CROSSROADS John Hartmann, Professor of Thai, Dept. Foreign Languages

Outline: Spoken and Written Languages of Southeast Asia

"In languages, there are only differences." Ferdinand de Saussure (Swiss linguist)

I. Language Families of Southeast Asia [See Map]
        Major Indigenous spoken languages:

        Major Foreign languages:
                Chinese dialects (spoken in Singapore and major cities of SEA)

II. Language Origins and Death

Originally Mon-Khmer languages dominated mainland SEA. The region was slowly inundated by Burmese and Thai migration from points in China. Vietnamese likewise pushed the Chams down and out (to Malaysia and Indonesia).  Thai is just one of many languages of the greater Tai language family, which has its origins in southern China.  Details, including a map of the 3 branches of the Tai language family, can be found at:

Many languages spoken by small groups of indigenous peoples (e.g. Negritos) were obliterated. Death of languages continues due to war, cultural and economic domination, small population size. Colonial powers promoted European languages (French, Dutch, English, Russian) and neo-colonialist states later extended their power through "central/standard" language programs, e.g. Bangkok Thai and Bahasa Indonesia. Tagalog has not succeeded as the national "Filipino" language to the degree that Bahasa Indonesia or Malay have.

III. Typological Features

Definition: By tone we mean the relative pitch of a syllable/word. Differences in tone results in differences in meaning. There are two major kinds of tones:
1) register (high, mid, low pitch);
2) contour (rising, falling)

Examples of 5 tones of Standard (Bangkok) Thai [click on word to hear it pronounced]





maa to come
High maa horse
Rising maa dog
Falling khii excrement, undesirable trait
Low khii to ride


A few other unique features of Thai and other SEA languages:

IV. Social Aspects: language and culture cannot be separated

A Brief Overview of Thai Sociolinguistics

Both spoken language and body language demonstrate a notion of deference or politeness in Thai. From one point of view, it promotes smooth interpersonal relationships; from another, it demonstrates unequal power relationships. In general, and on both the formal and informal level, deference is shown to seniors, i.e., those older. In Thai this is the "phii-noung" [elder-younger sibling] relationship, in which the younger pays respect to the elder, who, in turn protects and mentors the younger. This is why one of the first questions you may be asked by a Thai is, "How old are you?"

1. Male and female speech
                Formal first person (I) pronouns: Male = phom; Female = dichan
            Utterance- final polite particles:                     khrap                kha

Informally, kinship terms are generally used in place of pronouns (you, he, she):
Father = phou; Mother = mae, Child (son or daughter) = luke

2. Social hierarchy can be demonstrated in different words, such as "to eat."
King - sawoei (>Cambodian)
Monk - chan (>Pali)
Elegant - raprathaan
Polite - thaan
Informal - kin
Rude/animal - daek

3. Human (sacred) vs. animal (profane) distinction

Head Feet
Sacred/polite sisa thaaw
Common hua
Rude kaban tiin (animal)


4. Body language:

The Thai "wai": fold palms together, raised up to chin or nose, head lowered. The "wai" is initiated by the younger to the older. Greeting Other person’s head is not to be touched because it is considered somewhat sacrosanct as the locus of intelligence and spiritual substance. Feet, which are considered to be profane or polluted --- especially the sole of the foot --- should not be pointed at another person. Otherwise pointing the bottom of the foot at someone can be interpreted as an insult, the equivalent of "showing them (in American culture) the finger." Shoes are removed before entering a temple, a home, and in offering food to monks on their morning rounds. Rural people, who often go barefoot, wash their feet at the bottom of the stairs to the entrance of the house before going inside. Because many people eat on the floor, there is a practical reason for keeping the feet clean and removing shoes. In sitting, often on the floor, men cross their legs, women "tuck" their legs to the side in formal settings. Women also must wear clothing that covers their arms and legs when entering a Thai Buddhist temple.

V. Written Languages

All writing systems have been borrowed and adapted from foreign sources. South Indian scripts were borrowed and refashioned into Burmese (Myanmar), Thai, Lao, Khmer (Cambodian) and Old Javanese writing systems. All look different and have added or removed certain letters to meet the requirements of the spoken language. In Thai, for example, tone marks were added. However, the underlying shapes can be traced back to a common source. One unusual feature of Indic-derived scripts is that there are no spaces between words, except to indicate the end of a clause, or sentence or to indicate items in a series. (Mulberry, Palm Leaves, and Manuscript). Vietnamese had a demotic writing system based on Chinese called "Chu Nom" until the French Catholic missionaries devised and imposed a Roman alphabet. Today, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines use Roman scripts.

Map showing how Sanskrit spreads to Southeast Asia
Speeches of Southeast Asian

Guide Questions:

1. What are the major language families of Southeast Asia?

2. What languages are tonal?

3. How do you define linguistic tone? What do tones do to a word?

4. What are some of the conditions that lead to the death of a language. Why is language death a critical issue?

5. In what ways does Thai speech and body language reflect their culture?

6. What are the origins of the writing systems of SEA?



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