People and Language



Why is Thailand known worldwide as the “Land of Smiles”? When you visit Thailand, you will notice immediately that Thai people put on a smile in all situations of life. Even though because of modern pressures this smile is slightly fading, especially among the city population, it is still an ever present feature of Thai culture.

This smile can be a sign of friendliness and good will, an attempt to instil confidence in another person or to appease someone in a confrontation, or it may be an expression of hope to camouflage one’s own insecurity in an embarrassing situation. Then there is the smile when making a request or to show one’s respect or to appear less blunt when denying a request. Even though foreigners may find this difficult to understand, the Thai people’s smile makes the daily contact with them extremely pleasant.

In 2009, there were around 66 million people living in Thailand. The life expectancy is about 69 years. In 1960 it was only 52 years. Population growth, which is at present 0.7% p/a, has in recent years slowed down considerably. Especially in rural areas around 30% of all people still live below the poverty line. Parents endeavour to have many children, as they are in many cases the only support they`ll have in their old age. The urbanisation with the widening social and political divide that comes with it, cannot be held back. Cities and tourism centres, and of course the huge capital Bangkok, have a magnetic effect on the young and the often unemployed people of the rural areas. Their dream of a better life, however, often leads to miserable jobs in factories and brothels.

Apart from Bangkok with its estimated population of 14 million people there is no other city in the country that has a million or more inhabitants. Just under 80% of the total population are Thais who emigrated over the course of several centuries from the Chinese province of Yunnan.

Several ethnic minorities live mainly in either the northern or the southern provinces of the country. Yala, Narathiwat and Satun in the south, for example, are the home of islamic Malays, who constitute 80% of the local population. In this region several guerilla groups fight for greater autonomy or even total independence from Thailand. Other minorities live in the north. They are often stateless people who work illegally to support themselves. They are certainly the most pitiful of all inhabitants of the country.

An economically influential minority at the other end of the social scale are the Thais of Chinese origin. In the time from the beginning of the 18th till the middle of the 20th century, about 4 million Chinese fled their homeland because of its political turmoil. A study conducted by Thammasat University has revealed that 63 out of a 100 of the largest industrial companies of the country are controlled by ethnic Chinese. Furthermore, 23 out of the 25 most influential industry leaders are of Chinese origin.

About 94% of all Thais are Buddhists, 4% are Muslims and 2% are Christians or belong to some other denominations. It is probably the influence of Buddhism that contributes to the easy and relaxed way of life of the Thai people. Their ambitions and their work ethos are rather limited. They always seem to be in a happy mood and would never pass up an opportunity to enjoy themselves. The political battles of recent times are very foreign to the peace loving Thai people and the majority of them feel very upset about the situation. A great measure of tolerance has for centuries and to this very day enabled all the different inhabitants of this country to live in peace and harmony, and has allowed foreigners of all religions and ethnic backgrounds to live their lives according to their own beliefs and cultures.


Thai, which is sometimes referred to as Siamese, is part of the Tai language family. The languages in this family belong to the much larger Austric language group. The spoken language is believed to have originated in the area which is now the border between Vietnam and China, an idea which provides clues to the origin of the Thai people, an area of continued academic debate.

Thai houseThe written Thai Language was introduced by the third Sukothai period king, Ramkamhaeng, in 1283. This writing system has undergone little change since its introduction, so inscriptions from the Sukothai era can be read by modern Thai readers. The writing was based on Pali, Sanskrit, and Indian concepts, and many Mon and Khmer words entered the language.

Within Thailand, there are four major dialects, corresponding to the southern, northern (“Yuan”), north-eastern (close to Lao language), and central regions of the country; the latter is called Central Thai or Bangkok Thai and is taught in all schools, is used for most television broadcasts, and is widely understood in all regions.

Nowadays, English is also taught in all public schools. There are a few minor Thai dialects such as Phuan and Lue, spoken by small populations. Also within Thailand, small ethnic minority groups (including so-called “hill tribes”) account for around sixty languages which are not considered related to Thai.

The four primary dialects of Thai should not be confused with four different “languages” used by Thais in different social circumstances. For example, certain words are used only by Thai royalty, creating a royal language.

The Thai alphabet uses forty-four consonants and fifteen basic vowel characters. These are horizontally placed, left to right, with no intervening space, to form syllables, words, and sentences.

Vowels are written above, below, before, or after the consonant they modify, although the consonant always sounds first when the syllable is spoken. The vowel characters (and a few consonants) can be combined in various ways to produce numerous compound vowels.

Unlike the Chinese language, the system is alphabetic, so pronunciation of a word is independent of its meaning (English is also an alphabetic language). On the other hand, Thai is tonal, like Chinese and unlike English. This means that each word has a certain pitch characteristic with which it must be spoken to be properly understood. The Thai language uses five tones, called mid, low, high, rising, and falling.

The grammar of the Thai language is considerably simpler than the ones in Western languages. Most significantly, words are not modified or conjugated for tenses, plurals, genders, or subject-verb agreement. Articles such as “a”, “an”, or “the” are also not used. Tenses, levels of politeness, verb-to-noun conversion, and other language concepts are accomplished with the simple addition of various modifying words (called “particles”) to the basic subject-verb-object format.