How Thai language reinforces hierarchy and perpetuates social divides

The nature of the modern Thai hierarchy is primarily determined by Buddhist philosophy. They say the Thai language is the most powerful communication tool that displays the social divides of the local community. 

The Thai language is spoken by 80% of Thailand’s population. It emerged on the territory of the modern border between Vietnam and China. What makes it unique and how to distinguish an individual’s social status by the language only? Read this article to find out all your insights. 

Roots of Thai language 

Thai residents seem to be a homogeneous ethnic group. However, this is not the case. People in the very distant past inhabited the area. The gradual migration began back in 400 BC and accelerated in the XIII century AD. 

Some of the settlers stayed on the spot, while others migrated to the south. As a result, in the territory of modern Thailand live numerous ethnic groups, which, despite their external similarities, speak similar but not identical languages.

At that time, the Khmer culture had a powerful influence on Thai people. Meanwhile, the Thai language was born. It was founded in Sanskrit and Pali – Indian languages – and borrowed a lot from Khmer.

The Thai language belongs to the Thai family. The closest languages to Thai are Lao, Shan, Zhuang, and ones of the Red and Black people. The origins of these languages are people who settled in Central China.

Thai alphabet, language structure, and word formation

The Thai alphabet, created in the XIII century, has reached our time, though undergone a few changes. Nowadays, it includes forty-four consonants and fifteen vowels. There are no differences between lowercase and uppercase in Thai writing, nor spaces between words. Spaces are put only between sentences. 

Yet, the written language is not as easy as one might think. Most English speakers run into the problem of learning the Thai language due to several reasons. If consonants are written from left to right as in English, the vowels can be placed on the right, top, bottom, and even left side of the consonant. 

At the end of the sentence, Thais always put a “ka” part if Thai women speak and a “kap” one if males do. That is a sign of politeness and is essential to local people. You can ignore it with close friends, but most Thais might refuse to communicate with you and consider your talk to be rude and profane. 

Thai is spoken by 80% of the Thai population. The spoken language originated on the territory corresponding to the modern border between Vietnam and China.

The writing system was introduced by King Ramkhamhaeng during his reign from 1279 to 1298 and has remained almost unchanged since then. It was developed based on Sanskrit, Pali, and Granthi.

Currently, there are 4 main dialects in Thailand: southern, northern, northeastern, and central (Bangkok), which is taught in schools and preferred on television. Because of this, some Thais have problems. 

In addition to dialects, there are also different styles that are appropriate to use in a certain situation, for example, some words are used only by rich Asian brides or by representatives of royal blood, they constitute the so-called “royal language.” There is also a separate style for religious leaders to show politeness and courtesy, as well as rude and profanity.

While the English alphabet has 26 letters, Thai – 44 consonants, and 15 vowels, which form 32 vowel combinations, this makes the Thai alphabet the second largest in the world after Khmer. In more detail, in Thai, there are 32 capital letters and 44 consonant letters, 4 diacritical symbols for identifying tones, and 8 more hooks for different purposes. The names of the letters consist of at least two words.

In Thai writing, there is no distinction between uppercase and lowercase letters, and there are no spaces between words. Spaces are only used between sentences. Moreover, there is no punctuation.

If the consonants are written like ours from left to right, then the vowels can be located to the right, above, below, and even to the left of the consonant.

In addition, in the Thai alphabet, 70% of the consonant letters have 2-3 sounds, depending on the position in the word. 

If in English, an adjective always comes before a noun, then in Thai, it is the opposite. Not “red book,” but “book red.”

But this is quite easy in comparison with the tones. There are five tones in Thai: neutral, ascending, descending, low and high. It will not take one month until you learn to distinguish the incoming from the downstream. 

At the end of a sentence, the particles “ka” (if Asian brides speak) and “kap” (if a man) are always used. This is a sign of politeness and is also very important. You can not use it only with very close friends. Otherwise, they may not want to talk to you because they find your speech rude and profane.

The structure of the Thai language, like the Chinese one, is tonal. In general, these two languages are very similar in terms of sound. Most Thai words have only one syllable. They do not conjugate and change by gender. Besides, there are no specific signs by which a word can be attributed to a particular part of speech. It often changes due to the position in the sentence and the context.

There are many homonyms in the Thai language. The tone system helps to increase the number of words in the language. In general, there are five tones, but some dialects have seven ones available. 

Regional differences and Thai dialects 

Thai people speak different languages. Thailand currently has four main dialects: southern, northern, northeastern, and central, based in Bangkok. The last one is taught in schools and favored on television. 

The number one peculiarity of the Thai language is that the Northerners don’t understand the Southerners. Bangkok residents consider themselves as ones who speak the classic Thai language. 

The population of northeastern Thailand, which is about 16 million people, speaks a mixture of Lao and Thai. Over 70.5 million people, which is about 40% of Thais, speak Central Thai. It is considered to be the official Thai language. Yet, some adverbs and dialects still make it heterogeneous.

The situation is very similar to various English dialects. In Thailand, some movies are even shown with Thai subtitles that are easy to understand in the center of the country. That’s how the Isan films are shown in Phuket. When two Southerners meet to watch a movie, they add central Thai subtitles.

Southerners from Hua Hin to the Malaysian border speak South Thai, which is also called Dambro. There are many Malay words in the speech and four dialects that differ depending on the province. 

Apart from dialects, different styles are appropriate in a particular situation. There is even the Royal Thai language, which is fully recognized by only 1% of the population. It’s highly influenced by Sanskrit and the Khmer languages.

Thai people also have a separate style for religious leaders. They use custom vocabulary when being polite and courteous, as well as rough and offensive.

National greeting

Whether you have ever visited Thailand or not, you might be familiar with the traditional Thai greeting called Wai. It is a gesture where hands are folded together with palms as if for prayer, and the head is down. However, what seems to be an ordinary gesture is actually a subtle rule of etiquette.

People of the same social rank greet each other by folding their palms at chest level, their fingers facing upwards, in parallel with their bodies, and their thumbs touching the chest. When greeting people of higher social status, Thais raise their palms a bit upwards. The tips of thumbs should rest on the chin, and the tips of index fingers touch the tip of the nose. When greeting parents, monks, elderly, and respected people, Thais press their thumbs against their noses.

To honor the Buddha, they press their thumbs against the forehead, also called tall Wai. Elbows must be pushed to the body in all cases. The youngest person should be the first to do the Wai. 

If a person is old and his or her social status is high enough, they do not respond to Wai, but nod lightly or raise their right hand in return. Thais call such a gesture “getting Wai.”

Monks never answer the greeting, even if it is the king’s one. If people of different statuses and ages greet each other, e.g., a prince and an old man, the old man is the first to reach out. 

The Wai gesture above the forehead is the fate of the poor people who beg. By accepting anything from the elders, it is required to do the Wai before and after taking things. A Wai gesture also accompanies apologies and graces.

The idea of human inequality may come to many tourists in Thailand. Yet, it is part of the local culture. Monks and the elders are at the top of the social hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you should do Wai to an older woman selling fruit outside a hotel.

Wrapping up

The ancient traditions of Thailand have influenced the social inequality of the population. Although it is believed that in one country people speak the same language, in Thailand things are arranged in a different way.

There are a few dialects that sound like different languages, so Thais from various areas can hardly understand each other. Despite the elementary nature of grammar, learning Thai is complicated due to tones, complex sounds, and weird writing. Thailand remains the place where language displays social divides and hierarchy, making it unique and exciting to learn.