Regional Dialects of Thai, part 1 of 2 Posted by on Sep 1, 2010 in Beginner

Reading this blog has probably mis-led you to believe there is only one ‘Thai Language’. There really isn’t. It’s a collection of four major regional dialects (ถาษาถิ่น), all summed up as the ‘Thai Language’ (ภาษาไทย).

I know, you’re probably shocked and feeling a strong sense of disbelief, but trust me.

As you should already know, Thailand is divided up into four main regions: south, central, northeast, and north. This division is made due to multiple factors, including significant geography aspects, language differences, historical differences, and economic differences.

This blog post will talk about only the differences that’ll help you understand the dialects. I’m definitely not an expert in Thai regional dialects, but I’ll give you a few tips to help you out with understanding and identifying them.

Let’s start with the north. The northern part of Thailand was once a different country, called the Kingdom of Lanna. Ever go to Chiang Mai and wonder what this Lanna thing was all about? Now you know. Well, Lanna back in its day was just as powerful as the Kingdom of Siam (back then it wasn’t called Thailand). More recently, it’s had significant language influence from the bordering country of Laos. You can tell if a person comes from the north by the springy-ness of the way they speak – almost an over-use of the rising and falling tones. For example, the [over] use of the word เจ้า. The dialect is called Northern Thai, or ภาษาเหนือ.

The southern region is mostly ignored by Thais of other regions, with the exception of the beautiful islands and resorts its well known for. The southern dialect is spoken the fastest, and the locals like to shorten words to single syllables, and shorten sentences to one or two words. Formal education is poor in this area, and it shows in the way they speak. Since the south has quite a bit of island tourism, quite a lot of Thais from Bangkok move to this region to make money. As such, you’ll meet a lot of people that speak the central dialect. The dialect of the south is called Southern Thai, or ภาษาไต้. Just as a side note, if you go really really deep south, you’ll find a population of Muslims that speak yet another dialect that isn’t based on Thai.

The central region is economically and politically the most powerful in Thailand, but in terms of population, a minority. Central Thais are the most educated, and as such, the most literate. This is important, as central Thais pronounce words as they are written. And 99% of all Thai books are written in central Thai. If you take Thai language lessons, they’ll all be taught in central Thai. In other words, you’ve most likely been learning central Thai. Ever walk out your classroom then hear a Thai speak, and find yourself not understanding a single syllable that came out his mouth? It turns out all Thai students use books written in central Thai, and they all understand it, but many don’t actually ever learn to speak it. As such, you’ll find central Thai to be the clearest spoken and the most easy to understand. The central dialect is either called Central Thai or Bangkok Dialect, or ภาษากลาง.

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  1. yatyisam:

    Nice article! I have found that my Thai friends from Bangkok seem to have the most problem understanding the southern dialect because as you said, they speak very quickly. I hope that some day my Thai language skills are good enough that I can tell the difference between the way to speak in the different regions!

  2. ati:

    Deer yatyisam,
    I am a Thai from the south. When I was a 3- year-old boy, I spoke only southern dialect with my parent as my first language; nobody surrounded me spoke Central language to me, but I could understand the central Thai language well via listening from the radio( It might be funny for you if it was only a channel of ours to be linked with our government).
    When I first day went to school, my teacher forced me to speak official centralThai then I shouted “I can’t speak!” to him in southern dialect form. But it took just 2-3 days of attempting to speak central Thai and that case has changed me into a bilingual person since then, within a week. Guess what? Because southern dialect is based on ancient Thai language, so don’t worry about learning southern dialect due to the distinction in speaking way.

  3. Biff:

    “…as central Thais pronounce words as they are written.”
    That’s not actually true.
    Central Thai speakers generally speaking, do not pronounce ร in the ‘formal’ way that it ‘should’ be used.
    Speakers of Southern Thai dialects, on the other hand, do pronounce it as a matter of habit.
    When other Thai dialects are written using Central Thai as a writing system (Northern Thai has it’s own) even though the tone rules are still applied in the same way, there are different ‘tone sets’ or ‘maps’ applied to the sounds. The one used in the Central Region is just one of them. Originally from the Sukhothai people teaching the people from the Ayuthaya areas of influence, I believe.