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Isaan Dialect

Introduction

This page has the aim of teaching the visitor to Thailand a few Isaan phrases, together with a little grammar thrown in as well for good measure.

Isaan is the name given to the North-Eastern region of Thailand, covering 170,218 square kilometers, approximately one third of Thailands land area. In 1997, Isaan's population was 21,086,501 million people, about 35% of Thailand's total population.

All Thais learn standard Thai (Central Thai) in school. It's the language also used in the newspapers and on TV/radio and is essentially the lingua franca of Thailand. But at home Isaan people (KON ISAAN in Thai) will speak a version of Lao called Isaan dialect or North-Eastern Thai.

You may well wonder why someone visiting Thailand should bother going to the trouble to learn some Isaan dialect. Surely learning Thai is quite enough without having to learn an extra language. And another tonal one at that.

Well, as a visitor to Thailand, it is very likely that you will spend a considerable amount of time with people from Isaan. They make up roughly 1/3 of Thailand's population and are very often employed in jobs that bring them into close contact with tourists. Especially so in two of Thailand's major tourist destinations, Bangkok and Pattaya. Whether it be hotel staff, restaurant workers, taxi drivers or street vendors, you're sure to come into contact with KON ISAAN.

You may even be lucky enough to have an Issan lady as your girlfriend or wife.

In addition, as a part of your stay in Thailand, you may also consider visiting Isaan for a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Compared to other parts of Thailand the pace is much slower, and the prices are also considerably cheaper.

The Isaan people are in general an extremely friendly and good-natured people, and they respond very favourably to those who make the effort to appreciate their culture and learn their language. Just a few words of their language spoken to them by a tourist will immediately set you apart, since foreigners who speak any Isaan dialect at all are extremely rare indeed.


Relationship between Thai, Isaan dialect and Lao

The Isaan people are of Laotian descent and until the 1960s, they were still called Lao. In fact, the Isaan region and Laos had originally been a part of the Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang (founded in 1354). Following the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 the Siamese kingdom held sway in Laos and Isaan, and carried out forced population transfers from Laos to Isaan in the 18th and 19th centuries. (This is one reason why today Isaan is so heavily populated compared to Laos: 21 million in Isaan compared to 6.5 million in Laos).
In the 19th century French colonialists made incursions into Laos and were too strong for Siam (1). Franco-Siamese treaties of 1893 and 1904 ceded Lao territory to France leaving Isaan as Siams north-east frontier with French Indochina. Even today, you'll sometimes see Lao posters on internet message boards talking about returning Isaan to Laos, but the Isaan posters make it clear they are Thai now and are happy the way things are.

Isaan dialect (also called North-Eastern Thai) is really nothing but Lao. It is virtually 100% Lao in vocabulary and intonation; in fact there are more Lao speakers living in Thailand than in Laos.

As has been mentioned earlier, all Thais learn Central Thai in school and its the language used in books, newspapers and on the TV/radio. However at home, North-Easterners will speak Isaan. Even outside of Isaan, in Bangkok for example, when you are with a group of North-Easterners, they will invariably at some point drop their Thai and lapse into speaking Isaan with one another.

Forty or so years ago (in the 1960s) the Thai government took away all forms of their writing in an attempt to assimilate them into Central Thai culture. However, they continued to maintain their Lao dialect through speech, and it continues strong to this day, as do their distinctive customs and traditions.

The biggest difference between Lao and Isaan is that Isaan uses the standard Thai alphabet, not the slightly different Lao alphabet. The Lao alphabet is very close to the Thai alphabet (and derived from it), but it's different enough to present a fair degree of difficulty to Thai and Isaan folks when trying to read Lao material. Some Isaan folks I've asked say they can read no Lao because the alphabet's too different, others say that if given eg a Lao newspaper article, they can maybe read and understand a percentage (at most 60%) of the material with some difficulty.

Lao (and Isaan dialect) tones are also often different than Thai. The words may well be virtually the same, but the tones aren't. Something around 80% of the Thai-Lao vocabulary is identical, though the tones may confuse you. However Isaan dialect and Thai are close enough that, for native speakers, the two are mutually intelligible. They are perhaps as close as Dutch and German (maybe even a little closer).

Just a few basic rules for ISAAN dialect:

  • The negative in Isaan is BAW eg MAI ROO in Thai (don't know) becomes BAW HOO. Listen out for that BAW and you will be able to figure out a lot of their speech.
  • Even though the Lao alphabet has what clearly looks like a Thai 'R', Isaan (and Lao) has no 'R' sound. Two thirds of the time it's pronounced as an 'L' and the other one third as an 'H'.
    eg ROT (car) in Thai becomes LOT in Isaan and NAK RIAN (student) becomes NAK HIAN.
  • Isaan has no CH sound as in Thai - the CH becomes an S sound eg CHOK DEE (good luck) in Thai becomes SOK DEE in Isaan; CHAHT THAI (Thai nationality) becomes SAHT THAI.
  • Consonant clusters are often simplified eg PLA in Thai (fish) becomes PA in Isaan.

Finally, it should be noted that within N.E. Thailand there are in fact several different dialects of Isaan. e.g. Korat has its own dialect which is understood with difficulty by people outside of the area.

Accordingly, I have just included a few basic Isaan phrases with a little grammar thrown in for good measure. I have found these phrases to be generally understood by the majority of North-Easterners I have had contact with.

I hope you will find some of them useful in your travels to Thailand.



Isaan

English

Thai

KHOI

I (Pronoun)
used by male or female

PHOM (male);
CHAN ѹ / DICHAN
ԩѹ (female)

PERN (respectful) เพิ่น



or sometimes KHAO เขา

He/She

KHAO เขา

JAO เจ้า

You

KHUN คุณ

KHA-JAO คะเจ้า

They

KHAO เขา

HAO เฮา

We

RAO เรา

BAW บ๊อ
(High tone; sometimes mid tone)

Question word placed
at the end of a sentence
equivalent to MAI in Thai.

MAI ไหม

PHOO-BAO

Man

PHOO-CHAI

PHOO-SAO

Woman

PHOO-YING ˭ԧ

SABAI DEE สบายดี

Hello
(the standard greeting in Isaan)

SAWAT DEE สวัสดี

SABAI DEE BAW
สบายดีบ๊อ



or
SAMBAI DEE BAW
ซำบายดีบ๊อ (less common)

How are you?

Can reply: SABAI DEE - I'm fine

SABAI DEE MAI
สบายดีไหม

BAW บ่อ (Low tone)
Sometimes written
as just บ่

No, not (used to form the negative)

eg BAW HOO บ่อฮู้ - don't know;
PERN BAW MA เพิ่นบ่อมา he didn't come

MAI ไม่

JEP BAW เจ็บบ๊อ

Does it hurt?

JEP MAI เจ็บไหม

WAO LAO DAI BAW
วาวลาวได้บ๊อ

Can you speak Lao (Isaan)?

In Isaan they don't PHOOT LAO as in Thai but WAO วาว or PAHK ปาก LAO.
You can reply WAO LAO DAI NIT NOI - I can speak a little Lao.

KHUN PHOOT LAO DAI MAI
คุณพูดลาวได้ไหม

JAO AH-YOO THAO DAI

How old are you?

KHUN AH-YOO TAO-RAI
س

EE-YANG ѧ

What?

ARAI

PEN NYANG ѧ
(NYANG is rising tone)

Why; what's the matter?

PEN ARAI

BAW PEN NYANG
ѧ

Nothing's the matter; it's all right; it's ok

MAI PEN RAI

JAO SEU NYANG
ҫѧ

What's your name?

Isaan dialect has no CH-sound as in Thai - the CH becomes an S-sound eg CHOK DEE (good luck) in Thai becomes SOK DEE in Isaan; CHAHT THAI (Thai nationality) becomes SAHT THAI

KHUN CHEU ARAI
س

PAI SAI

Where are you going?

PAI NAI ˹

PAI SAI MA

Where have you been?

PAI NAI MA ˹

SI PAI SAI

Where will you go, where are you going?

JA PAI NAI ˹

DTAE
(Sometimes JAHK ҡ, same as Thai).

From

eg JAO MA DTAE SAI

- Where do you come from?
KHOI MA JAHK MEXICO
Ҩҡ硫
- I come from Mexico.

ҡ

eg KHUN MA JAHK NAI
سҨҡ˹
- Where do you come from?
PHOM MA JAHK MEXICO
Ҩҡ硫
- I come from Mexico.

MAEN BAW

Is that right, is that correct?

CHAI MAI?

BAW MAEN

Not so, not true

MAI CHAI

MAEN LAEW

That's right, that's correct

CHAI LAEW

IH-LEE

Really

JING ԧ

SAEP

Delicious
If someone asks you to dinner, assure them the food is SAEP LAI LAI or SAEP IH-LEE.

AROI

SAEP LAI LAI

Very delicious

AROI MAHK ҡ

SAEP IH-LEE

Really delicious

AROI MAHK ҡ

KHAWP JAI LAI LAI ͺ

Thank you very much.
In Thai, KHAWP JAI is only used to children/inferiors/intimates.

KHAWP KHUN MAHK ͺسҡ

KHEE DTUA

Lie, to lie (not tell the truth)

GO-HOK ˡ

SEE-DA մ
BAK-SEE-DA ѡմ or
MAHK-SEE-DA ҡմ

Guava fruit; Foreigner (white, Western)

KON ISAAN may call Westerners
BAK-SEE-DA ѡմ - not derogatory -
BAK is ISAAN for mister;
SEE-DA մ, BAK-SEE-DA and MAHK-SEE-DA are Isaan for the Guava fruit.

FARANG (2)

HET

To do, make

THAM

HET WEE-UK ¡
(Sometimes HET NGAHN 紧ҹ)

To work

THAM NGAAN ӧҹ

SAO

To stop; Stop!

YOOT ش

SEE-OH

Friend, pal

PEU-AN ͹

MUAN BAW ǹ

Is it fun?

MUAN LAI - a lot of fun (in Thai: SANOOK MAHK).

SANOOK MAI ʹء

NGAAM

Beautiful

SUAY

NA-HAK ѡ

Cute, lovely

NA-RAK ѡ

MAK ѡ

To like

CHAWP ͺ

MAK BAW ѡ

Do you like it?

CHAWP MAI ͺ

HAK ѡ

To love

RAK ѡ

SANG ѧ

To hate

GLEE-UT ´

KHOI HAK JAO ѡ

I love you

POM/CHAN RAK KHUN
/ѹѡس

KHOI KHIT HAWT JAO ¤Դʹ



(In speech, usually just shortened to KHIT HAWT JAO).

I miss you

KHIT HAWT LAI LAI - I miss you a lot

POM/CHAN KHIT TEUNG KHUN
/ѹԴ֧س

KHAO NGAI ǧ

Breakfast

AH-HAHN CHAO

KHAO SUAY

Lunch

AH-HAHN GLANG WAN
áҧѹ

KHAO LAENG ŧ

Dinner

AH-HAHN YEN

PA DAEK ᴡ

Fermented fish; a delicacy in Isaan.

PLA RA

DER

DER is a polite particle tacked onto the end of a sentence, roughly equivalent to NA KHRAP ФѺ or NA KHA Ф.

eg KHAWP JAI LAI LAI DER
-many thanks
SAEP IH-LEE DER
-really delicious
MAO BAW KHAP DER
-don't drink and drive.

NA KHRAP ФѺ/NA KHA Ф

DAWK ͡

DAWK is a particle tacked on to the end of sentences. It adds politeness and makes things sound softer and more friendly.
The equivalent in Central Thai is RAWK.

eg BAW PEN NYANG DAWK
ѧ͡
- That's all right/It doesn't matter/Don't mention it.

RAWK ͡;

MAI PEN RAI RAWK
͡
- That's all right/It doesn't matter/Don't mention it.



Notes

1) Up until 1939, Thailand was known as Siam.

2) Farang is the Thai word for a white Western foreigner.


  • Thanks are due to KHUN MAI (from Sisaket), GAY (Roi Et) and DAENG ᴧ (Buriram) for their help in recording the sound files.

  • More words and sound files will be added to the table as time and circumstance permit.


Please send any comments and corrections here.

Page last updated Mar 2011.

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