a group of related languages spoken in Thailand, Laos, southern China, North Vietnam, and northeastern Burma. There are approximately 35 million speakers of the Thai languages (1975, estimate).
The most important Thai languages are Thai (Siamese), spoken in Thailand; Lao; Shan, spoken in Burma; and Chuang, spoken in Kwangsi, People’s Republic of China. In addition to the Thai languages proper, the Thai group includes the T’ung-Shui languages (Kweichow Province, People’s Republic of China; about 1 million speakers), Li (Hainan Island, People’s Republic of China; 400,000 speakers), and possibly several others, which have been insufficiently studied. The theory of a close relationship between the Thai languages and Chinese has been rejected by most scholars.
The Thai languages proper are divided into three groups. The northern group includes the northern Chuang dialects and the P’u-yi language in Kweichow. The central group includes the southern Chuang dialects and the language of the Thai and Nung peoples in North Vietnam; the southwestern group comprises the remaining languages. The differences among the Thai languages are minor and are mainly phonetic and partly lexical. Word roots are almost always monosyllabic, and the syllable has an invariable structure. There are generally five or six tones, which serve to differentiate the meaning of words. The word is indeclinable, and the relationships among the words in a sentence are expressed by word order and by conjunctions. The predicate follows the subject, the object follows the verb, and the attribute follows the word being defined.
The Thai languages in the People’s Republic of China contain many borrowings from Chinese, and the Thai languages in Thailand and Laos contain many borrowings from Pali and Khmer. Many languages of the southwestern group use their own writing systems, which are of Indian origin. The earliest Thai written works date from the 13th century.
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S. E. IAKHONTOV