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Tai language

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Tai language

Proto-Tai is the reconstructed common ancestor (proto-language) of all the Tai languages, including modern Lao, Shan, Lu, Tai Dam, Ahom, Northern Thai, Thai, Bouyei, and Zhuang. The Proto-Tai language is not directly attested by any surviving texts, but has been reconstructed using the comparative method. It has been reconstructed in 1977 by Fang-Kuei Li and by Pittayawat Pittayaporn in 2009.[1][2]



The following table shows the consonants of Proto-Tai according to Li Fang-Kuei's A Handbook of Comparative Tai (1977), considered the standard reference in the field. Note that Li does not indicate the exact quality of the consonants denoted here as , tɕʰ and , which are indicated in his work as č čh ž and described merely as palatal affricates.

Proto-Tai consonants
(Li 1977)
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stops Voiceless p t k
Voiceless aspirated tɕʰ
Voiced b d g
Glottalized ʔb ʔd ʔɟ ʔ
Fricatives Voiceless f s x h
Voiced v z ɣ
Nasals Voiceless ɲ̊ ŋ̊
Voiced m n ɲ ŋ
and Glides
Voiceless ,
Voiced w r, l j

The table below lists the consonantal phonemes of Pittayawat Pittayaporn's 2009 reconstruction of Proto-Tai (Pittayaporn 2009:70). Some of the differences are simply different interpretations of Li's consonants: the palatal consonants are interpreted as stops, rather than affricates, and the glottalized consonants are described using symbols for implosive consonants. However, Pittayaporn's Proto-Tai reconstruction has a number of real differences from Li:

  1. Pittayaporn does not allow for aspirated consonants, which he reconstructs as secondary developments in Southwestern Tai languages (i.e., after Proto-Tai split up into different languages).
  2. He also reconstructs a contrastive series of uvular consonants, namely */q/, */ɢ/, and */χ/. Note that no modern dialect preserves a distinct series of uvular consonants. Pittayaporn's reconstruction of these sounds is based on irregular correspondences in differing modern Tai dialects among the sounds /kʰ/, /x/ and /h/, in particular in the Phuan language and the Kapong dialect of the Phu Thai language. The distinction between /kʰ/ and /x/ can be reconstructed from White Tai language. However, words with /x/ in White Tai show three different types of correspondences in Phuan and Kapong Phu Thai: Some have /kʰ/ in both languages, some have /h/ in both, and some have /kʰ/ in Phuan but /h/ in Kapong Phu Thai. Pittayaporn reconstructs these correspondence classes as reflecting Proto-Tai /x/, /χ/ and /q/, respectively.[3]

There is a total of 33-36 consonants, 10-11 consonantal syllabic codas, and 25-26 tautosyllabic consonant clusters.

Proto-Tai consonants
(Pittayaporn 2009)
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Stops Voiceless p t c k q
Voiced b d ɟ g ɢ
Glottalized ɓ ɗ ʄ ʔ
Fricatives Voiceless f s (ɕ) x χ h
Voiced v z (ʑ) ɣ
Nasals Voiceless ɲ̥ (ŋ̥)
Voiced m n ɲ ŋ
and Glides
Voiceless ,
Voiced w r, l j

Tai languages have many fewer possible consonants in coda position than in initial position. Li (and most other researchers) construct a Proto-Tai coda inventory identical with the system found in modern Thai.

Proto-Tai consonantal syllabic codas
(Li 1977)
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop -p -t -k
Nasal -m -n
Liquid or Glide -w -j

Pittayaporn's Proto-Tai reconstructed consonantal syllable codas also include *-l, *-c, and possibly *-ɲ, which are not included in most prior reconstructions of Proto-Tai (Pittayaporn 2009:193). Below is a table of the consonantal syllabic coda inventory proposed by Pittayaporn (2009).

Proto-Tai consonantal syllabic codas
(Pittayaporn 2009)
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar
Stop -p -t -c -k
Nasal -m -n (-ɲ)
Liquid or Glide -w -l -j

Consonant clusters

Li (1977) reconstructs the following initial clusters:

Proto-Tai consonant clusters
(Li 1977)
Labial Alveolar Velar
Unvoiced Stop pr-, pl- tr-, tl- kr-, kl-, kw-
Aspirated Unvoiced Stop pʰr-, pʰl- tʰr-, tʰl- kʰr-, kʰl-, kʰw-
Voiced Stop br-, bl- dr-, dl- gr-, gl-, gw-
Implosive ʔbr-, ʔbl- ʔdr-, ʔdl-
Voiceless Fricative fr- xr-, xw-
Voiced Fricative vr-, vl-
Nasal mr-, ml- nr-, nl- ŋr-, ŋl-, ŋw-

Pittayaporn (2009) reconstructs two types of complex onsets for Proto-Tai:

  1. Tautosyllabic clusters – considered one syllable.
  2. Sesquisyllabic clusters – "one-and-a-half" syllables. ("Sesquisyllabic" is a term coined by James Matisoff.) However, sesquisyllabic clusters are not attested in any modern Tai language.

Tautosyllabic consonant clusters from Pittayaporn (2009:139) are given below, some of which have the medials *-r-, *-l-, and *-w-.

Proto-Tai consonant clusters
(Pittayaporn 2009)
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular
Unvoiced Stop pr-, pl-, pw- tr-, tw- cr- kr-, kl-, kw- qr-, qw-
Implosive br-, bl-, bw- gr-, (gl-) ɢw-
Fricative sw- xw-, ɣw-
Nasal ʰmw- nw- ɲw- ŋw-
Liquid ʰrw-, rw-

Pittayaporn's Proto-Tai reconstruction also has sesquisyllabic consonant clusters. This idea was originally due to Michel Ferlus.[4] The larger Tai-Kadai family is reconstructed with disyllabic words that ultimately collapsed to monosyllabic words in the modern Tai languages. However, irregular correspondences among certain words (especially in the minority non-Southwestern-Tai languages) suggest to Pittayaporn that Proto-Tai had only reached the sesquisyllabic stage (with a main monosyllable and optional preceding minor syllable), and the subsequent reduction to monosyllables occurred independently in different branches, with the resulting apparent irregularities reflecting Proto-Tai sesquisyllables.

Examples of sesquisyllables include:

Voiceless stop + voiceless stop (*C̥.C̥-)
  • *p.t-
  • *k.t-
  • *p.q-
  • *q.p-
Voiceless obstruent + voiced stop (*C̥.C̬-)
  • *C̥.b-
  • *C̥.d-
Voiced obstruent + voiceless stop (*C̬.C̥-)
  • *C̬.t-
  • *C̬.k-
  • *C̬.q-
Voiceless stops + liquids/glides (*C̥.r-)
  • *k.r-
  • *p.r-
  • *C̥.w-
Voiced consonant + liquid/glide
  • *m.l-
  • *C̬ .r-
  • *C̬ .l-
Clusters with non-initial nasals
  • *t.n-
  • *C̬ .n-

Other clusters include *r.t-, *t.h-, *q.s-, *m.p-, *s.c-, *z.ɟ-, *g.r-, *m.n-; *gm̩.r-, *ɟm̩ .r-, *, *g.lw-; etc.


Below are Proto-Tai vowels from Pittayaporn (2009:192). Unlike Li's system, Pittayaporn's system has vowel length contrast. There is a total of 7 vowels with length contrast, as well as 5 diphthongs.

Proto-Tai vowels
(Pittayaporn 2009)
  Front Back
unrounded unrounded rounded
short long short long short long
Close /i/
Mid /e/
Open     /a/

The diphthongs from Pittayaporn (2009) are:

  • Rising: */iə/, */ɯə/, */uə/
  • Falling: */ɤɰ/, */aɰ/


Proto-Tai had three contrasting tones on syllables ending with sonorant finals ("live syllables"), and no tone contrast on syllables with obstruent finals ("dead syllables"). This is very similar to the situation in Middle Chinese. For convenience in tracking historical outcomes, Proto-Tai is usually described as having four tones, namely *A, *B, *C, and *D (Pittayaporn 2009), where *D is a non-phonemic tone automatically assumed by all dead syllables. These tones can be further split into a voiceless (*A1 [1], *B1 [3], *C1 [5], *D1 [7]) and voiced (*A2 [2], *B2 [4], *C2 [6], *D2 [8]) series. The *D tone can also be split into the *DS (short vowel) and *DL (long vowel) tones. With voicing contrast, these would be *DS1 [7], *DS2 [8], *DL1 [9], and *DL2 [10].

Proto-Tai tone notation
Type of voicing *A *B *C *D
Voiceless series
(Letter notation)
A1 B1 C1 D1
Voiceless series
(Numerical notation)
1 3 5 7
Voiced series
(Letter notation)
A2 B2 C2 D2
Voiced series
(Numerical notation)
2 4 6 8

The following table of the phonetic characteristics of Proto-Tai tones was adapted from Pittayaporn (2009:271). Note that *B and *D are phonetically similar.

Proto-Tai tonal characteristics
(Pittayaporn 2009)
*A *B *C *D
Type of final sonorant sonorant sonorant obstruent
Pitch height mid low high low
Contour level low rising high falling low rising
Vowel duration long short
Voice quality modal creaky glottal

Proto-Tai tones take on various tone values and contours in modern Tai languages. These tonal splits are determined by the following conditions:

  1. "Friction sounds": Aspirated onset, voiceless fricative, voiceless sonorant
  2. Unaspirated onset (voiceless)
  3. Glottalized/implosive onset (voiceless)
  4. Voiced onset (voiceless)

In addition, William J. Gedney developed a "tone-box" method to help determine historical tonal splits and mergers in modern Tai languages. There is a total of 20 possible slots in what is known as a "Gedney Box." (For a tutorial on Gedney boxes, see "A checklist for determining tones in Tai dialects" (1989) by William Gedney).

Gedney Box template
*A *B *C *DS *DL
A1 B1 C1 DS1 DL1
A1 B1 C1 DS1 DL1
A1 B1 C1 DS1 DL1
Voiced A2 B2 C2 DS2 DL2

Proto-Tai tones correspond regularly to Middle Chinese tones.[5][6] (Note that Old Chinese did not have tones.) The following tonal correspondences are from Luo (2008). Note that Proto-Tai tone *B corresponds to Middle Chinese tone C, and vice versa.

Sinitic–Tai tonal correspondences
Middle Chinese
Chinese name Notes
(Middle Chinese)
*A Unmarked A 平 Level (Even) Unmarked
*B Marked by -' C 去 Departing Marked by -h
*C Marked by -้ B 上 Rising Marked by -x
*D Unmarked D 入 Entering Marked by -p, -t, -k

Gedney (1972) also included a list of diagnostic words to determine tonal values, splits, and mergers for particular Tai languages. At least three diagnostic words are needed for each cell of the Gedney Box. The diagnostic words preceding the semicolons are from Gedney (1972), and the ones following the semicolons are from Jackson, et al. (2012).[7]

Diagnostic words for Tai tones
*A *B *C *DS *DL
1: Voiceless
ear, leg, head; dog egg, to split, knee; new, four rice, shirt, to kill, fever, five; to wait, face flea, cooked/ripe, vegetable; six broken/torn, gums, to carry on a shoulder pole; fruit, guest
2: Voiceless
year, eye, to eat; fish forest, chicken, old; to blow, short (height) aunt (elder), rice seedlings, to boil; near, short (length) frog, liver, to hurt; duck, to fall/drop lung, wing, to pound; mouth, to dry in the sun, to embrace
3: Voiceless
to fly, red, star; leaf, nose shoulder, young man, to scold; (water) spring village, crazy, to open (mouth); sugarcane fishhook, raw/unripe, chest; to extinguish sunshine, to bathe, flower
4: Voiced hand, water buffalo, ricefield; snake, house older sibling, father, dry field; to sit, ashes, urine, beard water, younger sibling, wood, horse; tongue, belly bird, to tie up, to steal; to wash (clothes), ant knife, (one's) child, blood, outside; root, nasal mucus, to pull

Note that the diagnostic words listed above cannot all be used for other Tai-Kadai branches such as Kam-Sui, since tones in other branches may differ. The table below illustrates these differences among Tai and Kam-Sui etyma.

Tai vs. Kam-Sui tones
Gloss Tai Kam-Sui
pig A1 B1
dog A1 A1
rat A1 C1
ricefield A2 (na) B1 (ja)
tongue A2 (lin) A2 (ma)

Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai

In 2007, Peter K. Norquest undertook a preliminary reconstruction of Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai, which is ancestral to the Hlai languages, Ong Be language, and Tai languages.[8] There are 28 consonants, 5-7 vowels, 9 closed rimes (not including vowel length), and at least 1 diphthong, *ɯa(C).

Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai consonants
Norquest (2007)
Labial Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Unvoiced Stop (C-)p (C-)t ʈ (C-)c (C-)k (C-)q (Cu)ʔ
Voiced Stop (C-)b (Ci/u)d (Cu)ɖ (C-)ɟ (Ci/u)g (C-ɢ)
Unvoiced Fricative f s ɕ x h
Voiced Fricative (C[i])v z ɣ
Voiced Nasal (H-)m (H-)n ɲ (H-)ŋ(w)
Liquid or Glide (H-)w, j (H-)l, r

Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai medial consonants also include:

  • *C(V)-m
  • *C(V)-n
  • *C(V)
  • *C(V)
  • *C(V)(i)l
  • *C(u)r
  • *p(i)l
  • *k-l
Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai open rimes
Norquest (2007)
Height Front Central Back
Close /iː/ /ɯː/ /uː/
Mid (/eː/) (/oː/)
Open /ɛː/ /aː/
Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai closed rimes
Norquest (2007)
Height Front Central Back
Close /i(ː)C/ /ɯ(ː)C/ /u(ː)C/
Mid /e(ː)C/ /ə(ː)C/ /o(ː)C/
Open /ɛːC/ /aːC/ /ɔC/

Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai also includes the diphthong *ɯa(C).

Syllable structure

Unlike its modern-day monosyllabic descendants, Proto-Tai was a sesquisyllabic language (Pittayaporn 2009). Below are some possible Proto-Tai syllable shapes from Pittayaporn (2009:64).

Proto-Tai syllable structure
(Pittayaporn 2009)
Open syllable Closed syllable
Monosyllable *C(C)(C)V(:)T *C(C)(C)V(:)CT
Sesquisyllable *C(C).C(C)(C)V(:)T *C(C).C(C)(C)V(:)CT


  • C = consonant
  • V = vowel
  • (:) = optional vowel length
  • T = tone

During the evolution from Proto-Tai to modern Tai languages, monosyllabification involved a series of 5 steps (Pittayaporn 2009:181).

  1. Weakening (segment becomes less "consonant-like")
  2. Implosivization
  3. Metathesis
  4. Assimilation
  5. Simplification (syllable drops at least one constituent)


R. M. W. Dixon (1998) suggests that the Proto-Tai language was fusional in its morphology. He arrives at this conclusion from observing related sets of words both within and among the language's descendants that appear to be related through ablaut.[9]


Proto-Tai had a SVO (subject–verb–object) word order like Chinese and all modern-day Tai languages. Proto-Tai syntax was heavily influenced by Chinese.


See Tai languages#Pittayaporn (2009).

See also



  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Pittayaporn, Pittayawat (2009). "Proto-Southwestern-Tai Revised: A New Reconstruction". Journal of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, Volume 2. Page 123.
  4. ^ Ferlus, Michel (1990). Remarques sur le Consonnantisme du Proto-Thai-yay. Paper presented at the 23rd International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics. University of Texas at Arlington, Oct. 5-7.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Jackson, Eric M., Emily H.S. Jackson, and Shuh Huey Lau (2012). A sociolinguistic survey of the Dejing Zhuang dialect area. SIL Electronic Survey Reports 2012-036, SIL International, East Asia Group.
  8. ^ Norquest, Peter K. 2007. A Phonological Reconstruction of Proto-Hlai. Ph.D. dissertation. Tucson: Department of Anthropology, University of Arizona.
  9. ^


  • Gedney, William J., and Thomas J. Hudak. William J. Gedney's Southwestern Tai Dialects: Glossaries, Texts and Translations. [Ann Arbor, Mich.]: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1994. Print.
  • Pittayaporn, Pittayawat. 2009. The Phonology of Proto-Tai. Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Linguistics, Cornell University.
  • Thurgood, Graham. 2002. "A comment on Gedney's proposal for another series of voiced initials in Proto-Tai revisited." Studies in Southeast Asian Languages, edited by Robert Bauer. Pacific Linguistics. pp. 169–183. (updated 2006)

Further reading

  • Brown, J. Marvin. From Ancient Thai to Modern Dialects. Bangkok: Social Science Association Press of Thailand, 1965.
  • Ferlus, Michel. 1990. "Remarques sur le consonantisme de Proto Thai-Yay (Révision du pro tai de Li Fangkuei)." Paper presented at the 23 rd International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Languages and Linguistics. University of Texas at Arlington
  • Gedney, William J. 1989. "Future directions in Comparative Tai Linguistics." Selected papers on Comparative Tai Studies, ed. by Robert J. Bickner, John Hartmann, Thomas John Hudak and Patcharin Peyasantiwong, 7-116. Ann Arbor: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan.
  • Li, Fang-kuei. 1977. Handbook of Comparative Tai. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawai’i Press.
  • Pittayaporn, Pittayawat. 2008. "Proto-Southwestern Tai: A New Reconstruction". Paper presented at the 18th Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi.
  • Sarawit, Mary. 1973. The Proto-Tai Vowel System. University of Michigan, Department of Linguistics: Ph.D. dissertation.

External links

  • ABVD: Proto-Tai word list
  • ABVD: Proto-Southwestern Tai word list


  • Database query to Tai–Kadai etymology
  • Thai Lexicography Resources
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