɤc *an, *at, *ac[16]

Furthermore, the following shifts occurred at various nodes leading up to node Q.

  • E: *p.t- > *p.r-; *ɯm > *ɤm
  • G: *k.r- > *qr-
  • K: *e:, *o: > *ɛ:, *ɔ:
  • O: *ɤn > *on
  • Q: *kr- > *ʰr-


Main article: Proto-Tai language

Proto-Tai has been reconstructed in 1977 by Fang-Kuei Li and by Pittayawat Pittayaporn in 2009.[17]

Proto-Southwestern Tai has also been reconstructed in 1977 by Fang-Kuei Li and by Nanna L. Jonsson in 1991.[18]

Proto-Tai Pronouns[citation needed]
Proto-Tai Thai script
1st singular *ku กู
dual (exclusive) *pʰɯa เผือ
plural (exclusive) *tu ตู
Incl. dual (inclusive) *ra รา
plural (inclusive) *rau เรา
2nd singular *mɯŋ มึง
dual *kʰɯa เขือ
plural *su สู
3rd singular *man มัน
dual *kʰa ขา
plural *kʰau เขา


Below is comparative table of Tai languages.

English Proto-Southwestern Tai[19] Siamese Lao Lanna Shan Tai Lü Standard Zhuang
wind *lom /lōm/ /lóm/ /lōm/ /lóm/ /lôm/ /ɣum˧˩/
town *mɯaŋ /mɯ̄aŋ/ /mɯ́aŋ/ /mɯ̄aŋ/ /mɤ́ŋ/ /mɤ̂ŋ/ /mɯŋ˧/
earth *ʔdin /dīn/ /dìn/ /dīn/ /lǐn/ /dín/ /dei˧/
fire *vai/aɯ /fāj/ /fáj/ /fāj/ /pʰáj/ or /fáj/ /fâj/ /fei˧˩/
heart *čai/aɯ /hǔa tɕāj/ /hǔa tɕàj/ /hǔa tɕǎj/ /hǒ tsǎɰ/ /hó tɕáj/ /sim/
love *rak /rák/ /hāk/ /hák/ /hâk/ /hak/ /gyai˧˩/
water *naam /náːm/ /nâm/ /nám/ /nâm/ /nà̄m/ /ɣaem˦˨/

Writing systems[edit]

Many Southwestern Tai languages are written using Brāhmī-derived alphabets. Zhuang languages are traditionally written with Chinese characters called Sawndip, and now officially written with a romanized alphabet, though the traditional writing system is still in use to this day.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Daic". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  2. ^ Diller, 2008. The Tai–Kadai Languages.
  3. ^ a b c d Diller, Anthony; Edmondson, Jerry; Luo, Yongxian (2004). The Tai-Kadai Languages. Routledge (2004), pp.6. ISBN 1135791163.
  4. ^ Diller (2008)
  5. ^ A1 designates a tone.
  6. ^ Edmondson, Jerold A. The power of language over the past: Tai settlement and Tai linguistics in southern China and northern Vietnam. Studies in Southeast Asian languages and linguistics, Jimmy G. Harris, Somsonge Burusphat and James E. Harris, ed. Bangkok, Thailand: Ek Phim Thai Co. Ltd. http://ling.uta.edu/~jerry/pol.pdf (see page 15)
  7. ^ Pittayaporn, Pittayawat (2014). Layers of Chinese Loanwords in Proto-Southwestern Tai as Evidence for the Dating of the Spread of Southwestern Tai. MANUSYA: Journal of Humanities, Special Issue No 20: 47–64.
  8. ^ Haudricourt, André-Georges. 1956. De la restitution des initiales dans les langues monosyllabiques : le problème du thai commun. Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 52. 307–322.
  9. ^ Pittayaporn, Pittayawat. 2009. The Phonology of Proto-Tai. Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Linguistics, Cornell University.
  10. ^ Unless indicated otherwise, all phonological shifts occurred at the primary level (node A).
  11. ^ Unless indicated otherwise, all phonological shifts occurred at the primary level (node D).
  12. ^ Also, the *ɯ:k > *u:k shift occurred at node A.
  13. ^ Innovation at node N
  14. ^ For node B, the affected Proto-Tai syllable was *we:, *wo:.
  15. ^ For node C, the affected Proto-Tai syllable was *we:, *wo:.
  16. ^ Innovation at node J
  17. ^ http://language.psy.auckland.ac.nz/austronesian/language.php?id=698
  18. ^ http://language.psy.auckland.ac.nz/austronesian/language.php?id=684
  19. ^ Thai Lexicography Resources

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, J. Marvin. From Ancient Thai to Modern Dialects. Bangkok: Social Science Association Press of Thailand, 1965.
  • Chamberlain, James R. A New Look at the Classification of the Tai Languages. [s.l: s.n, 1972.
  • Conference on Tai Phonetics and Phonology, Jimmy G. Harris, and Richard B. Noss. Tai Phonetics and Phonology. [Bangkok: Central Institute of English Language, Office of State Universities, Faculty of Science, Mahidol University, 1972.
  • Diffloth, Gérard. An Appraisal of Benedict's Views on Austroasiatic and Austro-Thai Relations. Kyoto: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, 1976.
  • Đoàn, Thiện Thuật. Tay-Nung Language in the North Vietnam. [Tokyo?]: Instttute [sic] for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1996.
  • Gedney, William J. On the Thai Evidence for Austro-Thai. [S.l: s.n, 1976.
  • Gedney, William J., and Robert J. Bickner. Selected Papers on Comparative Tai Studies. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 29. Ann Arbor, Mich., USA: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1989. ISBN 0-89148-037-4
  • Gedney, William J., Carol J. Compton, and John F. Hartmann. Papers on Tai Languages, Linguistics, and Literatures: In Honor of William J. Gedney on His 77th Birthday. Monograph series on Southeast Asia. [De Kalb]: Northern Illinois University, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, 1992. ISBN 1-877979-16-3
  • Gedney, William J., and Thomas J. Hudak. (1995). William J. Gedney's central Tai dialects: glossaries, texts, and translations. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 43. Ann Arbor, Mich: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan ISBN 0-89148-075-7
  • Gedney, William J., and Thomas J. Hudak. William J. Gedney's the Yay Language: Glossary, Texts, and Translations. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 38. Ann Arbor, Mich: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1991. ISBN 0-89148-066-8
  • Gedney, William J., and Thomas J. Hudak. William J. Gedney's Southwestern Tai Dialects: Glossaries, Texts and Translations. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 42. [Ann Arbor, Mich.]: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1994. ISBN 0-89148-074-9
  • Hudak, Thomas John. William J. Gedney's The Tai Dialect of Lungming: Glossary, Texts, and Translations. Michigan papers on South and Southeast Asia, no. 39. [Ann Arbor]: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1991. ISBN 0-89148-067-6
  • Li, Fang-kuei. 1977. Handbook of Comparative Tai. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Li, Fang-kuei. The Tai Dialect of Lungchow; Texts, Translations, and Glossary. Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1940.
  • Østmoe, Arne. A Germanic-Tai Linguistic Puzzle. Sino-Platonic papers, no. 64. Philadelphia, PA, USA: Dept. of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 1995.
  • Sathāban Sūn Phāsā Qangkrit. Bibliography of Tai Language Studies. [Bangkok]: Indigenous Languages of Thailand Research Project, Central Institute of English Language, Office of State Universities, 1977.
  • Shorto, H. L. Bibliographies of Mon–Khmer and Tai Linguistics. London oriental bibliographies, v. 2. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.
  • Tingsabadh, Kalaya and Arthur S. Abramson. Essays in Tai Linguistics. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University Press, 2001. ISBN 974-347-222-3

External links[edit]