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Thai dialects


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Thai (Siamese) belongs to the South-western branch of the family of proto-Tai. It is the official language of the Kingdom of Thailand and also includes the Lao dialects of Laos, the Shan dialects of Upper Burma, several Tai dialects spoken in Yunnan Province in China, such as Tai Lue in the Sipsongpanna Region and Tai Dam, which originated in North-western Vietnam but has now appeared greatly transformed in Laos and the U.S. -chiefly in Iowa- as part of the diaspora from the wars in Indochina.


Within South-western Tai there is a great deal of mutual intelligibility, these dialects sharing as much as 70% common lexicon. The most distinguishing feature of any dialect is tones - their number, shapes, and historical splits from the three tones of proto-Tai. The maximum number of possible phonemic tones is nine; seven is the highest number of tones within Thailand, namely the variety of Thai spoken in the South.


Official or Standard Thai is based on the idealized speech of the educated elite of Bangkok and large portions of the Central Plain. The other main regional dialects are Northern Thai, spoken around Chiangmai; Northeastern Thai (Isan), spoken to the east of Korat; and Southern Thai, spoken south of Chumpon and into neighbouring communities of northern Malaysia. The younger, educated population of these regions is bi-dialectal owing to the success of the central government's literacy programs. However, strong regional identity has served until recently to keep local dialects alive, even though Central Thai is on the ascendancy. In Bangkok itself there are large communities of Chinese (Taechiew and Hailam, for example) who speak varieties of Sino-Thai, shaped by age, ethnic origins, education, and social mobility. Likewise, sizable communities of Lao and Isan speakers reside in Bangkok as new residents or seasonal labourers. Because Bangkok is a mosaic of diverse speech communities, it is difficult to generalize about the "language of the street" because so little fieldwork has been done on urban conversational Thai.

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