Linguistic and Historical Continuities of the Tai Dam and Lao Phuan: Case Studies in Boundary Crossings
John Hartmann, Ph.D.

Northern Illinois University
Illinois, USA


One of the most salient and enduring features of ethno-cultural identity is language. The Tai Dam and Lao Phuan, just two examples of Tai ethnic minorities who migrated or were moved across the borders of Vietnam and Laos and resettled in Thailand as early as two centuries ago, are remarkable for having preserved their sense of ethnic uniqueness. Other Tai groups have similar histories and exhibit parallel cultural and linguistic continuities and processes of change: the Lue and Phu Tai, are two other examples that come readily to mind. Using the analytical tools of comparative-historical linguistics, we will examine one significant set of underlying language patterns that have persisted in the Tai Dam and Lao Phuan communities over time, namely tones. This paper presents a new description determined by Hartmann, Wayland, Thammavongsa in 2003 of the tonal array of Lao Phuan from Xiang Khuang, Laos to complement the analysis of Lao Lao Phuan tones recorded by Tanprasert (2003) in thirty-three villages of nineteen provinces in Thailand. The earlier work on Lao Phuan by Chamberlain (1971, 1975) is examined in light of these new findings. Tai Dam and Lao Song have identical tonal arrays that can be traced back to origins in northwestern Vietnam. Lao Phuan is, in terms of tonal patterns, a copy of Lao of Luang Prabang, except for its tell-tale split of the proto-Tai *B tone, which also provides the clearest marker of enduring continuity between Lao Phuan of Laos with all of the Lao Phuan dialects in Thailand. Prior classification of Lao speech domains by Hartmann (1980) into three regional dialects – Northern (Luang Prabang), Central (Vientiane), and Southern (Pakse) – is affirmed but refined by now calling them “Mekong Lao,” a notion borrowed from Crisfield (p.c.) as my means of drawing attention to the uniqueness of “non-Mekong” Lao Phuan. A cursory summary of some of the historical events and sociological factors that lend to the persistence of the language and culture of these two ethnic Tai groups will be presented. Their “tribal labels” are political constructs that refer back to historical states that no longer exist. Still, the preservation of underlying tonal patterns unique to both groups provides an interesting “linguistic DNA sample,” showing the continuity of language and culture across national boundaries and two centuries of Thai, Tai Dam, and Phuan history.