Thai at SOAS Language Centre
Thai is from the Tai-Kadai language family and is the official language of Thailand. Thai (formerly referred to as ‘Siamese’) is mutually intelligible with Lao but from a different language family to Burmese, Khmer and Malay, its western, Eastern and southern neighbours, respectively. The number of speakers of Thai is estimated at around 60 million, making it a major language of Southeast Asia with only Vietnamese and Indonesian possessing larger speaker numbers.
Thai has borrowed heavily from Sanskrit (via Pali, the language of Buddhist scripture) and its writing system is widely held to have come from the neighbouring Khmer language, hence ultimately from an Indian prototype. The writing system is complex and conservative, representing a phase of Thai that has subsequently undergone major changes in terms of the pronunciation of consonants and the number of tones.
Thai has a rich literary history, heavily influenced at the outset by Indic literary traditions, a fact that holds true for in much of continental and insular Southeast Asia, but with a growing number of contemporary writers of fiction who have few – if any – points of reference with the epic tradition. Interest in Thai language and culture has grown considerably over the last few decades and it is the Southeast Asian language with the greatest number of students at the SOAS Language Centre.