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Thai is spoken by about 35 million people in Thailand, about 60 percent of the country’s population. It belongs to a group of languages called the Tai languages, which includes Lao, of Laos, and the Shan language of northern Burma. These languages were once thought to be a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family and thus related to Chinese, but this relationship has now been rejected by most linguists.
The Thai alphabet dates from the 13th century. It was created by the King of Thailand, who took the alphabet then in use by the Khmers (which had its ultimate origin in India). To it he added a number of new symbols, as Thai and Khmer have very different sound patterns. The vowels are not represented by an individual letter but by a mark written above, below, before, or after the consonant with which it is pronounced.
Thai, like Chinese, is a tonal language, meaning that different tones, or intonations, distinguish words that would otherwise be homonyms. Of the five tones, four are indicated by signs over the consonants, the absence of a sign indicating that the fifth tone is to be used. Words are not separated from each other, and the letters generally flow uninterruptedly until the idea changes.
Authorized from the original edition of The Languages of the World 3rd edition by Keneth Katzner published by Routledge, a member of the Taylor & Francis Group.
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