Isan language

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Lao Isan
Native to Thailand
Region Isan, and adjacent portions of Northern and Eastern Thailand. Large numbers of speakers also found in Bangkok.
Ethnicity Isan people
Native speakers
21 million (1995 census)[1]
2.3 million of these use both Isan and Thai at home[1]
Tai Tham alphabet[2]
Thai alphabet (de facto),
Lao alphabet (formerly)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tts
Glottolog nort2741[3]

Isan is a group of Lao dialects spoken in the northern two-thirds of northeastern Thailand, also known as the Isan region, as well as in adjacent portions of northern and eastern Thailand. It is the native language of the Lao people, known as "Isan" in Thailand, spoken by 20 million or so people in Thailand,[1] a third of the population of Thailand and 80% of all Lao speakers. The language remains the primary language in 88% of households in Isan.[1] It is commonly used as a second, third, or even fourth language by the region's other linguistic minorities, such as Northern Khmer, Khorat Thai, Kuy, Nyah Kur and other Tai or Austronesian-speaking peoples. The Isan language has unofficial status in Thailand and can be differentiated as a whole from the Lao language of Laos by the increasing use of Thai grammar, vocabulary and neologisms.[4] Code-switching is common, depending on the context or situation. Adoption of Thai neologisms has also further differentiated Isan from standard Lao.[5]


The Tai languages originated in what is currently known as central and southern China in an area stretching from Yunnan to Guangdong as well as Hainan and adjacent regions of northern Vietnam. Tai speakers arrived in South-East Asia around 1000 CE, displacing or absorbing earlier peoples and setting up mueang (city-states) on the peripheries of the Indianised kingdoms of the Mon and Khmer people. The Tai kingdoms of the Mekong Valley became tributaries of the Lan Xang mandala (Isan: ล้านซ้าง, RSTG: lan chang, Lao: ລ້ານຊ້າງ, BGCN: lan xang, /lȃːn sȃːŋ/) from 1354-1707. Influences on the Isan language include Sanskrit and Pali terms for Indian cultural, religious, scientific and literary terms as well as the adoption of the Pallava alphabet as well as Austronesian influences to the vocabulary.

Lan Xang split into the of Kingdom of Vientiane, the Kingdom of Luang Phrabang and the Kingdom of Champasak, but these became vassals of the Thai state. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, several deportations of Lao peoples from the densely populated western bank of the Mekong to the hinterlands of Isan were undertaken by the Thai armies, especially after the revolt of Anouvong in 1828, when Vientiane was looted and depopulated. This weakened the Lao kingdoms as the population was shifted to the kingdoms in Isan and small pockets of western and north-central Thailand, under greater Thai control.[6][7]

Development of Isan

Isan speakers became politically separated from other Lao speakers after the Franco-Siamese War of 1893 would lead Siam to cede all of the territories east of the Mekong to France, which subsequently established the French Protectorate of Laos. In 1904, Sainyabuli and Champasak were ceded to France, leading to the current borders between Thailand and Laos today. A 25 km demilitarised zone west of the river banks allowed for easy crossing, and Isan remained largely neglected for sometime. Rebellions against Siamese and French incursions into the region included the Holy Man's Rebellion (1901-1904), led by self-proclaimed holy men. The Lao people also joined in the rebellion, but was crushed by Thai troops in Isan.[8] At first, Isan was administered under Lao local rulers subject to the Siamese Court under the monthon system of administration, but this was abolished in 1933, bringing Isan under direct control from Bangkok.[9]


Nationalistic aims to promote central Thai culture and language were directed at regional minorities, such as the Lao of Isan.

Heavy-handed nationalist policies were adopted in 1933 with the end of the absolute monarchy in Thailand. Many were instituted during the premiership of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (1938-1944). Although Lao languages were banned from education in 1871, a new public education and new schools were built throughout Isan, and only Thai was to be used by government and media. References to Lao people were erased and propagation of Thai nationalism was instilled in the populace. The language was renamed "Northeastern Thai".

Discrimination against the Isan language and its speakers was commonplace, especially when large numbers of Isan people began arriving in Bangkok in the latter half of the 20th century, permanently or for seasonal work. Although this blatant discrimination is rarer these days, most of these nationalistic Thaification policies remain in effect.

Post-war period to present

Resistance to Thai hegemony continued. During the course of World War II and afterwards, the Free Thai Movement bases in Isan made links with the Lao Issara movement. After the implementation of Thaification policies, many prominent Isan politicians were assassinated, and some Isan people moved to Laos. The Communist Party of Thailand led insurrections during the 1960s and 1980s, supported by the communist Pathet Lao and some factions of the Isan populace.[10] Integration continued, as highways and other infrastructure were built to link Isan with the rest of Thailand. Due to population pressures and unreliable monsoons of the region, Isan people began migrating to Bangkok for employment. Isan speakers began to shift to the Thai language, and the language itself is absorbing larger amounts of Thai vocabulary. Universities such as Mahasarakham and Khon Kaen are now offering classes on Isan language, culture, and literature. Attitudes towards regional cultures have relaxed and the language continues to be spoken, but Thai influences in grammar and vocabulary continue to increase.[11][12]


Isan belongs to the Tai branch of the Tai–Kadai languages. Within Tai, Isan is a Southwestern Tai language, linking it with most Tai languages of Southeast Asia and immediately adjacent regions of southern China. Within this grouping, Isan is part of the Lao-Phuthai group, which includes the speech of the Lao, Phu Thai, and Nyaw. The national and official language of Thailand, by contrast, is in the closely related Chiang Saeng languages.[13] However, within Thailand, Isan is considered a regional dialect of Thai.[14] Outside of Thailand, the language is classified as either its own Lao-Phuthai language due to social and historical reasons or generally as just a distinct subset of the Lao language, mostly by linguists and often Isan speakers themselves. Thai, Isan, and Lao are all mutually intelligible to some degree, but Isan is closer to standard Lao than to standard Thai in ordinary speech.[15] Thai, Isan and Lao share most of their basic vocabulary as well as a large corpus of shared Sanskrit, Pali, and Khmer loanwords in academic and high-brow language.

Identical vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai
"language" ภาษา, /pʰáː sǎː/, phasa ພາສາ, /pʰáː sǎː/, phasa ภาษา, /pʰaː sǎː/, phasa
"city" เมือง, /mɯ´ːaŋ/, mueang ເມືອງ, /mɯ´ːaŋ/, muang เมือง, /mɯaŋ/, mueang
"religion" ศาสนา, /sȁːt sáʔ nǎː/, satsana ສາດສະໜາ/Archaic ສາສນາ, /sȁːt sáʔ nǎː/, satsana ศาสนา, /sàːt sàʔ nǎː/, satsana
"government" รัฐบาล, /lāt tʰáʔ bàːn/, ratthaban ລັດຖະບານ/Archaic ຣັຖບາລ, /lāt tʰáʔ bàːn/, ratthabane รัฐบาล, /rát tʰàʔ baːn/, ratthaban
"heaven" สวรรค์, /sáʔ ʋǎn/, sawan ສະຫວັນ/Archaic ສວັນຄ໌, /sáʔ ʋǎn/, savane สวรรค์, /sàʔ wǎn/, sawan
"water" น้ำ, /nâm/, nam ນ້ຳ, /nâm/, nam น้ำ, /nám/, nam
"child" เด็ก, /dék/, dek ເດັກ, /dék/, dék เด็ก, /dèk/, dek
"to be happy" ดีใจ, /dìː tɕàːj/, di chai ດີໃຈ, /dìː tɕàːj/, di chai ดีใจ, /diː tɕaj/, di chai
"street" ถนน, /tʰáʔ nǒn/, thanon ຖະໜົນ/Archaic ຖນົນ, /tʰáʔ nǒn/, thanône ถนน, /tʰàʔ nǒn/, thanon
"sun" อาทิตย์, /ʔaː tʰīt/, athit ອາທິດ/Archaic ອາທິຕຍ໌, /ʔaː tʰīt/, athit อาทิตย์, /ʔaː tʰít/, athit


Lao speakers in Thailand refer to themselves as Lao people and as speakers of the Lao language, phasa lao, "Lao language", (ภาษาลาว, /pʰáː săː láːu/, cf. Lao: ພາສາລາວ), but this is generally only used in Isan by speakers speaking amongst themselves. Speakers have also gradually come to accept the term phasa (thai) isan, "Isan language", (ภาษา[ไทย]อีสาน, /pʰáː săː [tʰáj] iː săːn/, cf. Lao: ພາສາ[ໄທ]ອີສານ, phasa [thai] isane). The name is of Sanskrit derivation, and means "northeast", in this case, northeast of central Thailand. The name was originally the name of Isanapura, a capital of the Chenla kingdom that once also controlled the region. The term has long been used to refer to the people and language of the region and is used by Isan people to distance themselves from the Lao people of Laos. It also seems to be displacing the term Lao even among speakers. The use of Thai has a double meaning, as it refers to both the people of Thailand, the Thai people, but in Isan and Lao, the meaning also just refers to people in general, so phasa thai isan can signify both the Isan language of "Thailand", as well as the language of the Isan "people". The term phasa thai lao (ภาษาไทยลาว, /pʰáː săː tʰáj láːu/, cf. Lao: ພາສາໄທລາວ), "Lao language in Thailand" or "language of the Lao people" is also used.


In Thailand, the Isan language is officially classified as a dialect of the Thai language. It is generally referred to as "Northeastern Thai", or phasa thai tawan ok chieng neua (ภาษาไทยตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ , /pʰaː săː tʰaj tàʔ wan ɔ`ːk tɕʰǐaŋ nɯːa/), or as the "Thai language of the Isan region", or phasa thai thin isan (ภาษาไทยถิ่นอีสาน, /pʰaː săː tʰaj tʰìn ʔiː săːn/. Use of pasa [thai] isan is also common (Thai: /pʰaː săː [tʰaj] ʔiː săːn/). Most of the other linguistic minorities in the region generally refer to the people and language as Lao. Within Laos, the Isan variety is referred to as phasa lao, phasa [thai] isan, phasa thai lao or as "the Lao language of Isan", phasa lao isan /pʰaː săː láːu ʔiː săːn/, phasa lao isane). In most other languages, the language is known either by variations of "northeastern Thai" or "Isan".

Geographical distribution

File:Thailand Isan.png
A map showing the Isan Region in red. The region is a stronghold of the language.

Isan is spoken in the 20 provinces that make up Northeastern Thailand, an area approximately the size of England and Wales combined. It is also a native language in large portions of Uttaradit and Phitsanulok, which are generally referred to as Northern Thailand, as well as the more northerly provinces of what is considered Eastern Thailand. Speakers were historically separated from direct Thai influence by a series of mountain ranges, such as the Phetchabun and Dong Phaya Yen mountains to the west, the Sankhamphaeng mountains to the south-west, and the Dongrak in the south, separating the Isan and Northern Khmer speakers from Khmer. To the east and north, the Mekong River generally is considered the 'dividing line' between Isan and Lao. Isan speakers and people of Lao descent make up the overwhelming majority of the region. The southern third of Isan is occupied by Isan speakers, but also includes large linguistic minorities such as those of the Northern Khmer, Kuy, and speakers of Thai Khorat, a transitional dialect spoken in the mixed Thai, Khmer, and Lao settlements of Nakhon Ratchasima. Pockets of other Mon-Khmer languages, such as Aheu language, Nyah Kur, Bru, Nyeu, and others, as well as tribal Tai languages such Saek, Tai Dam, and the more closely related Nyaw and Phuthai languages are spoken in small pockets in the region. Recent immigrations of Central Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese speakers can also be found in the region. This is in contrast to the situation in Laos, where Lao speakers make up only a little more than half of the population and are concentrated along the Mekong River and other low-land riparian areas, whereas Mon-Khmer and Hmong-Mien languages predominate in the upland areas.[16][17]

Legal status

Lao only enjoys official status in Laos. In Thailand, the local Lao dialects are officially classed as a dialect of the Thai language, and it is absent in most public and official domains. However, Thai has failed to supplant Lao as the mother tongue for the majority of Isan households. Lao features of the language have been stabilised by the shared history and mythology, morlam folk music still sung in Lao, and a steady flow of Lao immigrants, day-labourers, traders, and growing cross-border trade.[18]

Language Status

The Lao (Isan) language in Thailand is classified by Ethnologue as a "de facto language of provincial identity" which is defined as a language that "is the language of identity for citizens of the province, but this is not mandated by law. Neither is it developed enough or known enough to function as the language of government business." It continues to be an important regional language for the ethnic Lao and other minorities that live beside them, but it does not have any official status in Thailand. Although the population of Lao speakers is much smaller in Laos, the language there enjoys official status, and it is the primary language of government, business, education, and inter-ethnic communication.[19] Even with close proximity to Laos, Isan speakers must master Thai and very few Isan people can read the Lao script due to lack of exposure.[11]

Written language usage and vitality

American linguist Joshua Fishman developed the Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS) to categorise the various stages of language death. The expanded GIDS (EGIDS) is still used to explain the status of a language on the continuum of language death.[20] The written language for Isan—both the secular Tai Noy script and the religious Tua Tham script—are currently at Stage IX which is described as a "language [that] serves as a reminder of heritage identity for an ethnic community, but no one has more than symbolic proficiency." Today, only a handful of monks in charge of the ancient temple libraries in Isan, some local professors, and a few experts are able to read and write the language.[21][22]

Spoken language usage and vitality

The spoken language is currently at Stage VIA, or "vigorous", on the EGIDS scale, which is defined by Ethnologue as a language that is used for "face-to-face communication by all generations and the situation is sustainable". According to data from 1983, 88% of Isan households were predominantly Isan speaking, with 11% using both Thai and Isan at home, and only 1% using exclusively Thai.[11] Although this sounds promising for the continued future of the Isan language, there are many signs indicating that the language could reach Stage VIB, or "threatened", which is defined as a "language used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users". As a strong command of Thai is necessary for advancement in most government, academic, and professional realms, and in order to work in areas like Bangkok where Isan is not the local language. The negative perception of the language, even amongst native speakers, often causes speakers to limit use of the language unless they are in the company of other Isan speakers. Parents may view the Isan language as a detriment to the betterment of their children, who must be able to speak central Thai proficiently to advance in academia or other career paths besides agriculture. Although there are large numbers of Isan speakers, the language is at risk from Thai relexification.[11] There is also a generational gap, with older speakers using more normative Lao features, whereas the youth are using a very "Thaified" version of Isan or switching to Thai generally. Many academics and Isan speakers are worried that the language is beginning to decline unless it can be promoted beyond its status as a de facto regional language and its written language revived.[23]

Continued survival

The Lao folk music molam (หมอลำ, /mɔ̆ː lám/, cf. Lao: ໝໍລຳ/ຫມໍລຳ or lam lao (/lám láːo/, cf. Lao: ລຳລາວ) has gained in popularity in Thailand, with many Isan singing artists featured during off-peak hours on Thai national television. Crown Princess Sirindhorn was the patron of the 2003 "Thai Youth Mo Lam Competition" and Isan-language variants of the Central Thai luk thung (ลูกทุ่ง, /lȗːk tʰúŋ/, cf. Lao: ລູກທົ່ງ, /lȗːk tʰoŋ/, louk thông) music are accepted in national youth competitions. Within Isan, many students participate in mo lam clubs where they learn the music.[11] Universities are also now offering classes about Isan language, culture, former alphabets, and literature. The Isan people are also exposed to a steady trickle of Laotian immigrants, seasonal immigrants, students as daily visitors, merchants, traders, and fishermen.[18] Isan is also connected with Laos by three bridges, which link the cities of Nong Khai-Viantiane (also by rail), Mukdahan-Savannakhét, and Nakhon Phanom-Thakhèk along the Thai-Lao border, respectively. The language will likely continue to have Thai relexification and gradual language shift as possible threats to its existence.[11]


Although as a whole, the Isan dialects are grouped separately from Lao dialects in Laos by influences from the Thai language, dialectal isoglosses mirror the population movements from Lao regions. These regional varieties vary in tone quality and distribution and a small number of lexical items, but all are mutually intelligible. Up to fourteen regional variations can be found within Isan, but they can be grouped into five principal dialect areas:[11][24][25]

Lao Dialects
Dialect Lao Provinces Thai Provinces
Vientiane Lao (ภาษาลาวเวียงจันทน์) Vientiane, Nakone Louang Vientiane, Bolikhamxai Nong Bua Lamphu, Chaiyaphum, and parts of Nong Khai, Yasothorn, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani.
Northern Lao (ภาษาลาวเหนือ) Louang Phrabang, Xaignabouli, Oudômxai, Phôngsali, and Louang Namtha. Loei and parts of Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Phitsanulok, and Uttaradit.
Northeastern Lao/Tai Phuan (ภาษาลาวตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ/ภาษาไทพวน) Xiangkhouang and Houaphane. Parts of Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani.*2
Central Lao (ภาษาลาวกลาง) Savannakhét and Khammouane. Mukdahan and parts of Sakon Nakhon, Nong Khai and Bueng Kan.
Southern Lao (ภาษาลาวใต้) Champasak, Saravane, Xékong, and Attapeu. Ubon Ratchathani, Amnat Charoen, and parts of Yasothorn, Buriram, Si Sa Ket, Surin, Nakhon Ratchasima and portions of Sa Kaew, Chantaburi
Western Lao (ภาษาลาวตะวันตก) Not spoken in Laos. Kalasin, Maha Sarakham, Roi Et and portions of Phetchabun.

Vientiane Lao Dialect

The dialect of the capital of Vientiane, now shifting due to the movement of peoples from other regions of Laos, is the prestige dialect of Laos and is also the dialect, with a few minor differences, as that of the city of Nongkhai and other areas of Isan settled by the Tai Wieng (ไทเวียง, /tʰáj víaŋ/, cf. Tai Noy/Lao: ໄທວຽງ), or "Vientiane people" on the Thai side of the border. Tai Wieng also refers to small groups found in a few pockets of western portions of Central Thailand where people from Vientiane were forcibly settled and are reported to speak a very similar dialect.

Vientiane Dialect Six-Tone Distribution[26]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Low-Rising Middle Low-Falling (Glottalised) Low-Falling Mid-Rising
Middle Low-Rising Middle High-Falling (Glottalised) High-Falling Mid-Rising
Low High-Rising Middle High-Falling High-Falling Middle (High Middle)

Northern Lao (Luang Prabang) dialect

The dialect spoken in Luang Prabang was the dialect of the royal capital and the Lao Royal Family. Although the dialects of Northern Thai are classified as Chiang Saen languages more akin to Central Thai, the dialects of are very similar in intonation and vocabulary, and in some ways more closely related with each other than with either Thai or the other Lao dialects. The tones are similar to those used in northern Isan provinces such as Loei, Udon Thani, and other regions settled by the Tai peoples of Luang Prabang. Unlike other dialects, with six or seven tones, Luang Prabang only uses five.

Northern Lao (Luang Prabang) Dialect Tone Distribution[27]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Mid-Falling Rising Middle High-Falling (Glottalised) High-Falling Mid-Rising
Middle Low-Rising Middle Mid-Rising (Glottalised) High-Falling Mid-Rising
Low Low-Rising Middle Mid-Rising Mid-Rising Middle

Northeastern Lao Dialect (Tai Phuan)

Northeastern Lao is better known as Tai Phuan (RTSG)/Tai Phouane (BGN/PCGN) and is mainly associated with the Phuan, who are a distinct Lao people of Xiengkhouang and portions of Thailand such as Sakon Nakhon and Udon Thani. Phuan speakers are also found in a few small pockets in central Thailand where there ancestors were forcibly settled to provide labour for increased rice production and defend the capital in case of invasion. Tai Phuan is generally considered a dialect of Lao, but it is classified as a Chiang-Saen language, in the same group as Northern and Central Thai.

Northeastern Lao (Phuan) Dialect Tone Distribution[28]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Mid-Rising Middle High-Middle High Low
Middle High-Mid-Rising-Falling Middle High High Low
Low High-Mid-Rising-Falling High-Falling High High-Middle Low-Falling

Central Lao

The central Lao dialect groupings predominate in the Lao provinces of Savannakhét and Khammouane, and the Thai province of Mukdahan and other regions settled by speakers from these regions.

Central Dialect Tone Distribution (Savannakhét)[29]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Rising Middle Low-Falling Rising Low-Falling
Middle High-Falling Middle Rising-Falling Rising Low-Falling
Low High-Falling Middle Rising-Falling High-Falling Middle

Southern Lao

Southern Lao is the primary dialect of Champassak, most of the southern portions of Laos, portions of Thailand once under its control, such as Ubon Rachathani, and much of southern Isan, as well as small pockets in Steung Treng (Chieng Taen) Province in Cambodia.

Southern Dialect Tone (Pakxé) Distribution[30]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High High-Rising Lower-Middle Low (Glottalised) Low High-Rising
Middle Middle Lower-Middle Low-Falling (Glottalised) Low High-Rising
Low Mid-Falling Lower-Middle Low-Falling Low-Falling Lower-Middle (shortened)

Western Lao

Western Lao does not occur in Laos, but can be found in Kalasin, Maha Sarakham, and Roi Et Provinces.

Western Lao Dialect Tone Distribution (Roi Et)[31]
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel
High Low-Rising Middle Low Low Low
Middle Rising-Mid-Falling Middle Mid-Falling Low Low
Low Rising-High-Falling Low High-Falling Middle Middle

Writing system

Tai Noy alphabet

File:Manuscripts in the Yunnan Nationalities Museum - DSC03958.JPG
Palm-leaf manuscripts, such as these from the Dai people of Yunnan, were used throughout South and South-East Asia to record literature. Many examples in Isan can be found in Buddhist libraries in the region.

The Isan language was previously written in the ancient Lao alphabet, known as Tai Noy (Isan: ไทน้อย, /tʰáj nɔ̑ːj/, cf. Lao: ໄທນ້ອຍ/Archaic ໄທນ້ຽ) or Tua Lao (Isan: ตัวลาว, /tuaː láːo/, cf. Lao: ຕົວລາວ). The script was adapted from ancient Thai, which itself was adapted from ancient Khmer, which in turn was adapted from the Pallava alphabet of South India, which is ultimately derived from the Brahmi script of India. The letter forms of the modern-day Lao alphabet are mostly unchanged, but orthographic conventions, especially in spelling of words, has been standardised and modified by various reforms of the Lao alphabet in Laos. Education in the script was taught by monks at the temples, who used to run schools for children, and because men were encouraged to join the monastery at some point in their youth. The script was used for secular literature, such as monuments, display, record-keeping, or to compose songs, poetry, folk tales, and religious matter aimed at the people.

The alphabet was banned in Thailand in 1871 (2414 B.E.), when the government banned all languages but standard Thai in the classroom. The use of the script most likely continued up until the period during World War II, when the Siamese abolished the semi-authonomous Monthon administrative and began to build public schools in the area.[32] Isan today is an unwritten language, but it is often written in the Thai alphabet, such as in the lyrics of karaoke videos from Isan. The Lao language in Laos continues to be written in a modern adaptation of Tai Noy as its official script, and is romanised according to a French-based BGN/PCGN schemes as recommended by the Lao Commission Nationale de Toponymie.[33]

Thai alphabet

Isan written in Thai script for a morlam karaoke VCD. The same Lao text would be ໜີໄປບວດໃຫ້ມັນແລ້ວສາບໍ່.

Isan remains a generally unwritten language, although the Thai script is used to write the Isan language. Evidence of this can be seen in karaoke videos of morlam and lukthung artists from Isan, informal communication, and academic studies of the Isan language in Thailand. Cognate words are spelled according to Thai spelling, even though consonant clusters found in Thai are absent in spoken Lao. Most indigenous Tai vocabulary has similar spelling in Thai and Lao, but where Isan vocabulary differs, the spelling is generally similar to Lao. Since the tones of Isan and Thai differ, sometimes the rarer tone marks—here shown over Thai letter "": "ก๋" and "ก๊" are employed to represent different tones. Distinctive features include the substitution of /h/ () for Lao words that are pronounced and written as /r/ () in Thai and /s/ () for words that are pronounced and written as /tɕʰ/ () in Thai. The Thai alphabet, however, cannot transcribe the unique phonology of Isan, such as the different tone patterns, the sounds /ɲ/ and /v/, nor the different vowel distributions of cognate vowels. The Thai alphabet is romanised according to the Royal Thai General System of Transcription (RTGS) method, based on Thai phonology.

Comparison of Thai and Lao scripts for Isan

The Thai and Lao alphabets both derive from earlier Tai scripts that were developed from earlier Khmer scripts. Although very similar to each other, the Lao alphabet does not have the special consonants used to write Sanskrit and Pali terms. Many words, as Thai, Isan and Lao are closely related, are spelled the same, but Lao spelling is phonetic whilst Thai spelling is etymological. The following is a line from the old song Duang Champa (RTGS)/Douang Champa (BGN/PCGN), known throughout Isan and Laos:

Isan (Thai alphabet): เห็นสวนดอกไม้บิดาปลูกไว้ตั้งแต่ใดมา เวลาหงอยเหงา ยังช่วยบรรเทาให้หายโศกา
RTGS Romanisation: Hen suan dokmai bida pluk wai tang tae dai ma. Wela ngoi ngao, yang chuai banthao hai hai soka.
IPA (Thai [Central Thai]): /hĕn sŭan dɔ`k máj bì daː plùːk wáj tâŋ tɛ`ː daj ma wɛ laː ŋɔ̆ːj ŋăo janŋ tɕʰûaj ban tʰao hâj hăːj sŏː kaː/
IPA (Lao/Isan [Vientiane]): /hĕn sŭan dɔ̏ːk mâj bí daː pȕːk vȃj tȃŋ tɛ̄ː daj máː vɛ´ láː ŋɔ̆ːj ŋăo ɲáŋ sūaj ban tʰáo hȁj hăːj sŏː kaː/
Lao (Modern): ເຫັນສວນດອກໄມ້ ບິດາປູກໄວ້ ຕັ້ງແຕ່ໃດມາ ເວລາຫງອຍເຫງົາ ຍັງຊ່ວຍບັນເທົາໃຫ້ຫາຍໂສກາ
Lao (Archaic): ເຫັນສວນດອກໄມ້ບິດາປຼູກໄວ້ຕັ້ງແຕ່ໃດມາ ເວລາຫງຽເຫງົາ ຍັງຊ່ວຽບັຣເທົາໃຫ້ຫາຽໂສກາ
BGN/PCGN Romanisation: Hén souan dokmai bida pouk vai tang tè dai ma. Véla ngoi ngao, gnang souay banthao hai hai sôka.
IPA (Lao [Vietniane]): /hĕn sŭan dɔ̏ːk mâj bí daː pȕːk vȃj tȃŋ tɛ̄ː daj máː vɛ´ láː ŋɔ̆ːj ŋăo ɲáŋ sūaj ban tʰáo hȁj hăːj sŏː kaː/

Other scripts

An example of the Tai Tham alphabet formerly used in Laos and Isan for religious literature.

A Mon-based alphabet, known as the Tai Tham alphabet (Isan: ตัวธรรม, /tùa tʰám/, cf. Lao: ຕົວທຳ/Archaic Lao: ຕົວທັມ, BGN/PCGN: Toua Tham) was adapted from the alphabet of the Northern Thai language during the brief union of the mandalas of Lan Na and Lan Xang under King Setthathirath from 1546-1551, when the libraries of Chiang Mai were copied and brought to Lan Xang. The name of the script literally means "dharma letters", indicative of its use to transcribe religious literature.

The use of the script is extinct, but a few specialists, such as the monks that maintain the libraries, are able to read it.[34] Secret messages and occult rituals were recorded in the Khom script during the Holy Man's Rebellion. It was invented by Ong Kommandam. Also known generally as Khom is the Khmer alphabet. It was not used to write the Isan language per se, but it is often used to write prayers and other Sanskrit, Pali, or Khmer literature, and is the official script of the Khmer language in Cambodia.

Overview of the relationship to Thai

Mutual intelligibility with Thai

Thai and Isan (as well as Lao) share grammatical structures and most lexical terms, including a large corpus of shared Sanskrit and Pali loan words that entered the language through Indian cultural and religious influences. Educated and technical language are similar, but Thai speakers do have trouble understanding Isan. Many everyday common words are very different, and the differing tone distribution, which is phonemic in the tonal languages, vowel pitch and duration, and manner of speaking hinder understanding. Isan speakers, on the other hand, are generally bilingual in Thai, and even those who do not speak Thai well can understand it to a certain degree due to exposure in school and media. However, the level of understanding depends on sociolinguistic factors such as age and level of schooling.[35]


The Isan region is much poorer and less educated than other regions of Thailand, with the majority of people from the region employed in agriculture, despite the infertile soils and drought-prone conditions. As a result, Isan speech is often considered the speech of provincial country-bumpkins. With the large internal migration of Isan speakers to Bangkok and other cities, many Isan people became employed in blue-collar and other menial professions, giving the language a low-class status. The language is also deprecated for the Lao-like features of the language, including many words that are similar in sound to many pejorative or offensive words used in Thai. The low status of the language and the prestige of Standard Thai is contributing to the language shift currently taking place among younger Isan people.[36]

False cognates

Many Isan (and Lao) terms are very similar to words that are profane, vulgar or insulting in the Thai language, features which are much deprecated. For instance, younger girls and slightly older boys—in reference to the locutor's age—are often prefixed with อี่ (/ʔīː/, cf. Lao: ອີ່) and อ้าย (/ʔâːj/, cf. Lao: ອ້າຍ/archaic ອ້າຽ), respectively. In Thai, the similarly sounding อี, i (/ʔiː/) and ไอ้, ai (/ʔâj) are often prefixed before a woman's or man's name, respectively, or alone or in phrases which are considered extremely vulgar and insulting. This includes crude and exceedingly taboo expressions such as อีตัว "i tua", "whore" (/ʔiː nɔːŋ/) and ไอ้บ้า, "ai ba", "son of a bitch" (/ʔâj baː/).

False Cognates
Isan Lao IPA Usage Thai IPA Usage
บัก, bak ບັກ, bak /bák/ Used alone or prefixed before a man's name, only used when addressing a man of equal or lower socio-economic status and/or age. บัก, bak /bàk/ Alone, refers to a "penis" or in the expression บักโกรก, bak khrok, or an unflattering way to refer to someone as "skinny".
หำน้อย, ham noy ຫຳນ້ອຍ/archaic ຫຳນ້ຽ, ham noy /hăm nɔ̑ːj/ Although ham has the meaning of "testicles", the phrase bak ham noy is used to refer to a small boy. Bak ham by itself is used to refer to a "young man". หำน้อย, ham noy /hăm nɔ´ːj/ This would sound similar to saying "small testicles" in Thai, and would be a rather crude expression. Bak ham is instead ชายหนุ่ม, chai num (/tɕʰaːj nùm/) and bak ham noy is instead เด็กหนุ่ม, dek num (/dèk nùm/) when referring to "young man" and "young boy", respectively, in Thai.
หมู่, mu ໝູ່, mou /mūː/ Mu is used to refer to a group of things or people, such as หมู่เฮา, mu hao (/mūː háo/, cf. Lao: ໝູ່ເຮົາ/ຫມູ່ເຮົາ), or "all of us" or "we all". Not to be confused for พวก, phuak /pʰǔak/ The Isan word หมู่ sounds like the Thai word หมู (/mŭː/) To refer to groups of people, the equivalent expression is พวก, phuak (/pʰǔak/), i.e., พวกเรา, phuak rao (/pʰǔak rào/ for "we all" or "all of us". Use of mu to indicate a group would make the phrase sound like "we pigs".
ควาย, khway ຄວາຍ/archaic ຄວາຽ, khouay /kʰúaːj/ Isan vowel combinations with the semi-vowel "" are shorted, so would sounds more like it were written as ควย. ควาย, khway /kʰwaːj/ Khway as pronounced in Isan is similar to the Thai word ควย, khuay (/kʰúaj/), which is another vulgar, slang word for "penis".

Phonological differences

The Isan language shares its phonology with its parent language, Lao. In contrast to Thai, Isan and Lao both use /v/ as an allophone of /w/, which only exists as /w/ in Thai, when used as a consonant at the beginning of syllables and /ɲ/ whereas Thai only uses /j/. With the influx of Thai vocabulary, Thai pronunciation is also commonplace, especially in formal and technical language.[37][38]

Simplification of consonant clusters
Isan is written in Thai, but consonant clusters are usually not pronounced.

  • เพลง, phleng (/pʰleːŋ/), "song" and ครอบครัว, khrop khrua (/kʰrɔ̂ːp kʰrua/ are pronounced as if เพง, pheng (/pʰéːŋ/, cf. Lao: ເພງ, phéng) and คอบคัว (/kʰɔ̂ːp kʰúaː/, cf. Lao: ຄອບຄົວ, khop khoua)
  • Thai /kʰl/, /kʰr/, /kl/, /kr/, /pʰl/, /pʰr/, /tʰr/, /tr/ are pronounced in Isan as /kʰ/, /kʰ/, /k/, /k/, /pʰ/, /pʰ/, /tʰ/, /t/, respectively.

Replacement of /r/ with /l/ or /h/
Words which are etymologically containing "" (/r/) are pronounced as "" /l/ or "" /h/.

  • รถ, rot (/rót/, "car", and รำ, ram (/ram/), "to dance" are pronounced as if ลด, lot (/lōt/, cf. Lao: ລົດ/archaic ຣົຖ, lôt) and ลำ, lam (/lám/, cf. Lao: ລຳ).
  • รัก, rak (/rák/), "to love" and ร้อน, ron (/rɔ´ːn/, "hot" are pronounced as if ฮัก, hak (/hāk/, cf. Lao: ຮັກ, hak) and ฮ้อน, hon (/hɔ̑ːn/, cf. Lao: ຮ້ອນ, hone), respectively.
  • When Isan is written with the Thai alphabet, "" (/h/) is used to replace "" (/r/). This is analogous to the Lao letter "" (/h/) which is used to write many words that were historically /r/.
  • With the exception of the Isan word ลำ, most words with "" continue to be written that way even if pronounced as "" /l/. In Lao, the equivalent letter "" (/l/) is sometimes pronounced as /r/ if it is a loan word or amongst some speakers, but it is often replaced by the more phonetical "" (/l/) in modern writing.
  • In Thai, "" is pronounced as /l/ in casual speech, but not in cultivated or formal speech.
  • Lao speakers in Laos tend to have more words with /h/ than Isan, which tends to use /l/, due to Thai influence, but this distribution varies amongst speakers and cross-border dialects, but /l/ is more common than /h/ in all dialects.

Replacement of /tɕʰ/ (or allphonic variant /ʃ/) with /s/
Isan pronounces words with the letters "" and "" (/tɕʰ/) as "" (/s/) and the letter "" (also /tɕʰ/) as if pronounced as the letter "" (also /s/).

  • ช้าง, chang (/tɕʰáːŋ/), "elephant", and ฌาน, chan (/tɕʰaːn/), "meditative absorption" (chan, tɕʰaːn) are pronounced as ซ้าง, sang (/sâːŋ/, cf. Lao: ຊ້າງ) and pronounced as ซาน, san (/sáːn/, cf. Lao: ຊານ, sane), respectively.
  • ฉบับ, chabap (/tɕʰàʔ bàp/), "copy", and ฉิ่ง, ching (/tɕʰìŋ/), "cymbal", are pronounced as สบับ, sa bap (/sáʔ báp/, cf. Lao: ສະບັບ) and สิ่ง, sing (//, cf. Lao: ສິ່ງ), respectively.
  • When Isan is written, the Thai letter "" is replaced by "" the letters "" and "" remain unchanged.
  • Educated speakers due to the influence of Thai will pronounce /tɕʰ/ or /ʃ/, but /s/ is still common in Isan speech.

Replacement of /j/ with /ɲ/ in Certain Words
Some words that that begin the letters "" and "" (both /j/) are sometimes pronounced as /ɲ/, which does not exist in Thai.

  • ผู้หญิง, phuying (/pʰûː jǐŋ/), "girl", and ยาย, yai (/jaːj/), "maternal grandmother", are pronounced as ผู้หญิง, phuying (/pʰȕː ɲíŋ/, cf. Lao: ຜູ້ຍິງ, phou gning) and ยาย, nyai (/ɲáːy/, cf. Lao: ຍາຍ/archaic ຍາຽ, gnai), respectively.
  • * ยา, ya (/jaː/), "medicine", and อยู่, yu (/jùː/) "to be somewhere" are pronounced as ยา, ya (/jaː/, cf. Lao: ຢາ, ya) and อยู่, yu (/jūː/, cf. Lao: ຢູ່, you), respectively, but never as /ɲaː/ and /ɲūː/.
  • Lao uses the letter ""—when used as a consonant—for /ɲ/ and "" for /j/. Isan words that are cognate to Lao words with "" are pronounced as /ɲ/ and those cognate to "" as /j/.
  • The sound /ɲ/ is absent in Thai, but common in Kham Meuang.

Replacement of /w/ with /ʋ/
It is very common for Isan speakers to pronounce consonantal "" (/w/) as /ʋ/, a sound not found in Thai.

  • เวร, wen (/weːn/), "to turn", วาสนา, watsana (/wâːt sàʔ nǎː/), "luck", are often pronounced as เวร, ven (/ʋéːn/, cf. Lao: ເວນ) and วาสนา, vatsana (/ʋâːt sáʔ nǎː/, cf. Lao: ວາດສະໜາ/archaic ວາສນາ), respectively.
  • There is no separate letter for /w/ or /ʋ/, which is written with "" in Thai and Isan, and "" in Lao.

Shortening of Diphthongs
Diphthongs that contain vocalic are often shortened.

  • กว้าง, kwang (/kwâːŋ/), "wide", and ควาย, khwai (/kʰwaːj/), "water buffalo", are pronounced as ก้วง, kuang (/kuȃːŋ/, cf. Lao: ກວ້າງ, khouang) and ควย, khuay (/kʰúɛj/, cf. Lao: ຄວາຍ/archaic ຄວາຽ, khouay), respectively.
  • The pronunciation of "water buffalo" in Isan sounds like the Thai word for "penis".

Retention of certain historical Lao pronunciations

  • แม่โขง, mae khong (/mɛˆː kʰǒːŋ/), "Mekong River", is pronounced as แม่ของ, mae khong (/mɛ̄ː kʰɔːŋ/, cf. Lao: ແມ່ຂອງ, mèkhong).


Although most words are shared between Thai, Isan, and Lao, problems in understanding can arise as tone is a phonemic feature in all three speech varieties. Standard Thai has five tones, although Lao dialects have anywhere from five to seven.[39][40][41] The Thai word กา, ka (/kaː/ is pronounced with a middle tone in Standard Thai, based on the speech of Bangkok. In Laos, the cognate ກາ, ka (/kàː/), is low-falling in Standard Lao, based on the speech of Vientiane. In other Lao dialects, the same word could be pronounced with a low, rising, or high tone. In context, this presents few challenges, but a word out of context could be mistaken for other words. Tone in Thai determined by complex rules determined by consonant tone class, presence of tone markers, and vowel type. Since these rules are catering to Thai tonal patterns, they are deficient for representing Isan speech and their distinct tonal patterns.[42]

Lexical differences from Thai

Although the Thai language has greatly influenced the vocabulary of Isan, many basic words in common use and in everyday conversation, most of the lexical items are more akin to Lao as used in Laos. These words may be understood by context, but alone, can be confused with Thai words of similar sound. The Lao romanisation may appear different as it is based on a French system.

Identical vocabulary in Lao and Isan but distinct from Thai
English Isan Lao Thai
"no", "not" บ่, /bɔː/, bo ບໍ່, /bɔː/, bo ไม่, /mâj/, mai
"to speak" เว้า, /vâw/, wao ເວົ້າ, /vâw/, vao พูด, /pʰûːt/, phut
"how much" ท่อใด, /tʰɔ̄ː dàj/, thodai ທໍ່ໃດ, /tʰɔ̄ː dàj/, thodai เท่าไหร่*, /tʰâw ràj/, thaorai
"to do, to make" เฮ็ด, /hēt/, het* ເຮັດ, /hēt/, het ทำ*, /tʰam/, tham
"to learn" เฮียน, /hían/, hian ຮຽນ, /hían/, hian เรียน, /rian/, rian
"glass" จอก, /tɕɔ̏ːk/, chok ຈອກ, /tɕɔ̏ːk/, chok แก้ว*, /kɛ̂ːw/, kaew
"yonder" พู้น, /pʰûn/, phun ພຸ້ນ, /pʰûn/, phoune โน่น, /nôːn/, non
"algebra" พีซคณิต, /pʰíː sā kʰā nīt/, phisakhanit ພີຊະຄະນິດ/Archaic ພີຊຄນິດ, //, phixakhanit พีชคณิต, /pʰîːt kʰáʔ nít/, phitkhanit
"fruit" หมากไม้, /mȁːk mâj/, makmai ໝາກໄມ້, /mȁːk mâj/, makmai ผลไม้, /pʰǒn láʔ máːj/, phonlamai
"too much" โพด, /pʰôːt/, phot ໂພດ, /pʰôːt/, phôt เกินไป, kɤn paj, koenbai
"to call" เอิ้น, /ʔɤˆːn/, oen ເອີ້ນ, /ʔɤˆːn/, une เรียก, /rîːak/, riak
"a little" หน่อยนึง, /nɔ̄ːy nɯ¯ŋ/, noi neung ໜ່ອຍນຶ່ງ/Archaic ໜ່ຽນຶ່ງ, /nɔ̄ːj nɯ¯ŋ/, noi nung นิดหน่อย, /nít nɔ`ːj/, nit noi
"house, home" เฮือน, /hɯ´ːan/, heuan ເຮືອນ*, /hɯ´ːan/, huane บ้าน*, /bâːn/, ban
"to lower" หลุด, /lút/, lut ຫຼຸດ/ຫລຸດ), /lút/, lout ลด, /lót/, lot
"sausage" ไส้อั่ว, /sȁj ʔua/, sai ua ໄສ້ອ່ົວ, /sȁj ʔūa/, sai oua ไส้กรอก, /sâj krɔ̀ːk/, sai krok
"to walk" ย่าง, /ɲāːŋ/, [n]yang ຍ່າງ, /ɲāːŋ/, gnang เดิน, /dɤːn/, doen
"philosophy" ปรัซญา, /pát sā ɲáː/, pratsaya ປັດຊະຍາ/Archaic ປັຊຍາ, /pát sā ɲáː/, patsagna ปรัชญา, /pràt jaː/, pratya
"oldest child" ลูกกก, /lûːk kók/, luk kok ລູກກົກ, /lûːk kók/, louk kôk ลูกคนโต, /lûːk kʰon toː/, luk khon to
"frangipani blossom" ดอกจำปา, /dɔ̏ːk tɕam paː/ ດອກຈຳປາ, /dɔ̏ːk tɕam paː/ ดอกลั่นทม, /dɔ`ːk lân tʰom/
"tomato" หมากเล่น, /mȁːk lēːn/, mak len ໝາກເລັ່ນ, /mȁːk lēːn/, mak lén มะเขือเทศ, /mâʔ kʰɯ̌ːa tʰêːt/, makheuathet
"much", "many" หลาย, /lǎːj/, lai ຫຼາຍ, /lǎːj/, lai มาก, /mâːk/, mak
"father-in-law" พ่อเฒ่า, /pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw/, pho thao ພໍ່ເຖົ້າ, /pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw/, pho thao พ่อตา, /pʰɔ̑ː taː/, pho ta
"to stop" เซา, /sáw/, sao ເຊົາ, /sáw/, xao หยุด, /jùt/, yut
"to like" มัก, /māk/, mak ມັກ, /māk/, mak ชอบ, /tɕʰɔ̂ːp/, chop
"good luck" โซกดี, /sôːk diː/, sok di ໂຊຄດີ, /sôːk diː/, xôk di โชคดี, /tɕʰôːk diː/, chok di
"delicious" แซบ, /sɛ̂ːp/, saep ແຊບ, /sɛ̂ːp/, xèp อร่อย, /ʔàʔ rɔ`j/, aroi
"fun" ม่วน, /mūan/, muan ມ່ວນ, /mūan/, mouane สนุก, /sàʔ nùk/, sanuk
"really" อี่หลี, /ʔīː lǐː/, ili**** ອີ່ຫຼີ, /ʔīː lǐː/, ili จริง*, /tɕiŋ/, ching
"elegant" โก้, /kôː/, ko ໂກ້, /kôː/, หรูหรา, /rǔː rǎː/, rura
"ox" งัว, /ŋúaː/, ngua ງົວ, /ŋúaː/, ngoua วัว, /wua/, wua
  • 1 Thai เท่าไหร่ is cognate to Isan เท่าใด, thaodai and Lao ເທົ່າໃດ, thaodai, /tʰāo daj/.
  • 2 Thai แก้ว also exists as Isan แก้ว, kaew, and Lao ແກ້ວ,kèo /kɛ̑ːw/, but has the meaning of "gem".
  • 3 Thai ทำ also exists as Isan ทำ, tham and Lao ທຳ, tham, /tʰám/.
  • 4 Lao ເຮືອນ and Isan เฮือน also exist as formal Thai เรือน, reuan /rɯːan/.
  • 5 Thai บ้าน also exists as Isan บ้าน, ban, and Lao ບ້ານ, bane, /bȃːn/.
  • 6 Thai จริง also exists as Isan จริง, ching, and Lao ຈິງ, ching, /tɕiŋ/.

Overview of the relationship with Lao

Isan is home to the majority of Lao speakers, and the Isan variety continues to remain mutually intelligible with dialects used in Laos. The vocabulary, grammar, and manner of speaking is very similar at the conversational level, with only a handful of differences. In more technical and academic settings, the languages differ greatly due to greater Thai influences on Isan.

Spelling and orthography

These now-obsolete Lao letters were once used to spell words of Pali and Sanskrit derivation, but were removed, reducing the consonant inventory and the similarity of spelling between Thai and Lao.

The Isan language is now written in the Thai alphabet, and with few minor exceptions, cognate vocabulary is spelled according to their Thai etymology and pronunciation. Thai spelling is etymological by nature, whereas Lao spelling, after a series of reforms, is now mostly phonetical. Spelling in modern Lao varies, but has become more standardised. In the past, when the Tua Lao or Tai Noy alphabet was in use, spelling ranged from etymological to purely phonetic, depending on the scribe or the intended audience. This has led to some key differences between the spelling used in Isan, based on Thai, and the modern spelling employed in Laos. The Thai alphabet has letters that are an almost one-to-one match with the devanagari script. The Lao alphabet used by monks and the elite formerly also had these letters, but the consonant inventory has also been reduced.

Retention of silent letters
Many loan words adopted from other languages have silent letters, and sometimes syllables, that were no longer pronounced, but provides clues to the original pronunciation and derivation of the word. In many cases, a special symbol was used to mark that the letters are silent. This cancellation mark is known as the การันต์, karan (/kaː rán/, cf. Lao: ກາຣັນ/archaic ກາຣັນຕ໌, karan).

  • Thai and Isan เวียงจันทน์, wiangchan, versus Lao ວຽງຈັນ, viangchan, 'Vientiane', but Thai /wiaŋ tɕan/ and Isan and Lao /ʋíaŋ tɕàn/ and archaic Lao ວຽງຈັນທນ໌. Thai: W-IA-NG-CH-A-N-T-N versus Lao: V-Y-NG-CH-A-N and Archaic Lao: V-Y-NG-CH-A-N-[T]. Derives from เวียง, "a walled city" and Sanskrit चन्दन, chandna ( tʃand̪ na/), 'sandalwood'.
  • Thai and Isan เกียร์ versus Lao ເກັຽ, "Gear", but Thai /kia/ and Isan and Lao /kiaː/ and archaic Lao ເກັຽຣ໌. Thai: K-IA-R versus Lao: K-Y and archaic Lao: K-Y-[R]. Derived from English "gear" /ɡɪər/.
  • Thai and Isan สัตว์ versus Lao ສັດ, "animal", but Thai /sàt/ and Isan and Lao /sát/ and archaic Lao ສັຕວ໌. Thai: S-A-T-[W] versus Lao: S-A-D and archaic Lao: S-A-T-[W]. Derived from Sanskrit सत्त्वं, sattvam (/sat̪ tvam/), "living being".

Simplification of consonant clusters
Early forms of the Tai Noy alphabet included consonant clusters which no longer exist in the Isan or Lao language today, and were subsequently removed. Other consonant clusters, many found in loanwords, were not pronounced in common speech and only written in more academic or religious works. In Isan, as they are in Thai, consonant clusters are always written even if they are not pronounced in Isan. In modern Lao, these are mostly obsolete.

  • Thai and Isan ประเทศ, prathet, versus Lao ະເທດ, pathét, "country", but Thai /pràʔ tʰêːt/ and Isan and Lao /páʔ tʰêːt/ and archaic Lao ປຼະເທສ/ະເທສ. Thai: P-R-TH-E-S versus Lao: P-A-TH-E-D and archaic Lao: P/lA-TH-E-S/P-A-TH-E-S.
  • Thai and Isan กระเทียม, krathiam, versus Lao ກະທຽມ, kathiam, "garlic", but Thai /kràʔ tʰíam/ and Isan and Lao /káʔ tʰíam/ and archaic Lao ກຼະທຽມ. Thai: K-R-TH-IA-M versus Lao: K-A-TH-Y-M and archaic Lao: K-l-A-TH-Y-M

Gemination As consonants may have one value at the beginning of a syllable and one at the end, occasionally the same letter would be used to represent the proper ending sound of one syllable, but also the starting sound of the next syllable.

  • Thai and Isan กุนารี, kunlanari, versus Lao ກຸນລະນາລີ, kounelanali, "girl of high standing", but Thai /kun láʔ naː riː/ and Isan and Lao /kun lāʔ náː lí/ and archaic Lao ກຸນາຣີ/ກຸນລະນາຣີ. Thai: K-U-L-N-A-R-I versus Lao: K-U-N-L-A-N-A-L-I and archaic Lao: K-U-L-N-A-R-I/K-U-N-L-A-N-A-R-I.
  • Thai and Isan วานา, watsana, versus Lao ວາດສະໜາ, vatsana, "good fortune", but Thai /wâːt sàʔ năː/ and Isan and Lao /ʋȃːt sáʔ năː/ and archaic Lao ວານາ/ວາດສນາ. Thai: W-A-S-N-A versus Lao: V-A-D-S-A-HN-A and archaic Lao: V-A-S-N-A/V-A-D-S-N-A.

Insertion of vowels
In abugida scripts, inherent vowels can be left unwritten, generally representing /o/ in closed syllables and /aʔ/ in open syllables. The Tai Noy script uses a special mark above the letters that contain an inherent /o/, that continues to be used in Lao.

  • Thai and Isan คน, khon, versus Lao ຄົນ, khône, "person", but Thai /kʰon/ and Isan and Lao /kʰón/. Thai: KH-N versus Lao: KH-o-N.
  • Thai and Isan นค, nakon, versus Lao ອນ, nakhone, "city", but Thai /náʔ kʰɔːn/ and Isan and Lao /nāʔ kʰɔ́ːn/ and archaic Lao ນຄອນ/ນຄ. Thai: N-KH-R versus Lao: N-A-KH-O-N and archaic Lao: N-KH-O-N/N-KH-R.
  • Thai and Isan ถนน, thanon, versus Lao ໜົນ, thanône, "street", but Thai /tʰà nŏn/ and Isan and Lao /tʰá nŏn/ and archaic Lao ຖນົນ. Thai: TH-N-N versus Lao: TH-A-HN-o-N and archaic Lao: TH-N-o-N.

Simplification of terminal consonants
Syllables in Lao and Isan (as well as Thai) can only end in /k/, /ŋ/, /t/, /n/, /p/, and /m/. Every consonant has one sound at the beginning of a syllable, but must conform in pronunciation to one of the aforementioned terminal consonant sounds. In modern Lao spelling, terminal consonants were restricted to a specific set.

  • Thai and Isan วาดภา, watphap, versus Lao ວາດພາ, vatphap, "to draw picture", but Thai /wâːt pʰâːp/ and Isan and Lao /ʋȃːt pʰȃːp/ and archaic Lao ວາດພາ. Thai: W-A-D-PH-A-PH versus Lao: V-A-D-PH-A-P and archaic Lao: V-A-D-PH-A-PH.
  • Thai and Isan ความสุ, khwam suk, versus Lao ຄວາມສຸ, khouam souk, "happiness", but Thai /kʰwaːm sùk/ and Isan and Lao /kʰuáːm súk/ and archaic Lao ຄວາມສຸ. Thai: KH-W-A-M-S-U-KH versus Lao: KH-V-A-M-S-U-K and archaic Lao: Kh-V-A-M-S-U-KH.
  • Thai and Isan อดีกา, aditkan, versus Lao ອະດີກາ, aditgane, "ancient times", but Thai /ʔáʔ dìːt kàːn/ and Isan and Lao /ʔáʔ dȉːt kaːn/ and archaic Lao ອະດີກາ/ອະດີກາ. Thai: A-D-I-T-K-A-L versus Lao: A-D-I-D-K-A-N and archaic Lao: A-D-I-T-K-A-L/A-D-I-T-K-A-N.

Reduction of Vowels
Vowels can be rendered in numerous ways, with some vowels representing numerous sounds. This process was simplified in Lao but is retained in Thai.

  • Thai and Isan ตามสมั, tam samai, versus Lao ຕາມສະ, tam samai, 'up-to-date,' but Thai /taːm sàʔ măj/ and Isan and Lao /taːm sáʔ mȁj/ and Archaic Lao ຕາມສໄມ. Thai: T-A-M-S-M-A-Y versus Lao: T-A-M-S-A-HM-AI.
  • Thai and Isan พระธรร, phra tham, versus Lao ພະທ, pha tham, 'dharma,' but Thai /pʰrá tʰam/ and Isan and Lao /pʰāʔ tʰám/ and Archaic Lao ພະຍາທັ. Thai: PH-R-A-TH-R-R-M versus Lao: PH-A-TH-AM and Archaic Lao: PH-R-A-TH-A-M.
  • Thai and Isan บ่อย, boi, versus Lao ບ່ອຍ, boi, "often", but Thai /bɔ`ːj/ and Isan and Lao /bɔ̄ːj/ and archaic Laoບ່. Thai: B-O-Y versus Lao: B-O-Y and archaic Lao: B-Y.

Typographical differences

Traditionally, no punctuation exists in either Thai, Isan, or Lao, save a handful of special symbols such as the cancellation mark (depicted over the letter representing /r/), repetition symbol, the ellipsis (used to shorten lengthy phrases, such as royal titles), and the et cetera symbol, which in Thai and Isan appear as ร์, , and ฯลฯ and Lao as ຣ໌, , and ฯລฯ, respectively. Another symbol, was formerly used in Thai and Lao to mark the beginning of chapters, paragraphs, or lines of a poem, but is now obsolete. Four tone marks (depicted over the letter representing /l/) are used, in Thai as ล่, ล้, ล็ and ล๋ which correspond to Lao as ລ່, ລ້, ລ໊ and ລ໋, respectively. In modern writing, Thai and Lao have both adopted the question mark "?", exclamation point "!", comma ",", parentheses "()", hyphen "-", ellipsis "...", and period "." from their respective English and French sources. Since Isan adopted the Thai punctuation via English, the quotation marks """" are used instead of guillemets, "«»", and spaces are not inserted before terminal punctuation marks. In Lao writing, the cancellation mark, the ellipsis, and the last two tone markers are relatively rare.

  • English: She says, "I am not leaving for the market!"
  • Isan: เขาบอกว่า, "ข้อยบ่กับไปตลาดดอกเด!"
  • Lao : ເຂົາບອກວ່າ «ຂ້ອຍບໍ່ກັບໄປຕະຫລາດດອກເດ» !
  • Thai: เขาบอกว่า, "ดิฉันไม่กลับไปตลาดค่ะ!"

Grammatical differences

Formal language

Since the use of Central Thai is deemed polite and mandatory in official and formal settings, Isan speakers will often use the Thai ครับ, khrap (/kʰráp/), used by males, and ค่ะ, kha (/kʰaʔ/), used by females, sometimes in place of or after the ones shared with Lao. Isan speakers, however, do not use the very formal particle ข้าน้อย, khanoy (/kʰȁː nɔ̑ːj/, cf. Lao: ຂ້ານ້ອຍ/archaic ຂ້ານ້ຽ) at the end of sentences. Also, the use of เจ้า, chao (/tɕâo/, cf. Lao: ເຈົ້າ) and formal โดย, doy (/doːj/, cf. Lao: ໂດຍ/archaic ໂດຽ, dôy), to mark the affirmative or "yes" is no longer used in Isan, instead this is replaced with the general ending particles or the equivalent Thai expression.

Word order

A very few compounds in Lao are left-branching, but most of the time they are right-branching, as they are almost always in Thai and Isan.

  • Isan หมูส้ม mu som (/mŭː sȍm/, but Lao ສົ້ມໝູ/ສົ້ມຫມູ som mou, "sour pork", (/sȍm mŭː/. Cf. Thai หมูแหนม, mu naem (/mŭː nɛˇːm/).
  • Isan ไก่ปิ้ง kai ping (/kāj pȋːŋ/), but Lao ປີ້ງໄກ່, ping kai, "barbecued chicken", (/pȋːŋ kāj/). Cf. Thai ไก่ย่าง, kai yang (/kàj jâːŋ/).

Lexical Comparison with Lao

Lao and Isan share most of their vocabulary, tone, and grammatical features, and the barriers of comprehension that would exist between a Thai speaker and a Lao speaker are absent between speakers of Isan and Lao. Technical, academic, and scientific language, and different sources for loan words have diverged the speech to an extent. Isan has borrowed most of its vocabulary from Thai, including numerous English and Chinese (Min Nan) loan words that are commonly used in Thai. Lao, on the other hand, has influences from French and Vietnamese that come from the establishment of the Protectorate of Laos and its inclusion in French Indochina. In ordinary and casual speech, only a few lexical items separate Isan and Lao, and many dialects do not end at the border.[43]

Thai influences

The main thing that differentiates Isan from Lao is the use of numerous Thai words. The process accelerated with greater integration of Isan into Thai political control in the early 20th century. Thai words make up the bulk of scientific, technical, governmental, political, academic, and slang vocabularies that have been adopted in Isan. Many words used in Isan have become obsolete, such as the use of ขัว, khua (/kʰŭa/) and น้ำก้อน, nam kon (/nȃm kɔ̑ːn/), which exist in Laos as ຂົວ and ນ້ຳກ້ອນ, but replaced by Thai forms สะพาน, saphan, and น้ำแข็ง, nam khaeng, respectively. Thai, Isan, and Lao share vocabulary, but sometimes this can vary in frequency. For instance, Lao speakers use ສະພານ, saphan, as a more formal word for "bridge". The very formal Thai word for "house", เรือน, reuan (/rɯan/) is cognate to the common Isan เฮือน, heuan, and Lao ເຮືອນ, huan (/hɯ´an/). Although many Lao speakers can understand and speak Thai due to exposure to Thai publications and media, the official status of the language in Laos, pressure to preserve the Lao language, and unique neologisms and other influences differentiate the language from Thai. A few neologisms in Laos are unique coinages.

Thai Loan Words in Isan
English Isan *Non-Existent Isan Lao Thai
"politburo" โปลิตบูโร, /poː līt buː lóː/, politburo *กมการเมือง, */kòm kàːn mɯ´aŋ/, *komkammeuang ກົມການເມືອງ, /kòm kàːn mɯ´aŋ/, komkammuang โปลิตบูโร, /poː lít buː roː/, politburo
"washing machine" เครื่องซักผ้า, /kʰɯ¯aŋ sāk pʰȁː/, khreuang sakpha *จักซักเครื่อง, */tɕák sāk kʰɯ¯aŋ/, *chak sakkhreuang ຈັກຊັກເຄື່ອງ, /tɕák sāk kʰɯ¯aŋ/, chak xakkhuang เครื่องซักผ้า*, /kʰrɯˆaŋ sák pʰâː/, khreuang sakpha
"aeroplane", "airplane" (US) เครื่องบิน, /kʰɯ¯aŋ bìn/, khreuang bin *เฮือบิน, */hɯ´a bìn/, *heua bin, ເຮືອບິນ, /hɯ´a bìn/, hua bin เครื่องบิน, /kʰrɯˆaŋ bin/, khreuang bin
"provincial sub-district" ตำบล, tambon, /tam bon/ *ตาแสง, */taː sɛ̆ːŋ/, *tasaeng ຕາແສງ, tasèng, /taː sɛ̆ːŋ/ ตำบล, tambon, /tam bon/

Lack of French influences

File:Canonniere Le Lutin (1877-1897).jpg
The French gunboat Lutin helped bring Laos under French control.

The incorporation of Isan into Siam prevented the Lao language spoken there from the adoption of French loan words. From 1893 till 1954, the French language was the administrative language of the Protectorate of Laos. The language continues to remain a second language of international diplomacy, higher education, government, and the old elite. Laos has been affiliated with La Francophonie since 1972, with full-member status in 1992. As of 2010, 173,800 people, approximately 3% of the population, were counted as French speakers.[44] French-language content is occasionally found on Lao national radio and television, as well as in the weekly La Renovateur and alongside English in publications of Khaosane Pathét Lao News.[45] In Isan, most words of European origin have entered the language via Thai, especially from English, which helps to differentiate the speech on either side of the Mekong River.

Lack of French Influences in Isan
English Isan *Non-Existent Isan Lao Thai French
"necktie", /ˈnek taɪ/ เนคไท, /néːk tʰáj/, nek thai *การะวัด, */kàː lāʔ ʋāt/, *karawat ກາລະວັດ/Archaic ກາຣະວັດ, /kàː lāʔ ʋāt/, karavat เนคไท, /nêːk tʰaj/, nek thai cravate, /kʀa vat/
"cinema", "movie theater" (US) โรงภาพยนตร์, /lóːŋ pʰȃːp pʰāʔ ɲón/, rong phapayon *โฮงซิเนมา, */hóːŋ sīʔ nɛ´ː máː/, *hong sinema ໂຮງຊີເນມາ, /hóːŋ sīʔ nɛ´ː máː/, hông xinéma โรงภาพยนตร์, /roːŋ pʰȃːp pʰaʔ jon/, rong phapayon cinéma, /si ne ma/
"dictionary" พจนานุกรม, /pʰōt tɕáʔ náː nū kom/, photchanukrom *ดิซอนแนร์*, */diː sɔ́ːn nɛ́ː/, *disonnae ດີຊອນແນ/Archaic ດີຊອນແນຣ໌*, /diː sɔ́ːn nɛ́ː/, dixonnè พจนานุกรม, /pʰót tɕàʔ naː nú krom/, photchanukrom dictionnaire, /dik sjɔ˜ nɛʀ/
"whale", /ʰweɪl/ ปลาวาฬ, /paː ʋáːn/, pla wan *ปลาบาแลน, */paː baː lɛ́ːn/, *pla balaen ປາບາແລນ, /paː baː lɛ́ːn/, pa balèn ปลาวาฬ, /plaː waːn/, pla wan baleine, /ba lɛn/
"postman", "mailman" (US) คนส่งไปรษณีย์, /kʰón sōŋ pàj sáʔ níː/, khon song praisani *ฟักเตอร์, */fāk tɤː/, *faktoe ຟັກເຕີ/Archaic ຟັກເຕີຣ໌*, /fāk tɤː/, fakteu คนส่งไปรษณีย์, /kʰon sòŋ praj sàʔ niː/, khon song praisani facteur, /fak tœʀ/
"Africa", /ˈæ frɪ kə/ ทวีปแอฟริกา , /tʰāʔ ʋîːp ʔɛ̏ːp fīʔ kaː/, thawip aefrika *ทวีปอาฟรีก, */tʰāʔ ʋîːp aː f(r)īk/, *thawip afrik ທະວີບອາຟິກ/Archaic ທວີບອາຟຣິກ, /tʰāʔ ʋîːp aː f(r)īk/, thavip afrik ทวีปแอฟริกา, /tʰáʔ wîːp ʔɛ`ː fríʔ kaː/, thawip aefrika Afrique, /a fʀik/
"apple", /ˈæp pl/ หมากแอปเปิล , /mȁːk ʔɛ̏ːp pɤˆːn/, mak aeppoen *หมากป่ม, */mȁːk pōm/, *mak pom ໝາກປົ່ມ/ຫມາກປົ່ມ, /mȁːk pōm/, mak pom ผลแอปเปิล, /pʰŏn ʔɛ`ːp pɤːn/, phon aeppoen pomme, /pɔm/
"wine", /waɪn/ ไวน์, /ʋáj/, wai *แวง, */ʋɛ́ːŋ/, *waeng ແວງ, /ʋɛ́ːŋ/, vèng ไวน์, /waj/, wai vin, /vɛ̃/
"butter" เนย, /nɤ`ːj/, noei *เบอร์, */bɤ`ː/, *boe ເບີ/Archaic ເບີຣ໌, /bɤ`ː/, beu เนย, /nɤːj/, noei beurre, /bœʀ/
"centimetre", "centimeter" (US), /ˈsɛn tɪ miː tə/ เซนติเมตร, /sén tìː mēːt/, sentimet *ซังตีแมตร, */sáŋ tìː mɛ́ːt/, *sangtimaet ຊັງຕີແມດ/Archaic ຊັງຕີແມຕຣ໌, /sáŋ tìː mɛ́ːt/, xangtimèt เซนติเมตร, /seːn tì méːt/, sentimet centimètre, /sɑ̃ ti mɛtʀ/
"billiards", /bɪl jədz/ บิลเลียด, /bin lîat/, binliat *บียา, */bìː yàː/, *biya ບີຢາ, /bìː yàː/, biya บิลเลียด, /bin lîat/, binliat billard, /bi jaʀ/
  • 1 Lao ພົດຈະນານຸກົມ/Archaic ພົຈນານຸກົມ, phôtchananoukôm (/pʰōt tɕáʔ náː nū kom/), exists as an alternate of Thai cognate พจนานุกรม.
  • 2 Also exists as Lao ຄົນສົ່ງໜັງສື, khône sông nangsue (/kʰón sōŋ năŋ sɯˇː/.

Lack of Vietnamese Influences

The French brought Vietnamese to Laos to boost the population of the larger cities and Vietnamese administrators to help govern the region. Large numbers of Vietnamese troops were stationed in Laos during at various times in Laos' history. This has enriched Lao with more Vietnamese influences which are not present in Isan.

Lack of Vietnamese Influences in Isan
English Isan *Non-Existent Isan Lao Thai Vietnamese
"noodle soup" ก๋วยเตี๋ยว, /kŭaj tǐaw/, kuai tiao *เฝอ, */fɤˆː/, *foe ເຝີ, /fɤˆː/, feu ก๋วยเตี๋ยว*, /kŭaj tǐaw/, kuai tiao phở, /fə ̉ː/
"to abstain" เยื้อน*, /ɲɯˆaːn/, yeuan *เกียง, */kiaŋ/, *kiang ກຽງ, /kiaŋ/, kiang งดเว้น, /ŋòt wéːn/, ngot wen kiêng, /kiə̯ŋ/
"to work" เฮ็ดงาน*, /hēt ŋáːn/, het ngan *เฮ็ดเวียก, */hēt ʋîak/, *het wiak ເຮັດວຽກ, /hēt ʋîak/, het viak ทำงาน*, /tʰam ŋaːn/, tham ngan việc, /viə̯̣k/
  • 1 ก๋วยเตี๋ยว comes from Teochew 粿條, kó tiêu (/ko2 tʰiəu5/)
  • 2 Isan เยื้อน exists in Lao as ເຍື້ອນ, gnuane (/ɲɯˆaːn/)
  • 2 Isan เฮ็ดงาน exists in Lao as ເຮັດງານ (/hēt ŋáːn/)
  • 3 Thai ทำงาน exists in Isan as ทำงาน and in Lao as ທຳງານ, tham ngane (/tʰám ŋáːn/)

Uniquely Isan

A small handful of lexical items are unique to Isan and not commonly found in standard Lao, but may exist in other Lao dialects. Some of these words exist alongside more typically Lao or Thai usages.

Unique to Lao in Isan
English Isan *Non-Existent Lao Lao Thai Isan Variant
'to be well' ซำบาย, /sám báːj/, sambai *ຊຳບາຍ, */sám baːj/, *xambai ສະບາຍ/Archaic ສະບາຽ, /sáʔ báːj/, sabai สบาย, /sàʔ baːj/, sabai สบาย, /sáʔ báːj/, sabai
'fruit' บัก, /bák/, bak *ບັກ, */bák/, *bak, ໝາກ/ຫມາກ, /mȁːk/, mak ผล, /pʰŏn/, phon หมาก, /mȁːk/, mak
'lunch' เข้าสวย, /kʰȁo sŭːəj/, khao suay *ເຂົ້າສວຍ, */kʰȁo suːəj/, *khao souay ອາຫານທ່ຽງ, /ʔaː hăːn tʰīaŋ/, ahane thiang อาหารกลางวัน, /ʔaː hăːn klaːŋ wan/, ahan klangwan เข้าเที่ยง, /kʰȁo tʰīaŋ/, khao thiang
'traditional animist ceremony' บายศรี, /baːj sĭː/, baisri *ບາຍສີ, */baːj sĭː/, *baisi ບາສີ, /baː sĭː/, basi บวงสรวง, /buaŋ suaŋ /, buang suang บายศรีสู่ขวัญ, /baːj sĭː sūː kʰŭan/, baisri su khwan
'ice cream' ไอติม, /ʔaj tím/, ai tim *ໄອຕິມ, */ʔaj tím/, *ai tim ກາແລ້ມ, /kaː lɛ̂ːm/, kalèm ไอศกรีม, /ʔaj sàʔ kriːm/, aisakrim N/A

Other Isan-Lao Lexical Differences

Comparison of Isan and Lao
'ice' น้ำแข็ง /nȃm kʰɛ̆ːŋ/, nam khaeng ນ້ຳກ້ອນ* /nȃm kɔ̑ːn/, nam kone น้ำแข็ง* /nám kʰɛ̆ːŋ/, nam khaeng
'bridge' สะพาน /sáʔ pʰáːn/, saphan ຂົວ* /kʰŭa/, khoua สะพาน* /sàʔ pʰaːn/, saphan
'window' หน้าต่าง /nȁː tāːŋ/, na tang ປ່ອງຢ້ຽມ /pɔ̄ːŋ jîam/, pongyiam หน้าต่าง* /nàː táːŋ/, na tang
'paper' กระดาษ /káʔ dȁːt/, kradat ເຈ້ຍ/Archaic ເຈັ້ຽ /tɕîa/, chia กระดาษ* /kràʔ dàːt/, kradat
'book' หนังสือ /năŋ sɯˇː/, nangsue ປຶ້ມ /pɯˆm/, peum หนังสือ* /năŋ sɯˇː/, nangsue
'January' มกราคม /mōk kʰáʔ láː kʰóm/, mokkharakhom ມັງກອນ* /máŋ kɔ̀ːn/, mangkone มกราคม* /mók kàʔ raː kʰom/, mokkarakhom
'province' จังหวัด /tɕàŋ ʋát/, changwat ແຂວງ* /kʰwɛ̌ːŋ/, khwèng จังหวัด /tɕaŋ wàt/, changwat
'plain' (adj.) เปล่า /pāo/, plaw ລ້າ /lâː/, la เปล่า /plàːw/, plaw
'motorcycle' มอเตอร์ไซค์ /mɔ́ː tɤ̀ː sáj/, motoesai ລົດຈັກ/Archaic ຣົຖຈັກ /lōt tɕák/, lot chak มอเตอร์ไซค์* /mɔː tɤˆː saj/, motoesai
'citronella grass', 'lemongrass' ตะไคร้ /táʔ kʰáj/, takrai ຫົວສິງໄຄ /hŭa sĭŋ kʰáj/, houa singkhai ตะไคร้ /tàʔ kʰráj/, takrai
'papaya' บักฮุ่ง* /bák hūŋ/, bak hung ໝາກຫຸ່ງ/ຫມາກຫຸ່ງ /mȁːk hūŋ/, mak houng มะละกอ* /máʔ láʔ kɔː/, malako
  • 1 Lao ນ້ຳກ້ອນ formerly existed as Isan น้ำก้อน, nam kon (/nȃm kɔ̑ːn/), but usage now obsolete.
  • 2 Thai and Isan น้ำแข็ง also exists as Lao ນ້ຳແຂງ, nam khèng (/nȃm kʰɛ̆ːŋ/).
  • 3 Lao ຂົວ formerly existed as Isan ขัว, khua (/kʰŭa/), but usage now obsolete.
  • 4 Thai and Isan สะพาน also exists as formal Lao ສະພານ, saphane (/sáʔ pʰáːn/).
  • 5 Thai and Isan หน้าต่าง also exists as Lao ຫນ້າຕ່າງ/ໜ້າຕ່າງ, natang (/nȁː tāːŋ/).
  • 6 Thai and Isan กระดาษ also exists as Lao ກະດາດ/Archaic ກະດາສ, kadat (/káʔ dȁːt/).
  • 7 Thai and Isan หนังสือ also exists as Lao ໜັງສື/ຫນັງສື, nangsue (/năŋ sɯˇː/).
  • 8 Lao ມັງກອນ also exists as Isan มังกร, mangkon (/máŋ kɔ̀ːn/), referring to the dragon but not the month named after it.
  • 9 Thai and Isan มกราคม also exists as Lao ມົກກະລາຄົມ/Archaic ມົກກະຣາຄົມ, môkkarakhôm (/mōk káʔ láː kʰóm/).
  • 10 Lao ແຂວງ also exists as Thai and Isan แขวง, khwaeng (/kʰwɛ̌ːŋ/), when referring to provinces of Laos.
  • 11 Thai and Isan จังหวัด exist as Lao ຈັງຫວັດ, changvat (/tɕaŋ ʋát/), when referring to provinces of Thailand.
  • 12 Thai and Isan variant of มอเตอร์ไซค์, รถจักรยานยนต์, rot chakkrayanyon (/rót tɕàk kràʔ jaːn yon/), similar to Lao ລົດຈັກ[ກະຍານ]/Archaic ຣົຖຈັກຍານ, lôt chak[kagnane] (/lōt tɕák [káʔ ɲáːn]/).
  • 13 Isan บัก is a local variant of Isan หมาก and Lao ໝາກ/ຫມາກ, mak (/mȁːk/).
  • 14 The มะ in Thai มะละกอ is cognate to Isan หมาก and Lao ໝາກ/ຫມາກ, mak (/mȁːk/).


Isan words are not inflected, declined, conjugated, making Isan, like Lao and Thai, an analytic language. Special particle words function in lieu of prefixes and suffixes to mark verb tense. The majority of Isan words are monosyllabic, but compound words and numerous other very common words exist that are not. Topologically, Isan is a subject–verb–object (SVO) language, although the subject is often dropped. Word order is an important feature of the language.

Although in formal situations, standard Thai is often used, formality is marked in Isan by polite particles attached to the end of statements, and use of formal pronouns. Compared to Thai, Isan sounds very formal as pronouns are used with greater frequency, which occurs in formal Thai, but is more direct and simple compared to Thai. The ending particles เด้อ (doe, dɤː) or เด (de, deː) function much like ครับ (khrap, kʰráp), used by males, and คะ (kha, kʰaʔ), used by females, in Thai. (Isan speakers sometimes use the Thai particles in place of or after เด้อ or เด.) Negative statements often end in ดอก (dok, dɔ̀ːk), which can also be followed by the particle เด้อ and its variant.

  • เพิ่นเฮ็ดปลาแดกเด้อ (phoen het padaek doe, pʰɤn het paːdɛːk dɤː) He makes padaek.
  • บ่เป็นหยังดอก (bo pen nyang dok, bɔː peːn ɲaŋ dɔːk) It does not matter.


Nouns are not marked for plurals, gender nor are they declined for cases, and do not require an indefinite nor definite article. Plurals are often indicated with the use of classifiers, words to mark the special classes that nouns belong to. For instance, หมา (mǎː, ma) "dog" has the classifier โต (to, toː) which, as its meaning "body" implies, includes all things with legs, such as people, animals, tables, and chairs. "Three dogs" would be rendered as หมา ๓ โต (ma sam to, mǎː sǎːm toː), literally "dog three classifier".

Isan Classifiers
Isan Thai Lao Category
คน (ฅน), kʰon คน (ฅน), kʰōn ຄົນ, kʰon People in general, except clergy and royals.
คัน, kʰan คัน, kʰān ຄັນ, kʰán Vehicles, also used for spoons and forks in Thai.
คู่, kʰuː คู่, kʰûː ຄູ່, kʰūː Pairs of people, animals, socks, earrings, etc.
ซบับ, saʔbap ฉบับ, tɕʰaʔbàp ສະບັບ, saʔbáp Papers with texts, documents, newspapers, etc.
โต, toː ตัว, tūa ໂຕ, tòː Animals, shirts, letters; also tables and chairs (but not in Lao).
กก, kok ต้น, tôn ກົກ, kók Trees. ต้น (or Lao ຕົ້ນ) is used in all three for columns, stalks, and flowers.
หน่วย, nuɛj ฟอง, fɔ̄ːŋ ໜ່ວຍ, nūɛj Eggs, fruits, clouds. ผล (pʰǒn) used for fruits in Thai.

Verbs are easily made into nouns by adding the prefixes ความ (khwam/kʰwaːm) and การ (kan/kːan) before verbs that express abstract actions and verbs that express physical actions, respectively. Adjectives and adverbs, which can function as complete predicates, only use ความ.

  • แข่งม้า (khaengma/kʰɛ̀ːŋ.máː) "to horserace" (v.) nominalises into การแข่งม้า (kan khaengma/kːan kʰɛ̀ːŋ.máː) "horseracing" (n.)
  • เจ็บ (chep/tɕèp) "to hurt (others)" (v.) nominalises into ความเจ็บ (khwam chep/kʰwaːm tɕèp) "hurt (caused by others)" (n.)
  • ดี (di, diː) "good" nominalises into ความดี (khwam di, kʰwaːm diː) "goodness" (n.)

Pronouns Pronouns are often dropped in informal contexts, and are often replaced with nicknames or kinship terms, depending on the relation of the speaker to the person to whom is being spoken. Pronouns can also change depending on the register of speech, with many of the more formal pronouns borrowed from formal Thai speech registers. The more formal the language, the more likely that pronouns will not be dropped and that formal pronouns would be used. Pronouns can be pluralised by adding พวก (phuak, pʰuak) in front of the pronoun, e.g., พวกข้อย (phuak khoy/pʰuak kʰɔːj) is the same as เฮา (hao) or พวกเฮา (phuak hao/pʰuak haw). Age and status is important in determining usage. Younger boys and girls names are often prefixed with บัก (bak, bak) and อี่ (i, iː) respectively. Older males and females use อ้าย (ai, aːj) and เอี้อย (euay, ɯːaj) respectively instead. People who are much older may be politely addressed as aunt, uncle, mother, father, or even grandmother or grandfather depending on their age. Isan age-based name prefixes are often identical to or similar to vulgar, disparaging age-based name prefixes in Central Thai and should be avoided outside of Lao speaking regions in Thailand.

Pronoun Thai Royal/IPA Thai Equivalent Meaning
ข้อย khoy/kʰɔːj ฉัน I/me (informal, general)
ข้าน้อย khanoy/kʰaːnɔːj ผม (m.), ดิฉัน (f.) I/me (formal)
เฮา hao/haw เรา we/us
เจ้า chao/tɕaw คุณ you (general)
ท่าน than/tʰaːn ท่าน you (very formal)
เขา khao/kʰaw เขา he/him/she/her (formal, general)
ขะเจ้า khachao/kʰaʔ.tɕaw พวกเขา they
เพิ่น phoen/pʰɤn เขา he/him/she/her (very formal)
มัน man/man มัน it (very rude if used on a person)

Adjectives and adverbs

There is no general distinction between adjectives and adverbs, and words of this category serve both functions and can even modify each other. Duplication is used to indicate greater intensity. Only one word can be duplicated per phrase. Adjectives always come after the noun they modify; adverbs may come before or after the verb depending on the word. There is usually no copula to link a noun to an adjective.

  • เด็กหนุ่ม (dek num, dek num) A young child.
  • เด็กหนุ่ม ๆ (dek num num, dek num num) A very young child.
  • เด็กหนุ่มที่ไว้ (dek num thi vai, dek num tʰiː vaj) A child who becomes young quickly.
  • เด็กหนุ่มที่ไว้ ๆ (dek num thi vai vai, dek num tʰiː vaj vaj) A child who becomes young quickly.

Comparatives take the form "A X กว่า B" (kwa, kwaː), A is more X than B. The superlative is expressed as "A X ที่สุด (thisut, tʰiːsut), A is most X.

  • เด็กหนุ่มกว่าผู้แก่ (dek num kwa phukae, dek num kwaː pʰuːkɛː) The child is younger than an old person.
  • เด็กหนุ่มที่สุด (dek num thisut, dek num tʰiːsut) The child is youngest.

Because adjectives or adverbs can be used as predicates, the particles that modify verbs are also used.

  • เด็กซิหนุ่ม (dek si num, dek siː num) The child will be young.
  • เด็กหนุ่มแล้ว (dek num laew, dek num lɛːw) The child was young.


Verbs are not declined for voice, number, or tense. To indicate tenses, particles can be used, but it is also very common just to use words that indicate the time frame, such as พรุ่งนี้ (phung ni, pʰuŋ niː) tomorrow or มื้อวานนี้ (meu wan ni, mɯː vaːn niː) yesterday.

Negation: Negation is indicated by placing บ่ (bo, bɔː) before the word being negated.

  • อีน้องกินหมากเลน (i nong kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ kin maːk len) Younger sister eats tomatoes.
  • อีน้องบ่กินหมากเลน (i nong bao bo kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ bɔː kin maːk len) Younger sister does not eat tomatoes.

Future tense: Future tense is indicated by placing the particles จะ (cha, tɕaʔ) or ซิ (si, siː) before the verb.

  • อีน้องจะกินหมากเลน (i nong cha kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ tɕaʔ kin maːk len) Younger sister will eat tomatoes.
  • อีน้องซิกินหมากเลน (i nong see kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ siː kin maːk len) Younger sister will eat tomatoes.

Past tense: Past tense is indicated by either placing ได้ (dai, daj) before the verb or แล้ว (laew, lɛːw) after the verb or even using both in tandem for emphasis. แล้ว is the more common one, and can be used to indicate completed actions or current actions of the immediate past. ได้ is often used with negative statements and never for present action.

  • อีน้องได้กินหมากเลน (i nong dai kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ daj kin maːk len) Younger sister ate tomatoes.
  • อีน้องกินหมากเลนแล้ว (i nong kin mak len laew, iːnɔːŋ kin maːk len lɛːw) Younger sister (just) ate tomatoes.
  • อีน้องได้กินหมากเลนแล้ว (i nong dai kin mak len laew, iːnɔːŋ daj kin maːk len lɛːw) Younger sister (definitely) ate tomatoes.

Present progressive: To indicate an ongoing action, กำลัง (kamlang, kam.laŋ) can be used before the verb or อยู่ (yu, juː) after the verb. These can also be combined for emphasis. In Isan and Lao, พวม (phuam, pʰuam) is often used instead of กำลัง.

  • อีน้องกำลังกินหมากเลน (i nong kamlang kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ kam.laŋ kin maːk len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • อีน้องกินอยู่หมากเลน (i nong kin yu mak len, iːnɔːŋ kin juː maːk len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • อีน้องพวมกินหมากเลน (i nong phuam kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ pʰuam kin maːk len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.

The verb 'to be' can be expressed in many ways. In use as a copula, it is often dropped between nouns and adjectives. Compare English She is pretty and Isan สาวงาม (literally lady pretty). There are two copulas used in Isan, as in Lao, one for things relating to people, เป็น (pen, pen), and one for objects and animals, แม่น (maen, mɛːn).

  • นกเป็นหมอ (Nok pen mo, Nok pe mɔː) Nok is a doctor.
  • อันนี้แม่นสามล้อ (an née maen sam lo, an niː mɛːn saːm lɔː) This is a pedicab.

Questions and answers

Unlike English, which indicates questions by a rising tone, or Spanish, which changes the order of the sentences to achieve the same result, Isan uses question tag words. The use of question words makes use of the question mark (?) redundant in Isan.

General yes/no questions end in บ่ (same as บ่, "no, not").

  • สบายดีบ่ (sabai di bo, saʔbaj diː bɔː) Are you well?

Other question words

  • จั่งใด (changdai, tɕaŋdaj) or หยัง (nyang, ɲaŋ) เฮ็ดจั่งใด (het changdai, het tɕaŋ.daj) What are you doing?
  • ใผ (phai, pʰaj) ใผขายไขไก่ (phai khai khai kai, pʰaj kʰaːj kʰaj kaj) Who sells chicken eggs?
  • ใส (sai, saj) Where? ห้องน้ำอยู่ใส (hong nam yu sai, hɔːŋnam juː saj) Where is the toilet?
  • อันใด (andai, andaj) Which? เจ้าได้กินอันใด (chao kin andai, tɕaw gin an.daj) Which one did you eat?
  • จัก (chak, tɕak) How many? อายุจักปี (ayu chak pi, aːju tɕak piː) How old are you?
  • ท่อใด (thodai, tʰɔːdaj) How much? ควายตัวบทท่อใด (khwai ɗua bot thodai, kʰwaj bot tʰɔːdaj) How much is that buffalo over there?
  • แม่นบ่ (maen bo, mɛːn bɔː) Right?, Is it? เต่าไวแม่นบ่ (Tao vai maen bo, ɗaw vai mɛːn bɔː) Turtles are fast, right?
  • แล้วบ่ (laew bo, lɛːw bɔː) Yet?, Already? เขากลับบ้านแล้วบ่ (khao kap laew bo, kʰaw gap baːn lɛːw bɔː) Did he go home already?
  • หรือบ่ (loe bo, lɤː bɔː) Or not? เจ้าหิวข้าวหรือบ่ (chao hio khao loe bo, tɕaw hiw kʰaw lɤː bɔː) Are you hungry or not?

Answers to questions usually just involve repetition of the verb and any nouns for clarification.

  • Question: สบายดีบ่ (sabai di bo, saʔbaj diː bɔː) Are you well?
  • Response: สบายดี (sabai di, saʔbaj diː) I am well or บ่สบาย (bo sabai, bɔː saʔbaj) I am not well.

Words asked with a negative can be confusing and should be avoided. The response, even though without the negation, will still be negated due to the nature of the question.

  • Question: บ่สบายบ่ (bo sabai bo, bɔː saʔbaːj bɔː) Are you not well?
  • Response: สบาย (sabai, saʔbaj) I am not well or บ่สบาย (bo sabai, bɔː saʔbaːj ) I am well.


The Tai languages of Thailand and Laos share a large corpus of cognate, native vocabulary. They also share many common words and neologisms that were derived from Sanskrit, Pali, Mon and Khmer and other indigenous inhabitants to Indochina. However, there are traits that distinguish Isan both from Thai and its Lao parent language.

Isan is clearly differentiated from Thai by its Lao intonation and vocabulary. However, Isan differs from Lao in that the former has more English and Chinese loanwords, via Thai, not to mention large amounts of Thai influence. The Lao adopted French and Vietnamese loanwords as a legacy of French Indochina. Other differences between Lao and Lao include terminology that reflect the social and political separation since 1893 as well as differences in neologisms created after this. These differences, and a few very small deviations for certain common words, do not, however, diminish nor erase the Lao characters of the language.

Identical vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai English Lao Lao Thai
"language" ภาษา, pʰáː sǎː ພາສາ, pʰáː sǎː ภาษา, pʰaː sǎː "city" เมือง, mɯ´ːaŋ ເມືອງ, mɯ´ːaŋ เมือง, mɯːaŋ
"religion" ศาสนา, sȁːt sáʔ nǎː ສາສນາ, sȁːt sáʔ nǎː ศาสนา, sàːt sàʔ nǎː "government" รัฐบาล, lāt tʰáʔ bàːn ຣັຖບາລ, rāt tʰáʔ bàːn รัฐบาล, rát tʰàʔ baːn
"heaven" สวรรค์, sáʔ vǎn ສວັຣຄ໌, sáʔ vǎn สวรรค์, sàʔ wǎn "to be well" สบาย, sáʔ bàːj ສະບາຽ, sáʔ bàːj สบาย, sàʔ baːj
"child" เด็ก, dék ເດັກ, dék เด็ก, dèk "to be happy" ดีใจ dìː t͡ɕàːj ດີໃຈ, dìː t͡ɕàːj ดีใจ, di: tɕaːj
"street" ถนน, tʰáʔ nǒn ຖນົນ, tʰáʔ nǒn ถนน, tʰàʔ nǒn "sun" อาทิตย์, ʔaː tʰīt ອາທິຕຍ໌, ʔaː tʰīt อาทิตย์, ʔa: tʰít
Identical vocabulary in Lao and Isan but distinct from Thai
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"no", "not" บ่, bɔː ບໍ່, bɔː ไม่, mâj "to speak" เว้า, vâw ເວົ້າ, vâw พูด, pʰûːt
"how much" ท่อใด, tʰɔ̄ː dàj ທໍ່ໃດ, tʰɔ̄ː dàj เท่าไหร่, tʰâw ràj "to do, to make" เฮ็ด, hēt1 ເຮັດ, hēt ทำ, tʰam
"to learn" เฮียน, hían ຮຽນ, hían เรียน, rian "glass" จอก, t͡ʃɔ̏ːk ຈອກ, t͡ʃɔ̏ːk แก้ว, kɛ̂ːw
"yonder" พู้น, pʰûn ພຸ້ນ, pʰûn โน่น, nôːn "fruit" หมากไม้, mȁːk mâj ໝາກໄມ້, mȁːk mâj ผลไม้, pʰǒn láʔ máːj
"too much" โพด, pʰôːt ໂພດ, pʰôːt เกินไป, kɤn paj "to call" เอิ้น, ʔɤˆːn ເອີ້ນ, ʔɤˆːn เรียก, rîːak
"a little" หน่อยนึง, nɔ̄ːy nɯ¯ŋ ໜ່ອຽນຶ່ງ, nɔ̄ːj nɯ¯ŋ นิดหน่อย, nít nɔ`ːj "house, home" เฮือน, hɯ´ːan2 ເຮືອນ, hɯ´ːan บ้าน, bâːn
"to lower" หลุด, lút ຫຼຸດ (ຫລຸດ), lút ลด, lót "sausage" ไส้อั่ว, sȁj ʔua ໄສ້ອ່ົວ, sȁj ʔūa ไส้กรอก, sâj krɔ̀ːk
"to walk" ย่าง, ɲāːŋ ຍ່າງ, ɲāːŋ เดิน, dɤːn "older child" ลูกกก, lûːk kók ລູກກົກ, lûːk kók ลูกคนโต, lûːk kʰon toː
"frangipani blossom" ดอกจำปา, dɔ̏ːk t͡ʃam paː ດອກຈຳປາ, dɔ̏ːk t͡ʃam paː ดอกลั่นทม, dɔ`ːk lân tʰom "tomato" หมากเล่น, mȁːk lēːn3 ໝາກເລັ່ນ, mȁːk lēːn มะเขือเทศ, mâʔ kʰɯ̌ːa tʰêːt
"much", "many" หลาย, lǎːj ຫຼາຍ, lǎːj มาก, mâːk "father-in-law" พ่อเฒ่า, pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw ພໍ່ເຖົ້າ, pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw พ่อตา, pʰɔ̑ː taː
"to stop" เซา, sáw ເຊົາ, sáw หยุด, jùt "to like" มัก, māk ມັກ, māk ชอบ, tɕʰɔ̂ːp
"good luck" โซกดี, sôːk diː ໂຊຄດີ, sôːk diː โชคดี, tɕʰôːk diː "delicious" แซบ, sɛ̂ːp ແຊບ, sɛ̂ːp อร่อย, ʔàʔ rɔ`j
"fun" ม่วน, mūan ມ່ວນ, mūan สนุก, sàʔ nùk "really" อิหลี, ʔīː lǐː4 ອີ່ຫຼີ, ʔīː lǐː จริง, tɕiŋ
"elegant" โก้, kôː ໂກ້, kôː หรูหรา, rǔː rǎː "ox" งัว, ŋúaː ງົວ, ŋúaː วัว, wua
  • ^1 Also appears in Isan ทำ and Lao ທຳ, /tʰám/.
  • ^2 Very formal Thai word เรือน (rɯːan) is cognate. Thai word also appears in Isan บ้าน and Lao ບ້ານ /bâːn/.
  • ^3 Also known as เขอเคอ in Isan and ເຂືອເຄືອ in Lao, /kʰɤˇːa kʰɤˇːa/.
  • ^4 Also appears as จริง (Lao: ຈິງ) /t͡ʃiŋ/.
Shared Thai and Isan vocabulary distinct from Lao
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"ice" น้ำแข็ง, nâm kʰɛ̌ːŋ ນ້ຳກ້ອນ, nâm kɔ̂ːn5 น้ำแข็ง, náːm kʰɛ̌ŋ "plain" (adj.) เปล่า, paw ລ້າ, lâː เปล่า, plàːw
"necktie" เน็กไท, nēk tʰáj ກາຣະວັດ, kaː rāʔ vát6 เน็กไท, nék tʰáj "province" จังหวัด, t͡ʃàŋ vát ແຂວງ, kʰwɛ̌ːŋ7 จังหวัด, tɕaŋ wàt
"wine" ไวน์, váj ແວງ vɛ́ːŋ8 ไวน์, waːj "pho" ก๋วยเตี๋ยว, kuǎj tǐaw ເຝີ, fɤ̌ː9 ก๋วยเตี๋ยว, kuǎj tǐaw
"January" มกราคม, mōk káʔ ráː kʰóm ມັງກອນ, máŋ kɔ̀ːn มกราคม, mók kàʔ raː kʰom "paper" กะดาษ, káʔ dȁːt ເຈັ້ຽ, t͡ɕìa กระดาษ, kràʔ dàːt
"window" หน้าต่าง, nȁː tāːŋ ປ່ອງຢ້ຽມ, pɔ̄ːŋ jîam หน้าต่าง, nâː tàːŋ "book" หนังสือ, nǎŋ.sɨ̌ː ປຶ້ມ, pɨ̂m หนังสือ, nǎng.sɯ̌ː
"motorcycle" มอเตอร์ไซค์, mɔ́ː tɤ̀ː sáj ຣົຖຈັກ, rōt t͡ʃák มอเตอร์ไซค์, mɔː tɤː saj10 "butter" เนย, /nɤ´ːj/ ເບີຣ໌, /bɤ`ː/11 เนย, /nɤːj/
  • ^5 Formerly น้ำก้อน, but this is now archaic/obsolete.
  • ^6 From French cravate, /kra vat/
  • ^7 Thai and Isan use แขวง to talk about provinces of Laos.
  • ^8 From French vin (vɛ̃) as opposed to Thai and Isan ไวน์ from English wine.
  • ^9 From Vietnamese phở /fə̃ː/.
  • ^10 From English "motorcycle".
  • ^11 From French beurre, /bøʁ/
Generally distinct vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
"to work" เฮ็ดงาน, hēt ŋáːn ເຮັດວຽກ hēt vîak12 ทำงาน, tʰam ŋaːn "papaya" บักหุ่ง, bák hūŋ ໝາກຫຸ່ງ, mȁːk hūŋ มะละกอ, màʔ làʔ kɔː
"fried beef" ทอดซี้น, tʰɔ̂ːt sîːn ຂົ້ວຊີ້ນ, kʰȕa sîːn เนื้อทอด, nɯ´ːa tʰɔ̂ːt "hundred" ร้อย, lɔ̂ːj ຮ້ອຍ, hɔ̂ːj ร้อย, rɔ́ːj
"barbecued pork" หมูปิ้ง, mǔː pîːŋ ປີ້ງໝູ, pîːŋ mǔː หมูย่าง, mǔː jâːŋ "ice cream" ไอติม, ʔaj tim ກາແລ້ມ, kaː lɛ̂ːm ไอศกรีม, ʔaj sàʔ kriːm
  • ^12 Lao ເຮັດ, to do + Vietnamese việc, to work, /viək/ (ວຽກ).


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Further reading

  • Hayashi, Yukio. (2003). Practical Buddhism among the Thai-Lao. Trans Pacific Press. ISBN 4-87698-454-9.
  • เรืองเดช ปันเขื่อนขัติย์. ภาษาถิ่นตระกูลไทย. กทม. สถาบันวิจัยภาษาและวัฒนธรรมเพื่อการพัฒนาชนบทมหาวิทยาลัยมหิดล. 2531.
  • Keyes, Charles F. (1966). 'Ethnic Identity and Loyalty of Villagers in Northeastern Thailand.' Asian Survey.

External links