Tai languages

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Zhuang–Tai, Daic
Southern China (esp. Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan and Guangdong), Southeast Asia, north-east India
Linguistic classificationKra–Dai
ISO 639-2 / 5tai
Distribution of Tai languages:
  Northern Tai / Northern Zhuang   Central Tai / Southern Zhuang   Southwestern Tai / Thai

The Tai, Zhuang–Tai, or Daic languages (Thai: ภาษาไท or ภาษาไต, transliteration: p̣hās̛̄āthay or p̣hās̛̄ātay, RTGS: phasa thai or phasa tai; Lao: ພາສາໄຕ, Phasa Tai) are a branch of the Kra–Dai language family. The Tai languages include the most widely spoken of the Tai–Kadai languages, including Standard Thai or Siamese, the national language of Thailand; Lao or Laotian, the national language of Laos; Myanmar's Shan language; and Zhuang, a major language in the Southwestern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, spoken by the Zhuang people (壯), the largest minority ethnic group in China, with a population of 15.55 million, living mainly in Guangxi, the rest scattered across Yunnan, Guangdong, Guizhou and Hunan provinces.


Cognates with the name Tai (Thai, Dai, etc.) are used by speakers of many Tai languages. The term Tai is now well-established as the generic name in English. In his book The Tai-Kadai Languages, Anthony Diller claims that Lao scholars he has met are not pleased with Lao being regarded as a Tai language. For some, Thai should instead be considered a member of the Lao language family. One or more Ancient Chinese characters for 'Lao' may be cited in support of this alternative appellation. Some scholars, including Benedict (1975), have used Thai to refer to a wider (Tai) grouping and one sees designations like proto-Thai and Austro-Thai in earlier works. In the institutional context in Thailand, and occasionally elsewhere, sometimes Tai (and its corresponding Thai-script spelling, without a final -y symbol) is used to indicate varieties in the language family not spoken in Thailand or spoken there only as the result of recent immigration. In this usage, Thai would not then be considered a Tai language. On the other hand, Gedney, Li and others have preferred to call the standard language of Thailand Siamese rather than Thai, perhaps to reduce potential Thai/Tai confusion, especially among English speakers not comfortable with making a word initial unaspirated voiceless sound for Tai, which in any event might sound artificial or arcane to outsiders.

According to Michel Ferlus, the ethnonyms Tai/Thai (or Tay/Thay) would have evolved from the etymon *k(ə)ri: 'human being' through the following chain: kəri: > kəli: > kədi:/kədaj (-l- > -d- shift in tense sesquisyllables and probable diphthongization of -i: > -aj). This in turn changed to di:/daj (presyllabic truncation and probable diphthongization -i: > -aj). And then to *dajA (Proto-Southwestern Tai) > tʰajA2 (in Siamese and Lao) or > tajA2 (in the other Southwestern and Central Tai languages by Li Fangkuei). Michel Ferlus' work is based on some simple rules of phonetic change observable in the Sinosphere and studied for the most part by William H. Baxter (1992).

The Central Tai languages are called Zhuang in China and Tay and Nung in Vietnam.


Map showing linguistic family tree overlaid on a geographic distribution map of the Tai family. This map only shows the general pattern of the migration of Tai-speaking tribes, not specific routes, which would have snaked along the rivers and over the lower passes.

Citing the fact that both the Zhuang and Thai peoples have the same exonym for the Vietnamese, kɛɛuA1, derived from the name of Jiaozhi in Vietnam, and that the indigenous Bai Yue were given family names by their northern rulers during the Northern and Southern dynasties, while the Thai didn't have family names into the 19th century, Jerold A. Edmondson of the University of Texas at Arlington posited that the split between Zhuang (a Central Tai language) and the Southwestern Tai languages happened no earlier than the founding of Jiaozhi in 112 BCE but no later than the 5th–6th century AD. Based on layers of Chinese loanwords in Proto-Southwestern Tai and other historical evidence, Pittayawat Pittayaporn (2014) suggests that the dispersal of Southwestern Tai must have begun sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries AD.

Connection to ancient Yue language(s)

The Tai languages descend from proto-Tai-Kadai, which has been hypothesized to originate in the Lower Yangtze valleys. Ancient Chinese texts refer to non-Sinitic languages spoken across this substantial region and their speakers as "Yue". Although those languages are extinct, traces of their existence could be found in unearthed inscriptional materials, ancient Chinese historical texts and non-Han substrata in various Southern Chinese dialects. Thai, as the most-spoken language in the Tai-Kadai language family, has been used extensively in historical-comparative linguistics to identify the origins of language(s) spoken in the ancient region of South China. One of the very few direct records of non-Sinitic speech in pre-Qin and Han times having been preserved so far is the "Song of the Yue Boatman" (Yueren Ge 越人歌), which was transcribed phonetically in Chinese characters in 528 BC, and found in the 善说 Shanshuo chapter of the Shuoyuan 说苑 or 'Garden of Persuasions'. In the early 1980s the Zhuang linguist Wei Qingwen using reconstructed Old Chinese for the characters discovered that the resulting vocabulary showed strong resemblance to modern Zhuang. Later, Zhengzhang Shangfang (1991) followed Wei's insight but used Thai orthography for comparison, since this orthography dates from the 13th century and preserves archaisms vis-à-vis the modern pronunciation.

Internal classification

Haudricourt (1956)

Haudricourt emphasizes the specificity of Dioi (Zhuang) and proposes to make a two-way distinction between the following two sets. The original language names used in Haudricourt's (1956) are provided first; alternative names are given in parentheses.

Characteristics of the Dioi group pointed out by Haudricourt are

Li (1977)

Li Fang-Kuei divided Tai into three sister branches.

Li's Northern group corresponds to Haudricourt's Dioi group, while his Central and Southwestern groups correspond to Haudricourt's Tai proper. The three last languages in Haudricourt's list of 'Tai proper' languages are Tho (Tày), Longzhou, and Nung, which Li classifies as 'Central Tai'.

This classification scheme has long been accepted as standard in comparative Tai linguistics. However, Central Tai does not appear to be a monophyletic group.

Gedney (1989)

Gedney (1989) considers Central and Southwestern Tai to form a subgroup, of which Northern Tai is a sister. The top-level branching is in agreement with Haudricourt (1956).

Luo (1997)

Luo Yongxian (1997) classifies the Tai languages as follows, introducing a fourth branch called Northwestern Tai that includes Ahom, Shan, Dehong Dai, and Khamti. All branches are considered to be coordinate to each other.

Pittayaporn (2009)

Southwestern Tai languages Overview

Pittayawat Pittayaporn (2009) classifies the Tai languages based on clusters of shared innovations (which, individually, may be associated with more than one branch) (Pittayaporn 2009:298). In Pittayaporn's preliminary classification system of the Tai languages, Central Tai is considered to be paraphyletic and is split up into multiple branches, with the Zhuang varieties of Chongzuo in southwestern Guangxi (especially in the Zuo River valley at the border to Vietnam) having the most internal diversity. The Southwestern Tai and Northern Tai branches remain intact as in Li Fang-Kuei's 1977 classification system, and several of the Southern Zhuang languages allocated ISO codes are considered to be paraphyletic. The classification is as follows.

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

Sites surveyed in Zhang (1999), subgrouped according to Pittayaporn (2009):    N,    M,    I,    C,    B,    F,    H,    L,    P Sound changes Distribution of Central and Northern Tai languages (Zhuang, Tay-Nung and Bouyei included)

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

Proto-Tai reflexes
Proto-Tai Subgroup Q Subgroup N Subgroup B Subgroup C
*ɤj, *ɤw, *ɤɰ *aj, *aw, *aɰ *i:, *u:, *ɯ: *i:, *u:, *ɯ:
*ɯj, *ɯw *iː, *uː *aj, *aw *iː, *uː
*we, *wo *eː, *oː *iː, *uː *eː, *oː *eː, *oː
*ɟm̩.r- *br- *ɟr- *ɟr-
*k.t- *tr- *tr-
*ɤn, *ɤt, *ɤc *an, *at, *ac

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

Edmondson (2013)

Jerold A. Edmondson's (2013) computational phylogenetic analysis of the Tai languages is shown below. Tay and Nung are both shown to be coherent branches under Central Tai. Northern Tai and Southwestern Tai are also shown to be coherent branches.


Proto-Tai has been reconstructed in 1977 by Li Fang-Kuei and by Pittayawat Pittayaporn in 2009. Proto-Southwestern Tai has also been reconstructed in 1977 by Li Fang-Kuei and by Nanna L. Jonsson in 1991.

Others have taken up specific area reconstructions, such as David Strecker's 1984 work regarding "Proto-Tai Personal Pronouns." Strecker's proposed system of personal pronouns in Proto-Tai involves "three numbers, three persons, an inclusive/exclusive distinction and an animate/non-animate distinction in the third person non-singular."

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


Tai alphabets. The phrase is kind elephant rider.

Below is comparative table of Tai languages.

English Proto-Tai Thai Lao Northern Thai Shan Tai Lü Standard Zhuang Ahom
wind *dluom    /lōm/ /lóm/ /lōm/ /lóm/ /lôm/ /ɣum˧˩/ lum
town *mɯəŋA /mɯ̄aŋ/ /mɯ́aŋ/ /mɯ̄aŋ/ /mɤ́ŋ/ /mɤ̂ŋ/ /mɯŋ˧/ mvng
earth *ɗin /dīn/ /dìn/ /dīn/ /lǐn/ /dín/ /dei˧/ nin
fire *wɤjA /fāj/ /fáj/ /fāj/ /pʰáj/ or /fáj/ /fâj/ /fei˧˩/ phai
heart *cɤɰA /hǔa tɕāj/ /hǔa tɕàj/ /hǔa tɕǎj/ /hǒ tsǎɰ/ /hó tɕáj/ /sim/ chau
water *C.namC /náːm/ /nâm/ /nám/ /nâm/ /nà̄m/ /ɣaem˦˨/ nam

Writing systems

Graphical summary of the development of Tai scripts from a Shan perspective, as reported in Sai Kam Mong's Shan Script book.

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

See also


  1. ^ A1 designates a tone.
  2. ^ Unless indicated otherwise, all phonological shifts occurred at the primary level (node A).
  3. ^ Unless indicated otherwise, all phonological shifts occurred at the primary level (node D).
  4. ^ Also, the *ɯːk > *uːk shift occurred at node A.
  5. ^ Innovation at node N
  6. ^ For node B, the affected Proto-Tai syllable was *weː, *woː.
  7. ^ For node C, the affected Proto-Tai syllable was *weː, *woː.
  8. ^ Innovation at node J


  1. ^ Diller, 2008. The Tai–Kadai Languages, p. 7.
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian (10 July 2023). "Glottolog 4.8 - Daic". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. doi:10.5281/zenodo.7398962. Archived from the original on 24 August 2023. Retrieved 19 October 2023.
  3. ^ "The Zhuang ethnic minority". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Diller, Anthony; Edmondson, Jerry; Luo, Yongxian (2004). The Tai-Kadai Languages. Routledge (2004), pp. 5–6. ISBN 1135791163.
  5. ^ Ferlus, Michel (2009). Formation of Ethnonyms in Southeast Asia. 42nd International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics, Nov 2009, Chiang Mai, Thailand. 2009, p.3.
  6. ^ a b Pain, Frédéric (2008). An Introduction to Thai Ethnonymy: Examples from Shan and Northern Thai. Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 128, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 2008), p.646.
  7. ^ Edmondson, Jerold A. (2007). "The power of language over the past: Tai settlement and Tai linguistics in southern China and northern Vietnam". In Harris, Jimmy G.; Burusphat, Somsonge; Harris, James E. (eds.). Studies in Southeast Asian Linguistics (PDF). Bangkok, Thailand: Ekphimthai. p. 15. ISBN 9789748130064. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 July 2011.
  8. ^ Pittayaporn, Pittayawat (2014). Layers of Chinese Loanwords in Proto-Southwestern Tai as Evidence for the Dating of the Spread of Southwestern Tai. MANUSYA: Journal of Humanities, Special Issue No 20: 47–64.
  9. ^ Edmondson 2007, p. 16.
  10. ^ Zhengzhang, Shangfang (Winter 1991). "Decipherment of Yue-Ren-Ge (Song of the Yue boatman)". Cahiers de Linguistique — Asie Orientale. XX (2): 159–168. doi:10.3406/clao.1991.1345. Retrieved 23 May 2023.
  11. ^ Haudricourt, André-Georges. 1956. De la restitution des initiales dans les langues monosyllabiques : le problème du thai commun. Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 52. 307–322.
  12. ^ Luo, Yongxian. (1997). The subgroup structure of the Tai Languages: a historical-comparative study. Journal of Chinese Linguistics Monograph Series, (12), p. 232.
  13. ^ Pittayaporn, Pittayawat. 2009. The Phonology of Proto-Tai. PhD dissertation. Department of Linguistics, Cornell University.
  14. ^ Edmondson, Jerold A. 2013. Tai subgrouping using phylogenetic estimation. Presented at the 46th International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics (ICSTLL 46), Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, United States, 7–10 August 2013 (Session: Tai-Kadai Workshop).
  15. ^ Jonsson, Nanna L. (1991) Proto Southwestern Tai. PhD dissertation, available from UMI and SEAlang.net on http://sealang.net/crcl/proto/
  16. ^ "ABVD: Proto-Southwestern Tai". Archived from the original on 13 April 2017. Retrieved 29 November 2010.
  17. ^ Müller, André; Weymuth, Rachel (2017). "How Society Shapes Language: Personal Pronouns in the Greater Burma Zone". Asiatische Studien - Études Asiatiques. 71 (1): 426. doi:10.1515/asia-2016-0021. S2CID 99034913.
  18. ^ https://ecommons.cornell.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/6af02aa7-c444-481c-8d1b-ac0c25346f20/content
  19. ^ Pittayaporn, Pittayawat (August 2009). "THE PHONOLOGY OF PROTO-TAI". Retrieved 20 December 2023.

Further reading