Isan language

From Academic Kids

Isan (ภาษาอีสาน [phasa isan])
Spoken in: Thailand
Region: Isan
Total speakers: 23 million
Ranking: 64 (1996)
Genetic classification: Tai-Kadai

      East Central

Official status
Official language of: --
Regulated by: --
Language codes
ISO 639-1--
ISO 639-2tai
See also: LanguageList of languages

Isan (or Isaan or Esarn) is the language of the Isan region of Thailand. The language was so named following the annexation of Lao territory by Thai King Rama V, Chulalongkorn, who extended the North-Eastern borders to the Mekong for the first time, after conquering (and razing) the Lao capital, Vientiane. The word Isan literally means "North-East", and is a Thai adaptation of an (unrelated) Khmer toponym of Sanskrit origin. Up to the early 20th century, there were no features to distinguished spoken Isan from lowland Lao, but Thai cultural influence (especially through the medium of television) has gradually produced hybrid features in the language. Isan is generally not used as a language of written communication, but when it is written, the Thai script is used (rather than the Laotian), creating another distinction between the two languages. Continued migration of Laotians into the Thai side of the Mekong valley (especially during the period of the Indochina wars and following the 1975 Laotian revolution) has tended to preserve Lao features of the language against Thai assimilation.

It is a tonal language of the Tai family, and is closely related to Lao, but has also been much influenced by Thai: the three are substantially mutually comprehensible. Phonology and the rules for determining tones vary in each dialect, but are generally similar to Lao. The Khorat dialect blends features of Isan and Thai. The vocabulary is largely the same as in Lao, except for the use of Thai loan words and neologisms. It was previously written using the Lao script, with Tua Tham used for religious inscriptions. Since the introduction of Thai language schooling in the 1920s it has been written in the Thai script.



Isan has no r sound; where this sound occurs in Thai, it is replaced in Isan by an l or a h. When writing Isan in the Thai script, ร is normally used to represent an l, while ฮ indicates an h.

The other main differences from Thai are: the pronunciation of ช as s rather than ch; the common palatalisation of ย; and the absence of consonant clusters (where a consonant cluster occurs in Thai, the equivalent word in Isan retains only the first consonant).


The following six tone pattern is typical:

Isan Tones Long vowel, or vowel plus voiced consonant Long vowel plus unvoiced consonant Short vowel, or short vowel plus unvoiced consonant Mai ek (อ่) Mai tho (อ้)
High consonant rising low falling high mid low falling
Mid consonant low rising low falling high mid high falling
Low consonant high high falling mid mid high falling

There are a further two, relatively rare tone marks: mai tri (อ๊) and mai chattawa (อ๋); these always indicate a high and a rising tone respectively.

The letters ห (high class) and อ (mid class) are often used as silent letters to produce the correct tone. In polysyllabic words, an initial high class consonant with an implicit vowel renders the following syllable also high class.


Isan contains many words not used (or more rarely used) in Thai. Some of the most common of these are:

  • ข้อย (koi) I/me
  • เจ้า (jao) you
  • บ่ (baw) not
  • หยัง (nyang) what
  • จัก (jak) how many
  • ใผ (pai) who
  • ใด (dai) which
  • แม่น (maen) be
  • เอ็ด (het) do
  • เว้า (waw) speak
  • เบิ่ง (beung) watch
  • ซิ (si) will
  • อีหลี (ee-lee) really
  • ไวๆ (wai wai) fast

Some differences can cause misunderstandings: the Isan word for buffalo (kuay) is pronounced like the vulgar Thai word for penis, while bak seew, meaning 'young friend', is considered pejorative in Thai.


nl:Isaan (taal)


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