Isaan Language

Isaan Language

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Isan language (Thai: ภาษาอีสาน, RTGS: phasa isan, IPA: [pʰaːsaː iːsaːn]) is the collective name for the dialects of the Lao language as they are spoken in Thailand. It is spoken by approximately 20 million people, which is nearly one-third of the entire population of Thailand.[1], predominantly in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand. There are also large numbers of speakers in Bangkok by migrant workers. It serves as the primary lingua franca of the Isan region, used as a communication medium amongst native speakers and second language speakers amongst various other minority groups, such as the Northern Khmer. There are more speakers of Lao (Isan) in Thailand than in Laos.

Although the Lao language is vibrant in Thailand, spoken as the main language in 88% of speakers’ households, the language suffers from a lack of alphabet, reduced transmission, and absence in media, official events, and education[2]. The language is also heavily being influenced by Thai, as this is the principal language of writing, education, government, and most official situations and a second language for most speakers. Code-switching is common, depending on the context or situation. Adoption of Thai neologisms has also further differentiated Isan from standard Lao.[3]


Isan belong to the Tai branch of the Kradai languages. It is often considered to be a Thai dialect, a Lao dialect, or a language in its own right. This has given Isan a wealth of other names including Thai Isan, Lao Isan, Lao, or Northeastern Thai. In general, speakers refer to the language either as Isan or Lao, although the term ‘Lao’ can be used pejoratively by Thai speakers or the preferred term by those who acknowledge the Lao roots. Although Lao and Thai are mutually intelligible to some extent, Isan is closer to standard Lao than it is to standard Thai.[4]


The Tai languages of Southeast Asia were introduced by migrations from southern China and northern Vietnam beginning three millennia ago. Evidence of these migrations are recorded in the legends of a possibly mythic king, Khun Borom whose descendants settled as far as Assam, central China, Hainan Island, and Southeast Asia, fleeing from population pressures, Han Chinese expansion, Mongol wars as well as searching suitable riparian areas for wet-rice cultivation.[5]

The forerunners of the modern Tai peoples of Thailand and Laos displaced the indigenous Austro-Asiatic and Negrito peoples and established their own kingdoms, with the Lao concentrated along the Mekong River Valley and the predecessors to the Siamese states settling along the Chao Phraya River Valley. The Lao kingdoms consolidated into the Kingdom of Lan Xang in 1354, and its territory included most of what is now Laos and the Isan region, as well as Lannathai and some Chinese territory. The rival Siamese forced Lan Xang into serving as a vassal state. Pressures from Vietnam, Siam, China, and Angkor after a political crisis lead to a split into three kingdoms that were rapidly annexed by Siam. After this incorporation, the 18th and 19th century, the invading Siamese enslaved whole villages, conscripted others into corvée labour, or forced the population to relocate into Isan from the more prosperous eastern shores for the purpose of settling and developing the region. Competing French and British interests necessitated Siam be a buffer zone, but Siam lost huge territorial concessions to maintain its freedom, including Isan, which did not fully become Siamese territory until the 1904.[6] From this point on, the history of the Lao in Thailand and the Lao in Laos were divided.

The region remained a neglected, rural area. Thaification policies were undertaken to strip the Lao of their identity and connection with their colonized, and later Communist, brethren on the other shore of the Mekhong River, including the introduction of Thai-language schooling; mandatory use of Thai in written communication, government, business, and education; a name change of the region, its people and language from ‘Lao’ to ‘Isan’; banning publications in the Lao alphabet; as well as prejudice of the ‘foreigners’ by Central Thai. With the absence of Isan in most media outlets and formal spheres and high rates of bilingualism with Thai, the Lao languages have diverged significantly in recent years as Thai pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar have made inroads.[7]

 Geographic Distribution

Isan is spoken in the 19 provinces that constitute the northeastern portion of the country, or Isan, a territory about the size of England and Wales combined. Speakers can also be found in large portions of Uttaradit and Phitsanulok provinces, which border the region.[8] Internal migration in search of better wages and opportunities has led to a large cluster of Isan speakers in the Bangkok capital region. In addition to these, other Lao dialects are spoken by scattered tribal groups in Lannathai and Central Thailand in small villages descended from forced migrations and enslavement of Lao peoples to these areas as well.[9]

 Legal Status

Lao only enjoys official status in Laos. In Thailand, the local Lao dialects are officially viewed as a dialect of the Thai language, and the language is absent in most public and official domains. Despite these pressures of government policy to assimilate the people and language to the Thai nation state, 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.[10]


As the language is in a diglossic situation with standard Thai, dialects of the Lao language in Thailand share several features that set them apart from standard Lao, mainly the adoption of Thai neologisms, code-switching between Thai and Lao, and influences on grammar and tone distribution which make certain standard Lao words and manners of speaking seem very archaic or are just obsolete.[11] However, dialectal isoglosses mirror the population movements from modern-day Laos into the Isan region and can be matched to those in Laos.


Lao Dialects
Dialect Lao Provinces Thai Provinces  
Vientiane Lao (ภาษาลาวเวียงจันทน์) Vientiane, Vientiane Capital Prefecture, Bolikhamsai Nong Bua Lamphu, Chaiyaphum, and parts of Nong Khai, Yasothorn, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani.
Northern Lao (ภาษาลาวเหนือ) Luang Prabang, Sainyabuli, Oudomxay. Loei and parts of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen.*1
Northeastern Lao/Tai Phuan (ภาษาลาวตะวันออกเฉียงเหนือ/ภาษาไทพวน) Xiangkhoang and Houaphanh. Parts of Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani.*2
Central Lao (ภาษาลาวกลาง) Savannakhet and Khammouan. Mukdahan and parts of Sakon Nakhon and Nong Khai.
Southern Lao (ภาษาลาวใต้) Champasak, Salavan, Sekong, and Attapeu. Ubon Ratchathani, Amnat Charoen, and parts of Yasothorn, Buriram, Si Sa Ket, Surin and Nakhon Ratchasima*3
Western Lao (ภาษาลาวตะวันตก) *4 Kalasin, Maha Sarakham, and Roi Et.
  • (1) Also spoken in large parts of Uttaradit Province and Phitsunaloke which are outside the Isan region.
  • (2) Sometimes considered a separate language, as it is traditionally spoken by Phuan tribal members, a closely related but distinct Tai group. Also spoken in a few small and scattered Tai Phuan villages in Sukhothai, Uttaradit, and Phrae.
  • (3) Gives way to Northern Khmer in Si Sa Ket, Surin, and Buriram, and to Khorat Thai and, to some extant, Northern Khmer in Nakhon Ratchasima.
  • (4) Western Lao dialect is not spoken in Laos.[12]

 Writing System

Lao dialects in Thailand have been written in four abugida scripts. Religious, royal and other sacred texts were often written in Tua Tham, a Mon-based script that was also used to write Tai Lue and Northern Thai. Secular literature was mostly written in Thai Noy, another abugida based on the Old Thai script, via Khmer. This script evolved into the modern Lao alphabet.[13] Government policies at the turn of the 20th century were implemented to obliterate the ‘Lao-ness’ of the Isan citizenry, and schools were closed, books banned, and the unique history of Isan and its culture was removed from the curriculum. Currently, Lao is written in Thailand using the Thai alphabet, if it is written at all.[14]


Isan shares most of its phonology with the Lao language, although code-switching and Standard Thai influences leads some features non-native to the Isan language being adopted in certain cases. As the language is closely related to and written in the same alphabet as the Thai language, knowledge of Thai sounds is helpful, but there are a few differences that make writing in Thai inadequate.[15][16]

Simplification of consonant clusters

  • เพลง song (phleng, pʰleːŋ) is pronounced as เพง (pheng, pʰeːŋ) but still written as เพลง, cf. Lao ເພງ (pheng, pʰeːŋ).

Lack of ร (r), pronounced as ล (l) or pronounced and written as ฮ (h)

  • รถ car (rot) and รำ dance (ram) is pronounced as รถ (lot) and ลำ (lam)
  • In writing, ร is not written as ล, with a few exceptions.
  • รัก love (rak) and ร้อน (ron, rɔːn) “hot” pronounced and written as ฮัก (hak) and ฮ้อน (hon, hɔːn) respectively.
  • Isan does not use ฮ as often as standard Lao, so the words เรือ boat (luea, lɯːa) and ร้อย hundred (loi, lɔːj) do not become เฮือ (huea, hɯːa) or ฮ้อย (hoi, hɔːj) as these are archaic/obsolete pronunciations of these words.

Lack of ฉ, ช, and ฌ (all ch/tɕʰ), pronounced and sometimes written as ซ (s/s)

  • ฉ, ช, and ฌ (ch/tɕʰ) is pronounced as ซ (s/s)

ฉบับ copy (chabap, tɕʰaʔbap) ช้าง elephant (chang, tɕʰaːŋ) and ฌาน meditative absorption (chan, tɕʰaːn) become ซบับ (sabap, saʔbap), ซ้าง (sang, saːŋ) and ซาน (san, saːn), respectively.

  • Educated and urban speakers may pronounce the (ch/tɕʰ) phoneme, but (s) is still more common.

ญ and ย (y/j) is sometimes pronounced as ญ and ย (ny, ɲ) if etymologically related to Lao letter ຍ

  • ผู้หญิง girl (phuying/pʰuːjiŋ) and ยาย maternal grandmother (yai/jaj) become ผู้หญิง (phunying/pʰuːɲiŋ) and ยาย (nyai, ɲaj); cf. Lao ຫຍິງ and ຍາຍ.

ญ and ย (y/j) is not pronounced as (ny, ɲ) if etymologically related to Lao letter ຢ

  • ยา medicine (ya/jaː) and อยู่ (yu, juː) to be somewhere, not (nya) and (nyu); cf. Lao ຢາ and ຢູ່.

Consonantal ว (w/w) is sometimes pronounced as ว (v/v)

  • เวร to turn (wen, weːn) and วาสนา luck (waːsaʔnaː) is pronounced as เวร (veːn) and วาสนา (vaːsaʔnaː).

Certain diphthongs with ว are shortened

  • ขวาม noun modifier (khwam/kʰwaːm) and ควาย water buffalo (khwai/kʰwaːj) pronounced as ขวม (khuam) and ควย (khwuai/kʰwuɛj), but spelling does not change.
  • ควย in Thai slang means penis, and this feature of Isan is often deprecated.

Retention of certain historical Lao pronunciations

  • แม่โขง Mekong River (maekhong/mɛːkʰoːŋ) pronounced as (maekhong/mɛːkʰɔːŋ), compare Lao ນ້ຳຂອງ.


Isan languages vary in tone. Northern Lao, spoken in Luang Phrabang, some parts of Northern Thailand, and northern areas of Isan has five tones, like Central Thai, but the distribution and pitch is different. Most Lao dialects have six tones, and some have up to seven.[17][18][19] The following are the six tones of standard Lao, as spoken in Vientiane as well as the seven tones of certain Isan locales:

Lao Dialects
Thai, Northern Lao (Five) Vientiane Lao, southern Lao (Six) Other (Seven)  
Mid, Low, Falling, High, Rising Mid, Low, Low Falling, High, Rising, High Falling Mid, Very Low, Low, Lower High, High Falling, Lower High Falling

Tone in Thai and Lao is determined by complex rules of consonants and tone markers, so tone can be determined from writing. This does not work for Isan when written in Thai, as even though the consonants all fall in the same classes, the tonal distribution is distinct[20] As both Thai and Lao use tone as a

Thai Five-Tone Tonal Distribution
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม่เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowell Short Vowel  
High Rising Low Falling Low Low
Middle Middle Low Falling Low Low
Low Middle Falling High Middle Falling
Vientiane Lao Six-Tone Tonal Distribution
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม่เอก (อ่) ไม้โท (อ้) Long Vowel Short Vowel  
High Rising Mid Low Falling High Low Falling
Middle Low Mid High Falling Low Falling High
Low High Mid High Falling High-Falling Mid


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. Typologically, 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 เดอ (doe, dɤː) or เด (de, deː) function much like ครับ (khrap, kʰrap), used by males, and คะ (kha, kʰaʔ), used by females, in Thai. (Isan speakers sometimes use the Thai particles in place of or after เดอ or เด.) Negative statements often end in ดอก (dok, dɔːk), which can also be followed by the particle เดอ and its variant.

  • เพ่ินเฮ็ดปลาแดกเดอ (phoen het padaek doe, pʰɤn het paːdɛːk dɤː) He makes fish 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, หม่า (maː, ma) ‘dog’ has the classifier โต (to, ɗoː) which, as its meaning ‘body’ implies, includes all things with legs, such as people, animals, tables and chairs. ‘Three dogs’ would be rendered as หม่า ๓ โต (ma sam to, maː saːm ɗoː), literally ‘dog three classifier’.


Isan Classifiers
Isan Thai Lao Category  
คน (ฅน), kʰon คน (ฅน), kʰon ຄົນ, kʰon People in general, except clergy and royals.
คัน, kʰan คัน, kʰan ຄັນ, kʰan Vehicles, also used for spoons and forks in Thai.
คู่, kʰuː คู่, kʰuː ຄູ່, kʰuː Pairs of people, animals, socks, earrings, etc.
ซบับ, saʔbap ฉบับ, tɕʰaʔbap ສະບັບ, saʔbap Papers with texts, documents, newspapers, etc.
โต, ɗoː ตัว, ɗua ໂຕ, ɗoː Animals, shirts, letters; also tables and chairs (but not in Lao).
กก, gok ต้น, ɗon ກົກ, gok Trees. ต้น (or Lao ຕົ້ນ) is used in all three for columns, stalks, and flowers.
หน่วย, nuɛj ฟอง, fɔːŋ ໜ່ວຍ, nuɛj Eggs, fruits, clouds. ผล (pʰon) used for fruits in Thai.

Verbs are easily made into nouns by adding the prefixes ความ (khwam/kʰwaːm) and การ (kan/gːan) 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/kʰɛːŋmaː) to horserace (v.) nominalises into การแข่งม้า (kan khaengma/gːan kʰɛːŋmaː) horseracing (n.)
  • เจ็บ (jep/tɕep) to hurt (others) (.v) nominalises into ความเจ็บ (khwam jep/kʰwaːm tɕep) 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., พวกข่อย (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 อี (i, iː) respectively. Older males and females use อ้าย (ai, ɑj) 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. It should be noted that 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/Isan 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/kʰao เขา he/him/she/her (formal, general)
ขะเจ้า khachao/kʰaʔtɕaw 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 ก่วา B” (kwa, gwaː), A is more X than B. The superlative is expressed as “A X ที่สุด (thisut, tʰiːsut), A is most X.

  • เด็กหนุ่มก่วาผู้แก่ (dek num kwa phukae, dek num gwaː pʰuːgɛː) 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 เมื่อวานนี้ (meu wan ni, mɯː van niː) yesterday.

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

  • อีน้องกินหมากเล่น (i nong kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ gin maːk lɛn) Younger sister eats tomatoes.
  • อีน้องบ่กินหมากเล่น (bao bo kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ bɔː gin maːk lɛn) 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.

  • อีน้องจะกินหมากเล่น (i nong cha kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ tɕaʔ gin maːk lɛn) Younger sister will eat tomatoes.
  • อีน้องซิกินหมากเล่น (i nong see kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ siː gin maːk lɛn) Younger sister will eat tomotoes.

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.

  • อีน้องได้กินหมากเล่น (i nong dai kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ daj gin maːk lɛn) Younger sister ate tomatoes.
  • อีน้องกินหมากเล่นแล้ว (i nong kin mak len laew, iːnɔːŋ gin maːk lɛn lɛːw) Younger sister (just) ate tomatoes.
  • อีน้องได้กินหมากเล่นแล้ว (i nong dai kin mak len laew, iːnɔːŋ daj gin maːk lɛn lɛːw) Younger sister (definitely) ate tomatoes.

Present progressive: To indicate an on-going action, กำลัง (kamlang, gamlaŋ) 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.

  • อีน้องกำลังกินหมากเล่น (i nong kamlang kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ gamlaŋ gin maːk lɛn) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • อีน้องกินอยู่หมากเล่น (i nong kin yu mak len, iːnɔːŋ gin juː maːk lɛn) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • อีน้องพวมกินหมากเล่น (i nong phuam kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ pʰuam gin maːk lɛn) 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, peːn), and one for objects and animals, แม่น (maen, mɛːn).

  • นอกเป็นหม่อ (Nok pen mo, Nok peːn mɔː) Nok is a doctor.
  • อันนี้แม่นสามล้อ (an nee 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

  • จังได (changdai, tɕaŋdaj) or หยัง (nyang, ɲaŋ) เฮ็ดจังได (het changdai, heːt tɕaŋdɑj) What are you doing?
  • ไผ (phai, pʰɑj) ไผขายไขไก่ (phai khai khai kai, pʰɑjkʰɑjkʰɑjgɑj) Who sells chicken eggs?
  • ทำอลัย (thamalai, tʰamaʔlaj) Why? ไปเมืองทำอลัย (bo ma thamalai?, baj mɯːaŋ tʰamaʔlɑj) Why did he go to the city?
  • ไส (sai, saj) Where? ห้องน้ำอยู่ไส (hong nam yu sai, hɔːŋnam juː sɑj) Where is the toilet?
  • อันได (andai, andaj) Which? เจ้าได้กินอันได (chao kin andai, tɕaw gin andɑj) Which one did you eat?
  • จัก (chak, tɕak) How many? อายุจักปี (ayu chak pi, aːju tɕak piː) How old are you?
  • ท่อใด (thodai, tʰɔːdɑj) How much? ควายตัวบทท่อใด (khwai ɗua bot thodai, kʰwɑj bot tʰɔːdɑj) How much is that buffalo over there?
  • แม่นบ่ (maen bo, mɛːn bɔː) Right?, Is it? เต่าไว้แม่นบ่ (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?
  • หรือ (loe, lɤː) Eh? (informal) เจ้ามักหรือ (chao mak leu, tɕaw mak lɤː) Like it, eh?

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


Thai, Lao, and Isan share the greater part of their vocabulary and are all mutually intelligible to some degree, but Lao and Isan are clearly close if not identical and is mutually intelligible with almost no difficulty. The same cannot be said for the Thai language, as many common words are distinct but shared between Isan and Lao. As most Isan people are bilingual, and due to exposure in media and education, code-switching is a common feature, and adoption of Thai pronunciations for cognates, neologisms, and loanwords is affecting the language. Many cognate words in Lao, Thai, and Isan are from Pali, Khmer, and indigenous Mon-Khmer languages, and to a lesser extent, Chinese.

Comparing Isan, Thai, and Lao
Isan Thai Lao English Isan Thai Lao English  
บ่, bɔː ไม่, mɑj ບໍ່, bɔː no, not ท่อใด, tʰɔːdɑj เท่าไร, tʰawrɑj ທໍ່ໃດ, tʰɔːdɑj how much
เฮ็ด, het ทำ, tʰɑm , het to do, make เว้า, vaw พูด, pʰuːt ເວົ້າ, vaw to speak
เฮียน, hian เรียน, rian ຮຽນ, hian to learn พู้น, pʰun โน่น, noːn ພຸ້ນ, pʰun yonder
หมากไม้, maːkmɑj ผลไม้, pʰonmɑj , maːkmɑj fruit น้ำแข็ง, nam kʰɛŋ* น้ำแข็ง, nam kʰɛŋ ນ້້ກ້ອນ, nam gɔːn ice
โพด, pʰoːt เกินไป, gɤnpɑj ໂພດ, pʰoːt too much เอิ้น, ɤn เรียก, riːak ເອີ້ນ, ɤn to call
หน่อยนึง, nɔːjnɯŋ นิดหน่อย, nitnɔːj ໜ້ອຍໜຶ່ງ, nɔːjnɯŋ a little เฮือน, hɯːan* บ้าน, baːn ເຮີອນ, hɯːan house, home
หลุด, lut ลด, lot ຫຼຸດ, lut to lower ไส้อั่ว, sɑj ua ไส้กรอก, sɑj grɔːk ໄສ້ອ່ົວ, sɑj ua sausage
ไอติม, ɑj ɗim ไอศกรีม, ɑj saʔ griːm , gaː lɛːm ice cream เปล่า, paw เปล่า, plaw ລ້າ, laː plain (adj.)
ย่าง, ɲaːŋ เดิน, dɤn ຍ່າງ, ɲaːŋ to walk ลูกกก, luːk gɔːk ลูกคนโต, luːk kʰon ɗoː ລູກກົກ, luːk gɔːk older child
หมากเล่น, maːk leːn มะเขือเทศ, maʔkʰɯːatet ໝາກເລ່ນ, maːk leːn tomato พ่อเฒ่า, pʰɔː tʰaw พ่อตา, pʰɔː ɗaː ພໍ່ເຖົ້າ, pʰɔː tʰaw father-in-law
อ้าย, ɑj* พี่ชาย, pʰiː tɕʰɑj ອ້າຍ, ɑj older brother เซา, saw หยุด, yut ເຊົາ, saw to stop
ดอกจำปา, dɔːk jampaː ดอกลั่นทม, dɔːk lantʰom ດອກຈຳປາ, dɔːk jampaː frangipani blossom หาหยาก, haːɲaːk ไม่บ่อย, mɑj bɔːj ຫາຫຍາກ, haːɲaːk rarely
หลาย, lɑj มาก, maːk ຫຼາຍ, lɑj much, many เบิ่ง, bɤŋ ดู, duː , bɤŋ to watch
โซกดี, soːk diː โชคดี, tɕʰoːk diː ໂຊກດີ, soːk diː good luck แซบ, sɛːp อร่อย, aʔrɔːj ແຊບ, sɛːp delicious
ม่วน, muan สนุก, saʔnuk ມວນ, muan fun อิหลี, iːliː จริง, tɕiŋ ອິຫຼີ່, iːliː really
มัก, mak ชอบ, tɕʰɔːp ມັກ, mak to like แต่, ɗɛː* จาก, tɕaːk , ɗɛː from
  • น้ำก้อน (nam gɔːn) (cf. Lao ນ້້ກ້ອນ) is nearly obsolete in Isan, replaced by Thai น้ำแข็ง.
  • เฮือน (and Lao ເຮີອນ) is etymologically related to formal Thai เรือน; บ้าน is also used in Isan and Lao (ບ້ານ).
  • พี่ชาย (pʰiː sɑj) (and Lao ພີ່ຊາຍ) is etymologically related to Thai พี่ชาย and also used in Isan and Lao.
  • จาก (and Lao ຈາກ) also used in Isan and Lao.

The primary difference between Lao and Isan are subtle differences in tone and numerous unique phrases. Some unique Isan words and phrases include:

  • ซำบาย to be well (sambai, sambɑj), a unique Isan variant of the more common สบาย (sabai, saʔbɑj).
  • เขอเคอ tomato (khoekhoe, kʰɤːkʰɤː) a unique Isan variant for หมากเล่น.
  • บัก fruit (bak, bak) is another unique Isan variant of หมาก (บักหุ่ง vs. หมากหุ่ง, papaya).
  • หุด kaffir lime (hut, hut) is a unique Isan word.

Although many words are shared between the three languages, differences can cause misunderstandings. For example, the Isan pronunciation of ควาย, or water buffalo, with a short vowel sounds similar to Standard Thai ควย, a slang word for penis. The word บักเสี่ยว (bak sio), which in Isan means friend, is used in Central Thai as a pejorative. Even Isan name prefixes, such as อี for girls is used pejoratively in front of women’s names in Central Thai. Besides pejoratives, many words in Isan sound like other words, although context helps minimise this confusion. Since most formal and academic words are shared, it is the domain of normal conversation that will exclude Thai comprehension of a conversation between an Isan person and a Lao person.


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