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People and Languages of Thailand

Thailand is characterized by an amazing variety of ethnicities and languages, resulting in a vibrant culture that doesn’t stop changing and has been shaped by various influences.

The biggest ethnicity is of course the one of the Thai people, originating from China, immediately followed by Laotian and Khon Muang. The different ethnicities live peacefully together, even though the central government has attempted to create a unified Thai culture, reducing cultural and linguistic differences.

Languages are varied as well. Thai people being the biggest ethnic group, their language, which has the same name, is also the one most widely spoken. Thai language is the result of a mixture of Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Old Khmer, and it is a tonal language with a complex orthography and five different registers used in different contexts.

Quick Facts

  • With about 70 different ethnic groups, Thailand sees an incredible variety of cultures and traditions.
  • The largest ethnic group is the Thai one, which originated in the Guangxi province in China.
  • A small percentage of the population is constituted by hill tribes, mostly located in the northern regions.
  • The official language of the country is Thai, spoken by 20 million people.
  • The second largest language spoken is Laotian, the official language of Laos, used by 15 million people.

Ethnicity of Thailand

There are about 70 ethnic groups in Thailand. The biggest one, 20 million people, is the one of the Thai people.

Other major groups are Lao people, numbering 15 million; Khon Muang, with 6 million; Pak Tai, with 4.5 million; and Khmer Leu, with 1.4 million. Some minor groups are categorized as hill tribes (chao kao in Thai), especially in the northern provinces; the biggest ones are Hmong and Karen.

Thai People

The Thai people, known in the past as Siamese, are the largest ethnic group of the country, and include central, southern, and northern Thai, and Isaan people as well. However, in English, the term “Thai” doesn’t indicate only the ethnic Thais, but the overall population of Thailand.

Many studies suggest that the Thai people originated in the Guangxi province of China and then migrated southwards because of political pressure. They settled in the Chao Phraya valley and met the Khmer Empire. Early and powerful kingdoms were Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, which greatly contributed to the prosperity of the ethnicity.

An official Thai nation didn’t exist until the 20th century under King Rama VI of the Chakri dynasty. A new nationalism was the base of the policy of “Thaification” of Thailand, especially after the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. Minorities were repressed, and a homogenous Thai culture was promoted.

Laotian

The Lao, as the Thai, originated from China. They are closely related to Isan people (sometimes the two terms, Laotian and Isan, are used synonymously), living in the north of Thailand, close to the Lao border. Lao culture has been well preserved thanks to the isolation from the rest of the country.

The Isan region is multi-ethnic, containing a mixture of Lao, Vietnamese, Cham, Mon, and Khmer, but the culture of the Lao has always been predominant. In the past, this worried the central government, who then enacted policies of Thaification to integrate the multi-ethnic Isan people into Thailand.

Nowadays, the region has been urbanized, and Lao popular media has found its way back into the Isan region. As a result, many Thai have been newly interested in Lao culture, and therefore a new friendly relationship has developed between the two ethnicities.

Karen

Of the many hill tribes, the Karen are the most famous, because of the many villages tourists can visit on their trips from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The clear majority of Karen people live in Myanmar, but almost 350,000 Karen live in western Thailand, and the largest concentration is in the province of Chiang Mai.

Karen people have adapted to Thai culture, but without losing their identity. They traditionally collect food from the forest and use natural medicines from the forest. Unmarried couples are not allowed to touch each other, and adultery is strictly forbidden.

Many Karen are Christian (about 30%), and the most important person of the village is the priest. Other major religions are Animism and Buddhism.

The Karen can be divided in two major groups, Sgaw and Po. They share common traditions and beliefs, even though their dressing styles are radically different. The two groups still wear the traditional outfits in their daily life. For example, a married woman must wear a black shirt with a single tube-shaped skirt, while a single woman wears a white outfit that stretches down to the ankles.

Languages of Thailand

The languages spoken in Thailand come from the Southwestern Thai family. Even though Thai is the official language, other languages are also spoken in the country. Major groups come from the neighboring countries; so, for example, Karen languages are used near the border with Burma, Khmer is spoken near Cambodia and Malay in the South, near the border with Malaysia.

The largest minority language is Lao (used by 15 million people), spoken mostly in the northeastern region. In the south, Yawi is the first language of the Malay Muslims, and different dialects of Chinese can be heard around the country. Several tribal languages, like Karen, Phu Thai, Lawa, and Moken are also spoken.

Thai Language

The Thai language is spoken by 20 million people. It is a member of the Tai language family, with plenty of words borrowed from Old Khmer, Pali, and Sanskrit. It is a tonal language, and spoken Thai is mutually intelligible with Laotian.

The script of Thai derives from the Khmer language and, as just said, it is closely related to Laotian. It has a complex orthography, with silent letters used to keep the traditional spelling and many letters with the same sound. There are different possible ways to transcribe Thai using the Latin alphabet, and their main weakness is the lack of tonal indication. First Thai inscriptions date back to 1292 CE.

Tones

There are five tones in Thai language: mid, low, falling, rising, and high. As any tonal language, they are the core of the language, and they are essential for comprehension and correctness.

Loanwords

As any other language, also Thai has plenty of words borrowed from other languages. One of the strongest influences come from Chinese, who heavily influenced the language until the 13th century. After the 13th century, many words came from Pali and Sanskrit.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the influence of the English language has been prominent. Dozens of English words are now used, especially technical, international, scientific, and other modern words.

Registers of Thai

There are five different registers of Thai, each one of them used in a different social context.

In their everyday life, Thai people use Common Thai, an informal version of the language, without too many polite terms of address. Formal Thai is mostly used in official environments and for written texts. Rhetorical Thai is used mostly for public speeches, and Religious Thai is used to address monks and to talk about Buddhism. Finally, there is Royal Thai, used to address the royal family and to talk about them.

Asia Highlights Experience

Such an amazing variety of people and languages deserves to be fully explored, and in order to do so it is extremely important to carefully plan your trip. Asia Highlights can help you design your itinerary, choose the best accommodation and will give you 24hr assistance, every day of the week.

Check out the following links and learn more about our tours:

13-Day Essence of Thailand Tour: Far More beyond Temples

14-Day Myanmar and Thailand Essence Tour: Travel in Smiles

15-Day Myanmar, Thailand and Bali Honeymoon: Creating Memories Together

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