Isan language

ภาษาอีสาน phasa isan, ภาษาลาว
Spoken in Thailand
Region Isan
Native speakers 20 million  (2004)[1]
Language family
  • Tai
    • Southwestern
      • East Central
        • Lao–Phutai
          • Isan
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tts

Isan language (Thai: ภาษาอีสาน, RTGS: phasa isan, [pʰaːsǎː ʔiːsǎːn]) 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, migrant workers, in Bangkok. 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 Tai–Kadai 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

Northeastern Thailand is the main stronghold for Lao language use in Thailand.

Isan is primarily spoken in the 19 provinces that constitute Northeastern Thailand, a territory that is roughly the size of England and Wales combined. It is also spoken in large parts of Uttaradit and Phitsanulok provinces and parts of Eastern Thailand.[8][9]

There are small villages and pockets of Lao speakers in northern and central Thailand, a legacy of forced Lao settlement in these regions from the 18th and 19th centuries that have maintained Lao speech and culture. Although these small closely related groups may profess a Lao identity, they are not Isan because they are from outside the region. Due to internal and seasonal migration from Isan to Bangkok, there exists a large number of Lao speakers in Bangkok and other major Thai cities. It can also be safely assumed that a good portion of Thai citizens living abroad are also Isan speakers.[10]

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.[11]


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.[12] 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.[13]

Writing System

Isan written in Thai script for a morlam karaoke VCD. The same Lao text would be ໜີໄປບວດໃຫ້ມັນແລ້ວສາບໍ້.

Isan is currently written in the Thai alphabet, although this system is inadequate for representing two distinct phonemes used in Isan and the tones are not written according to Lao tonal rules. Secular writing was written in the Tai Noy script, which the modern Lao alphabet is a direct descendant. This script was widely used in Isan until 2414 BE (1871 AD), when the Thai government banned both the language and its script from schools and general writing. It continues in a limited extent to palm-leaf manuscripts preserved in Isan temple libraries, and can still be seen throughout the region on very old temple murals.[14] The Tai Noy script was the 'secular' script in use for records, stories, songs, poetry, and display. Religious literature was often written in a Mon-based script also used formerly for Kham Mueang. Secret codes, charms, and occult writing often used the old Khrom script, an older version of the Khmer alphabet.

Below, the lyrics to the song Duang Champa (ดวงจำปา,duaːŋ càmpàː) a famous song to all Lao speakers. One can see that both scripts are similar and that cognate words are spelt nearly the same.

(Thai rendering of Isan): เห็นสวนดอกไม้ บิดาปลูกไว้ ตั้งแต่ใดมา เวลา หงอยเหงา ยังช่วยบรรเทาให้หายโศกา
(Standard Lao of Laos): ເຫັນສວນດອກໄມ້ ບິດາປູກໄວ້ ຕັ້ງແຕ່ໃດມາ ເວລາ ຫງອຽເຫງົາ ຍັງຊ່ວຽບັນເທົາໃຫ້ຫາຽໂສກາ


Isan shares most of its phonology with Thai and Lao. It lacks the /r/ and /tɕʰ/ of Thai, but includes /v/ and /ɲ/ found in Lao. However, due to language contact with Thai, Thai pronunciation does creep into Isan speech.[15][16]

Simplification of consonant clusters
Isan is written in Thai, but consonant clusters are usually not pronounced.

  • เพลง song (phleng, pʰleːŋ) and ครอบครัว family (khrop khrua, kʰrɔ̂ːp kʰrua) are pronounced as เพง (Lao: ເພງ) and คอบคัว (Lao: ຄອບຄົວ) (khop khua, kʰɔ̂ːp kʰúaː).

Replacement of /r/ with /l/ or /h/
Isan pronounces and sometimes spells words etymologically containing /r/ as either (Lao or ) /l/ or (Lao: ) /h/.

  • รถ car (rot, rót) and รำ dance (ram, ram) are pronounced as ลด (Lao: ລົດ) and ลำ (Lao: ລຳ(lam, lám).
  • รัก love (rak, rák) and ร้อน (ron, rɔ´ːn) "hot" pronounced and written as ฮัก (Lao: ຮັກ) (hak, hāk) and ฮ้อน (Lao: ຮ້ອນ) (hon, hɔ̂ːn) respectively.
  • In Thai, the letter is colloquially pronounced as /l/.
  • In Lao, the letter is generally pronounced as /l/, except in loanwords.

Replacement of /tɕʰ/ with /s/
Isan pronounces and spells words etymologically containing /tɕʰ/ as /s/ and pronounces words with and /tɕʰ/ as /s/ and /tɕʰ/ as if it were spelt with /s/.

  • ช้าง elephant (chang, tɕʰáːŋ) and ฌาน meditative absorption (chan, tɕʰaːn) are pronounced and written as ซ้าง (Lao: ຊ້າງ)(sang, sâːŋ) and pronounced as ซาน (Lao: ຊານ) (san, sáːn).
  • ฉบับ copy (chabap, tɕʰàʔ bàp) and ฉิ่ง cymbal (ching, tɕʰìŋ) are pronounced as สบับ (Lao: ສະບັບ) (sabap, sáʔ báp) and สิ่ง (Lao: ສິ່ງ) (sing, sīŋ).
  • Educated and urban speakers may pronounce the /tɕʰ/ phoneme, but /s/ is still more common.

Replacement of /j/ with /ɲ/
Words spelt with and consonantal are pronounced as /ɲ/ if etymologically related to Lao . If words with are related etymologically to Lao letter , they retain the /j/ pronunciation.

  • ผู้หญิง girl (phuying, pʰûː jǐŋ) and ยาย maternal grandmother (yai, jaːj) are pronounced as ผู้หญิง (Lao: ຜູ້ຍິງ) (phunying, pʰȕː ɲíŋ) and ยาย (Lao: ຍາຍ) (nyai, ɲáːj).
  • ยา medicine (ya/jaː) and อยู่ (yu, jùː) to be somewhere are pronounced as ยา (Lao: ຢາ) (ya/jaː) and อยู่ (Lao: ຢູ່) (yu, jūː) not (nya, ɲaː) and (nyu, ɲūː)

Replacement of /w/ with /v/
It is very common for Isan speakers to pronounce as /v/.

  • เวร to turn (wen, weːn) and วาสนา luck (watsana, wâːt sàʔ nǎː) is pronounced as เวร (Lao: ເວນ) (ven, véːn) and วาสนา (Lao: ວາສນາ) (vatsana, wâːt sáʔ nǎː).

Shortening of Diphthongs
Diphthongs that contain vocalic are often shortened.

  • กว่า noun modifier (kwa/kwàː) and ควาย water buffalo (khwai/kʰwaːj) are pronounced as กั่ว (Lao: ກວ່າ) (kua, kūaː) and ควย (Lao: ຄວາຍ) (khuay, kʰúɛj).
  • ควย in Thai slang means penis, and this feature of Isan is often deprecated.

Retention of certain historical Lao pronunciations

  • แม่โขง Mekong River (maekhong, mɛˆː kʰǒːŋ) pronounced as แม่ของ (Lao: Lao ແມ່ຂອງ.) (mae khong, mɛ̄ː kʰɔə̌ːŋ).


Although most words are shared between Thai, Isan, and Lao, problems in understanding can arise as tone is a phonemic feature in all three speech varieties. Standard Thai has five tones, although Lao dialects have anywhere from five to seven.[17][18][19] Due to regional variation, the word กา/ກາ crow (ka, kàː) is pronounced low-falling in Standard Lao and middle in Standard Thai, but one might also hear it pronounced with high, mid-rising, or low tone depending on the origin of the speaker. Even if the word is pronounced with a same tone, the pitch can be different. Tone in Thai determined by complex rules determined by consonant tone class, presence of tone markers, and vowel type. Since these rules are catering to Thai tonal patterns, they are deficient for representing Isan speech and their distinct tonal patterns.[20]

Thai Five-Tone Tonal Distribution
Tone Class Inherent Tone ไม้เอก (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 ไม้เอก (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, kʰráp), 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, dɔ̀ːk), 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, หมา (mǎː, ma) 'dog' has the classifier โต (to, toː) which, as its meaning 'body' implies, includes all things with legs, such as people, animals, tables and chairs. 'Three dogs' would be rendered as หมา ๓ โต (ma sam to, mǎː sǎːm toː), literally 'dog three classifier'.

Isan Classifiers
Isan Thai Lao Category
คน (ฅน), kʰon คน (ฅน), kʰōn ຄົນ, kʰon People in general, except clergy and royals.
คัน, kʰan คัน, kʰān ຄັນ, kʰán Vehicles, also used for spoons and forks in Thai.
คู่, kʰuː คู่, kʰûː ຄູ່, kʰūː Pairs of people, animals, socks, earrings, etc.
ซบับ, saʔbap ฉบับ, tɕʰaʔbàp ສະບັບ, saʔbáp Papers with texts, documents, newspapers, etc.
โต, toː ตัว, tūa ໂຕ, tòː Animals, shirts, letters; also tables and chairs (but not in Lao).
กก, kok ต้น, tôn ກົກ, kók Trees. ต้น (or Lao ຕົ້ນ) is used in all three for columns, stalks, and flowers.
หน่วย, nuɛj ฟอง, fɔ̄ːŋ ໜ່ວຍ, nūɛj Eggs, fruits, clouds. ผล (pʰǒn) used for fruits in Thai.

Verbs are easily made into nouns by adding the prefixes ความ (khwam/kʰwaːm) and การ (kan/kːan) 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/kʰɛ̀ːŋ.máː) to horserace (v.) nominalises into การแข่งม้า (kan khaengma/kːan kʰɛ̀ːŋ.máː) horseracing (n.)
  • เจ็บ (jep/tɕèp) to hurt (others) (.v) nominalises into ความเจ็บ (khwam jep/kʰwaːm tɕèp) 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, aːj) 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. 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/kʰaw เขา he/him/she/her (formal, general)
ขะเจ้า khachao/kʰaʔ.tɕaw 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 kwaː pʰuːkɛː) 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 มื้อวานนี้ (meu wan ni, mɯː vaːn niː) yesterday.

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

  • อีน้องกินหมากเล่น (i nong kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ kin maːk len) Younger sister eats tomatoes.
  • อีน้องบ่กินหมากเล่น (bao bo kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ bɔː kin maːk len) 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 kin maːk len) Younger sister will eat tomatoes.
  • อีน้องซิกินหมากเล่น (i nong see kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ siː kin maːk len) 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 kin maːk len) Younger sister ate tomatoes.
  • อีน้องกินหมากเล่นแล้ว (i nong kin mak len laew, iːnɔːŋ kin maːk len lɛːw) Younger sister (just) ate tomatoes.
  • อีน้องได้กินหมากเล่นแล้ว (i nong dai kin mak len laew, iːnɔːŋ daj kin maːk len lɛːw) Younger sister (definitely) ate tomatoes.

Present progressive: To indicate an on-going action, กำลัง (kamlang, kam.laŋ) 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 kam.laŋ kin maːk len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • อีน้องกินอยู่หมากเล่น (i nong kin yu mak len, iːnɔːŋ kin juː maːk len) Younger sister is eating tomatoes.
  • อีน้องพวมกินหมากเล่น (i nong phuam kin mak len, iːnɔːŋ pʰuam kin maːk len) 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, pen), and one for objects and animals, แม่น (maen, mɛːn).

  • นอกเป็นหมอ (Nok pen mo, Nok pe 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, het tɕaŋ.daj) What are you doing?
  • ไผ (phai, pʰaj) ไผขายไขไก่ (phai khai khai kai, pʰaj kʰaːj kʰaj kaj) Who sells chicken eggs?
  • ไส (sai, saj) Where? ห้องน้ำอยู่ไส (hong nam yu sai, hɔːŋnam juː saj) Where is the toilet?
  • อันได (andai, andaj) Which? เจ้าได้กินอันได (chao kin andai, tɕaw gin an.daj) Which one did you eat?
  • จัก (chak, tɕak) How many? อายุจักปี (ayu chak pi, aːju tɕak piː) How old are you?
  • ท่อใด (thodai, tʰɔːdaj) How much? ควายตัวบทท่อใด (khwai ɗua bot thodai, kʰwaj bot tʰɔːdaj) 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?

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


The Tai languages of Thailand and Laos share a large corpus of cognate, native vocabulary. They also share many common words and neologisms that were derived from Sanskrit, Pali, Mon and Khmer and other indigenous inhabitants to Indochina. However, there are traits that distinguish Isan both from Thai and its Lao parent language.

Isan is clearly differentiated from Thai by its Lao intonation and vocabulary. However, Isan differs from Lao in that the former has more English and Chinese loanwords, via Thai, not to mention large amounts of Thai influence. The Laotian Lao adopted French and Vietnamese loanwords as a legacy of French Indochina. Other differences between Isan and Lao include terminology that reflect the social and political separation since 1893 as well as differences in neologisms created after this. These differences, and a few very small deviations for certain common words, do not, however, diminish nor erase the Lao characters of the language.

Identical Vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
language ภาษา, pʰáː sǎː ພາສາ, pʰáː sǎː ภาษา, pʰaː sǎː city เมือง, mɯ´ːaŋ ເມືອງ, mɯ´ːaŋ เมือง, mɯːaŋ
religion ศาสนา, sȁːt sáʔ nǎː ສາສນາ, sȁːt sáʔ nǎː ศาสนา sàːt sàʔ nǎː government รัฐบาล, lāt tʰáʔ bàːn ຣັຖບາລ, rāt tʰáʔ bàːn รัฐบาล, rát tʰàʔ baːn
heaven สวรรค์, sáʔ vǎn ສວັຣຄ໌, sáʔ vǎn สวรรค์, sàʔ wǎn to be well สบาย, sáʔ bàːj ສະບາຽ, sáʔ bàːj สบาย, sàʔ baːj
child เด็ก, dék ເດັກ, dék เด็ก, dèk to be happy ดีใจ dìː t͡ɕàːj ດີໃຈ, dìː t͡ɕàːj ดีใจ, di: tɕaːj
street ถนน, tʰáʔ nǒn ຖນົນ, tʰáʔ nǒn ถนน, tʰàʔ nǒn sun อาทิตย์, ʔaː tʰīt ອາທິຕຍ໌, ʔaː tʰīt อาทิตย์, ʔa: tʰít
Identical Vocabulary in Lao and Isan but distinct from Thai
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
no, not บ่, bɔː ບໍ່, bɔː ไม่, mâj to speak เว้า, vâw ເວົ້າ, vâw พูด, pʰûːt
how much ท่อใด, tʰɔ̄ː dàj ທໍ່ໃດ, tʰɔ̄ː dàj เท่าไหร่, tʰâw ràj to do, to make เฮ็ด, hēt* ເຮັດ, hēt ทำ, tʰam
to learn เฮียน, hían ຮຽນ, hían เรียน, rian glass จอก, t͡ʃɔ̏ːk ຈອກ, t͡ʃɔ̏ːk แก้ว, kɛ̂ːw
yonder พู้น, pʰûn ພຸ້ນ, pʰûn โน่น, nôːn fruit หมากไม้, mȁːk mâj ໝາກໄມ້, mȁːk mâj ผลไม้, pʰǒn láʔ máːj
too much โพด, pʰôːt ໂພດ, pʰôːt เกินไป, kɤn paj to call เอิ้น, ʔɤˆːn ເອີ້ນ, ʔɤˆːn เรียก, rîːak
a little หน่อยนึง, nɔ̄ːy nɯ¯ŋ ໜ່ອຽນຶ່ງ, nɔ̄ːj nɯ¯ŋ นิดหน่อย, nít nɔ`ːj house, home เฮือน, hɯ´ːan** ເຮືອນ, hɯ´ːan บ้าน, bâːn
to lower หลุด, lút ຫຼຸດ (ຫລຸດ), lút ลด, lót sausage ไส้อั่ว, sȁj ʔua ໄສ້ອ່ົວ, sȁj ʔūa ไส้กรอก, sâj krɔ̀ːk
to walk ย่าง, ɲāːŋ ຍ່າງ, ɲāːŋ เดิน, dɤːn older child ลูกกก, lûːk kók ລູກກົກ, lûːk kók ลูกคนโต, lûːk kʰon toː
frangipani blossom ดอกจำปา, dɔ̏ːk t͡ʃam paː ດອກຈຳປາ, dɔ̏ːk t͡ʃam paː ดอกลั่นทม, dɔ`ːk lân tʰom tomato หมากเล่น, mȁːk lēːn*** ໝາກເລັ່ນ, mȁːk lēːn มะเขือเทศ, mâʔ kʰɯ̌ːa tʰêːt
much, many หลาย, lǎːj ຫຼາຍ, lǎːj มาก, mâːk father-in-law พ่อเฒ่า, pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw ພໍ່ເຖົ້າ, pʰɔ̄ː tʰȁw พ่อตา, pʰɔ̑ː taː
to stop เซา, sáw ເຊົາ, sáw หยุด, jùt to like มัก, māk ມັກ, māk ชอบ, tɕʰɔ̂ːp
good luck โซกดี, sôːk diː ໂຊຄດີ, sôːk diː โชคดี, tɕʰôːk diː delicious แซบ, sɛ̂ːp ແຊບ, sɛ̂ːp อร่อย, ʔàʔ rɔ`j
fun ม่วน, mūan ມ່ວນ, mūan สนุก, sàʔ nùk really อิหลี, ʔīː lǐː**** ອີ່ຫຼີ, ʔīː lǐː จริง, tɕiŋ
elegant โก้, kôː ໂກ້, kôː หรูหรา, rǔː rǎː ox งัว, ŋúaː ງົວ, ŋúaː วัว, wua
  • 1 Also appears in Isan ทำ and Lao ທຳ, /tʰám/.
  • 2 Very formal Thai word เรือน (rɯːan) is cognate. Thai word also appears in Isan บ้าน and Lao ບ້ານ /bâːn/.
  • 3 Also known as เขอเคอ in Isan and ເຂືອເຄືອ in Lao, /kʰɤˇːa kʰɤˇːa/.
  • 4 Also appears as จริง (Lao: ຈິງ) /t͡ʃiŋ/.
Shared Thai and Isan Vocabulary Distinct From Lao
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
ice น้ำแข็ง, /nâm kʰɛ̌ːŋ/ ນ້ຳກ້ອນ, /nâm kɔ̂ːn/* น้ำแข็ง, /náːm kʰɛ̌ŋ/ plain (adj.) เปล่า, /paw/ ລ້າ, /lâː/ เปล่า, /plàːw/
necktie เน็กไท, /nēk tʰáj/ ກາຣະວັດ, /kaː rāʔ vát/** เน็กไท, /nék tʰáj/ province จังหวัด, /t͡ʃàŋ vát/ ແຂວງ, /kʰwɛ̌ːŋ/*** จังหวัด, /tɕaŋ wàt/
wine ไวน์, /váj/ ແວງ /vɛ́ːŋ/**** ไวน์, /waːj/ noodle soup ก๋วยเตี๋ยว, /kuǎj tǐaw/ ເຝີ, fɤ̌ː***** ก๋วยเตี๋ยว, /kuǎj tǐaw/
January มกราคม, /mōk káʔ ráː kʰóm/ ມັງກອນ, /máŋ kɔ̀ːn/ มกราคม, /mók kàʔ raː kʰom/ paper กะดาษ, /káʔ dȁːt/ ເຈັ້ຽ, /t͡ɕìa/ กระดาษ, /kràʔ dàːt/
window หน้าต่าง, /nȁː tāːŋ/ ປ່ອງຢ້ຽມ, /pɔ̄ːŋ jîam/ หน้าต่าง, /nâː tàːŋ/ book หนังสือ, /nǎŋ.sɨ̌ː/ ປຶ້ມ, /pɨ̂m/ หนังสือ, /nǎng.sɯ̌ː/
motorcycle มอเตอร์ไซค์, /mɔ́ː tɤ̀ː sáj/ ຣົຖຈັກ, /lōt t͡ʃák/ มอเตอร์ไซค์, /mɔː tɤː saj/****** butter เนย, /nɤ´ːj/ ເບີ, /bɤ`ː/******* เนย, /nɤːj/
  • 1 Formerly น้ำก้อน, but this is now archaic/obsolete.
  • 2 From French cravate, /cra vat/
  • 3 Thai and Isan use แขวง to talk about provinces of Laos.
  • 4 From French vin (vɛ̃) as opposed to Thai and Isan ไวน์ from English wine.
  • 5 From Vietnamese phở /fə̃ː/, noodle soup.
  • 6 From English motorcycle.
  • 7 From French beurre, /bøʁ/
Generally Distinct Vocabulary
English Isan Lao Thai English Isan Lao Thai
to work เฮ็ดงาน, hēt ŋáːn ເຮັດວຽກ hēt vîak* ทำงาน, tʰam ŋaːn papaya บักหุ่ง, bák hūŋ ໝາກຫຸ່ງ, mȁːk hūŋ มะละกอ, màʔ làʔ kɔː
fried beef ทอดซี้น, tʰɔ̂ːt sîːn ຂົ້ວຊີ້ນ, kʰȕa sîːn เนื้อทอด, nɯ´ːa tʰɔ̂ːt hundred ร้อย, lɔ̂ːj ຮ້ອຍ, hɔ̂ːj ร้อย, rɔ́ːj
barbecued pork หมูปิ้ง, mǔː pîːŋ ປີ້ງໝູ, pîːŋ mǔː หมูย่าง, mǔː jâːŋ ice cream ไอติม, ʔaj tim ກາແລ້ມ, kaː lɛ̂ːm ไอศกรีม, ʔaj sàʔ kriːm
  • 1 Lao ເຮັດ, to do + Vietnamese việc, to work, /viək/ (ວຽກ).


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