Isan Language
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Isan Language
Isan
Northeastern Thai, Thai Isan, Lao Isan, Lao (informally)
?

?,
Native toThailand
RegionIsan (Northeastern Thailand).
Also in adjacent areas and Bangkok.
EthnicityIsan (Tai Lao).
Second or third language of numerous minorities of the Isan region.
Native speakers
13-16 million (2005)[1]
22 million (2013)
(L1 and L2)[1][2]
Tai Noi
(former, secular)
Tai Tham
(former, religious)[3]
Thai alphabet
(de facto)
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
tts
Glottolognort2741

Isan or Northeastern Thai (Thai: , , ?, , ) refers to the local development of the Lao language in Thailand, after the political split of the Lao-speaking world at the Mekong River, with the left bank eventually becoming modern Laos and the right bank the Isan region of Thailand (formerly known as Siam prior to 1932) after the conclusion of the Franco-Siamese War of 1898. The language is still referred to as the Lao language by native speakers.[4] As a descendant of the Lao language, Isan is also a Lao-Phuthai language of the Southwestern branch of Tai languages in the Kra-Dai language family, most closely related to its parent language Lao and 'tribal' Tai languages such as Phuthai and Tai Yo. Isan is officially classified as a dialect of the Thai language by the Thai government, although Thai is a closely related Southwestern Tai language, it falls within the Chiang Saen languages. Thai and Lao (including Isan) are mutually intelligible with difficulty, as even though they share over 80% cognate vocabulary, Lao and Isan have a very different tonal pattern, vowel quality, manner of speaking and many very commonly used words that differ from Thai thus hampering inter-comprehension without prior exposure.[5]

The Lao language has a long presence in Isan, arriving with migrants fleeing southern China sometime starting the 8th or 10th centuries that followed the river valleys into Southeast Asia. The region of what is now Laos and Isan was nominally united under the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang, (1354-1707). After the fall of Lan Xang, the Lao splinter kingdoms became tributary states of Siam. Forced migrations of Lao from the left to the right bank, now Isan, during the late 18th and much of the 19th century by Siamese soldiers looking to weaken the power of the Lao kings, impress people for enslavement, corvée projects, serve the Siamese armies or develop the dry Khorat Plateau for farming to feed the growing population. As a result of massive movements, Lao speakers comprise almost one-third of the population of Thailand and represent more than 80% of the population of Lao speakers overall. It is natively spoken by roughly 13-16 million (2005) people of Isan, although the total population of Isan speakers, including Isan people in other regions of Thailand, and those that speak it as a second language, likely exceeds 22 million.[2][1]

The Lao language in Thailand was preserved due to the Isan region's large population, mountains that separated the region from the rest of the country, conservative culture and ethnic appreciation of their local traditions. The language was officially banned from being referred to as the Lao language in official Thai documents at the turn of the 20th century. Assimilatory laws of the 1930s that promoted Thai nationalism, Central Thai culture and mandatory use of Standard Thai led to the region's inhabitants largely being bilingual and viewing themselves as Thai citizens and began a diglossic situation. Standard Thai is the sole language of education, government, national media, public announcements, official notices and public writing, and even in gatherings of all Isan people, if done in an official or public context, are compelled to use the Thai language, reserving Isan as the language of the home, agrarian economy and provincial life. The Tai Noi was also banned, thus making Isan a spoken language, although an ad hoc system of using Thai script and spelling of cognate words is used in informal communication.[5]

Isan is also a more agricultural area and one of the poorest, least developed regions of Thailand, with many Isan people having little education often leaving for Bangkok or other cities and even abroad for work, often employed as labourers, domestics, cooks, taxi drivers, construction and other menial jobs. Combined with historic open prejudice towards Isan people and their language, it has fuelled a negative perception of the language. Despite its vigorous usage, since the mid-20th century, the language has been undergoing a slow relexification by Thai or language shift to Thai altogether, threatening the vitality of the language.[6][7] However, with attitudes toward regional cultures becoming more relaxed in the late 20th century onwards, increased research into the language by Thai academics at Isan universities and an ethno-political stance often at odds with Bangkok, some efforts are beginning to take root to help stem the slow disappearance of the language, fostered by a growing awareness and appreciation of local culture, literature and history.[8][5]

Classification

Map showing the general migration patterns and diversification of the Tai peoples and languages from the original Tai Urheimat of southeastern China.

Isan, as a variety of the Lao language, falls within the Lao-Phuthai group of languages, including its closest relatives, Phuthai (BGN/PCGN Phouthai) and Tai Yo. Together with Northwestern Tai--which includes Shan, Ahom and most Dai languages of China, the Chiang Saen languages--which include Standard Thai, Khorat Thai and Tai Lanna--and Southern Tai form the Southwestern branch of Tai languages. Lao (including Isan) and Thai, although they occupy separate groups, are mutually intelligible and were pushed closer through contact and Khmer influence, but all Southwestern Tai languages are mutually intelligible to some degree. The Tai languages also include the languages of the Zhuang, which are split into the Northern and Central branches of the Tai languages. The Tai languages form a major division within the Kra-Dai language family, distantly related to other languages of southern China, such as the Hlai and Be languages of Hainan and the Kra and Kam-Sui languages on the Main and in neighbouring regions of northern Vietnam.[2]

Within Thailand, the speech of the Isan people is officially classified as a 'Northeastern' dialect of the Thai language and is referred to as such in most official and academic works concerning the language produced in Thailand. The use of 'Northeastern Thai' to refer to the language is re-enforced internationally with the descriptors in the ISO 639-3 and Glottolog language codes.[9][10] Outside of official and academic Thai contexts, Isan is usually classified as a particular sub-grouping of the Lao language, such as by speakers themselves and most linguists, or as a separate language closely related to Lao in light of its different orthography and Thai influences that distinguish it overall, such as its classification in Glottolog and Ethnologue.[4][10][2]

Exonyms

Thai depiction of Phra Isuan who is revered as guardian of Isan or 'the northeastern direction'.

In official and academic contexts within Thailand, Isan is treated as a dialect of the Thai language and referred to in Thai as Phasa Thai Tawan Ok Chiang Neua (? /p?a: s?: t?aj tà? wan `:k ta? n?:a/), 'Northeastern Thai language', or Phasa Thai Thin Isan (? /p?a: s?: t?aj t?ìn ?i: s?:n/), 'Thai language of the Isan region'. In common speech, Thais generally use the terms Phasa Thai Isan (), 'Isan Thai language' or 'Thai language of Isan', or simply Phasa Isan ( /p?a: s?i: s?:n/), 'Isan language'. 'Isan' derives from which in turn is a derivative of na (?), which in Sanskrit refers to both the 'northeast direction', i.e., northeast of Bangkok, as well as an aspect of Shiva as guardian of the northeastern direction. It also references Isanapura, capital of the Khmer kingdom of Chenla that ruled the region prior to the Tai migrations. 'Isan' initially only referred to what is now southern Isan but was later applied as a convenient appellation for the entire region, people and their language as it marked them as Thai and reduced the ambiguity of which Lao people were being referred to, but also to maintain distinction even when the term 'Lao' was no longer permitted as a census category by citizens of Siam.[4][11]

Thai speakers may also casually refer to the language as Phasa Lao (? /p?a: s?: la:w/), 'Lao language', but this is generally considered offensive by Isan people. As Isan people have suffered discrimination by Thai citizens from other regions, particularly Bangkok and the large Thai-Chinese minority, its use is considered very offensive, as 'Lao' is used as an insult, usually re-enforcing negative stereotypes of poor command of the Thai language, laziness, stupidity, poverty and religious zealots. The term 'Lao' is better avoided unless one is familiar with Isan people on intimate terms. The phrase Phasa Ban Nok () /p?a: s?: bân n:k/, which can translate as 'rural', 'upcountry' or 'provincial language' may also be used by Thai speakers to refer to the Isan language, but is also used for any rural, unsophisticated accent, even of Central Thai.[12]

To Lao speakers in Laos, the language is acknowledged as Phasa Lao (? /p?á: s?: lá:w/), but is distinguished from the language of Laos by usages such as Phasa Lao Isan ( /p?á : s?: lá:w ?i: s?:n/), 'Isan Lao language' or 'Lao language of Isan' or Phasa Thai Lao ( /p?á: s?: t?áj lá:w/) which can mean 'Lao people's language', 'Lao Thai language' or 'Thailand's Lao language'. 'Lao' is also the general term in use by other linguistic miorities of the region, although in international languages, 'Isan' or translations of 'Northeastern Thai language' are used.[9][10]

Endonyms

An ethnic Isan woman walking her water buffalo to pasture. Isan people are primarily engaged in wet-rice agriculture, despite arid conditions and a flat topography that makes it prone to flooding during heavy moonsoons.

Isan people traditionally refer to their language as Phasa Lao (Northeastern Thai: ? /p?á: s?: lá:w/), 'Lao language', or Phasa Tai Lao ( /p?á: s?: lá:w/), 'Lao people's language'. The language is also known as Phasa Thai Lao (?), 'Lao Thai language' or 'Lao language of Thailand'. The term 'Lao' is derived from an ancient Kra-Dai loan word from the Austroastiac languages, *k.ra:w which signified a '(venerable) person' and is the ancestor of the not only 'Lao' (, ) in reference to the Lao people, Lao language or the country of Laos but also the third-person pronoun 'he'/'she' as well as hao (, ?, /háo/), the plural first-person pronoun 'we'. 'Tai', 'Thai' and related forms 'Thay' and 'Dai' derive from another Austoasiatic loan word into Kra-Dai, *k.ri: which also signified 'person' or 'free person'.[13]

Due to prejudice and stigmatisation of the spoken language by Thai people of other regions, Isan speakers only refer to themselves and their language as 'Lao' when in a comfortable environment where they can speak the language freely, such as anywhere in Isan or in the company of other Isan people in more private settings, such as a family home or groups of friends from the region visiting one another. To prevent confusion with Lao people of Laos and use a more neutral term, Isan people also use Phasa Thai Isan ( /p?á: s?: t?áj ?i: s?:n/) or simply Phasa Isan () when in mixed company or outside of Isan. Younger generations are more apt to forsake any Lao identity and have generally switched to the regional Isan designation for themselves and their language. The language is also known poetically and affectionately as Phasa Ban Hao (, /p?á: s?: b?:n háo/) which can signify 'our home language' or 'our village language'.[14]

Geographical distribution

A map showing the provinces of Northeastern Thailand or Isan. The region is a stronghold of the language.

The Isan language is the primary spoken language of households in the twenty provinces of Northeastern Thailand, also known as Phak Isan (), 'Isan region' or just Isan. The region is mostly covered by the Khorat Plateau, which is generall flat, although there are some hilly areas. Mountain ranges separate the region from the rest of Thailand, such as the Phetchabun and Dong Phaya Yen ranges to the west and the Sankamphaeng to the southwest. The Thai border with Cambodia in southern Isan follow the ridgeline of the Dongrak mountains. The Khorat Plateau is separated by the Phu Phan Mountains into a northern region drained by the Loei and Songkhram rivers and a southern region drained by the Mun and its major tributary the Si. The water from these rivers flow into the Mekong River which for the most part serves as the border with Laos and the 'division' of the Isan and Lao languages, although this does occur in the written language. Isan speakers also spill into areas bordering the region, such as portions of Uttaradit and Phitsanulok provinces, particularly close to Isan and along the Mekong river, and a narrow sliver along the eastern edge of Phetchabun to the northwest and portions of Sa Kaeo and Phrachinburi provinces to the southwest.

Isan is home to many speakers of Austroasiatic languages, with one and one-half million speakers of the Northern Khmer dialect and one-half million speakers of the Kuy language, both of which are found in the southernmost provinces of Isan. There are several small ethnic groups speaking various other Austroasiatic languages, but most are fairly small and restricted to a few villages, or such as Vietnamese, spoken by small groups in cities. Major Tai languages of the region beside Isan include Khorat Thai, spoken by one-fourth the population of Nakhon Ratchasima Province which is an archaic Central Thai dialect with heavy Khmer and some Lao influence as well as the 'tribal' Tai languages, referred to as 'tribal' due to their origins in mountainous areas of Laos or their adherence to animism, most of which such as Phuthai, Yo, Kaloeng, Phuan and Tai Dam languages are closely related to Isan and all but the latter are generally mutually intelligible. Even in areas with a heavy linguistic minority presence, native Isan speakers of Lao descent comprised anywhere from sixty to seventy-four per cent of the population, although minority language speakers are also bi- or trilingual in Isan, Thai or both.[15][16][8]

Minority languages spoken in Isan[1]
Language family Language Speakers Distribution
Austroasiatic Khmer, Northern
1,400,000 Buriram, Sisaket, Surin, Roi Et, Nakhon Ratchasima
Kuy 400,000 Surin, Sisaket, Buriram
Vietnamese 20,000 Spoken by small groups in most major cities
Bru, Western 20,000 Mukdahan
Nyah Kur/Mon 8,000 Nakhon Ratchasima, Chayaphum
Bru, Eastern 5,000 Sakhon Nakhon, Amnat Charoen
Aheu 740 Sakhon Nakhon
Mlabri 300 Loei
Kra-Dai
Central Thai 800,000 First-language speakers in cities, understood throughout Isan and common second or third language.
Khorat Central Thai 600,000 Nakhon Ratchasima, Buriram, Chaiyaphum
Phuthai 500,000 Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, Ubon Ratchathani, Kalasin and Sakon Nakhon
Tai Yo (Tai Gno) 500,000 Sakhon Nakhon, Nongkhai, Nakhon Phanom, Maha Sarakham
Tai Yoy (Tai Gnoi) 50,000 Sakhon Nakhon
Saek (Sèk) ~7,000 Nakhon Phanom
Sino-Tibetan Chinese, Minnan Unknown, dying Mostly Teochew, also Hokkien and Hailam, spoken by oldest members of the Sino-Isan community.
Hmong-Mien Hmong/Mong Unknown Loei

History

Shared history with the Lao language

Tai migration (8th--12th century)

Traditional dwelling of Tai Dam in the Mng Thanh Valley, northern Vietnam. The Vietnamese name Mng Thanh is from the local Tai form of Mueang Thaen, the 'City of the Gods' and birthplace of Khun Burom in the Tai legends of Southeast Asia.

The ancestors of the Lao people were speakers of Southwestern Tai dialects that migrated from what is now southeastern China, specifically what is now Guangxi and northern Vietnam where a diversity of various Tai languages suggests an Urheimat. The Southwestern Tai languages began to diverge from the Northern and Central branches of the Tai languages, covered mainly by various Zhuang languages, sometime around 112 AD, but likely completed by the sixth century.[17] Due to the influx of Han Chinese soldiers and settlers, the end of the Chinese occupation of Vietnam, the fall of Jiaozhi and turbulence associated with the decline and fall of the Tang Dynasty led some of the Tai peoples speaking Southwestern Tai to flee into Southeast Asia, with the small-scale migration mainly taking place between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The Tais split and followed the major river courses, with the ancestral Lao originating in the Tai migrants that followed the Mekong River.[18]

The Tai migrants assimilated and intermarried with the indigenous Austroasiatic peoples or pushing them off to marginal areas, but their full expansion was halted by the Indian-influenced kingdoms of the Mon, Khmer and Cham, although the Khmer were the primary power in Southeast Asia by the time of the Tai migrations. The Tai formed small city-states known as mueang (, muang, /m:a?/) under Khmer suzerainty on the outskirts of the Khmer Empire, building the irrigation infrastructure and paddy fields for the wet-rice cultivation methods of the Tai people. Isan legends of Khun Burom (?, Khoun Bourôm, /kn b?:lóm), shared with various Southwestern Tai peoples of Southeast Asia, Greater Assam and Yunnan, concerns the first ruler of Meuang Thaen (, Muang Thèn, /m:a? t:n/) whose progeny go on to find the Tai dynasties that ruled over the various Tai mueang.[19]

Divergance and convergence

As the Southwestern Tai-speaking peoples diverged, following paths down waterways, their dialects began to diverge into the various languages today, such as the Lao-Phuthai languages that developed along the Mekong River and includes Lao and its Isan sub-variety and the Chiang Saen languages which includes the Central Thai dialect that is the basis of Standard Thai. Despite their close relationship, there were several phonological divergences that drifted the languages apart with time such as the following examples:[20][21][22]

PSWT *ml > Lao /m/, > Thai /l/

  • *ml?n, 'slippery' > muen (?, ? mun, /m:n/), > luen (?, /l:n/)

PSWT *r (initial) > Lao: /m/, > Thai /r/

  • *ra:k, 'to vomit' > hak (, , /h?:k/), > rak (, /râ:k/)

PSWT *? > Lao /?/, > Thai /j/

  • *?u?, 'mosquito' > yung (, gnoung, /?ú:?/), > yung (, /ju?/)

Similar influences and proximity allowed for both languages to converge in many aspects as well. Thai and Lao, although separated, passively influenced each other through centuries of proximity. For instance, the Proto-Southwestern Tai *ml?:? has produced the expected Lao /m/ outcome maeng (, mèng, /m:?/) and the expected Thai /l/ outcome laeng ( /l?:?/), although this is only used in Royal Thai or restricted academic usage, with the common form malaeng (? /ma? l?:?/), actually an archaic variant. In slang and relaxed speech, Thai also has maeng ( /m?:?/), likely due to influence of Lao.[20]

Thai and Lao also share similar sources of loan words. Aside from many of the deeply embedded Sinitic loan words adopted at various points in the evolution of Southwestern Tai at the periphery of Chinese influence, the Tais in Southeast Asia encountered the Khmer. Khmer loan words dominate all areas and registers of both languages and many are shared between them. Khmer loan words include body parts, urban living, tools, administration and local plants. The Thai, and likely the Lao, were able to make Khmer-style coinages that were later exported back to Khmer.[23] The heavy imprint of Khmer is shown in the genetics of Tai speakers, with samples from Thai and Isan people of Lao descent showing proof of both the Tai migration but also intermarriage and assimilation of local populations. Scholars such as Khanittanan propose that the deep genetic and linguistic impact of the autochthonous Khmer and their language indicates that the earliest days of Ayutthaya had a largely bilingual population.[24] Although evidence and research in Lao is lacking, major Lao cities were known to have been built atop existing Khmer settlements, suggesting assimilation of the locals. Isan and Lao commonly use a Khmer loan not found in Thai, khanong (, /? khanông, /k?á? n/), 'doorframe', from Khmer khnâng (?, /kn?:?/), which means 'building', 'foundation' or 'dorsal ridge'.[23][25]

Indic languages also pushed Thai and Lao closer together, particularly Sanskrit and Pali loan words that they share. Many Sanskrit words were adopted via the Khmer language, particularly concerning Indian concepts of astrology, astronomy, ritual, science, kingship, art, music, dance and mythology. New words were historically coined from Sanskrit roots just as European languages, including English, share Greek and Latin roots used for these purposes, such as 'telephone' from Greek roots ? t?le, 'distant' and ? ph?n? which was introduced in Thai as thorasap (, /t?o: ra? sàp/) and spread to Isan as thorasap (, ?/? thôrasap, /t?ó: l sáp/) from Sanskrit dura (, /d?ura/), 'distant', and ?abda (?, /?abd?a/), 'sound'. Indic influences also came via Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism.

The effects of Khmer and Indic vocabulary did not effect all the Tai languages of Southeast Asia equally. The Tai Dam of northern Vietnam were shielded from the influence of the Khmer language and the Indic cultural influences that came with them and remain traditionally a non-Buddhist people. Although the Tai Dam language is a Chiang Saen language, albeit with a lexicon and phonology closer to Lao, the lack of Khmer, Sanskrit and Pali loan words makes the language unintelligible to Thai and Lao speakers.[26]

Lan Xang (1354--1707)

Wat Phra That Phanom in Nakhon Phanom. Built in the 16th century over earlier Khmer ruins when Isan was part of Lan Xang, the temple is an important place of pilgrimage, attracting Lao from Laos as well as Isan to its temple festivals.

Taking advantage of rapid decline in the Khmer Empire, Phra Chao Fa Ngoum (Northeastern Thai: ? /f?um/ RTGS Fa Ngum, cf. Lao: ?) defeated the Khmer and united the Tai mueang of what is now Laos and Isan into the mandala kingdom of Lan Xang in 1354. Fa Ngoum was a grandson of the ruler of Muang Xoua (RTGS Mueang Sawa), modern-day Louang Phrabang. Lan Xang was powerful enough to thwart Siamese designs from their base at Sukhothai and later Ayutthaya.[27]

Khmer, and Sanskrit via Khmer, continued to influence the Lao language. Since Fa Ngoum was raised in the Khmer court, married to a Khmer princess and had numerous Khmer officials in his court, a now-extinct speech register known as rasasap (Northeastern Thai: /lá: sá: sáp/, cf. Lao: ? BGN/PCGN raxasap) was developed to address or discuss the king and high-ranking clergy. Khmer and Sanskrit also contributed many belles-lettres as well as numerous technical, academic and cultural vocabulary, thus differentiating the Lao language from the tribal Tai peoples, but pushing the language closer to Thai, which underwent a similar process. The end of the Lao monarchy in 1975 made the Lao raxasap obsolete, but as Thailand retains its monarchy, Thai rachasap is still active.[26]

The 16th century would see the establishment of many of the hallmarks of the contemporary Lao language. Scribed abandoned the use of written Khmer or Lao written in the Khmer alphabet, adopting a simplified, cursive form of the script known as Tai Noi that with a few modifications survives as the Lao script.[8] Lao literature was also given a major boost with the brief union of Lan Xang with Lan Na during the reign of Xay Xétthathirat (Northeastern Thai: ? /sáj s?:t t: t l?:t/, cf. Lao: ) (1546-1551). The libraries of Chiang Mai were copied, introducing the tua tham (BGN/PCGN toua tham) or 'dharma letters' which was essentially the Mon-influenced script of Lan Na but was used in Lao specifically for religious literature.[8] The influence of the related Tai Lan Na language was strengthened after the capitulation of Lan Na to the Burmese, leading many courtiers and people to flee to safety to Lan Xang.

Theravada Buddhism

Lan Xang was religiously diverse, with most of the people practising Tai folk religion albeit somewhat influenced by local Austroasiatic animism, as well as the Brahmanism and Mahayana Buddhism introduced via the Khmer and Theravada Buddhism which had been adopted and spread by the Mon people. Although Lao belief is that the era of Lan Xang began the period of Theravada Buddhism for the Lao people, it was not until the mid-sixteenth century that the religion had become the dominant religion.[28]

The earliest and continuously used Theravada temple, Vat Vixoun was built in 1513 by King Vixounnarat (Northeastern Thai: , Lao: ?) (1500-1521). His successor, Phôthisarat (Northeastern Thai: ?/, Lao: ) (1520-1550), banned Tai folk religion and destroyed important animist shrines, diminished the role of the royal Brahmins and promoted Theravada Buddhism. Phôthisarat married a princess of Lan Na, increasing contact with the kingdom that had long adopted the religion via contacts with the Mon people, a process that would continue when Phôthisarat's son assumed the thrones of Lan Xang and Lan Na.[29]

With Theravada Buddhism came its liturgical language, Pali, an Indic language derived from the Prakrit Many Pali terms existed alongside earlier Sanskrit borrowings or were Sanskritised, leading to doublets such as Sanskrit maitri (Northeastern Thai: /máj ti:/, cf. Lao: ?/) and Pali metta (Northeastern Thai: /m?:t ta:/, cf. Lao: /), both of which signify 'loving kindness' although the Sanskrit term is more generally used for 'friendship'. The spread of Theravada Buddhism spread literacy, as monks served as teachers, teaching reading and writing as well other basic skills to village boys, and the Tai Noi script was used for personal letters, record-keeping and signage, as well as to record short stories and the klon (Northeastern Thai: ? /k?:n/, cf. Lao: BGN/PCGN kon) poetry that were often incorporated into traditional folksongs.[8]

Shared Pali loan words from Theravada Buddhism
Pali Isan Thai Lao Gloss

puñña
/pua/ /bun/ /bun/ /bun/ 'merit'
'virtue'

dukkha
/d?ukk?a/
tuk
/tk/
tuk
/t?úk/
thouk
/tk/ 'suffering'
'misery'
?
p?pakamma
/pa:pakamma/ ?
bapkam
/b?:p kàm/ ?
bapkam
/bà:p kam/ /
bapkam
b?:pkàm 'sin'
'transgression'

anum?dan?
/?anumo:d?ana:/
anumothana
/?á? n? mó: t ná:/
anumothana
/?à? nú mo: t?á na:/ ?
anoumôthana
/?á? n? mó:t ná:/ 'to share rejoicing'

sukha
/suk?a/
suk
/súk/
suk
/sùk/
souk
/súk/ 'health'
'happiness'

vijja
/?i?d?a:/
witcha
/t sá:/
/ sá:/

witcha
/wít c?a:/ ?
visa
/ sá:/ 'knowledge'
'wisdom'

cakkayuga
/t?akkajuga/ ?
chakkrayan
/t?ák ká? ?á:n/ ?
chakkrayan
/t?àk kra? ya:n/
chakkagnan
/t?ák ká? ?á:n/ 'bicycle'
?
?hamma
/amma/ ?
tham
/t?ám/ ? /t?am/ /
tham
/t?ám/ 'dharma'
'morals'
Lan Xang literature
Scene from Phra Lak Phra Ram, the Lao form of the Indian Ramayana. Several versions of the story were recorded on palm-leaf manuscripts between the 15th and early 19th centuries.[30] The story has been interwoven into Lao culture, music, song and theater and is still a part of Isan culture.

Lao literature was widely developed. Religious treatises and commentaries written on palm-leaf manuscripts (Northeastern Thai: (/baj lá:n/), cf. Lao: ) were copied over and over, as the documents were hard to preserve in the hot and humid climate. In addition to religious treaties, many Lao folktales that were passed through song and stories were written down, many of which remain embedded in Isan culture today such as the following:[31]

Lao Three Kingdoms period (1713--1893)

Temple mural of Wat Photaram in Maha Sarakham Province. Dating to the reign of Siamese Ruler Rama III (1788-1851), the writing is in the Tai Noi script, an old form of the Lao alphabet. The Lao cities of the left bank were raided by Siamese soldiers and forced into the hinterlands of Siam, thus bringing the majority of the Lao people to the right bank.

Despite the long presence of Lan Xang and Lao settlements along the riverbanks, the Khorat Plateau remained depopulated since the Post-Angkor Period and a long series of droughts during 13th--15th centuries. The Lao settlements were found only along the banks of the Mekong River and in the wetter northern areas such as Nong Bua Lamphu, Loei, Nong Khai, with most of the population inhabiting the wetter left banks. This began to change when the golden age of Lao prosperity and cultural achievements under King Sourignavôngsa ( Suriyawongsa, /sú l? ?ó? s?:/) (1637-1694) ended with a successional dispute, with his grandsons, with Siamese intervention, carving out their separate kingdoms in 1707. From its ashes arose the kingdoms of Louang Phrabang, Vientiane and later in 1713, the Champasak. The arid hinterlands, deforested and depopulated after a series of droughts likely led to the collapse of the Khmer Empire, was only occupied by small groups of Austroasiatic peoples and scattered outposts of Lao mueang in the far north. In 1718, Mueang Suwannaphum (?, ? Muang Suovannaphoum, /sú ?án n p?ú:m) in 1718 in what is now Roi Et Province, was founded as an outpost of Champasak, establishing the first major Lao presence and the beginning of expansion of Lao settlement along the Si (, /sí:/) and Mun (, ) rivers.

The bulk of the Lao, however, settled after 1778 when King Taksin, Siamese king during the Thonburi Period (1767--1782) conquered Champasak and Vientiane and raided Phuan areas for slaves, seizing the Emerald Buddha and Phra Bang (although the latter was eventually returned) and forcing some of the Lao across the river to settle in Isan. Louang Phrabang was spared most of the destruction by submitting to Siamese overlordship.[32] Although the kingdoms remained nominally autonomous, the Siamese demanded tribute and taxes, kept members of the respective royal houses as hostages to ensure loyalty and required the three Lao kings to come to the capital several times a year to hold audience with the Siamese king. When the kingdoms revolted, the Siamese armies retaliated by rounding up entire villages, tattooing them to mark them as slaves and forced to settle what is now Isan, forced to serve as soldiers or manpower in corvée projects to build roads, to grow food, build canals or serve as domestics. The greatest population transfer occurred after the Laotian Rebellion by Chao Anouvông (? Anuwong, Lao: ?/, /?à: n? ?ó?/) in 1828 which led to the death of Anouvông and most of his family. The Siamese abducted nearly the entire population of Vientiane and its surrounding area and forced them to the right bank. Continued raids of people continued until the end of the nineteenth century.[33]

In addition to forced transfers, many Lao were encouraged, with some disillusioned princes granted lofty titles in exchange for loyalty and taxation, robbing the Lao kings of taxation and wealth as well as what little nominal authority they had left. This greatly expanded the Lao population of Isan and caused assimilation of the local peoples into the mix, a process which is occurring on a smaller scale even now. Siamese intervention paradoxically strengthened the Lao character of the region as the Siamese left the Lao areas alone as long as they continued to produce rice and continued to pay tribute. Direct Siamese rule did not extend past Nakhon Ratchasima, and the Lao mueang, whether paying their tribute directly to Bangkok or the remaining Lao kings and princes, were still nominally part of the separate kingdoms. Temples built in what is now Isan still featured the Tai Noi script on its murals and although Siam would intervene in some matters, daily administration was still left to the remaining kings and various Lao princes that served as governors of the larger mueang. The end result of the population movements re-centred the Lao world to the right bank, as today, if Isan and Lao speakers are counted together, Isan speakers form 80 per cent of the Lao-speaking population.[2][1]

Separate development of the Isan language

Integration Period (1893--1932)

Ratxadanay (? Ratchadanai, ?, /l?:t s dá? náj/) the last King of Champasak, which had been split in 1893 into a Thai- and French-controlled parts. In 1904, the implementation of the monthon system and the abolition of the monarchy by the French, ended the kingdom's existence.

After the French established their protectorate over the left bank Lao-speaking territories that became Laos during the conclusion of the Franco-Siamese War of 1893, the right bank was absorbed into Siam which was then ruled by King Wachirawut. To prevent further territorial concessions, the Siamese implemented a series of reforms that introduced Western concepts of statehood, administrative reforms and various measures to integrate the region which was until this point ruled as semi-autonomous out-lying territories nominally under the authority of the Lao kings. With the creation of provinces grouped into districts known as monthon (?, , /món t?ón/), the power of local Lao princes of the mueang in tax collection and administration were moved and replaced by crown-appointed governors from Bangkok which removed the official use of Lao written in Tai Noi in local administration. To achieve this, King Wachirawut had the help of his brother, Prince Damrongrachanuphap who recommended the system. The end of local autonomy and the presence of foreign troops led the Lao people to rebel under the influence of millennialist cult leaders or phu mi bun (, , /p: mí: bun/) during the Holy Man's Rebellion (1901--1902), the last united Lao resistnce to Siamese rule, but the rebellion was brutally suppressed by Siamese troops and the reforms were fully implemented in the region shortly afterwards.[34][35][36]

Further reforms were implemented to assimilate and integrate the people of the 'Lao Monthon' into Siam. References to the 'Lao' and many cities and towns were renamed, such as the former districts Monthon Lao Gao and Monthon Lao Phuan which were renamed as 'Monthon Ubon' and 'Monthon Udon', respectively, shortly after their creation in 1912. Self-designation as Lao in the census was banned after 1907, with the Lao forced to declare themselves as Thai and speakers of a Thai dialect. The unofficial use of Lao to refer to them was discouraged, and the term 'Isan', originally just a name of the southern part of the 'Lao Monthon', was extended to the entire region, its primary ethnic group and language. The name change and replacement of the Lao language by Thai at the administrative level and reforms to implement Thai had very little effect as the region's large Lao population and isolation prevented quick implementation. Monks still taught young boys to read the Tai Noi script written on palm-leaf manuscripts since there were no schools, passages from old literature were often read during festivals and travelling troupes of mo lam and shaddow puppet performers relied on written manuscripts for the lyrics to poetry and old stories set to song and accompanied by the khaen alone or alongside other local instruments. Mountains, lack of roads, large areas without access to water during the dry season and flooding in the wet season continued to shield the Isan people and their language from direct Thai-language influence.[34][36]

Thaification (1930s-1960s)

A plaque in Laos, in Lao and English, commemorating the First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. The equivalent in Isan using Thai script is '? -'. The Lao signage read aloud would be perfectly understandable to Isan speakers, but since they were forced to abandon their shared writing system, Isan people cannot read it and suffer digraphia.

Suppression of the Isan language came with the 'Thai cultural mandates' and other reforms that aimed to elevate Central Thai culture and language, reverence to the monarchy and the symbols of state and complete integration into Thailand, known sa 'Thaification'. Most of these reforms were implemented by Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who changed the English name of Siam to 'Thailand' and whose ultra-nationalistic policies would mark Thailand during his rule from 1938 to 1944 and 1948-1957. These policies implemented an official diglossia. Isan was removed from public and official discourse to make way for Thai and the written language was banned, relegating Isan to an unwritten language of the home. Public schools, which finally were built in the region, focussed heavily on indoctrinating Isan people to revere the Thai monarchy, loyalty to the state and its symbols and mastery of the Thai language, with Isan treated as an inferior dialect. Pride in the language was erased as students were punished or humiliated for using the language in the classroom or writing in Tai Noi, planting the seed for future language shift as the region became bilingual.[36][34][37]

The old written language and the rich literature written in it were banned and was not discussed in schools. Numerous temples had their libraries seized and destroyed, replacing the old Lao religious texts, local histories, literature and poetry collections with Thai-script, Thai-centric manuscripts. The public schools also dismissed the old monks from their role as educators unless they complied with the new curriculum. This severed the Isan people from knowledge of their written language, shared literary history and ability to communicate via writing with the left bank Lao. In tandem with its removal from education and official contexts, the Thai language made a greater appearance in people's lives with the extension of the railroad to Ubon and Khon Kaen and with it the telegraph, radio and a larger number of Thai civil servants, teachers and government officials in the region that did not learn the local language.[38]

Words for new technologies and the political realities of belonging to the Thai state arrived from Thai, including words of English and Chinese (primarily Teochew) origin, as well as neologisms created from Sanskrit roots. Laos, still under French rule, turned to French, Vietnamese, repurposing of old Lao vocabulary as well as Sanskrit-derived coinages that were generally the same, although not always, as those that developed in Thai. For example, the word or aeroplane (UK)/airplane (US) in Isan was huea bin (Northeastern Thai: ? /ha bìn/) 'flying boat', but was generally replaced by Thai-influenced khrueang bin (Northeastern Thai: ? /ka? bìn/) 'flying machine', whereas Lao retained hua bin (Lao: ? /ha bìn/) RTSG huea bin. Similarly, a game of billiards /b?l j?dz/ in Isan is (Northeastern Thai: /bin l?a:t/ from English via Thai; whereas on the left bank, people play biya (Lao: ? /bì: jà:/) from French billard /bi ja?/. Despite this slow shift, the spoken language maintained its Lao features since most of the population was still engaged in agriculture, where Thai was not needed, thus many Isan people never mastered Thai fully even if they used it as a written language and understood it fine.[36][37]

1960s to Present

The language shift to Thai and the increased influence of the Thai language really came to the fore in the 1960s due to several factors. Roads were finally built into the region, making Isan no longer unreachable for a much of the year, and the arrival of television with its popular news broadcasts and soap operas, penetrated into people's homes at this time. As lands new lands to clear for cultivation were no longer available, urbanisation began to occur, as well as the massive seasonal migration of Isan people to Bangkok during the dry season, taking advantage of the economic boom occurring in Thailand with increased western investment due to its more stable, non-communist government and openness.

The migrant workers from Isan filled the role of construction workers, taxi drivers, cleaners, vendors, dishwashers, domestics, sex workers and other menial professions, often settling in shanty towns on the outskirts of the city. The Isan people faced discrimination for their humble, Lao origins, funny accents, darker features and low-class professions but the extra money earned was sent to support family back home, and remittances such as these remain an important part of the Isan Region's GDP today. Having improved their Thai during these stints, the people returned to their villages, introducing the Bangkok slang words back home and peppering their speech with more and more Thai words.

Red Shirt political stage. Many Isan people joined the movement, protesting the ouster of PM Thaksin in 2006 and subsequent nullifications of candidates and parties attached to him.

The seasonal migrations were also spurned by the economic crash at the end of the Vietnam War, when large air bases were built in Isan and large numbers of US military stationed there provided a brief window of prosperity in the region. That period however exposed the Isan people to direct westernisation and adoption of more liberal social attitudes, helping foment a unique identity. Identification with 'Lao' identity became even more problematic, as the Isan people were always viewed as a fifth column ready to support their Lao brethren. Although the fear was exaggerated, members of the Lao Issara were able to find refuge in Isan during World War II, and communist supporters of the Pathét Lao often crossed and gained recruitments from the local Isan people.

Isan politicians tended to be mistrustful of Bangkok, believed in decentralisation of government and promoted strong development of regional economies and tended to be more leftist than the parties in power. Political repression of Isan included the assassination of political leaders in the 1930s and 1950s, the disrobement of monks in the 1970s critical of the government's role in the sangha and the return of military leaders. Crackdowns of political dissidents occurred throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s until the threat of communism was diminished. The continued outlawing of parties supported by or purportedly funded by Thaksin Shinawatra, who was widely popular in Isan, was seen as continued affront to both democracy in Thailand and representation of Isan people in Thai politics, thus many Isan people were avid supporters of the Red Shirts.[39][40]

Around the 1990s, although the perceived political oppression continues and Thaification policies remain, attitudes towards regional languages relaxed. Academics at Isan universities began exploring the local language, history, culture and other folklore, publishing works that helped bring serious attention to preserving the Lao features of the language and landscape, albeit under an Isan banner. Students can participate in clubs that promote the local music, sung in the local Lao language, or local dances native to the area. Knowledge about the history of the region and its long neglect and abuse by Siamese authorities and resurrection of pride in local culture are coming to the fore, increasing expressions of 'Isan-ness' in the region. However, Thaification policies and the language shift to Thai continue unabated. Recognition of the Isan language as an important regional language of Thailand did not provide any funding for its preservation or maintenance other than a token of acknowledgement of its existence.[5][41]

Language status

Legal status

A Thai road sign indicating a school ahead. As Isan has no official status, '' which is Isan for 'school' does not appear on signs.

The status of the Isan language is explained by Ethnologue as the 'de facto language of provincial identity' which '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.' Although Thailand does recognise the existence of the Isan region as the primary regional language, this is a token gesture and does not elevate or promote the Isan language in any degree. In fact, the Thaification policies that removed Isan from the formal and public sphere and prevented Isan people from using the Tai Noi script are still active and mastery of Thai is required for participation in national life and economic and social advancement.

Unlike in Laos, where speakers make up only half the population and usually are found only in narrow bands hugging riparian valleys, the language is nevertheless official, used in all government and media and all registers of the language. Although Laos is bombarded with Thai media and many Lao speakers in Laos are also able to understand and read Thai, although some are unable to speak it and write it, the schools and government policy and the Lao people's desire to preserve their language have prevented the Thai relexification occurring in Isan.[42][43]

Spoken status

The spoken language is currently at Stage VIA, or 'vigorous', on the EGIDS scale developed by Joshua Fishman, which is defined by Ethnologue as a language that is used for 'face-to-face communication by all generations and the situation is sustainable'.[44] 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.[2] 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.[5]

The language suffers from a negative perception and diglossia, so speakers have to limit their use of the language to comfortable, informal settings. Parents often view the language as a detriment to betterment of their children, who must master Standard Thai to advance in school or career paths outside of agriculture. The use of the Thai script, spelling cognate words in Isan as they are in Thai, also gives a false perception of the dialectal subordination of Isan and the errors of Isan pronunciation which deviate from Thai. As a result, a generational gap has arisen with old speakers using normative Lao and younger speakers using a very 'Thaified' version of Isan, increased code-switching or outright exclusive use of Thai. Many linguists and scholars of the Isan language believe that Thai relexification cannot be halted unless the script is returned, but this has little public or government support.[45][5]

Written language usage and vitality

Portions of an ancient legal text written in the Tai Noi script on a palm-leaf manuscript. The script was banned in the 1930s but survived in Laos as the modern Lao alphabet.

The written language is currently at Stage IX, which on the EGIDS scale is a 'language [that] serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency'.[44] This applies to both the Tai Noi script used for secular literature and the Tua Tham script previously used for Buddhist texts. Only a handful of people of very advanced age and caretakers of monasteries whose libraries were not destroyed during the Thaification implementation in the 1930s are able to read either script. Evidence for the use of the written language is hard to find, but well-worn murals of very old temples often have small bits of writing in the old script.[46]

In Laos, the orthography is a direct descendant of Tai Noi and continues its role as the official written language of the Lao language of the left bank as well as the script used to transcribe minority languages. The Lao written language has unified the dialects to some extant as well, as though the differences between dialects are sharper in Laos than Isan, one common writing system unites them.[43][46]

Language threats

Negative perceptions

Until the 1980s, when the road infrastructure and more relaxed attitudes towards regional cultural awareness began to take root, it was common for Isan people to face severe prejudice and discrimination. Isan culture, although similar, was at the same time quite exotic, with the pungent foods and rural people referred to as 'stinky' and the people 'stupid' and 'lazy'. The isolated rural region continues to be Thailand's least educated, least urban, least developed and least integrated region of the country, which can be seen in the numbers. More than three-fourths of Isan's people are engaged in agriculture despite the challenges of floods, droughts and infertile soils but only generated 10.9 per cent of Thailand's gross domestic product in 2013. Isan culture and language immediately conjure up images of ignorant yokels, backwards traditionalists and country bumpkins.[47]

Beginning in the mid twentieth century, as new lands to develop were no longer available, Isan people began to migrate to Bangkok and other tourist areas or major cities to seek work during the dry season, when there was little activity on the farms, or permanently, sending occasional remittances to family members back home. Restricted by prejudice and lack of skills and education beyond farming, Isan people competed with migrant workers for jobs in construction crews, street sweepers, janitors, domestics, nannies, taxicab drivers, porters, shoeshine boys, vendors and the sex industry. Many establish residences on the outskirts of the city in unofficial shanty towns and urban slums. As a result of their rural roots and the ranks of Bangkok's urban poor, Isan people are often depicted as ignorant buffoons, naïve rural people, domestics in a Thai home or dimwitted, petty criminals.[45][48]

Acknowledgement of the unique history of the Isan language and the fact it is derived from a closely related albeit separate language is lacking, with the official and public position being that the language is a dialect of Thai. As a result of the great difference from Thai, based on tone, nasal vowels of a different quality and a special set of Lao vocabulary unfamiliar to Thai speakers, it is considered an 'inferior form of Thai' as opposed to its own separate language. The traditional avoidance of the language in the formal sphere re-enforces the superiority of Thai, which the Isan people have internalised to the point many do not have high opinions of their first language. Combined with vocabulary retentions, many of which sound oddly archaic or have become pejorative in Standard Thai, perpetuate the myth and negative perception of Isan as an uncouth language of rural poverty and hard agricultural life. Due to associations with Laos, the language was also viewed as a potential fifth column for Lao irredentism and the spread of communism into Thailand.[49] It was in the recent past quite common for Isan people to be corrected or ridiculed when they spoke because of their incomplete mastery of Standard Thai.[50]

In polling of language favorability amongst the general population of Thailand, the Isan language ranks last after Standard Thai and the primary Thai dialect of the other regions.[48] As a result of the need for Standard Thai proficiency in order to have better educational and employment prospects and avoid discrimination, anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more Isan children are being raised in the Thai language and are discouraged from using the local language at home.[50] The Thai language has already begun to displace the predominance of Isan in the major market towns, in part because they are often also administrative centres, and in some major cities, universities have attracted students from other regions.[49]

Code-switching

Since the late 1930s, Isan has been a bilingual area, with most people using Isan at home and in the village, but due to diglossia, switching to Thai for school, work and formal situations. Like all bilingual societies, Isan speakers often code-switch in and out of the Thai language. For example, in analysis of the eighty-eight volumes of the comic 'Hin the Mouse' in the city, the Thai language was used 62.91 per cent of the time to properly quote someone--such as someone that speaks Thai, 21.19 per cent of the time to provide further explanation and 8.61 per cent of the time to re-iterate a previous statement for clarification.[51] There are seven areas where the Thai language is employed, aside from direct quotation, such as the following: explanations, interjections, Thai culture, emphasis, re-iterations and jokes.[52]

Although some Isan people may not speak the language well, Thai is nevertheless a convenient language of clarification, especially between Isan speakers of different dialects that may be unfamiliar with local terms of the other speaker. As Isan does not exist in formal, technical, political or academic domains, it is generally more comfortable for Isan speakers to use Thai in these areas as a result of the diglossia, with many Isan speakers unaware or unfamiliar with native terms and belles-lettres that are still used in contemporary Lao. Thai is also sometimes used to avoid Isan features that are stigmatised in Thai, such as retention of vocabulary that is pejorative or archaic as well as Lao pronunciations of cognate words that sound 'folksy'. Despite the fact that code-switching is a natural phenomenon, younger generations are blurring the distinction between languages, using more Thai-like features and as they forget to switch back to Isan, language shift takes hold.[50][45]

Direct quotation

  • We have heard Teacher Lek tell us, 'Teacher does not like to listen to mo ram'.
  • /m?: k: n:j k:j d?j ?ín k?ú: l?k b:k : k?ru: mâj t?:p fa? m: ram/
  • mu khanoi khoei dai yin khru lek bok wa khru mai chop fang mo ram

Explanations

  • ?
  • 'I cannot pay the money in advance, today, you know, I don't have money'.
  • /k:j :k n l?: n?: b: d?j d:k wan ní: la? k: pm mâj mi?n ná? k?ráp/
  • khoi ok luang ngoen na bo dai dok wan ni la ko phom mai mi ngoen na khrap
  • ?

Interjections

  • ? ?
  • 'Older brother, it's nothing at all. You will do your best'.
  • /?â:j mâj pen raj k?ráp t?âu s? h?t di: t: sút d:/
  • ai mai pen rai khrap chao si het di thisut dae
  • ? ? ?

Culture

  • ? ? ?
  • 'Bangkok fine cuisine is very delectable! We should go to Bangkok together'.
  • /krà? ya: h?:n kru? t?ê:p ?o: ta: rót mâak ná? k?á? háo k?ú:?n pài h:t kru? t?ê:p nám kan d:/
  • krayahan krung thep ocharot mak na kha hao khuan pai hot krung thep nam kan doe
  • ? ?

Re-iterations

  • ?
  • 'Dad, that man over there likes to drink tea, it's true. That man over there likes to drink tea'.
  • : p: p: b?:o p?û:n m?k kin nâm sá: m:n : l?: d: p?û: taj nân t?:p d?`:m nám ta: k?ráp/
  • i pho phubao phun mak kin nam sa maen ili doe phuchai nan chop doem nam cha khrap
  • ?

Emphasis

  • Our village on this side of the Mekong's shore belong to the Kingdom of Thailand. The villagers along the banks on the other side of the Mekong belong to Laos.
  • /bâ:n rao ta? lì? k:? fâ:k ní: pen k:? ?a: na: jàk t?aj k?á? t?áj bâ:n t: hím k:? f?:k p?û:n pen k:? m: lá:o d: k?á?/
  • ban rao taling khong fak ni pen khong anachak thai kha thai ban thi him khong fak phun pen khong mueang lao doe kha

Jokes


  • ?
  • 'Did you see the red light?'
    'Yes, I saw the red light. I did not see the policeman'.
  • /t?âu h?n fáj d?:? b?:/
    /faj d?:? h?n k?ráp mâj h?n tam rùat/
  • chao hen fai daeng bo
    fai daeng hen khrap mai hen tamruat

  • ?

Thai-influenced language shift

The Thai language may not be the primary language of Isan, but nevertheless Isan people are in constant exposure to it. It is required to watch the ever popular soap operas, news and sports broadcasts or sing popular songs, most of it produced in Bangkok or at least in its accent. Thai is also needed as a written language for instructions, to read labels on packages, road signs, newspapers and books. Isan children who may struggle to acquire the language, nevertheless, are forced to learn the language as part of compulsory education and often when they are older, for employment. Although attitudes towards regional cultures and languages began to relax in the late 1980s, the legal and social pressures of Thaification and the need for Thai to participate in daily life and wider society continue. The influence of Thai aside, anecdotal evidence suggests that many older Isan lament the corruption of the spoken language spoken by younger generations and that the younger generations are no longer familiar with the traditional Lao forms used by previous generations.[45][53]

In a 2016 study of language shift, villagers in an Isan-speaking village were divided by age and asked to respond to various questionnaires to determine lexical usage of Lao terms, with those born prior to 1955, those born between 1965 and 1990 and those born after 1990. The results show what would be expected of a language undergoing language shift. As Isan and Thai already have a similar grammatical structure and syntax, the main variance is in lexical shift, essentially the replacement of Isan vocabulary. The oldest generation, at the time in their 60s or older, use very normative Lao features little different than those found in Laos. The middle generations, ranging from 35 to 50 years of age, had a greater prevalence of Thai vocabulary, but overall maintained a traditional Isan lexicon, with the Thai terms usually not the primary spoken forms. The youngest generation, although still arguably using very many Lao phrases and vocabulary, had a remarkable replacement of Isan vocabulary, with Thai forms becoming either the primary variant or replacing the Isan word altogether. Similarly, when Isan usage has two variants, generally a common one not understood in Thai and another that is usually a cognate, younger speakers tend to use the cognates with greater frequency, pushing their speech to Thai as older speakers will use them in variance.[54]

Thai loan words were generally localised in pronunciation, easing them into the flow of Isan conversation and unnoticeable to most but the oldest members of the community that preserve 'proper Isan' usage. Although the youngest generation was still speaking a distinct language, each generation brings the increased risk of the Isan language's extinction as it becomes relexified to the point of no longer being a separate language but a dialect of Thai with some Lao influence. The lack of official usage, official support for its maintenance and lack of language prestige hinder attempts to revitalise or strengthen the language against the advance of Thai.[53]

Thai relexification in the speech of Isan youth in Rongsan Village[54]
Thai Isan Lao Isan youth Gloss

horapha
/h?: ra? p?a:/
i tu
/: t?:/
i tou
/: t?:/
horapha
/h?: l p?á:/ 'holy basil'

phi sao
/p?î: 's?:w/ /:?j/ /:?j/
phi sao
/p: s?:o/ 'older sister'

khon bai
/k?on bâj/
khon pak kuek
/k?ón p?:k k:k/
khôn pak kuk
/k?ón p?:k k:k/
khon bai
/k?ón b?j/ 'mute' (person)

krarok
/kra? r:k/
krahok
/ká? h:k/
kahok
/ká? h:k/
krarok
/ká? l:k/ 'squirrel'

krasip
/kra? síp/ ?
sap suem
/s?p sm/
xap xum
/s?p sm/
krasip
/ká? s?p/ 'to whisper'

ngip
/?î:p/
suep
/s:?p/
xup
/s:?p/
ngip
/:p/ 'to nap'

ruam
/ruam/
hom
/hó:m/
hôm
/hó:m/
ruam
/lú:?m/ 'to gather together'
'to assemble'

luk
/lû:k/
nuai
/n?:?j/
nouay
/n?:?j/
luk
/l?:k/ 'fruit'
(classifier)

lai
/làj/
ba
/b?:/
ba
/b?:/
lai
/l?j/ 'shoulder'

Continued survival

The development of 'Isan' identity and a resurgence in attention to the language has brought increased attention and study of the language. Academics at universities are now offering courses in the language and its grammar, conducting research into the old literature archives that were preserved. Digitising palm-leaf manuscripts and providing Thai-script transcription is being conducted as a way to both preserve the rapidly decaying documents and re-introduce them to the public. The language can be heard on national television during off-peak hours, when music videos featuring many Isan artists of molam and Isan adaptations of Central Thai luk thung music. In 2003, HRH Princess Royal Sirinthon was the patron of the Thai Youth Mo Lam Competition.[5]

Improved infrastructure and ease of travel restrictions between Thailand and Laos has allowed the continued movement of thousands of people every day, with people on either side crossing the river to visit relatives, shop, participate in religious festivals, conduct business or day-trip, with the Nong Khai-Vientiane Mukdahan-Savannakhét and Nakhon Phanom-Thakhèk border crossings particularly important due to the construction of bridges. Other major border crossings include Bueng Kan-Pakxan and the only non-Mekong checkpoint Chong Mek-Vangtao, although ferries cross the river in other areas. The familiarity of the language makes travel and business easy for Isan speakers, who are able to use their language freely in Laos and be understood.[4][5]

Phonology

Consonants

Initials

Isan shares its consonant inventory with the Lao language whence it derives. The plosive and affricate consonants can be further divided into three voice-onset times of voiced, tenuis and aspirated consonants. For example, Isan has the plosive set of voiced /b/, tenuis /p/ which is like the 'p' in 'spin' and aspirated /p?/ like the 'p' in 'puff'. Isan and Lao lack the sound /t/ and its allophone /?/ of Thai, replacing these sounds with /s/ in analogous environments. Similarly, /r/ is rare. Words in Isan and Lao cognate to Thai word with /r/ have either /h/ or /l/ in its place, although educated speakers in Isan or Laos may pronounce some words with /r/. In Thai, words with /r/ may be pronounced as /l/ in casual environments although this is frowned upon in formal or cultivated speech.

Unlike Thai, Isan and Lao have a /j/-/?/ distinction, whereas cognate words from Isan and Lao with /?/ are all /j/ in Thai. Substitution of /w/ with /?/, which is not used in Thai, is common in large areas of both Laos and Isan but is not universal in either region, but is particularly associated with areas influenced by Vientiane and Central Lao dialects. The glottal stop occurs any time a word begins with a vowel, which is always built around a null consonant.

Isan consonant distribution with Thai and Lao alphabets.
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal /m/ /n/ /?/2,5 /?/
?, 4 ?1, ?, 4 ?3, ?3, 3,4, 3,

4

?, 4
?, ?4/4 ?, ?4/4 ?5, 4,11/4 ?, 4
Stop Tenous /p/ /t/ /t?/ /k/ /?/10
? ?1,? ? ? ?10
? ? ? ? ?10
Aspirate /p?/ /t?/ /t/6 /k?/
?,?,? ?1, ?1, ?1, ?, ?, ? ?6, ?6, ?1,6 ?, ?7, ?, ?7, ?1
?, ? ?, ? ?6 ?, ?
Voiced /b/ /d/
? ?1, ?
? ?
Fricative /f/ /s/ /h/
?,? ?, ?1, ?1, ? ?, ?9
?, ? ?, ? ?, ?9
Approximate /?/2,5 /l/ /j/ /w/
?5, 4 ?, ?1, ?12, 4, 4,12 ?, 4 ?, 4
?5, 4 ?11, ?, 4/4, 4,11/4,11 ?, 4,11/4 ?, 4
Trill /r/8
?8, 4,8
?8,11, 4,8/4,8,11
  • ^1 Only used in Sanskrit or Pali loan words.
  • ^2 Unique to Isan and Lao, does not occur in Thai but /?/ is only an allophone of /w/ whereas /?/ is phonemic.
  • ^3 Thai spelling does not distinguish /j/ from /?/.
  • ^4 Lao ligature of silent /h/ (?) or digraph; Thai digraph with silent /h/ (?).
  • ^5 Only as syllable-initial consonants.
  • ^6 Use of /t/ is Thai interference in Isan and rare in Laos, usually interference from a northern tribal Tai language, almost always /s/.
  • ^7 Still taught as part of the alphabet, '?' and '?' are obsolete and have been replaced by '?' and '?', respectively.
  • ^8 Mark of interference from Isan or erudition in Laos. Usually replaced by /l/ and even by '?' /l/ in modern Lao writing.
  • ^9 Used to mark /h/ in words that are etymologically /r/.
  • ^10 All words that begin with vowels must be written with the anchor consonant and are pronounced with a glottal stop.
  • ^11 Generally used in pre-1970s Lao.
  • ^12 Only in very casual, informal Thai.

Clusters

Consonant clusters are rare in Isan and Lao and were lost in pronunciation before the time writing in Tai Noi began, although some remnants of how words were spelt in the oldest documents suggest that some words may have retained them before the simplification process. As a result, in traditional Isan and Lao pronunciation, only /kw/ and /k?w/ as consonant clusters. Due to a unique phonological process of diphthongisation, these clusters are lost when they occur before the vowels /aC/, /am/, /a:/ and /a:j/, limiting environments where these can occur. Thus the word for 'wide' is gwang (Northeastern Thai: /kû:/, cf. Lao: BGN/PCGN kouang) and not the true cluster as occurs in Thai and is suggested by spelling, (Thai: /kwâ:?/). Isan speakers, however, spell words etymologically according to their Thai pronunciation if they are cognate words, thus Isan speakers write the clusters but traditionally do not pronounce them, although might in formal situations. In Laos, the pronunciation and spelling do not indicate the Thai clusters, and cognate words are spelled and pronounced without them, although a handful of Sanskrit and Khmer vocabulary may be pronounced in 'Thai' fashion by older, educated speakers of the Lao diaspora.

Lack of consonant clusters in Isan
Isan Thai Lao Isan Thai Lao Isan Thai Lao
? /k/ ? /k/ ? /k/ ? /k?/ ? /k?/ ? /k?/ ? /p/ ? /p/ ? /p/
/kr/ /k?r/ /pr/
/kl/ /k?l/ /pl/
1 /kw/1 /kw/ 1 /kw/1 1 /k?w/1 /k?w/ 1 /k?w/1 ? /p?/ ? /p?/ ? /p?/
? /k?/ ? /k?/ ? /k?/ ? /t/ ? /t/ ? /t/ /p?l/
/k?r/ /tr/ ? /p?/ ? /p?/ ? /p?/
/k?l/ /p?r/
1 /k?w/1 /k?w/ 1 /k?w/1 /p?l/
  • ^1 Before /aC/, /a:/, /a:j/ and /am/ diphthongisation occurs which assimilates the /w/ so it is only a true cluster in other vowel environments, only occurs in Isan and Lao.

Finals

Isan shares with both Lao and Thai a restrictive set of permissible consonant sounds at the end of syllable or word. Isan, using its current method of writing according to Thai etymological spelling, preserves the spelling to imply the former sound of borrowed loan words even if the pronunciation has been assimilated. Due to spelling reforms in Laos, the letters that can end a word were restricted to a special set of letters, but older writers and those in the Lao diaspora occasionally use some of the more etymological spellings.

In pronunciation, all plosive sounds are unreleased, as a result there is no voicing of final consonants or any release of air. The finals /p/, /t/ and /k/ are thus actually pronounced /p?/, /t?/, and /k?/, respectively.

Isan final consonants with Lao script for comparison
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal /m/
/n/
/?/
? ?,?,?,?,?,? ?
? ?1 ?2, ?2 ?
Stop /p/ /t/ /k/ /?/
?,?,?,?,? ?,?,?,?,?,?,?,?

?,?,?,?,?,?,?,?,?
?,?,?,? *3
?1 ?2, ?2, ?2 ?1 ?2, ?2, ?2, ?2, ?2, ?2 ?1 ?2, ?2
Approximate /w/4 /j/4
? ?
? ?
  • ^1 Where alternative spellings once existed, only these consonants can end words in modern Lao.
  • ^2 Used in pre-1970s Lao spelling as word-final letters.
  • ^3 Glottal stop is unwritten but is pronounced at the end of short vowels that occur at the end of a consonant.
  • ^4 These occur only as parts of diph- or triphthongs and are usually included as parts of vowels.

Vowels

The vowel structure of Isan is the same as the central and southern Lao dialects of Laos. The vowel quality is also similar to Thai, but differs in that the two back vowels, close back unrounded vowel /?/ and the close-mid back unrounded vowel /?/, centralised as the close central unrounded vowel /?/ and the mid central vowel /?/, respectively, as well as in diphthongs that may include these sounds. To Thai speakers, Isan and Lao vowels tend to have a nasal quality.

In many cases, especially diphthongs with /u/ as first element is lengthened in Isan as it is in Standard Lao, so that the word tua which means 'body' (Thai: , written the same in Isan) is pronounced /tua/ in Thai but in Isan as /tu:?/, similar to Lao: . The symbol '?' indicates that required presence of a consonant, or for words that begin with a vowel sound, the 'null consonant' '?' or its Lao equivalent, '?', which in words that begin with a vowel, represents the glottal stop /?/. Short vowels that end with '' or Lao '' also end with a glottal stop.

Thai and Lao are both abugida scripts, so certain vowels are pronounced without being written, taking the form of /a/ in open syllables and /o/ in closed syllables, i.e., ending in a consonant. For example, the Khmer loan word phanom or 'hill' found in many place names in Isan is Northeastern Thai: or 'PH-N-M' but pronounced /p nóm/, with 'PH' as the open syllable and 'N-M' as the closed syllable. In Lao orthography, inherited from Tai Noi, closed syllables are marked with a '?' over the consonants and the /a/ of open syllables was unwritten, thus Lao: ? or 'Ph-N-o-M'. In current practice as a result of spelling reforms, all vowels are written out and in modern Lao: or 'Ph-a-N-o-M' is more common thus modern Lao is no longer a true abugida.

Isan vowel distribution
Front Central Back
Close /i/ /?/
Close-Mid /e/ /o/
Mid /?/
Open-Mid /?/ /?/
Open /a/

Vowel length

Vowels usually exist in long-short pairs determined by vowel length which is phonemic, but vowel length is not indicated in the RTSG romanisation used in Thai or the BGN/PCGN French-based scheme commonly used in Laos. The Isan word romanised as khao can represent both Northeastern Thai: /ko/, 'he' or 'she', and Northeastern Thai: /k:o/, 'white' which corresponds to Lao: ? and Lao: , respectively, which are also romanised as khao. In these cases, the pairs of words have the same tone and pronunciation and are differentiated solely by vowel length.

Isan Long-Short Vowel Pairs (Thai Script/Lao Pronunciation)
Long vowels Short vowels
Thai IPA Lao IPA Thai IPA Lao IPA
/am/ /am/
/a:/ /a:/ , , *1 /a?/, /a/ , /a?/, /a/
/i:/ /i:/ /i/ /i/
/u:/ /u:/ /u/ /u/
/e:/ /e:/ , /e?/, /e/ , /e?/, /e/
/?:/ /?:/ , //, /?/ , //, /?/
, /?:/ /?:/ /?/ /?/
, /?:/ /?:/ ? // //
/o:/ /o:/ , *2 /o?/, /o/ , /o?/, /o/
/?:/ , /?:/ ? // ? //
  • ^1 Unwritten in open syllables.
  • ^2 Unwritten in closed syllables.

Diphthongs

Isan Diphthongs
(Thai Script/Lao Pronunciation)
Long vowels Short vowels
Thai IPA Lao IPA Thai IPA Lao IPA
3 /wam/ /u:?m/
/a:j/ /2 /a:j/ 1, 1, 1, /aj/ 1, 1, 1,2/2, 2/2 /aj/
/a:w/ /a:w/ 1 /aw/ ?1 /aw/
, /ua/ , , , /u:?/ ? /u/ ?, /u/, /u?/
? /iw/ /iw/
? /i:?/ ?/?2, /i:?/ /i:/ ?/?2, ? /i?/
/?:j/ /2 /2 /?:j/
/o:j/ /2 /o:j/
?, /?:a/ ?, /?:?/ /?a?/ ? //
, /ua/ , , , /u:?/ ? /ua?/ ?, /u/, /u?/
/u:j/ /2 /u:j/ /uj/ /2 /uj/
/e:w/ /e:w/ ? /ew/ ? /ew/
?:w /?:w/
/?:j/ ?/?2 /?:j/
  • ^1 Considered long vowels for the purpose of determining tone.
  • ^2 Archaic usage common in pre-1970s Lao.
  • ^3 The Thai vowel '?' is a short vowel. In Isan, it is diphthongised after /w/ into /u:?m/.

Triphthongs

Isan Triphthongs
(Thai Script/Lao Pronunciation)
Thai IPA Lao IPA
1 /iaw/ 1 /i:?w/
1 /u?j/ /1,2 /u:?j/
1 /j/ 1/1,2 /?:?j/
  • ^1 Considered long vowels for the purpose of determining tone.
  • ^2 Archaic usage common in pre-1970s Lao.

Special vowels

As Isan is written in Thai, it also has the following symbols not found in the Lao script or its predecessor, Tai Noi. The letters are based on vocalic consonants used in Sanskrit, given the one-to-one letter correspondence of Thai to Sanskrit, although the last two letters are quite rare, as their equivalent Sanskrit sounds only occur in a few, ancient words and thus are functionally obsolete in Thai. The first symbol '?' is common in many Sanskrit and Pali words and '' less so, but does occur as the primary spelling for the Thai adaptation of Sanskrit 'rishi' and treu (Thai: /tr?:/ or /tri:/), a very rare Khmer loan word for 'fish' only found in ancient poetry.

In the past, prior to the turn of the twentieth century, it was common for writers to substitute these letters in native vocabulary that contained similar sounds as a shorthand that was acceptable in writing at the time. For example, the conjunction 'or' (Thai: ? /r/ reu, cf. Lao: / /l:/ lu) was often written Thai: ? such as in '' (Did he go home yet or not?) formerly written ''. The practice had become obsolete by the time that Isan speakers began adopting Thai writing, but Isan speakers are likely exposed to it in school when studying Thai literature. These letters did not occur in Tai Noi or the modern Lao alphabet, and equivalent words of Sanskrit origin are spelled out with other letters. Isan speakers historically, and many still do, use the Lao pronunciation of these words.

Thai-alphabet vocalic consonant ligatures
Vowel Sound Phonetic equivalent Thai example/Lao cognate Gloss
? /ri/, /r?/, /r?:/ , /? rit /rít/
lit/rit /1/1 /l?t/
'supernatural power'
/r?:/ / ruesi ? /r?: s?:/
lusi/rusi ?/?1 /l s?:/
'hermit', 'rishi'
? /l?/ lueng /2 /l/
ling /1 /li?/
'lingam'
/l?:/ / luecha /?2 /l?: t?a:/
luxa ? /l:sá:/
'to be well-known'
  • ^1 Archaic usage common in pre-1970s Lao.
  • ^2 Archaic usage common in pre-1920s Thai.

Dialects

Geographic distribution of Lao dialects within Northeastern Thailand.

Although Isan is treated separately from the Lao language of Laos due to its use of the Thai script, political sensitivity and the influence of the Thai language, dialectal isoglosses crisscross the Mekong River, mirroring the downstream migration of the Lao people as well as the settlement of Isan from the east to west, as people were forced to the right bank. Isan can be broken up into at least fourteen varieties, based on small differentiations in tonal quality and distribution as well as small lexical items, but these can be grouped into the same five dialectal regions of Laos. As a result of the movements, Isan varieties are often more similar to the Lao varieties spoken on the opposite banks of the Mekong than to other Isan people up- or downstream although Western Lao, formed from the merger of peoples from different Lao regions, does not occur in Laos and is only found in Isan.[5][55][56]

In Laos, the written language based on the speech of Vientiane has levelled many lexical differences between dialects, and although spoken regional variations remain strong, speakers will adjust to it in formal situations and in dealings with outsiders. Isan may have had historical levelling processes. The settlement of the region's interior areas led to dialect mixing and development of transitional areas. The Vientiane dialect also likely had a major role in bringing Isan varieties closer. The provinces of Loei, Nong Khai and Bueang Kan border areas of Laos where Vientiane Lao is spoken, and together with Nong Bua Lamphu and much of Udon Thani, were long settled by Lao speakers of these dialects from the time of Lan Xang as well as the Kingdom of Vientiane. The destruction of Vientiane and the forced movement of almost the entire population of the city and surrounding region after the Lao rebellion greatly increased the population of Isan, with these Lao people settled across the region.[57]

Lao Dialects
Dialect Lao Provinces Thai Provinces
Vientiane Lao Vientiane, Vientiane Prefecture, Bolikhamxay and southern Xaisômboun Nong Khai, Nong Bua Lamphu, Chaiyaphum, Udon Thani, portions of Yasothon, Bueng Kan, Loei and Khon Kaen (Khon Chaen)
Northern Lao
Louang Phrabang Lao
Louang Phrabang, Xaignbouli, Oudômxay, Phôngsali, Bokèo and Louang Namtha, portions of Houaphan Loei, portions of Udon Thani, Khon Kaen(Khon Chaen), also Phitsanulok and Uttaradit (outside Isan)
Northeastern Lao
Phuan (Phouan) Lao
Xiangkhouang, portions of Houaphan and Xaisômboun Scattered in isolated villages of Chaiyaphum, Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani, Bueng Kan, Nong Khai and Loei
Central Lao (?, ) Khammouan and portions of Bolikhamxay and Savannakhét Mukdahan, Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan; portions of Nong Khai and Bueng Kan
Southern Lao Champasak, Saravan, Xékong, Attapeu, portions of Savannakhét Ubon Ratchathani (Ubon Ratsathani), Amnat Charoen, portions of Si Sa Ket, Surin, Nakhon Ratchasima (Nakhon Ratsasima), and Yasothon
Western Lao * Not found in Laos Kalasin, Roi Et (Hoi Et), Maha Sarakham, portions of Phetchabun (Phetsabun), Chaiyaphum (Saiyaphum) and Nakhon Ratchasima (Nakhon Ratsasima)

Vientiane Lao dialect

Vientiane Lao is the primary form of Isan spoken in the northern third of the region which was long settled since the days of Lan Xang and was ruled as part of the Kingdom of Vientiane, including most of Nong Khai, Nong Bua Lamphu, eastern Loei and portions of Saiyaphum and Bueng Kan. On the Laotian side, Vientiane Lao predominates in Vientiane City, the surrounding Vientiane Province and portions of Bolikhamxai and some areas of Xaisômboun.

As a result of the Lao rebellion of 1826 the Tai Wiang (?, ), /t?áj ?í:/), 'Vientiane people' of the city and surrounding parts of the kingdom, were rounded up by Siamese armies and forced to the right bank, greatly boosting the Lao population of what is now Isan. The Tai Wiang strengthened numbers in the northern third, where Vientiane Lao was traditionally spoken, but were scattered across the Isan region overall, with heavier concentrations in Yasothon, Khon Kaen and Hoi Et provinces. This likely had a levelling effect on the Lao language as spoken in Isan, as most Isan speakers regardless of speech variety are prone to using /?/ as opposed to /w/ and the informal conversion of syllable-initial /k/ to /t?/ in relaxed, informal speech, which in Laos, is particularly characteristic of Vientiane speech. For example, the word kaem (?, ? kèm, /k:m/), 'cheek', is often pronounced *chaem (*?, *? chèm, */t:m/).

In Laos, the speech of the old élite families was cultivated into Standard Lao as emulated by television and radio broadcasts from the capital as well as taught to foreign students of Lao, but the written language has been mainly based on Vientiane Lao for centuries after the capital of Lan Xang was moved in 1560. The speech of the Isan city of Nong Khai, which sits on the opposite bank of the Mekong, is almost indistinguishable in tone and accent from the speech of Vientiane.

Vientiane Dialect Six-Tone Distribution[58]
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Low-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)

Northern Lao (Louang Phrabang) dialect

The Northern Lao dialect is not particularly common in Isan, mainly restricted to western Loei and some areas of Udon Thani provinces, but is the primary dialect of Isan speakers in parts of Uttaradit and Phitsanulok provinces which lie on the opposite bank from Xaignabouli Province of Laos. On the left bank, it is the language of Louang Phrabang and the surrounding province and Xaignabouli, where Lao speakers predominate. In the other northern provinces of Oudômxai, Houaphan, Louang Namtha and Phôngsali, native Lao speakers are a small minority in the major market towns but Northern Lao, highly influenced by the local languages, is spoken as the lingua franca between ethnic groups although the language is spoken with influence of local languages.[55]

The dialect was once an important prestige variety, since Louang Phrabang served as the capital of Lan Xang for the first half of the kingdom's existence, and served as the royal capital under French rule when they restored the royal family as rulers of the country. A refined variety of the dialect, heavily enriched with Khmer, Sanskrit and old Lao vocabulary, was used to address or discuss the monarch and was heard from radio broadcasts of royal speeches. Even with the fall of the monarchy to the communist forces, the city's rich literary and artistic past has left a large mark on Lao literature, art and poetry.

Despite its proximity to Vientiane, the dialect is quite distinct, most notably in only having five tones. Due to the distinctive high-pitch, high-falling tone on words with live syllables starting with low-class consonants, the dialect is said to sound softer, sweeter and more effeminate than other Lao dialects, likely aided by the slower speed of speaking.[59] In terms of tone and vocabulary, and the migration of thousands of people from Lanna to the city after its fall to the Burmese in 1551 after that also ended the dynastic union between Lanna and Lan Xang, the speech was greatly influenced by Tai Lanna, and is accordingly classified as a Chiang Saen language by Ethnologue.[2]

Northern Lao, together with Phuan, resisted the merger of Proto-Tai */a?/ and */aj/ that occurred in all other Lao dialects as well as Thai. In most dialects, the Lao/Thai pairs are merely etymological with ''/'' and ''/'' all representing /aj/, but in Northern Lao, the first set is pronounced /a?/ and only the latter set is /aj/, respectively. In Houaphan Province, under the influence of the local languages, the first set is /?:/, as it is in Phuan. There is also a small subset of words which are particular to the dialect.[60]

Lack of /aj/-/a?/ merger in Northern (Louang Phrabang) Lao
Source Thai Isan Vientiane Lao Northern Lao Gloss
*/?m?:l/ ?
mai
/màj/ ?
mai
/m?j/ ?
mai
/m?j/ ?
*mau
/m/ 'new'
*/ha?/
hai
hâj
hai
h?j
hai
h?j
hau
/h/ 'to give'
*/c/
chai
/t?aj/
chai
/t?aj/
chai
t?aj
*chau
/t?a?/ 'heart'
*/C?.da?/
nai
naj
nai
náj
nai
náj
*nau
/na/ 'inside'
*/mwaj/
mai
/máj/
mai
/mâj/
mai
/mâj/
mai
/ma?j/ 'wood'. 'tree'
*/w?j/
fai
/faj/
fai
/fáj/
fai
/fáj/
fai
/fa?j/ 'fire'
Northern Lao dialectal words
Thai Isan Vientiane Lao Northern Lao Gloss
?
len
/màj/
lin
/l?n/ /
lin
/l?n/
eo
()
/?e:w/ 'to joke', 'to play'

ling
/li?/
ling
/lí:?/
ling
/lí:?/ ()
ling
()
/lî?/ 'monkey'
/k?a? n?m pa?/ ?

khao chi
khanom pang
/ko t:/
/k?á n?m pa?/

khao chi
/ko t:/ ?
khanôm pang
()
/k?a n?m pâ?/ 'bread'

ho
/h:/
ho
/h:/
ho
/h:/
khou
()
/k?u?:/ 'parcel', 'package'
Northern Lao (Louang Phrabang) Dialect Tone Distribution[61]
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () 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 Phouan)

The Phuan (, Phouan, /p?ú:?n/) are a tribal Tai people originally inhabiting Xiangkhouang and parts of Houaphan provinces of Laos. As a result of slave raids and forced population transfers, there are small, scattered villages of Phuan in Sakon and Udon Thani provinces and another area around Bueang Kan, Nong Khai and Loei provinces in Thailand. Despite the small numbers and isolation, the Siamese kept the Phuan apart from the Lao, and in from other Thai people in Northern and Central Thailand were small communities of Phuan also exist, forcing them to live apart and dress in black clothing. The Phuan in turn practised endogamous marriage habits and steadfastness to their language and culture. It is distinct enough that Thais and Isan people generally consider it distinct, although Phuan is considered a Lao dialect in Laos. As a Tai language of northern Southeast Asia, it shares many similarities with Tai Dam and Tai Lan Na. In contrat to other minority languages of Isan, it is not losing ground to the Thai or Isan language in Isan.[2]

Similar to Northern Lao, Phuan has maintained the Proto-Southwestern Tai distinction of Proto-Tai */a?/ and */aj/, but the outcome is /?:/ and /aj/, respectively, similar to the Northern Lao dialects of Houaphan which has a significant Phuan presence. Similar to the Phuthai (, Phou Tai, /p: t?áj/), final /k/ has been replaced by the glottal stop /?/. What mainly distinguishes Phuan from all other Lao dialects are the vowel transformations that distinguish cognates, such as Lao /u:?/ appearing as Phuan /o:/ and Lao /?:?/ appearing as Phuan /i?/. This and a very distinct vocabulary make Phuan mutually intelligible but with difficulty to other Isan or Lao speakers and even harder to understand for native speakers of Central Thai. Outside of Xiangkhouang and other native areas in Laos, the scattered Phuan settlements in Thailand have been greatly influenced by the tones of the local languages, however even though most maintain six, those in Louang Phrabang or Central Thailand only have five and when spoken as a second language by tribal peoples of various languages, they may use seven, however all Phuan dialects share distinct tonal split, with syllables beginning with low-clas consonants and marked with the mai ek (may ék) tone mark pronounced differently than similar situations with other class consonants. This is also done in some varieties of Western Lao. Most other Lao dialects have the same tone when marked with the mai ek tone mark.[62]

Northeastern Lao (Phuan) vowel differences
Thai Isan Vientiane Lao Phuan
Northeastern Lao
Gloss
Lack of /aj/-/a?/ merger

hai
hâj
hai
h?j
hai
h?j
*heu
/h:/ 'to give'

chai
/t?aj/
chai
/t?aj/
chai
t?aj
*cheu
/t:/ 'heart'

mai
/máj/
mai
/mâj/
mai
/mâj/ ()
mai
/m?j/ 'wood', 'tree'

fai
/faj/
fai
/fáj/
fai
/fáj/ ()
fai
/fàj/ 'fire'
Lao /u:e/ > Phuan /o/
?
chon
/t?:n/ ?
buang
/b?:/ ?
bouang
/b?:/ ? (?)
bông
/bò:?/ 'spoon'

saphan
/sa? p?a:n/
khua
/k:?/
khoua
/k:?/ ()
khô
/k?:ò/ 'bridge'

kluay
/klûaj/
kluay
/k?:?j/ ?/?
kouay
/k?:?j/ ?/?
kôy
/kô:j/ 'banana'
Lao /?:?/ > Phuan /i:?/ or /?:/

duean
/d?:an/
duean
/d?:?n/
duan
/d?:?n/
*dian
/di:?n/ 'month'

lueang
/l:a?/
lueang
/l:a?/ /
luang
/l:a?/ ?/? ()
*liang
/lì:a?/ 'yellow'

pleuay
/pl?:aj/
pleuay
/p?:aj/ /
puay
/p?:aj/ ?/? ()
peuy
/p:j/ 'undressed', 'nude'
Lao final /k/ > Phuan /?/
, -
phon, ma-
/pn/, /ma?/ ?
mak
/m?:k/ ?/
mak
/m?:k/ ()
ma?
/mà:?/ 'fruit'

luk
/lû:k/
luk
/l?:k/
luk
/l?:k/ ()
lu?
/lù:?/ 'child'

kraduk
/kra? dù:k/
kraduk
/ká? d?:k/
kadouk
/ká? d?:k/ ()
du?
/dù:?/ 'bone'
Northeastern Lao (Phuan) dialectal words
Thai Isan Vientiane Lao Phuan
Northeastern Lao
Gloss

so
/sô/
so
/s?:/
so
/s?:/ ?/? ()
sia
/sì:a/ 'chain'

i raeng
/?i: r:?/ ?
i haeng
/: h:?/ ?
i hèng
/: h:?/ ? (?)
ba hèng
/bâ: h:?/ 'vulture'

phutsa
/p?út sa:/
mak kathan
/m?:k ká? t?án/ /?
mak kathan
/m?:k ká? t?án/ / (?)
ma? than
/mà:? t?àn/ 'jujube'

khittheung
/k?ít 't?/
khuethot
/kt h:t/
kheuthot
/kt h:t/ ()
kheudhou
/kt hû:/ 'to miss someone/something'

nai
/n?j/
sai
/s?j/
sai
/s?j/ ()
kaleu
/k l:/ 'where'
Tai Phuan of Ban Fai Mun, Nan Province, Thailand[62]
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Low-Rising Low Middle (glottalised) Low Mid-Rising
Middle Mid-Rising Low High-Falling Low Mid-Rising
Low Mid-Rising Mid-Falling High-Falling Mid-Falling Low
Tai Phouan of Xiangkhouang Province, Laos[62]
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Rising Low Falling Low Middle
Middle Rising Low Falling Low Middle
Low Middle Low-Falling Rising High-Falling Low-Falling Rising Low
Tai Phouan of Pak Xèng, Louang Phrabang Province, Laos[62]
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () Long Vowel Short Vowel
High High-Falling (glottalised) Falling High-Rising Falling High-Rising
Middle Middle Falling High-Rising Falling High-Rising
Low Middle High-Rising Low-Falling High-Rising High-Rising

Central Lao

Central Lao represents a transitional variety, with northern varieties closer to Vientiane Lao and southern varieties, roughly sough of the confluence of the Xé Noi river with the Mekong, the speech varieties begin to approach Southern Lao. Some linguists, such as Hartmann, place Vientiane Lao and Central Lao together as a singular dialect region.[63] More Vientiane-like speech predominates in the Isan provinces of Bueng Kan, Sakon Nakhon, most of Nakhon Phanom and some areas of Nong Khai provinces and on the Laotian side, portions of eastern and southern Bolikhamxai and Khammouan provinces. More Southern Lao features are found in the speech of Mukdahan and southern Nakhon Phanom provinces of Thailand and Savannakhét Province of Laos.

Nevertheless, the tones of the southern Central varieties, such as spoken in Mukdahan, Thailand and Savannakhét, Laos have a tonal structure more akin to Vientiane Lao, sharing certain splits and contours. These areas do, however, exhibit some Southern features of their lexicon, such as the common use of se (, , /sê:/), 'river', which is typical of Southern Lao as opposed to nam (, , /n?m/), which is the more common word and also signifies 'water' in general. Mukdahan-Savannakhét area speakers also understand mae thao (?, , /m: to/) as a respectful term for an 'old lady' (as opposed to Vientiane 'mother-in-law') and use pen sang (?, ?, /p?n s/) instead of Vientiane pen yang (, , /pen /), 'what's wrong?', as is typical of Southern Lao.

Central Dialect Tone Distribution (Savannakhét)[64]
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () 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

Southern Lao is spoken along the southern third of Isan and Laos. This region covers the Thai provinces of Surin, Buriram and Sisaket, where a large minority of speakers are Khmer people speaking the archaic northern variety of Khmer and another Austroasiatic peoples, the Kuy people, use Southern Lao as a second language to engage with their Isan neighbours. It is also spoken in Ubon Ratsathani, Amnat Charoen and portions of Yasothon and Nakhon Ratsasima. In Laos, it is the primary dialect of Champasak, Salavan, Attapeu and Xékong provinces. There are also small pockets of speakers located in Steung Treng Province, Cambodia or Siang Taeng (, , /sía:? t?:?/), particularly near the Mekong River close to the Laotian border. Many of the areas where Southern Lao is spoken were formerly part of the Kingdom of Champasak, one of the three successor states to the Kingdom of Lan Xang, prior to the division of the Lao-speaking world between France and Siam.

Compared to other Isan and Lao dialects, Southern Lao has low tones in syllables that begin with high- or middle-class consonants and have long vowels. High- and middle-class consonants marked with the mai to tone mark are low and low-falling, respectively, but in these cases are pronounced with a very strong glottalisation, which can be described as 'creaky'. Combined with the somewhat faster manner of speaking and reduced tendency to soften consonants at the end of words, Southern Lao sounds very rough and harsh to speakers of other dialects. Many of these features, such as the faster speaking pace and glottalisation may be influences from Austroasiatic languages as most of the region was inhabited by the Khmer, Kuy and various other Austroasiatic peoples until the eighteenth century when the Lao began to settle and even now, Khmer speakers comprise half the population of Surin and roughly a quarter each of the populations of Sisaket and Buriram provinces.[65]

Specific dialectal words include don (, , /d:n/), 'riparian island', se (, xé, /s?:/)) and many of the words used in Savannakhét that are more typical of Southern Lao such as mae thao (?, , /m: to/) as a respectful term for an 'old lady' (as opposed to Vientiane 'mother-in-law') and use pen sang (?, ?, /p?n s/) instead of Vientiane pen yang (, pén gnang, /pen /), 'what's wrong?'. Possibly as a result of historical Khmer influence and current influences from Thai, Southern dialects tend to pronounce some words with initial Proto-Southwestern Tai */r/ as a either the rhotic tap /?/ or a strongly velarised /?/ which is confused with /d/ by speakers of other Lao dialects which have /h/, for example Vientiane Lao hap (, , /h?p/), 'to receive', and honghaem (, hônghèm, /hó:? h:m/) are pronounced as lap (?, , /?àp/) and honglaem (, hônglèm, /h:? :m/), respectively but it may sound like *dap and *hongdaem (hông dèm) to other Lao but is really strongly velerasied /?/ or a rhotic tap /?/.[66] Southerners also tend to use chak (, , /t?a?k/) to mean 'to know someone' as opposed to hu chak (, hou chak, /h?: t?ák/) used in all other dialects.

Southern Dialect Tone (Pakxé) Distribution[67]
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () 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 (short)

Western Lao

Western Lao does not occur in Laos but is the primary dialect of Kalasin, Hoi Et and Maha Sarakham, but it is also spoken in much of Saiyaphum and portions of Nakhon Ratsasima.


Western Lao Dialect Tone Distribution (Roi Et)[68]
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () 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

  • 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 systems

Tai Noi alphabet

The consonants of the old Tai Noy alphabet. Letter shapes have been preserved, with few changes, in the modern Lao alphabet.

The original writing system was the Akson Tai Noi (Northeastern Thai: /ák s:n t?áj n:j/, cf. Lao: BGN/PCGN Akson Tai Noy), 'Little Tai alphabet' or To Lao (Northeastern Thai: /to: lá:o/, cf. Lao: ), which in contemporary Isan and Lao would be Tua Lao (Northeastern Thai: /tu:a lá:o/ and Lao: , respectively, or 'Lao letters.' In Laos, the script is referred to in academic settings as the Akson Lao Deum (Lao: ? /ák s:n lá:o d:m/, cf. Northeastern Thai: RTGS Akson Lao Doem) or 'Original Lao script.' The contemporary Lao script is a direct descendant and has preserved the basic letter shapes. The similarity between the modern Thai alphabet and the old and new Lao alphabets is because both scripts derived from a common ancestral Tai script of what is now northern Thailand which was an adaptation of the Khmer script, rounded by the influence of the Mon script, all of which are descendants of the Pallava script of southern India.[46]

'Sri Ubon Rattanaram Museum' written in English and Isan in the Tai Noi script. This would be rendered as Northeastern Thai: ? in the Thai script, identical to how it is in the Thai language, and Lao: in the contemporary Lao.

The Tai Noi script was the secular script used for personal letters, record keeping, signage, songs, poems, stories, recipes, medical texts and religious literature aimed at the laity. The earliest evidence of the script in what is now Thailand is an inscription at Prathat Si Bunrueang in Nong Bua Lamphu dated to 1510, and the last epigraphic evidence is dated to 1840 AD, although large numbers of texts were destroyed or did not survive the heat and humidity. The use of the script was banned in 1871 by royal decree, followed by reforms that imposed Thai as the administrative language of the region in 1898, but these edicts had little impact as education was done informally by village monks. The written language survived to some degree until the imposition of the radical Thaification policies of the 1930s, as the Central Thai culture was elevated as the national standard and all expressions of regional and minority culture were brutally suppressed.[49] Many documents were confiscated and burned, religious literature was replaced by royally sanctioned Thai versions and schools, where only the Thai spoken and written language was used, were built in the region. As a result, only a handful of people, such as academic experts, monks that maintain the temple libraries and some elderly people of advanced age are familiar with and can read material written in Tai Noi script. This has led to Isan being mainly a spoken language, and when it is written, if at all, it is written in the Thai script and spelling conventions that distance it from its Lao origins.[46]

Signage in Isan written in the Tai Noi script was installed throughout Khon Kaen University in 2013. Students were surveyed after the signs were put up, and most had a favorable reaction to the signage, as over 73 per cent had no knowledge of a previous writing system prior to the forced adoption of the Thai language and alphabet. Lack of a writing system has been cited as a reason for the lack of prestige speakers have for the language, disassociation from their history and culture and for the constant inroads and influence of the Thai language. Revival of the written language, however, is hampered by lack of support. Despite the easement of restrictions and prejudice against Isan people and their language, the Thaification policies that suppressed the written language remain the law of the land in Thailand today. Although contemporary Lao people from Laos can read Tai Noi material with only a little difficulty, Isan speakers are generally unfamiliar with the Lao script due to lack of exposure.[5][44]

Tai Noi examples

Tai Noy Phrases I.pngSample Tai Noi Phrases 02 DEE.jpg

  • *? (?), , 'how are you?'
  • , , 'where did it come from?
  • , ?, 'what did you eat with breakfast?'
  • , , 'help me!'
  • ?, , 'rotten tooth cavity'
  • , , 'to return home'
  • , , 'clean up after it's done'
  • , 'come this way'

Thai alphabet

Screenshot of a karaoke VCD from molam singer, Chintara Phunlap. In the Lao script, the lyrics seen would appear as '?'.

The ban on the Tai Noi script in the 1930s led to the adoption of writing in Thai with the Thai script. Very quickly, the Isan people adopted an ad hoc system of using Thai to record the spoken language, using etymological spelling for cognate words but spelling Lao words not found in Thai, and with no known Khmer or Indic etymology, similarly to as they would be in the Lao script. This system remains in informal use today, often seen in letters, text messages, social media posts, lyrics to songs in the Isan language, transcription of Isan dialogue and personal notes.

'Lao'-ised spelling

There are two aspects of Lao phonology inherited in Isan that native speakers will substitute different letters to represent the proper sound.

Proto-Southwestern Tai initial /r/ > /h/

  • Lao '?' /r/ and '?' /h/
  • Isan '?' /r/ and '?' /h/
  • Thai ron (? /r:n/), 'hot' > Isan hon (?, ?, /h:n/)

Loss of Proto-Southwestern Tai /t/ by merger with /s/ in Lao

  • Lao '?' /s/, romanised as 'x'
  • Isan '?' /s/ replaces Thai '?' /t/
  • Thai chang (?, /tá:?/), 'elephant' > Isan sang (?, ? xang, /s?:?/)

Although it is not universal, Isan speakers may also employ the rare tone marks to record idiosyncratic or to record the accent of a speaker, in regards to tone since most Lao dialects have six instead of five tones, although the shapes of the tone contours and the rules between varieties are distinct from each other and Thai.

Special tone marks

  • Thai krai (, /k?raj/), 'who' > Isan phudai (, phoudai, /p: daj/)
  • Isan form with tone mark phudai (, *)

Orthographical problems

The Thai script and etymological Thai spelling is detrimental on several fronts. For those that wish to learn the Isan language, it makes the language look like Thai with some strange words as it does not record the unique sounds of the Isan language that are not distinguished in Thai. Isan tonal patterns are markedly distinct from Thai, but the Thai script is taught according to Thai tone rules, leading Thai speakers to mispronounce the tones of a native speaker. The deviations and similarity to Thai make it appear that Isan is a rural dialect instead of its own language with a separate history.[53]

No orthographical distinction of /?/ and /j/

  • Lao '?' /?/ and '?' /j/
  • Lao gnam (, /?á:m/), 'to guard', cf. Isan [n]yam (, /?á:m/)
  • Lao yam (, /ja:m/), 'to visit', cf. Isan yam (, /ja:m/)

Incomplete representation of /t/ > /s/

  • Lao '?' /s/ and '?' /s/
  • Isan '?' /s/ and '?' /s/ (but represent /t/ as in Thai)
  • Thai chabap (?, /ta? bàp/), 'copy' > Isan chabap (?, , /sá? báp/)
  • Thai chan (, /ta:n/), 'meditation' > Isan chan (, , /sá:n/)

Substitution of Thai spellings and suppression of non-Thai forms

  • Thai len (?, /lên/), 'to play' or 'to amuse oneself' > (Written) Isan len (?, */l?:n/)
  • Traditional Isan spellings lin (, /, /l?n/) or variant len (, /, /l?n/)
  • Thai lot (, /lót/, 'to lower', 'to diminish' > Isan lot (, lôt, /l?t/)
  • More common Isan variant lut (?, ?/? lout, /lút/)

Consonant clusters that do not exist in Lao

  • Lao katiem, phèng and khong
  • Thai kratiem (, /kra? t?iam/), 'garlic' vs. Isan krathiem (, , /ká? t?í:?m/) (pronounced as if spelt kathiam *?)
  • Thai phleng (?, /p?le:?/), 'song' > Isan phleng (?, , /p?é:?/) (pronounced as if spelt pheng *)
  • Thai khlong (?, /k?l?:?/), 'canal' > Isan khlong (?, khong, /k:?/) (pronounced as if spelt khong *)

Etymological spelling of Sanskrit loan words vs. Lao phonetical spelling

  • Sanskrit ?alya (?, /?alya/), 'surgeon' + vaidhya (, /?aidja/), 'doctor'
  • Thai sanlayaphaet ( /s?n ya? p:t/) or sanyaphaet (, /s?n lá? yá? p:t/), spelling suggests 'salyaphaetya' > Isan sanlayaphaet (, ? sanlagnaphèt, /s?n l p:t/) or sunyaphaet (, sangnaphèt, /s?n p:t/)
  • Sanskrit N?r?ya?a (, /na:ra:ja?a/)
  • Thai Narai (?, /na: ra:j/), 'Narayana', spelling suggests *N?r?yna > Isan Narai (?, /, /na: la:j/)

Thai/Lao script comparison

Comparison of Thai and Lao scripts
Isan (written in Thai)
  • ?
RTGS
  • mu sao meuang ma, beuang khwa nang sailai, beuang sai nang pen thaew, yo pha khwan mai chan phroedphraew, khwan ma laew, ma su khing klom
  • hen suan dokmai bida pluk wai tang tae dai ma, wela ngoi ngao yang chuai banthao hai hai soka
Pronunciation (if read as Thai)
  • /mù: sa:u m?a? ma: ba? k?w?: nâ? sà:j lâ:j ba? sá:j nâ? pen th:w j? p?a: k?w?n máj t?an p?r:t p?r:w k?w?n ma: l:w ma: sù: k?i:? klom/
  • /h?n s?an d?`k máj bì da: plù:k wáj tâ? t?`: daj ma w? la: :j o jan? tûaj ban t?ao hâj h?:j s?: ka:/
Lao
  • ? (modern)
    ? ? (archaic)
  • ? ? ? (modern)
    (archaic)
BGN/PCGN
  • Mou xao muang ma, buang khoua nang sailay, buang xay nang pén thèo, gno pha khouan mai chan phuetphèo, khouan ma lèo ma sou khing kôm
  • Hén souan dokmai bida pouk vai tang tè dai ma. Véla ngoi ngao, gnang xoy banthao hai hay sôka
Pronunciation (Lao and Isan)
  • /m?: sá:u ma:? má:, ba:? k?u:? n sâ:j l?:j, ba:? s?:j n pen t:w : p?á: k?u:?n m?j t?an p?[?]t p?[?]:w k?u:?n má: l:w ma: s?: k?í:? k[?]om/
  • /h?n s?:an d:k mâj bí da: p[?]?:k v?j t t: daj má: v?´ lá: :j o ?á? s:j ban t?áo h?j h?:j s?: ka:/

Tai Tham

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

The Tai Tham script (Northeastern Thai: /ák s:n t?áj / RTGS akson Tai Tham, cf. Lao: ) were also historically known simply as tua tham (Northeastern Thai: ? /tùa t?ám/, cf. Lao: / BGN/PCGN toua tham) or 'dharma letters'. The script is the same as used to write Tai Lanna (Kham Mueang), Tai Lue, Tai Khoen and shares similarities with the Burmese script, all of which are ultimately derived from the Old Mon script. Tai Tham was introduced during the reign of Setthathirath who although a prince of Lan Xang, was first crowned king of Lan Na. The dynastic union allowed easy movement of monks from Lan Xang that came to copy the temple libraries to bring back home.[69]

Although both the ancient forms of the Mon and Khmer script are different, they are both abugidas that descend from the Brahmic scripts introduced via contacts with South Indian traders, soldiers, merchants and Brahmans. As a Mon-derived script, Tai Tham has many similarities with the writing systems for Burmese, Shan, Rakhine and modern Mon and rounder letter forms compared to the angled letters of Khmer.[69] Letters can be stacked, sometimes with special subscript forms, similar to '?' which was used in Tai Noi and also in modern Lao as the subscript version of '?' /r/ or '?' /l/ as in Lao: ?/?. Letters also are more circular or rouded than the typically angled style of Khmer.[70]

As the name suggests, its use in Lao was restricted to religious literature, either used to transcribe Pali, or religious treatises written in Lao intended solely for the clergy. Religious instructional materials and prayer books dedicated to the laity were written in Tai Noi instead. As a result, only a few people outside the temples were literate in the script. In Isan, evidence of the script includes two stone inscriptions, such as the one housed at Wat Tham Suwannakhuha in Nong Bua Lamphu, dated to 1564, and another from Wat Mahaphon in Maha Sarakham from the same period.[70] Most of the script is recorded on palm-leaf manuscripts, many of which were destroyed during the 'Thaification' purges of the 1930s; contemporaneously this period of Thai nationalisation also ended its use as the primary written language in Northern Thailand.[69]

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 'Golden Triange' where Thailand, Laos, Burma and southern China meet. Its use is rather limited to the long-term monks in Laos and most materials published today are in the modern Lao script.[69]

Khom scripts

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 ( /k:m/, cf. Lao , 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.[71]

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.[71]

Overview of the relationship to Thai

Although Thai and Lao are mutually intelligible, Thai speakers without previous exposure to the Isan language encounter several difficulties parsing the spoken language. Differences were enough that the 2005 film Yam Yasothon (? Yaem Yasothon (, /:m s?: t:n/) which takes places in the Isan countryside and features a predominately Isan dialogue, was shown with Thai-language subtitles, similar to the way the 1996 Scottish film Trainspotting was also subtitled for North American audiences. Isan, written according to Thai etymological spelling, is fairly legible to Thai as the two languages share more than eighty per cent cognate vocabulary, similar to the relationship between Spanish and Portuguese as changes in the meanings of terms, retention of archaisms, slightly different grammar and some vocabulary differences blur the close relationship.[72]

The relationship is asymmetric, with Isan speakers able to understand spoken and written Thai quite well due to its mandatory use in school and the popularity of Thai media and participation in Thai society, but many Isan students suffer the shock of switching from the Isan language of the home to the Central Thai-only primary school.[73]

False cognates

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 (/:/, cf. Lao: ) and ? (/?â:j/, cf. Lao: ?/archaic ?), to refer to young girls and slightly older boys, respectively. In Thai, the similarly sounding , i (/?i:/) and , ai (/?âj) 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 "i tua", "whore" (/?i: n?:?/) and , "ai ba", "son of a bitch" (/?âj ba:/).

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 (, cf. Lao I Nôk or to address one's mother and father as i mae (, cf. Lao I Mae, /: m:/) and I Pho (, cf. Lao i pho, /: p:/), 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.[45]

False Cognates
Isan Lao IPA Usage Thai IPA Usage
, bak , 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. , bak /bàk/ Alone, refers to a "penis" or in the expression ?, bak khrok, or an unflattering way to refer to someone as "skinny".
, ham noy /archaic , ham noy /h?m n:j/ 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". , ham noy /h?m n?´:j/ This would sound similar to saying "small testicles" in Thai, and would be a rather crude expression. Bak ham is instead , chai num (/ta:j nùm/) and bak ham noy is instead , dek num (/dèk nùm/) when referring to "young man" and "young boy", respectively, in Thai.
?, mu , mou /m?:/ Mu is used to refer to a group of things or people, such as ?, mu hao (/m?: háo/, cf. Lao: ?/), mou hao or "all of us" or "we all". Not to be confused for , mu /m?:/, 'pig', cf. Lao /, mou or 'pig.' , phuak /pak/ The Isan word ? sounds like the Thai word (/m?:/), 'pig', in most varieties of Isan. To refer to groups of people, the equivalent expression is , phuak (/pak/), i.e., , phuak rao (/pak rào/ for "we all" or "all of us". Use of mu to indicate a group would make the phrase sound like "we pigs".
?, khway ?/archaic ?, khouay /k?úa:j/ Isan vowel combinations with the semi-vowel "?" are shorted, so would sounds more like it were written as . ?, khway /k?wa:j/ Khway as pronounced in Isan is similar to the Thai word , khuay (/k?úaj/), which is another vulgar, slang word for "penis".

Phonological differences

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 /t/, instead substituting /l/ and /h/ for instances of Thai /r/ and /s/ for Thai /t/. Lao and Isan, however, include the sounds /?/ and /?/ which are replaced with Thai /w/ and /j/, respectively, in cognate vocabulary.

Absence of consonant clusters

Absence of consonant clusters
Thai Isan Lao Thai Isan Lao Thai Isan Lao
? /k/ ? /k/ ? /k/ ? /k?/ ? /k?/ ? /k?/ ? /p?/ ? /p?/ ? /p?/
/kr/ /k?r/ /p?l/
/kl/ /k?l/ ? /p?/ ? /p?/ ? /p?/
? /k?/ ? /k?/ ? /k?/ ? /t/ ? /t/ ? /t/ /p?r/
/k?r/ /tr/ /p?l/
/k?l/ ? /p/ ? /p/ ? /p/
/pr/
/pl/

In the development of the Lao language, the consonant clusters in the historical Tai languages were quickly lost. Although they sometimes appear in the oldest Lao texts, as they were not pronounced they quickly disappeared from writing. Clusters were re-introduced via loan words from Sanskrit, Khmer and other local Austroasiatic languages as well as in more recent times, via French and English. In these instances, the loan words are sometimes pronounced with clusters by very erudite speakers, but in general these are also simplified. For example, although Lao: ? /pro:kra:m/, via French: programme /pg?am/, and maitri (Lao: /máj tri:/) from Sanskrit: /maj tri:/ are common, more often than not, they exist as /po:ka:m/ and ? /máj tri:/, respectively.

The Thai language preserved the consonant clusters from older stages of the Tai languages and maintains them in writing and in careful pronunciation, although their pronunciation is relaxed in very informal speech. Due to the highly etymological spelling of Thai, consonant clusters from loan words such as Sanskrit and English are carefully preserved and pronounced. Isan, as a descendant of Lao, does not traditionally pronounce these clusters as they are absent from the spoken language, except in some high-brow words, but they are always written, as Isan uses the Thai alphabet and Thai spelling of cognate words. Although Isan speakers write maitri Thai: and prokraem Thai: ?, via English 'programme' or 'program' (US), they use the pronunciations máj ti:/ and /po: k?:m/.

Thai Isan Lao Gloss
??
phleng
/p?le:?/ ??
phleng
/p?é:?/
phéng
/p?é:?/ 'song'
??
khlui
/k?lùj/ ??
khlui
/kj/ ?
khouay
/kj/ 'flute'

klang
/kla:?/
klang
/kà:?/
kang
/kà:?/ 'centre'
'middle'
?
khropkhrua
/k?r:p k?rua/ ?
khropkhrua
/k:p k?ú:a/
khopkhoua
/k:p k?ú:a/ 'family'

Merger of /r/ with /l/ or /h/

Thai Isan Lao
Native /r/ ? /r/, /l/1 ? /h/ ? /h/
? /l/, /r/2 ?2, ?5 /l/, /r/2
? /l/ ? /l/
Foreign /r/ Initial ? /l/, /r/2 ?2, ?5 /l/, /r/2
Cluster C? C/r/3, C/l/1,3 C? /?/, C/r/2,3 C /?/, C/r/2,3
Native /h/ ?, ? /h/ ?, ? /h/ ?, ? /h/
Native /l/ ?, /l/ ?, 4 /l/ ?, 4/4 /l/
  • ^1 Avoided in formal contexts, deprecated casual usage.
  • ^2 Rare variant, only used by academics and occasionally by the educated élite.
  • ^2 Usually not pronounced in Isan or Lao, but some speakers will but it is only allowed after /k/, /k?/, /p/ and /p?/.
  • ^4 Digraph or ligature for tone, previously pronounced as a cluster in the ancient past.
  • ^5 Modern Lao spelling has replaced most instances of '?' with '?' citing the general pronunciation of /r/ as /l/, but older spellings are still in use by the educated and the Lao diaspora.

In the development of the Lao language, all initial instances of the proto-Southwestern Tai voiced alveolar trill /r/ became the voiceless glottal fricative /h/. This can be seen with the latter development of the letter '?' /h/ which is a modification of the letter '?' /r/ in the Tai Noi and modern Lao alphabet. In Isan, the Thai letter '?' is used for etymological /r/ to /h/. In some cases, as when represented by the 'hl' or 'hr' digraphs '' or '', respectively, or the shared ligature '', the pronunciation was protected from the transition, but /r/ instead became the voiced alveolar lateral approximant /l/. For example, Proto-Tai *ro:k developed into krarok (Thai: /kra? r:k/) and ihok (Lao: /?i: h:k/), the latter of which is the source of ihok (Northeastern Thai: ). However, rue (Thai: ? /r:/) which represents the conjunction 'or' appears with /l/ as in lu (Lao: /) and rue (Northeastern Thai: ?), the latter of which share the pronunciation /l:/. However, Proto-Tai *cra:?, 'to wait', developed into ro (Thai: /r?:/) but not expected ho but lo (Lao: and Northeastern Thai: , /l:/).

In the case of the word or the conjunction 'or', the silent /h/, which was one pronounced historically now only marks tone but may have prevented its assimilation. Although /r/ was lost in Tai vocabulary, the Lao language was re-introduced to it via Khmer, Sanskrit and European loan words. In most of these instances, the letter is pronounced /l/, but some erudite speakers, particularly educated speakers in the Lao diaspora, will pronounce /r/ occasionally in some words. For example, Lao has both pha laxa (Lao: /p lá: sá:/) and phra raxa (Lao: ? /p?r rá: sá:/), both of which mean 'king'. Thai has phra racha (Thai: ? /p?rá? ra: ta:/) whereas Isan phra racha (Northeastern Thai: ?), sharing the same spelling as Thai but varying in pronunciation from basilectal pha lasa, medial phra rasa and 'Thaified' phra racha, all of which derive from raja (Sanskrit: ? /ra: d?a:/).

In less high-brow and formal vocabulary, some words that were more recently introduced from other languages, such as Thai, tend to use /l/ instead. Thus, Lao and as a result, Isan, have lam (Northeastern Thai: /lám/) and rot Northeastern Thai: /l?t/) for 'to dance' and 'automobile', respectively, cognates to Lao: and Lao: /. Although it would sound very formal in Isan and Lao, erudite speakers sometimes use /r?t/ as the pronunciation or 'automobile' although it is rare. Modern, post-1975 spelling of Lao has mostly replaced '?' with '?' as /l/ is the more common pronunciation and to avoid etymological spelling. As Isan is spelt according to Thai etymology, the spelling '' is a rare deviance from the expected '' spelling as in Thai. As a result of Thai influence, Isan speakers are likely to use more instances of /l/ than /h/, with greater use of /h/ a mark of a very conservative, isolated, rural dialect. However, the distribution of /l/ and /h/ vary by speaker and dialect and is not necessarily diagnostic of the national origin of the speaker, but Lao speakers in general have preserved the instances of /h/. In loan words, Isan and Lao speakers will drop final /r/ in words and phrases from European languages and in consonant clusters, but careful speakers and learned people will occasionally pronounce them whereas Thai speakers are more apt to use them. It is also worthy to note that Thai speakers will also substitute /l/ for /r/, but this is only done in relaxed settings.

Thai Isan Lao Gloss
??
rot
/rót/ ??
rot
/l?t/ , 1
lôt, rôt1
/l?t/, /r?t/2 'automobile', 'vehicle', 'car'
?
rak
/rák/ ?
hak
/h?k/
hak
/h?k/ 'to love'

ron
/r?´:n/
hon
/h:n/
hon
/h:n/ 'centre'
'middle'
??
arun
/à? run/ ??
arun
/á? lún/, /à? run/2 , ?1
aloun, aroun*
/á? lún/, /á? rún/2 'dawn' (poetic)
??
reua
/r?a/ ??, ?
reua, heua3
/la:/, /h:a/3 ?
hua
/h:a/, /la:/3 'boat'
  • ^1 Old spelling, still used by older Lao and those in the diaspora.
  • ^2 Used in academic, very formal, technical or religious terms and recent loan words from European languages.
  • ^3 Dialectal variant.

Merger of /t/ with /s/

Thai Isan Lao
? /t/, /?/1 ? /s/, /t/2, /?/1,2 ? /s/
? ?, ?3 ?5
?4 ? ?
? /s/ ?6 /s/ ?
? ? ?
?4 ?4
?4 ?4
  • ^1 Common alternative pronunciation of /t/.
  • ^2 Not native Isan pronunciation, due to influence of Thai or code-switching into Thai.
  • ^3 The letter '?' is used by Isan speakers to represent /s/ in some Thai cognates with '?' /t/.
  • ^4 Generally only found in loan words of Sanskrit or Pali origin.
  • ^5 Rare, but some Lao dialects, particularly in the north where they are in contact with other tribal Tai languages, pronounce '?' as /t/ or /t?/.
  • ^6 Some instances of Isan '?' correspond to Thai '?' /s/.

The Proto-Tai sounds */?/ and */?/ had likely merged in Southwestern Tai, and developed into /t/ in Thai, but this was later merged into /s/ in Lao and traditional Isan pronunciation. As a result of this, Isan speakers writing the language in the Thai orthography will sometimes replace '?' /t/ with '?' /s/ in cognate vocabulary, but unless they are code-switching into Thai or in very formal contexts that demand increased use of Thai-language phrases, Isan speakers traditionally replace all /t/ with /s/ in speech. In Lao, the letter '?' /s/ is used in analogous positions where one would expect Thai '?' /t/ or the rare letter '?' /t/, the latter of which occurs only in rare loan words from Sanskrit and Pali, with the exceptions such as "" ("Sean", from English), "" ("tree" (archaic form), from Khmer), etc. The Thai letter '?' /t/ is also pronounced /s/ in Isan, but for sake of tone, corresponds better to '?' /s/ even though it is not written out this way. In Lao, the letter '?' /s/ is used in analogous positions. The Thai letter '?' is generally only found in ancient words of Sanskrit or Khmer derivation and recent loan words from Teochew or Hokkien.

Source Thai Isan Lao Gloss
*/?a?/1 ?
chao
/tâw/ ?
sao
/s?u/
xao
/s?u/ 'to hire'
*/?a:j/1
chai
/ta:j/
sai
/sá:j/
xay
/sá:j/ 'male'
*/?a:/1
cha
/ta:/
sa
/sá:/
xa
/sá:/ 'tea'
*//1 ?
chue
/t?:/ ?
sue
/s:/
xu
/s:/ 'name', 'to be called'
Khmer: ?
chhlâng
/c?l?:?/ ?
chalong
/ta? l:?/ ?
chalong
/sá l:?/
salong
/sá l:?/ 'to celebrate'
Pali:
jh?na
/a:na/
chan
/ta:n/
chan
/sá:n/
san
/sá:n/ 'meditation'
Sanskrit: ?
chatra
/c?atra/ ?
chat
/tàt/ ?
chat
/sát/
sat
/sát/ 'royal parasol'
Min Nan Chinese: (Teochew)
zap cai
/tsap ts?aj / ?
chapchai
/t?àp tà:j/ ?
chapchai
/t?áp s?:j/ ?
chapsay
/t?áp s?:j/ 'Chinese vegetable soup'

Resistance to the Thai /j/-/?/ merger

Distinction of /j/ and /?/ in Isan
Proto-Tai Isan Lao Thai
*/?/ /?/ /j/
*/j/ /j/, /?/
*// /?/
*/?j/ /j/

Proto-Southwestern Tai inherited Proto-Tai */?/, */j/, *// and */?j/, all of which collapsed into /j/ in Thai. In the Lao-Phuthai languages and Tai Lanna, */?/ and *// merged into */?j/ whilst /j/ merged into /j/, although /j/ seems to have been unstable and many instances of Proto-Southwestern Tai developed into /?/ in Lao and Isan. The loss of the distinction between /?/ and /j/ in Thai occurred shortly after the adoption of writing, as there are some vestiges in the spelling. For instance, Proto-Tai */?j/, is suggested in the spelling of some Thai words with the sequence '' such as in the word yak (Thai: ? /jà:k/) which corresponds to /j/-form yak Northeastern Thai: ? /j?:k/ and yak Lao: ). Similarly, the Thai letter '?' and digraph '' correspond to Proto-Southwestern Tai */?/ and *//, respectively, and produce the /?/-form in Lao and Isan but fell into /j/ in Thai. Also, '?' alone occurs in Sanskrit, Pali and Khmer loan words with /?/ in the loan source languages. For example, ying (Thai: ? /j/) corresponds to ying (Northeastern Thai: ? /?í?/) and gning (Lao: ).

Tai Noi and the modern Lao script indicate this with two letters, with the more common /?/ represented by '?' and // by '' whereas /?j/ and /j/, which yield /j/ in Lao, represented by '?', but where /j/-derived words are /?/, they revert to the '?'. As the secondary or tertiary part of a vowel, '?' represents /j/. In the Lao language of Laos, even words from Sanskrit, Pali, Khmer or Mon with consonantal /j/ are replaced by /?/, whereas in the Isan variety, this might be somewhat less common due to the influence or interference of mandatory Thai in formal vocabulary but remains phonemic in common words of the everyday spoken language. As the Lao language of Isan is written in Thai according to Thai spelling rules, the distinction cannot be made by the orthography in all cases. As a result, ya (Lao: /ja:/), 'medicine', and gna (Lao: /?á:/), an honorary prefix used for addressing people similar in age to one's grandparents, correspond to ya--pronounced nya or ña--Northeastern Thai: , suggestive of /ja:/ only, but some writers may use tone marks to differentiate them as they do differ in tone.

Source Thai Isan Lao Gloss
*/?i?/ (PSWT) ?
ying
/y/ ?
ying
/?í?/
gning
/?í?/ 'girl'
*/?u?/ (PT)
yung
/ju?/
yung
/?ú:?/
gnoung
/?ú:?/ 'mosquito'
*/k/ (PT)
yok
/jók/ yok /k/
gnok
/k/ 'to lift'
*/ja:n/ (PT) ?
yaeng1
/j:?/ ?
yan
/j?:n/ ?
yan
/j?:n/ 'to fear', 'to be afraid'
*/ja:w/ (PSWT)
yao
/ja:w/
yao
/?á:w/
gnao
/?á:w/ 'long in length'
*/a/ (PT) ?
ya
/jâ:/ ?ya /:/ ?
gna
/:/ 'grass'
*/a:p/ (PT) ?
yap
/jà:p/ ?
yap
/:p/ ?
gnap
/:p/ 'coarse'
(texture)
*/?ju:/ (PT) ?
yu
/jù:/ ?
yu
/j?:/
you
/j?:/ 'to be'
(condition, location)
*/?j/ (PT)
ya
/ja:/
ya
/ja:/
ya
/ja:/ 'do not'
Sanskrit: ?
yak?a
/jak?a/
yak
/ják/
yak
/k/
/ják/2

gnak
/k/ 'ogre', 'giant'
Pali: ?
ñatti
/?atti/
yatti
/ját'tì?/
yatti
/t tí/
/ját'tì?/2

gnatti
/t tí/ 'parliamentary motion'
  • ^1 This is from a different root altogether as Proto-Tai */ja:n/ was replaced in Thai.
  • ^2 Thai pronunciations in formal and academic settings in Isan.

Replacement of /w/ with /?/

The majority of Isan and Lao speakers replace /w/ where it occurs syllable-initially as /?/, both represented by Thai '?' and corresponding to Lao '?'. Where it occurs at the end of a syllable, particularly part of a diphthong or triphthong, it is always /w/, but there is no distinction between the two sounds in writing as they occur as allophones. A strong /?/ in Laos is associated with the élite of Vientiane, and is characteristic of much of the region and areas where Central Lao is spoken. Because of its use in the standard Lao based on the speech of the capital, it has spread as the standard pronunciation.

In Isan, although /?/ is more common in most regions but may sound provincial to Thai speakers that do not have this sound. As a result of Thai influence, /w/ is increasing. The difference in pronunciation has also led to differences in the romanisation schemes for Thai and Lao. For instance, the Lao city of Savannakhét would be rendered as Sawannakhet in RTGS romanisation of its Thai spelling.

Allophonic /?/ in Isan and Lao absent in Thai
Isan Thai Lao Gloss

wen
/?é:n/ or /wé:n/
wen
/we:n/
vén
/?é:n/ or /wé:n/ 'sin'

wiang
/?í:/ /wí:/
wiang
/wia?/
viang
/?í:/ /wí:/ 'walled city'

sawan
/sá? n/ /sá? w?n/
sawan
/sa? w?n/ /?/
savan
/sá? n/ /sá? w?n/ 'paradise'
?
wan
/:n/ /w?:n/ ?
wan
/w?:n/ ?
van
/:n/ /w?:n/ 'sweet'

wisanu
/t sá? n?/ /w?t sá? n?/
wisanu
/wí? sà nú/ ?/
vitsanou
/t sá? n?/ /w?t sá? n?/ 'Vishnu'

Diphthongisation of vowels after clusters with C/w/

Lao and Isan innovated a diphthongisation of certain vowels that follow consonant clusters C/w/. This can only occur with clusters /kw/ and /k?w/ and only effects vowels /a:/, /a/ and /am/. In Isan using Thai script, this corresponds to the clusters '' /kw/, '' and '' as /k?w/ and vowels, with the null consonant '?', such s '' /a:/, '' /a/ and '' /am/, respectively. In the Lao script, this corresponds to the clusters '', '' and '' and the vowels with the null consonant '?', viz., '', '' and '', respectively.

In cognate vocabulary with Thai where the diphthongisation occurs, the Lao spelling corresponds to the Thai spelling and suggests a similar pronunciation. This indicates that it is more recent development in the Lao-Phuthai languages that occurred after the adoption of writing in the fourteenth century. It is also restricted. Khwaeng (Thai: ? /k?w:?/), which in Thai usually refers to a subdistrict in urban areas is cognate to the khwèng (Lao: ? /k?w:?/) which is used for 'province' although it historically referred to provincial districts, does not undergo diphthongisation and the cluster remains intact.

Diphthongisation of vowels after consonant cluster C/w/
Cluster Thai Isan Lao Gloss
Suggested Pronunciation Actual Pronunciation Suggested Pronunciation Actual Pronunciation
C/w/-/a:/-[C] C C C, C?C C *C, *C?C 'wide'

/kwâ:?/

/kwâ:?/
*?
/kû:/

/kwâ:?/
*?
/kû:/
C/w/-/a:j/ C C *C C *C 'water buffalo'
?
/k?wa:j/
?
/k?wá:j/
*
/k?ú:?j/
?
/k?wá:j/
*
/k?ú:?j/
C/w/-/a/-C CC CC *C?C CC *C?C 'to scoop'
'to gouge'
?
/k?wák/
?
/k?w?k/
*
/k:?k/
?
/k?w?k/
*
/k:?k/
C/w/-/am/ C C *C C *C 'to capsize a boat'
?
/k?wâm/
?
/k?wâm/
*?
/k?u:?m/
?
/k?u:?m/
*?
/k?u:?m/

Increased vowel epenthesis

Abugida scripts traditionally do not write all instances of the short vowel /a/, especially in many words from Sanskrit, Pali or Khmer or words derived from these roots. Instances of when or when not to pronounce inherent vowels have to be learned on a case-by-case basis since just because an inherent /a/ appears in one word does not mean it will appear in another word with the same Indic root. For example, Thai: ?- represents 'tham' and means 'dharma', 'moral' or 'righteous' from dharma (Sanskrit: ?- /darma-/ and appears without /a/ in thamkaset (Thai: /t?am kà? sè:t/) 'land of justice' or 'righteous land' and with /a/ in thammanit (Thai: /t?am má? nít/), 'moral person'. The Lao language seems to want to always include the vowel or nativise the pronunciation and the equivalents to thamkaset and thammanit are thammakasét (Lao: / /t?ám m ká s?:t/)) and thammanit (Lao: ?//? /t?ám m n?t/), respectively. This is clear in modern Lao spelling where all vowels are written. However, there also instances where Thai has /a/ and Lao does not.

The Thai distinction is now always justified by etymology, as Thai thamkaset derives from dharmak?etra (Sanskrit: /darmak?etra/)--actually signifies 'pious man' in Sanskrit--and dharmanitya (Sanskrit: /darmanit?ja/), both of which feature a pronounced but unwritten /a/. Another example is Thai chit (Thai: ? /t?ìt/) is usually chitta (Lao: / /t?ít tá?/) which in Lao can also appear in the more extremely nativised version of chittala/chittara (Lao: ?/?/ /t?ít tá? l/), but may also appear as simply chit (Lao: / /t?ít/), all of which mean 'painting' and derive from citra (Sanskrit: /t?itra/).

As Isan, via Lao, has softened and nativised the pronunciation of many words, Isan speakers also use a version of the Thai pronunciation altered to Isan phonology, or pronouncing the word in a 'Lao' way although the older Lao pronunciations are still present although stigmatised. To Thai speakers, the Lao and older Isan usages sound provincial and educated, akin to the mispronunciation of 'athlete' /'æ? li:t/ as *'athlete' */'æ? ? li:t/ or 'arthritis' as *'arthuritis' */?:(?) 'ra? t?s/--both of which are stigmatised in English. When it comes to the spoken language and native vocabulary, Isan speakers will often insert vowels after hard consonants to speed up and soften the flow of speech, as opposed to standard Thai where this is less common, leading to a more clipped and staccato way of speaking. For instance, the Isan phrase chak noi (Northeastern Thai: ? /ták n:j/, cf. Lao: ?/?/) which means 'in just a bit' is often pronounced chak-ka noy (* /*ták ká? n:j/, cf. Lao *). However, even this makes Isan sound like slurred speech to Thai speakers, attributing to its negative perception. Many of these words would also only be used in writing or formal speech, which causes adjustment to more 'proper' Thai usage.

Isan Thai Lao Sanskrit/Pali Gloss

chitwithaya
/t?ít tá? ?ít t ?á:/1
/t?ìt ?ít t?á? ?a:/2

chitwithaya
/t?ìt wít t?á? ya:/
chittavitthagna
(*)
/t?ít tá? ?ít t ?á:/ ? + ?
cit + vidya
/t?it/ + /?id?ja:/ 'psychology'

matya
/m?t sá :/1
/m?t :/2

matya
/mát ja:/ ?/
matsagna
(*?)
/m?t sá? :/
matsya
/mat?sja/ 'fish'

kommathan
/kòm t?ám/1
/kòm m t?án/

kommathan
/krom ma? t?an/ /

kômtham
kômmatham
(*)
(*?)
/kòm t?ám/
/kòm m t?án/

kramadharma
/kramadarma/ 'debt contract'

aditchat
/?á d?:t tá? s?:t/1
/?á d?:t s?:t/2
/?a dì:t tâ:t/
?
aditxat
adittaxat
(*?)
(*)
/?á d?:t tá? s?:t/
/?á d?:t s?:t/
+ ?
aditya + jati
/ad?it?ja/ + /d?at?i/ 'previous incarnation'

chitrakam
/t?ít tá? kam/
chitrakam
/t?ìt tra? kam/
chittakam
(*)
/t?ít tá? kam/
citrakarma
/t?it?rakarma/ 'painting'

watsana
/:t sá? n?:/
/?á: sá? n?:/3

watsana (*wasana)
/wâ:t sa? n?:/
/wa: sa? n?:/3
?//
vatsana
(*)
/:t sá? n?:/ ?
vasna
/?asna/ 'fortune'
  • ^1 Basilectal Isan pronunciation based on historic Lao usage.
  • ^2 'Lao-ified' pronunciation influenced by formal Thai.
  • ^3 Hypercorrection amongst the educated to approximate Sanskrit pronunciation.

Retention of certain historical Lao pronunciations

'Mekong River'

  • Thai ? Maekhong /m?^: k:?/ and Isan ? /m: k:?/, 'AE-M O-KH-NG'
  • Isan pronounced as *
  • Lao ??? Mèkhong /m: k:?/ 'AE-M KH-O-NG'

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

  • Thai ? Chaiburi /taj bù ri:/ and Isan ? /sáj bú l?:/, 'AI-CH-Y-B-U-R-I'
  • Isan pronounced as *
  • Archaic Lao ? 'AI-X-GN-B-U-R-I' and modern Lao Xaignabouri/Xaignabouli 'AI-X-GN-A-B-U-L-II' /sáj bú l?:/

'Hanuman'

  • Thai ? Hanuman /hà? nú ma:n/ 'H-N-U-M-AN' and Isan // Hunlaman /h?n l má:n/ 'H-U-L-M-A-N'/'H-U-N-L-A-M-A-N'
  • Archaic Lao ? 'H-U-L-M-A-N' and modern Lao 'H-U-N-L-A-M-A-N', /h?n l má:n/
  • But also Isan ? Hanuman 'H-N-U-M-A-N' and Lao ? Hanouman 'H-A-N-U-M-A-N'

Centralisation and lengthening of /?a/ to /?:a/

The Thai diphthong '?' /?a/ is often pronounced as /?:a/ in Isan and is analogous to Lao ?x, 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 /?a/.

'month'

  • Thai deuan /d?an/ and Isan /d?:an/
  • Lao duan /d?:an/

'tiger'

  • Thai ? seua /sa/ and Isan ? /s:a/
  • Lao ? /s:a/

Tones

Comparison of Thai with Vientiane and Western Lao tonal patterns
Tone Class Inherent Tone () () 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.[74] Thai 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 /kà:/ but is typically /kâ:/ 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 kha /k?a:/, 'to stick' is cognate to Isan and Lao , which in Vientiane Lao is pronounced /k?á:/, which may sound like Thai kha /k?á:/, '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 kha /kh?:/ 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

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.[75]

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.[75]

Lexical differences from Thai

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 '' is cognate with Isan '' /to daj/ and Lao '?' /to daj/, but Isan and Lao tend to use a related variant form '' /t: dàj/ and '' /t: 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 '' chok /t:k/, but this usage is now obsolete as the word has been replaced by Thai '?' kaew /k:w/. Conversely, Isan and Lao continue to use '' and '' chok to mean 'glass' (of water) as /t?:k/, but Isan '?' /k:w/ and Lao '?' kéo /k:w/ retain the earlier meaning of Thai '?' 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 bo /b?:/ and Lao /b?:/ bo are not related to Thai /mâj/, mai

Identical vocabulary in Lao and Isan but distinct from Thai
English Isan Lao Thai
"no", "not" , /b?:/, bo , /b?:/, bo , /mâj/, mai
"to speak" ?, /vâw/, wao , /vâw/, vao , /p?û:t/, phut
"how much" , /t: dàj/, thodai , /t: dàj/, thodai *, /t?âw ràj/, thaorai
"to do, to make" ?, /h?t/, het* ?, /h?t/, het *, /t?am/, tham
"to learn" , /hían/, hian , /hían/, hian , /rian/, rian
"glass" , /t:k/, chok , /t:k/, chok ?*, /k:w/, kaew
"yonder" ?, /p?ûn/, phun ?, /p?ûn/, phoune ?, /nô:n/, non
"algebra" ?, /p?í: s? k n?t/, phisakhanit /Archaic ?, //, phixakhanit ?, /p?î:t k?á? nít/, phitkhanit
"fruit" ?, /m?:k mâj/, makmai , /m?:k mâj/, makmai , /pn lá? má:j/, phonlamai
"too much" , /p?ô:t/, phot , /p?ô:t/, phôt , k?n paj, koenbai
"to call" , /^:n/, oen , /^:n/, une , /rî:ak/, riak
"a little" , /n:y n?¯?/, noi neung /Archaic ?, /n:j n?¯?/, noi nung , /nít n?`:j/, nit noi
"house, home" , /h?´:an/, heuan *, /h?´:an/, huane ?*, /bâ:n/, ban
"to lower" ?, /lút/, lut ?/?), /lút/, lout , /lót/, lot
"sausage" ?, /s?j ?ua/, sai ua ?, /s?j a/, sai oua ?, /sâj kr:k/, sai krok
"to walk" ?, /:?/, [n]yang ?, /:?/, gnang ?, /d?:n/, doen
"philosophy" , /pát s? ?á:/, pratsaya ?/Archaic , /pát s? ?á:/, patsagna , /pràt ja:/, pratya
"oldest child" , /lû:k kók/, luk kok , /lû:k kók/, louk kôk ?, /lû:k k?on to:/, luk khon to
"frangipani blossom" ?, /d:k t?am pa:/ ?, /d:k t?am pa:/ , /d?`:k lân t?om/
"tomato" , /m?:k l?:n/, mak len , /m?:k l?:n/, mak lén , /mâ? k:a t?ê:t/, makheuathet
"much", "many" ?, /l?:j/, lai ?, /l?:j/, lai , /mâ:k/, mak
"father-in-law" ?, /p: tw/, pho thao , /p: tw/, pho thao , /p: ta:/, pho ta
"to stop" , /sáw/, sao ?, /sáw/, xao ?, /jùt/, yut
"to like" , /m?k/, mak , /m?k/, mak , /t?:p/, chop
"good luck" , /sô:k di:/, sok di , /sô:k di:/, xôk di , /tô:k di:/, chok di
"delicious" , /s:p/, saep , /s:p/, xèp , /?à? r?`j/, aroi
"fun" ?, /m?an/, muan ?, /m?an/, mouane ?, /sà? nùk/, sanuk
"really" , /: l?:/, ili**** , /: l?:/, ili ?*, /t?i?/, ching
"elegant" , /kô:/, ko , /kô:/, , /r?: r?:/, rura
"ox" , /?úa:/, ngua , /?úa:/, ngoua , /wua/, wua
  • 1 Thai is cognate to Isan , thaodai and Lao ?, thaodai, /to daj/.
  • 2 Thai ? also exists as Isan ?, kaew, and Lao ?,kèo /k:w/, but has the meaning of "gem".
  • 3 Thai also exists as Isan , tham and Lao , tham, /t?ám/.
  • 4 Lao and Isan also exist as formal Thai , reuan /r?:an/.
  • 5 Thai ? also exists as Isan ?, ban, and Lao ?, bane, /b?:n/.
  • 6 Thai ? also exists as Isan ?, ching, and Lao , ching, /t?i?/.

Overview of the relationship with standard Lao

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.[76]

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.[76]

Spelling and orthography

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.[77]

Silent letters: Lao removal and Thai retention

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 (?)and Lao as karan/kalan (/archaic ? /ka: 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 /t?an/ are all written in modern Lao as CH-A-N, chan, but these were previously distinguished in writing as CH-A-N-[TH] or CH-A-N-[TH]-[R], 'moon'; CH-A-N-[TH] or CH-A-N-[TH]-[N], 'sandalwood' and CH-A-N, 'cruel.' In Isan, using Thai etymological spelling, the respective spellings are CH-A-N-[TH]-[R], CH-A-N-[TH]-[N] and , CH-A-N, with the latter being a shared Lao-Isan word with no Thai cognate.

'Vientiane'

  • Thai /wia? t?an/, wiangchan and Isan /?ía? t?àn/, E-W-I-Y-NG-CH-A-N-TH-[N]
  • Archaic Lao / V-Y-NG-CH-A-N-[TH]/V-Y-NG-CH-A-[TH] and modern Lao V-Y-NG-CH-A-N, /?ía? t?àn/
  • Derives from Lao , viang or 'walled city' and Sanskrit chandna ( t?and? na/), 'sandalwood'.

'gear'

  • Thai ? /kia/, kia and Isan ? /ki:a/, E-K-I-Y-[R]
  • Archaic Lao ? E-K-I-Y-[R] and modern Lao ? E-K-I-Y, /ki:a/
  • Derives from English 'gear' // (UK) or /r/ (US).

'animal'

  • Thai /sàt/, sat and Isan /sát/, S-A-T-[W]
  • Archaic Lao S-A-T-[W] and modern Lao S-A-D, /sát/
  • Derives from Sanskrit ?, sattvam (/sat? t?am/), 'living being'.

Consonant clusters: Lao removal and Thai retention

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.

'garlic'

  • Thai krathiam /krà? t?íam/ and Isan /ká? t?íam/, K-R-A-E-TH-I-Y-M
  • Ancient Lao ?/? K-L/R-A-T-Y-M/K-R-A-T-Y-M and modern Lao K-A-T-Y-M, kathiam /ká? t?íam/

'country'

  • Thai ? phrathet /prà? tt/ and Isan ? /pá? tt/, P-R-A-E-TH-S
  • Ancient Lao ?/?? P-L/R-A-E-TH-S/P-R-A-E-TH-S and modern Lao P-A-E-T-D, phathèt /pá? tt/
  • Derives from Sanskrit prade?a (? /pr?d?e/), 'country' or 'nation'

'to be entertained'

  • Thai ?? ploenchit /p?l?n t?ìt/ and Isan ?? /pn t?ít/, E-PH-L-I-N-CH-I-T
  • Ancient Lao ??/?? E-PH-L/R-I-N-CH-I-T/E-PH-L-I-N-CH-I-T and modern Lao ? E-PH-I-N-CH-I-D, phuenchit /pn t?ít/

'to be finished'

  • Thai ?? set /sèt/ and Isan ?? /sét/, E-S-R-CH
  • Ancient Lao E-S-L/R-D modern Lao ? E-S-D, /sét/
  • Derives from Khmer srac ( /srat?/)

'Buddha'

  • Thai , Phra Phuttha Chao /p?rá? p?út tá? t?âu/ and Isan /pt t t?âu/, PH-R-A-PH-U--TH-TH-E-CH-A
  • Archaic Lao /(rare) 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 /? PH-R-A-PH-U-D-TH-A-E-CH-A/PH-A-PH-U-D-TH-A-E-CH-A, Phra Phouttha Chao /pt t t?âu/
  • Derives from Lao , phra or 'holy/royal', Sanskrit/Pali Buddha ( /bud?da/) and Lao , chao or 'prince/lord.'

Explicit gemination in Lao

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 ?? kunlanari /kun lá? na: ri:/ and Isan ?? /kun l ná: lí/, K-U-L-N-A-R-I
  • Archaic Lao ??/ K-U-L-N-A-R-I/K-U-N-L-A-N-A-R-I and modern Lao K-U-N-L-A-N-A-L-I, kounlanari /kun l? ná: lí:/
  • Derives from Sanskrit kulan?r? (? /kulana:ri:/)

'good fortune'

  • Thai ? watsana /wâ:t sà? n?:/ and Isan ? /:t sá? n?:/, W-A-S-N-A
  • Archaic Lao ?/ V-A-S-N-A/V-A-D-S-N-A and modern Lao V-A-D-S-A-HN-A, vatsana /:t sá? n?:/
  • Derives from Sanskrit vasna (? /?asna/

'wife' (formal)

  • Thai ? phanraya /p?an rá? ja:/ and Isan ? /p?án l ?á:/, PH-R-R-Y-A
  • Archaic Lao ? PH-A-R-A-NY-A/PH-A-N-R-A-NY-A and modern Lao , phanragna /p?án l ?á:/
  • Derives from Sanskrit bharya ( /b?arja/)

Lao retention of Tai Noy vowel symbols

Lao uses two vowel symbols inherited from Tai Noy, one of which ' ? ' or the nikkhahit ( /n?k k h?t/) is used to denote the vowel /?:/ in open syllables where that is the final sound in the syllable and the other ' ? ' or mai kan ( /m?j ko?/) 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 (Archaic / / lá:m/) was formerly used as a variant of Lao letter '?' in a word as well as several other uses.

'person' or 'people'

  • Thai khon /k?on/ and Isan /k?ón/, KH-N
  • Lao ??? KH-O-N, khôn /k?ón/

'litter' or 'palanquin'

  • Thai ?? wo /w/ and Isan ?? /:/, W-O
  • Lao ?? V-O, vo /:/

'emerald'

  • Thai ? morakot /m?: rá? kòt/ and Isan ?, M-R-K-T
  • Archaic Lao ???? M-O-R-A-K-O-T and modern Lao ????, morakôt /m: l kót/
  • Derives from Sanskrit m?rakata ( /ma: ra ka t?a/)

'small'

  • Thai noi /n:j/ and Isan /n:j/, N-O-Y
  • Archaic Lao ? N-Y and modern Lao / noy HN-O-Y/H-N-O-Y, /n:j/

'to write'

  • Thai ????? khian /kan/ and Isan ????? /kan/, E-KH-I-Y-N
  • Lao ??? KH-Y--N, khian /kan/

'green'

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

Lao simplification of terminal consonants

Both Thai, Lao and Isan only permit the final consonants /k/, /?/, /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 ? watphap /wâ:t p?â:p/ and Isan ? /:t t p:p/, W-A-D-PH-A-PH
  • Archaic Lao ? V-A-D-PH-A-PH and modern Lao ? V-A-D-PH-A-B, vatphap //:t p:p//

'happiness'

  • Thai ? khwam suk /k?wa:m sùk/ and Isan ? /k?u:ám súk/, KH-W-A-M-S-U-KH
  • Archaic Lao ? KH-V-A-M-S-U-KH and modern Lao ? KH-V-A-M-S-U-K, khoam souk /k?u:ám súk/
  • Derives from Lao ? and Sanskrit sukh ( /su:k?/)

'ancient times'

  • Thai ?? aditkan /?á? dì:t kà:n/ and Isan ?? /?á? d?:t t ka:n/, O-D-I-T-K-A-L
  • Archaic Lao ???/??? O-D-I-T-K-A-L/O-D-I-T-K-A-N and modern Lao ??? O-D-I-D-K-A-N, /?á? d?:t ka:n/
  • Derives from Sanskrit atitkala (? /at?i:t?ka:la/)

Lao vowel reduction

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

'to update'

  • Thai ? tam samai /ta:m sà? m?j/ and Isan ? /ta:m sá? m?j/, T-A-M-S-M-A-Y
  • Archaic Lao ?/??? T-A-M-S-M-A-Y/T-A-M-AI-S-M and modern Lao ??/? T-A-M-S-A-AI-HM/T-A-M-S-A-AI-H-M, tam samay /ta:m sá? m?j/.

'dharma'

  • Thai ?? phra tham /p?rá t?am/ and Isan ?? /p t?ám/, PH-R-A-TH-R-R-M
  • Archaic Lao ?/? PH-R-A-TH-A-M/PH-L/R-A-TH-A-M and modern Lao ??/? PH-R-A-TH-AM/PH-A-TH-AM, phra tham /p t?ám/
  • Derives from Lao phra or 'holy' and Sanskrit dharma (? /darma/) via Pali dhamma

'disciplined' or 'educated person'

  • Thai ??? wenai /w? naj/ E-W-AI-N-Y and Isan ??? / náj/
  • Archaic Lao ???/?? V-I-AI-N-Y/V-I-N-A-Y and modern Lao ??, vinay / náj/

Lao explicit vowels

In the abugida systems, open syllables are assumed to have /a/ or /a?/ 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.

'city'

  • Thai nakhon /ná? k:n/ and Isan , N-KH-R /n k:n/
  • Archaic Lao ??/ N-KH-O-N/N-KH-R and modern Lao ?????, nakhone /n k:n/
  • Derives from Sanskrit nagara ( /na ga ra/)

'street'

  • Thai thanon /t?a? n?n/ and Isan , TH-N-N /t?á? n?n/
  • Archaic Lao ? TH-N-O-N and modern Lao ??/??? TH-A-HN-O-N/TH-A-H-N-O-N, thanône /t?á? n?n/
  • Derives from Khmer t?n?l ( /t?n?l/)

'paradise'

  • Thai sawan /sà? w?n/ and Isan /sá :n/, S-W-R-R-[KH]
  • Archaic Lao /? S-V-A-N-[KH]/S-V-A-N and modern Lao ??? S-A-H-V-A-N, savane /sá :n/
  • Derives from Sanskrit svarga ( /s?arga/

'vowel'

  • Thai sara /sà? rá?/ and Isan , S-R-A /sá? l/
  • Archaic Lao /? S-R-A/S-A-R-A and modern Lao ?? S-A-L-A, sara /sá? l/
  • Derives from Sanskrit sara ( /sara/)

Lao ligatures

Lao uses a silent letter '?' /h/ in front of consonants '?' /?/, '?' /?/, '?' /n/, '?' /m/, '?' /l/, '?' /r/ or /l/ and '?' /?/ 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 '?' /?/, '?' /j/ (but in Isan, sometimes represents /?/ and also '?', which is /j/ in Thai and represents /?/ in Isan), '?' /n/, '?' /m/, '?' /l/, '?' /r/ (generally /l/ when in a digraph in Isan) and '?' /w/ (generally /?/ 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 '' H-N as well as '?' HM and modern alternative ''. Both '' H-L and '' H-R have the same ligature form '' HL/R. Previous versions of the script also had special ligatures '' PHY ('?' + '?' /p?j/) and '' HY ('?' + '?' /hj/) with the latter replaced by '' 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 SN-O-NG and ? ML-A-BR-I have become in the modern language S-A-N-O-NG sanong /sá? n:?/, 'message' (derived from Khmer snaang ? /sn?:?/) and M-A-L-A-B-Imalabi /m? lá: bi:/, 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 '?', '', '?' '' and are mainly used to represent the sounds /r?/ or /ri/, /r?:/, /l?/ and /l?:/, respectively, although the latter two symbols are obsolete in modern Thai. These symbols were used to represent loanwords from Sanskrit '?' /r?/, '?' /r/, '?' /l?/ and '?' /l/, respectively, but these are relatively rare sounds in Sanskrit.

'Louang Phrabang'

  • Thai Luang Phrabang /l?a? p?rá? ba:?/ and Isan /l?:a? p bà:?/, H-L-W-NG PH-R-A-B-A-NG
  • Archaic Lao HL/R-V-NG PH-R-A-B-A-NG and modern Lao ?/? HL/R-V-NG PH-A-B-A-NG/H-L-V-NG PH-A-B-A-NG, Louang Phrabang /l?:a? p bà:?/

'mouse'

  • Thai ? nu /n?:/ and Isan ? /n?:/, H-N-U
  • Lao ??/? HN-U/H-N-U

'fruit'

  • Isan mak /m?:k/ H-M-A-K (cognate of Thai - ma-, prefix in certain fruit names)
  • Lao ?/ HM-A-K/H-M-A-K, mak /m?:k/

'season'

  • Thai ? ruedu /r du:/ and Isan ? /l dù:/, RUE-D-U
  • Archaic Lao R-A-D-U/L-A-D-U and modern Lao L-A-D-U,radou/ladou /l dù:/
  • Derives from Sanskrit ?t? ( /r?tu:/

'hermit'

  • Thai , ruesi /r?: s?:/ and Isan /l: s?:/, RUE-S-I
  • Archaic Lao R-UE-S-I and modern Lao L-UE-S-I, rusi/lusi
  • Derives from Sanskrit i or 'rishi' ( /ri:/)

'mysterious'

  • Archaic Thai ?? LEU-K-L-A-B and modern Thai ?, lueklap /lk láp/ and Isan ?, L-EU-K-L-A-B
  • Lao ? L-EU-K-L-A-B, luklap /lk l?p/

'famous'

  • Archaic Thai LUE-CH-A and Modern Thai L-UE-O-CH-A leucha /l?: ta:/ and Isan , L-UE-O-S-A /l: s?:/
  • Lao luxa /l: s?:/

Typographical differences

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 'x?' 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 ''. These all have equivalents in the Thai script as 'x?', '?', '?' and ''.

Other Thai symbols, such as '?', used for marking the beginning of texts, lines or stanzas, '?' to mark the end of chapters, '' 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 'x?' and 'x?', although 'x?' and 'x?' 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 'x?', 'x?', x? and x?, 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 si io /si: íu/ and Isan /sí: íu/
  • Lao sa io /sá íu/ S-A-O-I-W
  • Derives from Chinese (Teochew) si iu ( /si? iu?/)

'Chinese noodle soup'

  • Thai ? kuay tiao /k?aj-dt?eow/ and Isan ? /k?:aj tia:w/
  • Archaic Lao ? kouay thio /k?:aj tia:w/, mostly replaced in modern Lao by feu /f:/
  • Derives from Chinese (Teochew) gu? diou ( /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 there.

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

Grammatical differences

Formal language

Since the use of Central Thai is deemed polite and mandatory in official and formal settings, Isan speakers will often use the Thai ?, khrap (/k?ráp/), used by males, and , kha (/k?a?/), used by females, sometimes in place of or after the ones shared with Lao. Isan speakers, however, do not use the very formal particle ?, khanoy (/k: n:j/, cf. Lao: ?/archaic ) at the end of sentences. Also, the use of ?, chao (/t?âo/, cf. Lao: ) and formal , doy (/do:j/, cf. Lao: /archaic , 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

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 mu som (/m?: s?m/, but Lao /? som mou, "sour pork", (/s?m m?:/. Cf. Thai ?, mu naem (/m?: n:m/).
  • Isan ? kai ping (/k?j p?:?/), but Lao ?, ping kai, "barbecued chicken", (/p?:? k?j/). Cf. Thai ?, kai yang (/kàj jâ:?/).

Lexical comparison with Lao

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.[78]

Thai influences

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 , khua (/ka/) and ?, nam kon (/n?m k:n/), which exist in Laos as and ?, but replaced by Thai forms , saphan, and ?, nam khaeng, respectively. Thai, Isan, and Lao share vocabulary, but sometimes this can vary in frequency. For instance, Lao speakers use , saphan, as a more formal word for "bridge". The very formal Thai word for "house", , reuan (/r?an/) is cognate to the common Isan , heuan, and Lao , huan (/h?´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" , /po: l?t bu: ló:/, politburo *?, */kòm kà:n m?´a?/, *komkammeuang , /kòm kà:n m?´a?/, komkammuang , /po: lít bu: ro:/, politburo
"washing machine" ?, /k¯a? s?k p:/, khreuang sakpha *?, */t?ák s?k k¯a?/, *chak sakkhreuang , /t?ák s?k k¯a?/, chak xakkhuang ?*, /k?r?^a? sák p?â:/, khreuang sakpha
"aeroplane", "airplane" (US) ?, /k¯a? bìn/, khreuang bin *?, */h?´a bìn/, *heua bin, ?, /h?´a bìn/, hua bin ?, /k?r?^a? bin/, khreuang bin
"provincial sub-district" ?, tambon, /tam bon/ *, */ta: s:?/, *tasaeng , tasèng, /ta: s:?/ ?, tambon, /tam bon/

Lack of French influences

A bilingual Lao-French street sign in Vientiane. Although the influence of French on the Lao language has waned considerably, hundreds of words of French origin are used in Laos that are unfamiliar to Isan speakers.

After the division of the Lao-speaking world in 1893, French would serve as the administrative language of the French Protectorate of Laos, carved from the Lao lands of the left bank, for sixty years until 1953 when Laos achieved full independence.[79] The close relationship of the Lao monarchy with France continued the promotion and spread of French until the end of the Laotian Civil War when the monarchy was removed and the privileged position of French began its decline. Many of the initial borrowings for terms from Western culture were imported via French, as opposed to Isan which derived them from English via Thai. For instance, Isan speakers use sentimet (Northeastern Thai: /sén tì: m?:t/) in approximation of English 'centimetre' (/s?n t? mi: t?/) whereas Lao uses xangtimèt (Lao: /sá? tì: m:t/) in approximation of French centimètre (/s ti m?t?/). Lao people also tend to use French forms of geographic place names, thus the Republic of Guinea is kini (Northeastern Thai: /?/ /kí ní:/) via Thai based on English 'Guinea' (/gi ni:/) as opposed to kiné (Lao: /?/ /kì: né:/) from French Guinée (/gi ne/).

Although English has mostly surpassed French as the preferred foreign language of international diplomacy and higher education since the country began opening up to foreign investment in the 1990s, the position of French is stronger in Laos than Cambodia and Vietnam. Since 1972, Laos has been associated with La Francophonie, achieving full-member status in 1992. Many of the royalists and high-ranking families of Laos left Laos in the wake of the end of the Laotian Civil War for France, but as of 2010, it was estimated that 173,800 people, or three per cent of the population, were fluent in French and French is studied by 35% of the population as a second language as a required subject and many courses in engineering, medicine, law, administration and other advanced studies are only available in French.[79]

Laos maintains the French-language weekly Le Rénovateur, but French-language content is sometimes seen alongside English in publications in older issues of Khaosane Phathét Lao News and sporadically on television ad radio.[80] French still appears on signage, is the language of major civil engineering projects and is the language of the élite, especially the older generations that received secondary and tertiary education in French-medium schools or studied in France. France maintains a large Lao diaspora and some of the very well-to-do still send their children to France for study. The result of this long-standing French influence is the use of hundreds of loan words of French origin in the Lao language of Laos--although many are old-fashioned and somewhat obsolete or co-exist alongside more predominate native usages--that are unfamiliar to most Isan speakers since the incorporation of the right bank into Siam prevented French influence.

Lack of French influences in Isan
Isan Thai Lao French Lao alternate Gloss

nek thai
/né:k t?áj/
nek thai
/nê:k t?aj/ ?/?
karavat
(*?)
/kà: l t/ cravate /k?a vat/ 'necktie'

hong phapphayon
/hó:? p:p p ?ón/
rong phapphayon
/ro:? p:p p?a? jon/
hông xinéma
(*)
/hó:? s n?´: má:/ cinéma /si ne ma/ ?
hông nang
'cinema', 'movie theater' (US)

photchananukrom
/pt t?á? ná: n? kom/
photchananukrom
/p?ót t?à? na: nú krom/ ?/
dixonnè
(*)
/di: s:n n:/ dictionnaire /dik sj?~ n/
phôtchananoukôm
'dictionary'
?
aefrika
/:p f ka:/ ?
aefrika
/`: frí? ka:/ /
afik/afrik
(*)
/a: f?k/-/a: fr?k/ Afrique /a f?ik/ /?
afika/afrika
'Africa'

mak aeppoen
/m?:k :p p?^:n/
phon aeppoen
/pn `:p p?:n/ /?
mak pôm
(*?)
/m?:k p?m/ pomme /p?m/ 'apple'

noei
/n?`:j/
noei
/n?:j/ /
bue
(*)
/b?`:/ beurre' /boe?/ 'butter'
?
wai
/?áj/ ?
wai
/waj/
vèng
(*)
/:?/ vin /v/ 'wine'
?
khon song praisani
/k?ón s pàj sá? ní:/ ?
khon song praisani
/k?on sò? praj sà? ni:/ /
fakteu
(*)
/f?k t?:/ facteur /fak toe?/
khôn song nangsue
(*)
'postman', 'mailman' (US)

pla wan
/paá:n/
pla wan
/pla: wa:n/ ?
pa balèn
(*)
/pa: ba: l:n/ baleine /ba l?n/ 'whale'
?
khemi
/k?é: mí:/ ?
khemi
/k?e: mi:/ ?
ximi
(*?)
/sí: mí:/ chimie /?i mi/ ?
khémi
'chemistry'

binliat
/bin lî:?t/
binliat
/bin lîat/ ?
biya
(*?)
/bì: yà:/ billard /bi ja?/
binliat
'billiards'
?
thananat
/t ná: n?t/ ?
thananat
/t?a? na: nát/
mangda
(*)
/má? da:/ mandat /m d?/ ?
thananat
'money order'
?
kram
/kàm/ ?
kram
/kram/ /?
kam/kram
(*?)
/ka:m/-/kra:m/ gramme /gm/ 'gramme', 'gram'

Lack of Vietnamese Influences

Kaysone Phomvihane was Vietnamese Laotian with Vietnamese ancestry on his father's side. His Vietnamese name was Nguy?n Cai Song.

Because of the depopulation of the left bank to Siam prior to French colonisation, the French who were already active in Vietnam brought Vietnamese to boost the population of the cities and help administer the region. Many Lao that received a French-language education during the period of French Indochina were educated in French-language schools in Vietnam, exposing them to French and Vietnamese languages and cultures. As the Vietnamese communists supported the Pathét Lao forces, supplying Lao communist militia with weaponry and training during the two-decade long Laotian Civil War, large numbers of Vietnamese troops have been stationed at various times in Laos' post-independence history, although the Vietnamese military presence began to wane in the late 1980s as Laos pursued closer relations with its other neighbours and entered the market economy.

As a result of Vietnamese immigration and influence, a handful of lexical items have been borrowed directly from Vietnamese, most of which are not used in Isan, although 'to work' or wiak (Northeastern Thai: /:?k/) has spread into Isan from Lao viak (Lao: ) from Vietnamese vi?c (/vik/). Vietnamese Laotians comprise roughly 79,000 people in Laos today, roughly three times the number of Vietnamese people in Isan, and operate local schools and community associations in the major cities, although many of the Vietnamese Isan people are descendants of Vietnamese that fled Laos during the Laotian Civil War and many of their descendants have assimilated to the local language. The Vietnamese have little cultural impact in Isan, and thus aside from wiak, most Vietnamese terms borrowed in Lao are not used in Isan. The opening of Laos in the 1990s has significantly reduced the presence of Vietnamese military and technical assistance.

Lack of Vietnamese Influences in Isan
Isan Thai Lao Vietnamese Lao alternate Gloss
?
kuai tiao
/k?aj t?aw/ ?
kuai tiao
/k?aj t?:?w/
feu
/f?^:/ ph? /f? ?:/ ?
kouay tio
'Chinese-style noodle soup'

yuean
/:?n/
ngotwen
/?ót wén/
kiang
/ki:/ kiêng /ki/
gnuan
'to abstain', 'to refrain'

chak
/s?:k/
chak
/tà:k/
i kè
/?ì: k:/ ê-ke[81] /e k?/
sak
'carpenter's square', 'T-square'
?
het ngan
/h?t ?á:n/
tham ngan
/t?am ?a:n/ ?
het viak
/h?t ?îak/ vi?c /vịk/ ?
hét ngan
'to work', 'to labour'

Uniquely Isan

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' , /sám bá:j/, sambai *, */sám ba:j/, *xambai /Archaic , /sá? bá:j/, sabai ?, /sà? ba:j/, sabai ?, /sá? bá:j/, sabai
'fruit' , /bák/, bak *, */bák/, *bak, /?, /m?:k/, mak , /pn/, phon ?, /m?:k/, mak
'lunch' ?, /ko s?:?j/, khao suay *, */ko su:?j/, *khao souay , /?a: h?:n ta?/, ahane thiang , /?a: h?:n kla:? wan/, ahan klangwan ?, /ko ta?/, khao thiang
'traditional animist ceremony' , /ba:j s?:/, baisri *, */ba:j s?:/, *baisi ?, /ba: s?:/, basi ?, /bua? sua? /, buang suang ?, /ba:j s?: s?: kan/, baisri su khwan
'ice cream' , /?aj tím/, ai tim *, */?aj tím/, *ai tim , /ka: l:m/, kalèm ?, /?aj sà? kri:m/, aisakrim N/A

Other Isan-Lao Lexical Differences

Comparison of Isan and Lao
English Isan IPA, RTGS Lao IPA, BGN/PCGN Thai IPA, RTGS
'ice' ? /n?m k:?/, nam khaeng ?* /n?m k:n/, nam kone ?* /nám k:?/, nam khaeng
'bridge' /sá? p?á:n/, saphan * /ka/, khoua * /sà? p?a:n/, saphan
'window' /n?: t?:?/, na tang /p:? jîam/, pongyiam * /nà: tá:?/, na tang
'paper' /ká? d?:t/, kradat ?/Archaic /t?îa/, chia * /krà? dà:t/, kradat
'book' ? /n s:/, nangsue ? /p?^m/, peum ?* /n s:/, nangsue
'January' /m?k k?á? lá: k?óm/, mokkharakhom * /má? k:n/, mangkone * /mók kà? ra: k?om/, mokkarakhom
'province' ? /t?à? ?át/, changwat ?* /k?w:?/, khwèng ? /t?a? wàt/, changwat
'plain' (adj.) /p?o/, plaw /lâ:/, la /plà:w/, plaw
'motorcycle' /m: t: sáj/, motoesai /Archaic /l?t t?ák/, lot chak * /m?: t?^: saj/, motoesai
'citronella grass', 'lemongrass' /tá? k?áj/, takrai /h?a s k?áj/, houa singkhai /tà? k?ráj/, takrai
'papaya' ?* /bák h/, bak hung ?/ /m?:k h/, mak houng * /má? lá? k?:/, malako
  • 1 Lao ? formerly existed as Isan ?, nam kon (/n?m k:n/), but usage now obsolete.
  • 2 Thai and Isan ? also exists as Lao , nam khèng (/n?m k:?/).
  • 3 Lao formerly existed as Isan , khua (/ka/), but usage now obsolete.
  • 4 Thai and Isan also exists as formal Lao , saphane (/sá? p?á:n/).
  • 5 Thai and Isan also exists as Lao /?, natang (/n?: t?:?/).
  • 6 Thai and Isan also exists as Lao /Archaic , kadat (/ká? d?:t/).
  • 7 Thai and Isan ? also exists as Lao /, nangsue (/n s:/).
  • 8 Lao also exists as Isan , mangkon (/má? k:n/), referring to the dragon but not the month named after it.
  • 9 Thai and Isan also exists as Lao ?/Archaic ?, môkkarakhôm (/m?k ká? lá: k?óm/).
  • 10 Lao ? also exists as Thai and Isan ?, khwaeng (/k?w:?/), when referring to provinces of Laos.
  • 11 Thai and Isan ? exist as Lao ?, changvat (/t?a? ?át/), when referring to provinces of Thailand.
  • 12 Thai and Isan variant of , ?, rot chakkrayanyon (/rót t?àk krà? ja:n yon/), similar to Lao []/Archaic , lôt chak[kagnane] (/l?t t?ák [ká? ?á:n]/).
  • 13 Isan is a local variant of Isan ? and Lao /?, mak (/m?:k/).
  • 14 The in Thai is cognate to Isan ? and Lao /?, mak (/m?:k/).

Grammar

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 ? (doe, d?:) or (de, de:) function much like ? (khrap, k?ráp), used by males, and (kha, k?a?), used by females, in Thai. (Isan speakers sometimes use the Thai particles in place of or after ? or .) Negative statements often end in (dok, d:k), which can also be followed by the particle ? and its variant.

  • ? (phoen het padaek doe, pn het pa:d?:k d?:) He makes padaek.
  • ? (bo pen nyang dok, b?: pe:n ?a? d?:k) It does not matter.

Nouns

Nouns in Isan are not marked for plurality, gender or case and do not require an indefinite or definite article. Some words, mainly inherited from Sanskrit or Pali, have separate forms for male or female, such as thewa (Northeastern Thai: ? /t?éá:/, cf. Lao: ? BGN/PCGN théva), 'god' or 'angel' (masculine) and thewi (Northeastern Thai: ? /t?éí:/, cf. Lao: ? BGN/PCGN thévi), 'goddess' or 'angel' (feminine) which derives from masculine deva (Sanskrit: /de?a/ and feminine dev? (Sanskrit: ? /de?i:/). This is also common in names of Sanskrit origin, such as masculine Arun (Northeastern Thai: ? /á? lún/, cf. Lao: / BGN/PCGN Aloun/Aroun) and feminine Aruni (Northeastern Thai: /a? l? ní:/, cf. Lao: / BGN/PCGN Arouni/Alounee) which derives from Arun Sanskrit: ? /aru?/) and Arun? Sanskrit: /aru?i:/, respectively. In native Tai words which usually do not distinguish gender, animals will take the suffixes phu (Northeastern Thai: /p:/, cf. Lao: BGN/PCGN phou) or mae (Northeastern Thai: /m:/, cf. Lao: BGN/PCGN ). For example, a cat in general is maew (Northeastern Thai: /m:w/, cf. Lao: BGN/PCGN mèo), but a tomcat is maew phou (Northeastern Thai: ) and a queen (female cat) is maew mae (Northeastern Thai: ), respectively.

Classifiers

Isan Classifiers
Isan Thai Lao Category
(), k?on (), kn , k?on People in general, except clergy and royals.
, k?an , kn , k?án Vehicles, also used for spoons and forks in Thai.
, k?u: , k?û: , k: Pairs of people, animals, socks, earrings, etc.
?, sa?bap ?, ta?bàp , sa?báp Papers with texts, documents, newspapers, etc.
, to: , t?a , tò: Animals, shirts, letters; also tables and chairs (but not in Lao).
, kok , tôn , kók Trees. (or Lao ?) is used in all three for columns, stalks, and flowers.
, nu?j , f:? ?, nj Eggs, fruits, clouds. (pn) used for fruits in Thai.

Verbs are easily made into nouns by adding the prefixes ? (khwam/k?wa:m) and (kan/k:an) before verbs that express abstract actions and verbs that express physical actions, respectively. Adjectives and adverbs, which can function as complete predicates, only use ?.

  • ? (khaengma/k:?.má:) "to horserace" (v.) nominalises into ? (kan khaengma/k:an k:?.má:) "horseracing" (n.)
  • ? (chep/t?èp) "to hurt (others)" (v.) nominalises into (khwam chep/k?wa:m t?èp) "hurt (caused by others)" (n.)
  • (di, di:) "good" nominalises into (khwam di, k?wa:m di:) "goodness" (n.)

Pronouns

Isan traditionally uses the Lao-style pronouns, although in formal contexts, the Thai pronouns are sometimes substituted as speakers adjust to the socially mandated use of Standard Thai in very formal events. Although all the Tai languages are pro-drop languages which omit pronouns if their use is unnecessary due to context, especially in informal contexts, but they are restored in more careful speech. Compared to Thai, Isan and Lao frequently use the first- and second-person pronouns and rarely drop them in speech which can sometimes seem more formal and distant. More common is to substitute pronouns with titles of professions or extension of kinship terms based on age, thus it is very common for lovers or close friends to call each other 'brother' and 'sister' and to address the very elderly as 'grandfather' or 'grandmother'.

To turn a pronoun into a plural, it is most commonly prefixed with mu (Northeastern Thai: ? /m?:/, cf. Lao: ?/ BGN/PCGN mou) but the variants tu (Northeastern Thai: /tu:/, cf. Lao: BGN/PCGN tou) and phuak (Northeastern Thai: /p?ûak/, cf. Lao: BGN/PCGN phouak) are also used by some speakers. These can also be used for the word hao, 'we', in the sense of 'all of us' for extra emphasis. The vulgar pronouns are used as a mark of close relationship, such as long-standing childhood friends or siblings and can be used publicly, but they can never be used outside of these relationships as they often change statements into very pejorative, crude or inflammatory remarks.

Person Isan Thai Lao Gloss
1st ?
khanoi
/k: n:j/
kraphom
/kra? pm/
dichan
/di tn/ ?/?
khanoy
/k: n:j/ I (formal)
?
khoi
/k:j/
phom
/pm/ /tn/ ?/?
khoy
/k:j/ I (common)

ku
/ku:/
ku
/ku:/
kou
/ku:/ I (vulgar)

mu khanoi
/m?: k: n:j/
khaphachao
/k?â: p?a? t?âw/ /?
mou khanoy
/m?: k: n:j/ we (formal)

hao
/h?o/
rao
/raw/ ?
hao
/h?o/ we (common)
?
mu hao
/m?: h?o/
phuak rao
/p?ûak raw/ /?
mou hao
/m?: h?o/
2nd ? /t:n/ ? /t?ân/ ? /t:n/ you (formal)
?
chao
/to/
khun
/k?un/
chao
/to/ you (common)

mueng
/m/
mueng
/m/
meung
/m/ you (vulgar)

mu than
/m?: t:n/
phuak khun
/p?ûak k?un/ /?
mou than
/m?: t:n/ you (pl., formal)

chao
/m?: to/
khun
/k?un/
chao
/m?: to/ you (pl., common)
3rd
phoen
/pn/ ?
than
/t?ân/
pheun
/pn/ he/she/it (formal)

khao
/ko/
khao
/k?áw/ ?
khao
/ko/ he/she/it (common)

lao
/lá:o/
lao
/lá:o/

man
/mán/
man
/man/
man
/mán/ he/she/it (common)

khachao
/k?á? to/ ?
phuak than
/p?ûak t?ân/ ?
khachao
/k?á? to/ they (formal)
?
mu khao
/m?: ko/
phuak khao
/p?ûak k?áw/ /? /m?: ko/ they (common)
?
mu lao
/m?: lá:o/ ?/
mou lao
/m?: lá:o/

Numbers

Thai Isan Lao Gloss Thai Isan Lao Gloss
?

sun
/s?:n/ ?

sun
/s?:n/ ?
/
soun
/s?:n/ 0
'zero'
nulla

?
yi sip
/jî: sìp ?èt/
?
sao et
/sá:u ?ét/
?
xao ét
/sá:u ?ét/ 21
'twenty-one'
XXI
?

nueng
/n/ ?

nueng
/n:?/ ?
?
nung
/n:?/ 1
'one'
I


yi sip song
/jî: sìp s:?/

sao song
/sá:u s:?/

xao song
/sá:u s:?/ 22
'twenty-two'
XXII
?

song
/s:?/ ?

song
/s:?/ ?

song
/s:?/ 2
'two'
II


yi sip sam
/jî: sìp s?:m/

sao sam
/sá:u s?:m/

xao sam
/sá:u s?:m/ 23
'twenty-three'
XXII
?

sam
/s?:m/ ?

sam
/s?:m/ ?

sam
/s?:m/ 3
'three'
III


sam sip
/s?:m sìp/

sam sip
/s?:m síp/

sam sip
/s?:m síp/ 30
thirty
XXX
?

si
/sì:/ ?

si
/s?:/ ?

si
/s?:/ 4
four
IV

?
sam sip et
/s?:m sìp ?èt/
?
sam sip et
/s?:m síp ?ét/
?
sam sip ét
/s?:m síp ?ét/ 31
'thirty-one'
XXXI
?

ha
/hâ:/ ?

ha
/h?:/ ?

ha
/h?:/ 5
'five'
V


sam sip song
/s?:m sìp s:?/

sam sip song
/s?:m síp s:?/

sam sip song
/s?:m síp s:?/ 32
'thirty-two'
XXXII
?

hok
/hòk/ ?

hok
// ?

hôk
/hók/ 6
six
VI


si sip
/sì: sìp/

si sip
/s?: síp/

si sip
/s?: síp/ 40
'forty'
VL
?
?
chet
/tèt/ ?
?
chet
/tét/ ?
?
chét
/tét/ 7
'seven'
VII


ha sip
/hâ: sìp/

ha sip
/h?: síp/

ha sip
/h?: síp/ 50
'fifty'
L
?

paet
/p:t/ ?

paet
/p:t/ ?

pèt
/p:t/ 8
'eight'
VIII


hok sip
/hòk sìp/

hok sip
/hók síp/

hôk sip
/hók síp/ 60
sixty
LX
?
?
kao
/kâw/ ?
?
kao
/k?o/ ?

kao
/k?o/ 9
nine
IX

?
chet sip
/tèt sìp/
?
chet sip
/tét síp/
?
chét sip
/tét síp/ 70
'seventy'
LXX


sip
/sìp/

sip
/síp/

sip
/síp/ 10
ten
X


paet sip
/p:t síp/

paet sip
/p:t síp/

pèt sip
/p:t sìp/ 80
'eighty'
LXXX

?
sip et
/sìp ?èt/
?
sip et
/síp ?ét/
?
sip ét
/síp ?ét/ 11
'eleven'
XI

?
gao sip
/kâw sìp/
?
/k?o síp/
/k?o síp/ 90
'nintety'
XC

/sìp s:?/
/síp s:?/
/síp s:?/ 12
'twelve'
XII

()?
/(n) r:j/
()?
/(n:?) h:j/
(?)?
/(n:?) h:j/ 100
'one hundred'
C

/sìp s?:m/
/síp s?:m/
/síp s?:m/ 13
'thirteen'
XIII

()
/(n) r:j ?èt/
()
/(n:?) h:j ?ét/
(?)
/(n:?) h:j ?ét/ 101
'one hundred one'
CI

/sìp sì:/
/síp s?:/
/síp s?:/ 14
'fourteen'
XIV
?
()
/(n) pn/ ?
()
/(n:?) p?án/ ?
(?)
/(n:?) p?án/ 1,000
'one thousand'
M

/sìp sì:/
/síp s?:/
/síp s?:/ 15
'fifteen'
XV

()
/(n) m:n/
()
/(n:?) m:n/
(?)?/(?)
/(n:?) m:n/ 10,000
ten thousand
X.

/sìp hòk/
/síp hók/
/síp hók/ 16
'sixteen'
XVI

()
/(n) s:n/
()
/(n:?) s:n/
(?)
/(n:?) s:n/ 100,000
'one hundred thousand'
C.

?
/sìp tèt/
?
/síp tét/
?
/síp tét/ 17
seventeen
XVII
?
()?
/(n) lá:n/ ?
()?
/(n:?) lâ:n/ ?
(?)?
/(n:?) lâ:n/ 1,000,000
'one million'

/sìp p:t/
/síp p:t/
/síp p:t/ 18
'eighteen'
XVIII
?
()?
/(n) pn lá:n/ ?
()?
/(n:?) p?án lâ:n/ ?
(?)?
/(n:?) p?án lâ:n/ 1,000,000,000
'one billion'

?
/sìp k?w/
?
/síp k?o/
/síp k?o/ 19
'nineteen'
XIX
?
()
/(n) lá:n lá:n/
()
/(n:?) lâ:n lâ:n/
(?)
/(n:?) lâ:n lâ:n/ 1,000,000,000,000
'one trillion'


yi sip
/jî: sìp/
()
sao(nueng)
/sá:u (n:?)/
(?)
xao(nung)
/sá:u (n:?)/ 20
'twenty'
XX
?
()
/(n) pn lá:n lá:n/ ?
()
/(n:?) p?án lâ:n lâ:n/ ?
()
/(n:?) p?án lâ:n lâ:n/ 1,000,000,000,000,000
'one quadrillion'

Adjectives and adverbs

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.

  • (dek num, dek num) A young child.
  • ? (dek num num, dek num num) A very young child.
  • (dek num thi vai, dek num t?i: vaj) A child who becomes young quickly.
  • ? (dek num thi vai vai, dek num t?i: vaj vaj) A child who becomes young quickly.

Comparatives take the form "A X ? B" (kwa, kwa:), A is more X than B. The superlative is expressed as "A X (thisut, t?i:sut), A is most X.

  • ? (dek num kwa phukae, dek num kwa: p?u:k?:) The child is younger than an old person.
  • (dek num thisut, dek num t?i:sut) The child is youngest.

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

  • (dek si num, dek si: num) The child will be young.
  • ? (dek num laew, dek num l?:w) The child was young.

Verbs

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 (phung ni, p?u? ni:) tomorrow or ? (meu wan ni, m?: va:n ni:) yesterday.

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

  • ? (i nong kin mak len, i:n?:? kin ma:k len) Younger sister eats tomatoes.
  • (i nong bao bo kin mak len, i:n?:? b?: kin ma:k len) Younger sister does not eat tomatoes.

Future tense: Future tense is indicated by placing the particles (cha, t?a?) or (si, si:) before the verb.

  • (i nong cha kin mak len, i:n?:? t?a? kin ma:k len) Younger sister will eat tomatoes.
  • (i nong see kin mak len, i:n?:? si: kin ma:k len) Younger sister will eat tomatoes.

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

  • ? (i nong dai kin mak len, i:n?:? daj kin ma:k len) Younger sister ate tomatoes.
  • (i nong kin mak len laew, i:n?:? kin ma:k len l?:w) Younger sister (just) ate tomatoes.
  • (i nong dai kin mak len laew, i:n?:? daj kin ma:k len l?:w) Younger sister (definitely) ate tomatoes.

Present progressive: To indicate an ongoing action, (kamlang, kam.la?) can be used before the verb or ? (yu, ju:) after the verb. These can also be combined for emphasis. In Isan and Lao, (phuam, p?uam) is often used instead of .

  • (i nong kamlang kin mak len, i:n?:? kam.la? kin ma:k len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • (i nong kin yu mak len, i:n?:? kin ju: ma:k len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • ? (i nong phuam kin mak len, i:n?:? p?uam kin ma:k 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 (literally lady pretty). There are two copulas used in Isan, as in Lao, one for things relating to people, ? (pen, pen), and one for objects and animals, ? (maen, m?:n).

  • (Nok pen mo, Nok pe m?:) Nok is a doctor.
  • ? (an née maen sam lo, an ni: m?:n sa:m l?:) This is a pedicab.

Questions and answers

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 (same as , "no, not").

  • (sabai di bo, sa?baj di: b?:) Are you well?

Other question words

  • (changdai, t?a?daj) or ? (nyang, ?a?) ? (het changdai, het t?a?.daj) What are you doing?
  • (phai, p?aj) ? (phai khai khai kai, p?aj k?a:j k?aj kaj) Who sells chicken eggs?
  • (sai, saj) Where? ? (hong nam yu sai, h?:?nam ju: saj) Where is the toilet?
  • (andai, andaj) Which? (chao kin andai, t?aw gin an.daj) Which one did you eat?
  • (chak, t?ak) How many? (ayu chak pi, a:ju t?ak pi:) How old are you?
  • (thodai, t:daj) How much? (khwai ?ua bot thodai, k?waj bot t:daj) How much is that buffalo over there?
  • (maen bo, m?:n b?:) Right?, Is it? (Tao vai maen bo, ?aw vai m?:n b?:) Turtles are fast, right?
  • (laew bo, l?:w b?:) Yet?, Already? (khao kap laew bo, k?aw gap ba:n l?:w b?:) Did he go home already?
  • (loe bo, l?: b?:) Or not? (chao hio khao loe bo, t?aw hiw k?aw l?: b?:) Are you hungry or not?

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

  • Question? (sabai di bo, sa?baj di: b?:) Are you well?
  • Response: (sabai di, sa?baj di:) I am well or (bo sabai, b?: sa?baj) 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? (bo sabai bo, b?: sa?ba:j b?:) Are you not well?
  • Response (sabai, sa?baj) I am not well or (bo sabai, b?: sa?ba:j ) I am well.

Vocabulary

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.

Shared vocabulary of Khmer origin
Common vocabulary Rachasap
Isan Thai Lao Khmer English Isan Thai Lao Khmer English

kratae, /r?teh/

kratae, /r?teh/

katè, /r?teh/
?
rôthéh, /r?teh/
'oxcart'
banthom, /bàn t?óm/

banthom, /ban t?om/

banthôm, /bàn t?óm/

banthum, /b?n tum/
'to sleep'
?
doen, /d?:n/
?
doen, /d?:n/
?
deun, /d:n/

daeu, /da?/
'to walk' ?
trat, /t?t/
?
trat, /tràt/

tat, /t?t/

trah, /trah/
'to speak'

phanom, /p nóm/

phanom, /p nóm/
/?
phanôm, /p?a? nom/
?
phnum/phnom, /p?num/
'mountain' ?
khanong, /k?á? n:?/
?
khanong, /k?à? n:?/
/?
khanong, /k?á? n:?/
?
khnâng, /kn?:?/
'back', 'dorsal ridge'

thanon, /t?á? n?n/

thanôn, /t?a? n?n/
/?
thanôn, /t?á? n?n/

tnâl, /tn?l/
'road'
so, /s:/

so, /s:/

so, /s:/
[]
s?[rang], /su: [r?:ng]/
'neck'
Lack of Khmer and Indic via Khmer loan words in Tai Dam
Khmer loan word Isan Lao Thai Tai Dam
(Thai/Lao transcription)
Gloss

tônlé2
/t?:n le:/ ?
thale
/t lé:/ ?
thalé
/t lé:/ ?
thale
/t?a? le:/ nong luang2
? nong louang2
/n:? l?:/ 'sea'

re?n
/ri?n/
hian
/hí:?n/
hian
/hí:?n/
rian
/ri:an/ aep
èp
/:p/ 'to learn'
?
bh3
/b?a:?a:/ ?
phe?sa
/p?i? sa:/ ?
phasa
/p?á: s?:/ ?
phasa
/p?á: s?:/ ?
phasa
/p?a: s?:/ ? khwam
? khouam
/k?ú:?m/ 'language'

r?ja3
/ra:d?a:/ ?
re?che?
/rii?/ ?
rasa
/lá: sá:/ ?
raxa
/lá: sá:/ ?
racha
/râ: ta:/ ba pua
ba poua
/bâ pu:?/ 'king'
?
vel?3
/?e la:/ ?
vére?
/ve: li:?/ ?
vela
/?é:lá:/ ?
véla
/?é:lá:/ ? /we: la:/ yam
gnam
/?á:m/ 'time'

s?pbay
/sap ba:j/ ?
sabai
/sá? ba:j/ ?/
sabay
/sá? ba:j/ ?
sabai
/sa? ba:j/ tan do
tan do
/tán d?:/ 'to be well'
  • ^1 Shown with Thai and Lao script and not the related Tai Dam script.
  • ^2 Khmer tônlé generally signifies 'lake' or 'large canal'. Similarly, the Tai Dam term for the sea means 'large lake'.
  • ^3 Sanskrit source of following Khmer word. Thai and Lao adopted Sanskrit terms via Khmer, but restored their vowels pronunciations.
Identical vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"language" ?, p?á: s?: ?, p?á: s?: ?, p?a: s?: "city" , m?´:a? , m?´:a? , m?:a?
"religion" , s?:t sá? n?: , s?:t sá? n?: , sà:t sà? n?: "government" , l?t t?á? bà:n , r?t t?á? bà:n , rát t?à? ba:n
"heaven" , sá? v?n , sá? v?n , sà? w?n "to be well" ?, sá? bà:j , sá? bà:j ?, sà? ba:j
"child" ?, dék ?, dék ?, dèk "to be happy" ? dì: tà:j ?, dì: tà:j ?, di: t?a:j
"street" , t?á? n?n ?, t?á? n?n , t?à? n?n "sun" ?, ?a: tt ?, ?a: tt ?, ?a: t?ít
Identical vocabulary in Lao and Isan but distinct from Thai
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"no", "not" , b?: , b?: , mâj "to speak" ?, vâw , vâw , p?û:t
"how much" , t: dàj , t: dàj , t?âw ràj "to do, to make" ?, h?t1 ?, h?t , t?am
"to learn" , hían , hían , rian "glass" , t?:k , t?:k ?, k:w
"yonder" ?, p?ûn ?, p?ûn ?, nô:n "fruit" ?, m?:k mâj , m?:k mâj , pn lá? má:j
"too much" , p?ô:t , p?ô:t , k?n paj "to call" , ^:n , ^:n , rî:ak
"a little" , n:y n?¯? , n:j n?¯? , nít n?`:j "house, home" , h?´:an2 , h?´:an ?, bâ:n
"to lower" ?, lút ? (?), lút , lót "sausage" ?, s?j ?ua ?, s?j a ?, sâj kr:k
"to walk" ?, :? ?, :? ?, d?:n "older child" , lû:k kók , lû:k kók ?, lû:k k?on to:
"frangipani blossom" ?, d:k tam pa: ?, d:k tam pa: , d?`:k lân t?om "tomato" , m?:k l?:n3 , m?:k l?:n , mâ? k:a t?ê:t
"much", "many" ?, l?:j ?, l?:j , mâ:k "father-in-law" ?, p: tw , p: tw , p: ta:
"to stop" , sáw ?, sáw ?, jùt "to like" , m?k , m?k , t?:p
"good luck" , sô:k di: , sô:k di: , tô:k di: "delicious" , s:p , s:p , ?à? r?`j
"fun" ?, m?an ?, m?an ?, sà? nùk "really" , : l?:4 , : l?: ?, t?i?
"elegant" , kô: , kô: , r?: r?: "ox" , ?úa: , ?úa: , wua
  • ^1 Also appears in Isan and Lao , /t?ám/.
  • ^2 Very formal Thai word (r?:an) is cognate. Thai word also appears in Isan ? and Lao ? /bâ:n/.
  • ^3 Also known as in Isan and in Lao, /k:a k:a/.
  • ^4 Also appears as ? (Lao: ) /ti?/.
Shared Thai and Isan vocabulary distinct from Lao
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"ice" ?, nâm k:? ?, nâm k:n5 ?, ná:m k? "plain" (adj.) , paw , lâ: , plà:w
"necktie" , n?k t?áj ?, ka: r vát6 , nék t?áj "province" ?, tà? vát ?, k?w:?7 ?, t?a? wàt
"wine" ?, váj v:?8 ?, wa:j "pho" ?, ku?j t?aw , f:9 ?, ku?j t?aw
"January" , m?k ká? rá: k?óm , má? k:n , mók kà? ra: k?om "paper" , ká? d?:t , tìa , krà? dà:t
"window" , n?: t?:? , p:? jîam , nâ: tà:? "book" ?, n.s: ?, pm ?, n?ng.s:
"motorcycle" , m: t: sáj , r?t ták , m?: t?: saj10 "butter" , /n?´:j/ , /b?`:/11 , /n?:j/
  • ^5 Formerly ?, but this is now archaic/obsolete.
  • ^6 From French cravate, /kra vat/
  • ^7 Thai and Isan use ? to talk about provinces of Laos.
  • ^8 From French vin (v) as opposed to Thai and Isan ? from English wine.
  • ^9 From Vietnamese ph? /f:/.
  • ^10 From English "motorcycle".
  • ^11 From French beurre, /bø?/
Generally distinct vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"to work" ?, h?t ?á:n ? h?t vîak12 , t?am ?a:n "papaya" ?, bák h ?, m?:k h , mà? là? k?:
"fried beef" ?, t:t sî:n , ka sî:n , n?´:a t:t "hundred" ?, l:j ?, h:j ?, r:j
"barbecued pork" ?, m?: pî:? , pî:? m?: ?, m?: jâ:? "ice cream" , ?aj tim , ka: l:m ?, ?aj sà? kri:m
  • ^12 Lao ?, to do + Vietnamese vi?c, to work, /vi?k/ ().

References

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Further reading

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

External links

  • Basic Isaan phrases (Some basic Isaan phrases with sound files).
  • McCargo, Duncan, and Krisadawan Hongladarom. "Contesting Isan-ness: discourses of politics and identity in Northeast Thailand." Asian Ethnicity 5.2 (2004): 219-234.
  • 'Encoding Isan Scripts' (Thai)
  • 'Akson Tai Noi' (Thai popflock.com resource Article)
  • ? 'Background history of the Tai Noi alphabet' (Thai)
  • 'Background history of the Isan Thamma alphabet' (Thai)

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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