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Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia

Languages of South East Asia at SOAS: Thai

Thai is a member of the Tai family of languages which are dispersed over a wide area of Asia from northern Vietnam to northern India. It is the national language of Thailand and as such, is spoken by some 65 million people. Distinct dialects are spoken in the north, the north-east and the south of the country, but the dialect of the Central Region is regarded as the standard and is used both in schools and for official purposes throughout the country. Thai is a tonal language which is written in an alphabetic script related to many other writing systems in South-East Asia and India. Words are not separated as in western languages, and vowels, like those in many Indian and South East Asian scripts, sometimes appear above a consonant, below it, in front of it, or even surrounding it on three sides. The earliest surviving writings in Thai are stone inscriptions, dating back to the 13th century. By the 18th century a refined royal court of poetry and drama had begun to emerge. By the early 20th century printing and the demands of a growing reading public saw the development of prose fiction and today’s diverse literature which comprises short stories and novels, ranging from popular tear-jerking romances, ghost stories and kung fu novels to more serious works that explore human relationships in some depth or examine issues of social relevance. Understanding Thailand as a tourist destination is a straightforward matter for the country’s many visitors; anyone wishing to understand the country in any more depth will fins a knowledge of Thai indispensable.

If you would like to learn Thai contact Dr David Smyth (ds5@soas.ac.uk) Department of the Languages and Cultures of South East Asia)

Degree Programmes

Degree Course Options

Language Centre

Other Resources

  • Teaching Thai Tone Rules

Please Note: Not all courses and programmes are available every year

Thai language and literature

Thailand, formerly called Siam, is unique among the countries of South East Asia in having preserved its independence throughout the period of western colonization of the region in the 19th century. In 1932 a coup brought an end to the absolute monarchy and established in its place the constitutional monarchy which exists today. Ever since, the military have played a dominant role in the governing of the country and coups, plots and counter-coups have been a salient feature of the domestic political scene. After a turbulent decade in the 1970s Thailand is now enjoying a period of political stability and rapid economic growth.

The earliest surviving writings in Thai are stone inscriptions, dating back to the 13th century, which often record historical or religious events. By the 18th century a refined court literature encompassing poetry and drama had begun to emerge, sometimes building upon indigenous traditions, sometimes adopting and adapting works of foreign origin. The introduction of printing, the emergence of a reading public as a result of the spread of education, and contact with the West stimulated a demand for more reading material towards the end of the 19th century, and by the early 20th century prose fiction had begun to gain popular acceptance.

Today there is an enormous diversity of short stories and novels available, ranging from popular tear-jerking romances, ghost stories and kung fu novels to more serious works that explore human relationships in some depth or examine issues of social relevance. The last decade has seen a revolution in the publishing industry and bookstalls are now filled with specialist monthlies catering for a wide range of tastes.

The first year of Thai Studies offers a grounding in the modern language, with opportunity for practice in both speaking, reading and writing; language classes are supplemented by more general background lectures on historical and cultural aspects of the country. In the second year, students continue their study of the language from more advanced materials and begin to study various modern literary texts. In the final year, a number of options are available, including more advanced language study, novels, classical and modern poetry, or a specially approved topic in the field of language or literature which is examined by extended essay.

To find out more, try some of these books:
  • Thailand: Buddhist kingdom as modern nation-state by C. F. Keyes: 1987, Boulder and London, Westview Press, 252 pp.
  • Thailand (a volume in the Insight Guides series) ed. Hans Hoefer: 1983 (5th ed.: 1st 1977), Apa Productions (Hong Kong) Ltd, 342pp.
  • Culture shock! Thailand by Robert and Nanthapa Cooper: 1982, Singapore, Times Books International, 238 pp.
  • Thailand: the lotus kingdom by Alistair Shearer: 1989, London, John Murray, 278 pp.
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