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Isan language

Isan (or Isaan or Esarn) is the language of the Isan region of Thailand. It is a tonal language of the Tai family, and is closely related to Lao, but has also been much influenced by Thai. Phonology and the rules for determining tones vary in each dialect, but are generally similar to Lao. The vocabulary is largely the same as in Lao, except for the use of Thai loan words and neologisms. It was previously written using the Tua Tham script also used in Laos and northern Thailand, but since the introduction of Thai language schooling in the 1920s it has been written in the Thai script.



Isan has no r sound; where this sound occurs in Thai, it is replaced in Isan by an l or a h. When writing Isan in the Thai script, ร is normally used to represent an l, while อ indicates an h.

The other main differences from Thai are: the pronunciation of ช as s rather than ch; the common palatalisation of ย; and the absence of consonant clusters (where a consonant cluster occurs in Thai, the equivalent word in Isan retains only the first consonant).


The following six tone pattern is typical:

Isan Tones Long vowel, or vowel plus voiced consonant Long vowel plus unvoiced consonant Short vowel, or short vowel plus unvoiced consonant Mai ek (อ่) Mai tho (อ้้้)
High consonant rising low falling high mid low falling
Mid consonant low rising low falling high mid high falling
Low consonant high high falling mid mid high falling

There are a further two, relatively rare tone marks: mai tri (อ๊) and mai chattawa (อ๋); these always indicate a high and a rising tone respectively.

The letters ห (high class) and อ (mid class) are often used as silent letters to produce the correct tone. In polysyllabic words, an initial high class consonant with an implicit vowel renders the following syllable also high class.


Isan contains many words not used (or more rarely used) in Thai. Some of the most common of these are:

  • ข้อย (koi) I/me
  • เจ้า (jao) you
  • บ่ (baw) not
  • หยัง (nyang) what
  • จัก (jak) how many
  • ใผ (pai) who
  • ใด (dai) which
  • แม่น (maen) be
  • เอ็ด (het) do
  • เว้า (waw) speak
  • เบิ่ง (beung) watch
  • ซิ (si) will
  • อีหลี (ee-lee) really
  • ไวๆ (wai wai) fast

Further reading

  • Mollerup, Asger. Thai- Isan- Lao Phrasebook. White Lotus, Bangkok, 2001. ISBN 9747534886

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45