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From SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU Sun Aug 20 10:39:12 2000
Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2000 18:13:42 -0700
Reply-To: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
Subject: Thai-Lao/Isan vs. Lao
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The Thai-Lao/Isan vs. Lao languages

A dialog from the Southeast Asia discussion list, August 2000

Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2000 18:13:42 -0700
From: Gene Mesher <gmesher@IX.NETCOM.COM>

Can someone answer a linguistic question for me? What exactly is the difference between Thai-lao or Isan and the Lao language? Are these mutually intelligible languages?

I've heard some say that they are different and others say they are essentially the same.

Gene Mesher
CSUS, Sacramento, CA

Date: Sat, 19 Aug 2000 22:13:39 -0400
From: David Furman <estonian@CCT.INFI.NET>

My wife is Isan, and as she describes it, Isan and Lao are mutually intelligible, but not identical. In any case, the differences between Central Thai (Bangkok) and Isan are greater than the differences between Isan and Lao. Dr. David V. Furman

Date: Sun, 20 Aug 2000 02:01:29 -0700
From: David Streckfuss <dstreckfuss@YAHOO.COM>

They are linguistically and culturally the same. Isaan is oriented towards the north and east historically--that is, toward the Lao world. The Mekong river ran straight through this world. Linguistically speaking, there are three main dialect groups of Lao--Luang Prabang Lao (now spoken in Chiang Mai), Viengjan Lao, spoken roughly in the upper half of Isaan, and Sawannakhet Lao, spoken in the lower half of Isaan.

The French came and cut it in half, and the Siamese elite in Bangkok, in order to secure their claims against the French, stopped using the word Lao in official documents and came up with the sanskritzed word, Isaan, meaning, northeast. Northeast of what? Bangkok, of course.!

This all happened about a hundred years ago. When modern education came in, the Lao of now-Laos and of Isaan diverged. An Isann person was denied the right to use his or her language in classrooms in Siam/Thailand. If they prospered educationally, it was on to Bangkok, where they had to become Thai-ified to continue. The educated Lao got the Lao in the classroom, but also French, wehre a fair amount of the modern vocabulary, such as engineer comes from. So, if a Lao and Isaan person got together and talked about village matters, they would have little difficulty in comprehending one another. However, where they to discuss social science theory, they would have difficulty, for the Isaan person would have to switch over to Thai more or less, and the Lao person might sprinkle his or her conversation with enough French words, unintelligible to the other party.


Dave Streckfuss

Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 07:24:02 -0700
From: Kirk Greenway <kirkgreenway@YAHOO.COM>

What David says has a semblance of truth. I was a US Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in a remote village of Chaiyaphum province in Thailand in the early 1990s. The unique thing about this Isani province is that it was settled by people who were considered to be Lao in the nineteenth century. They retain their Lao ethnic identity. I can name culinary dishes, songs, and dances that are all very Lao and a part of everyday life there to this day. This is because the founder of the province, Nae Lai, was a Lao who donated gold from Baw Thong in Nongbuadeng, the golden well, to King Mongkut in order to aid his campaigns.

Tonal maps of Lao and Isani Thai dialects have been constructed by Thai linguists that show the way tones are spoken typically in provinces among groups who are disconnected from the Central Thai homogenization of the mass media and education. Of these, several provinces of Thailand that border Laos such as Nangkhai and Yasothorn have less Lao resembling tone patterns than Chaiyaphum.

I remember hearing accounts of a mobile public medical clinic that was conducted by the provincial health authorities in Chaiyaphum during 1995. The basic similarity in ways of speaking and thinking was stressed by those who went over. It was like a reunion experience.

The vast majority of foreign words used by the Lao doctors were Russian, though, not French. When I have met Lao in the U.S., I have always found that my Chaiyaphum Thai does not seem unusually inflected to them. In addition, my knowledge of French is useless.

If any of you are considering touring Chaiyaphum, it has many natural and cultural attractions that are well off the map and quite interesting. Chaiyaphum, though, is one of the few provinces in Thailand where there are no private hospitals and healthcare there is about two decades behind the rest of Thailand.

This might be due to a Prathet Lao insurgency that persisted into the 1990s in some areas of the province. This made the province less desirable for the development of entrepreneurial medical facilities.

Kirk Greenway

Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2000 11:30:00 -0500
From: Joseph Stimpfl <jstimpfl@WEBSTER.EDU>

David and Kirk describe a very interesting and largely understudied region.

The phenomenon at work in this situation is engineered cultural change that attempts to eradicate an indigenous culture. Isan as David points out is a region with stronger ties to Lao cultural forms than that of the central Thai. The region has been controlled by and fought over by outsiders for several centuries and there are contemporary and historic cultural and linguistic influences from all the surrounding regions as well as colonizers that have impacted the region over the centuries.

My spouse was raised in Isan and indoctrinated to believe that she (1.) spoke Isan Thai, not Lao and (2) that it is an inferior dialect. Because Thai was not her first language, as she graduated through the educational system and achieved success, she still felt her Thai was inferior to proper Thai. It wasn't until she actually studied Lao language forms for a MA in Linguistics did she begin to feel some form of pride and satisfaction in the Lao language.

I appreciate Thailand and Thai culture as much as any outsider but it is important to remember that Thais are relatively new arrivals to the territory that is modern Thailand. It was not in the best interest of the founding kings of Thailand (who had their hands full with surrounding states) to emphasize or even preserve preexisting linguistic and cultural forms. Cham, Khmer, Lao, Burmese and Malay groups (among others) were subsumed into the kingdom of the Thais in the Chao Phraya valley. The implications of this practice can be observed in many regions outside central Thailand.

As Fred Riggs long ago pointed out, the effectiveness of the centralized bureaucracy in Thailand is mainly responsible for the strength of the modern state of Thailand. However, centralization and nationalism have other effects as well. Isan affords a very good example of this.