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Central Thai

The core Thai -- the Central Thai, the Northeastern Thai (Thai-Lao), the Northern Thai, and the Southern Thai -- spoke dialects of one of the languages of the Tai language family. Differences in dialect were sometimes an irritant in relations between those whose native tongue was Central Thai and persons from other regions. On the one hand, if persons migrating from other regions to Bangkok spoke their own dialect, they might be treated with contempt by the Central Thai. If, on the other hand, such persons failed to speak Central Thai with sufficient fluency and a proper accent, that, too, could lead to their being treated disrespectfully.

This wide plain of rivers flowing in parallel forms the historically oldest “rice bowl” of Siam, also the largest, contiguous one in Thailand. It is the cradle of the ‘hydraulic society’ with it riparian way of life, perfectly attuned to seasonal changes. Availing of inundation by rainfall and its run-off carried by tributaries as the source of water for extensive wet rice growing, early settlements were founded on slightly elevated, firm and dry ground as well as on hillocks in the plain and in foot-hills of mountains. It is in such environment where the so-called Farmers at work in ‘floating rice’ used to the central plain be cultivated, with stalks of up to five meters in length.

Increasingly, Central Thai was spoken with varied fluency all over the country as the education system reached larger numbers of children. Nevertheless, regional dialects (or their local variants) remained the language of the home and of the local community. Learning Central Thai is not a simple matter. The dialects of the four regional components of the core population are only mutually intelligible with difficulty. There are lexical and syntactic differences as well as differences in pronunciation.

The peoples who spoke those languages -- generically also referred to as Tai -- originated in southern China, but they were dispersed throughout mainland Southeast Asia from Burma to Vietnam. It was conventional in the 1980s to refer to Tai-speaking peoples in Thailand as Thai (same pronunciation) with a regional or other qualifier, e.g., Central Thai. There were, however, groups in Thailand in the late twentieth century who spoke a language of the Tai family but who were not part of the core population.

Although the four major Tai-speaking groups taken together clearly constituted the overwhelming majority of Thailand's population, it was not entirely clear what proportion of the core Thai fell into each of the regional categories. Among the reasons for the uncertainty were the movements of many who were not Central Thai in origin into the Bangkok area and its environs and the movement of Central Thai, perhaps in smaller numbers, into other regions as administrators, educators, technicians, bureaucrats, soldiers, and sometimes as settlers. The Central Thai, of generally higher status than the general populace, tended to retain their identities wherever they lived, whereas those from other regions migrating to the central plain might seek to take on Central Thai speech, customs, and identity.

Although politically, socially, and culturally dominant, the Central Thai did not constitute a majority of the population and barely exceeded the Thai-Lao in numbers, according to a mid-1960s estimate. At that time, the Central Thai made up roughly 32 percent of the population, with the Thai-Lao a close second at about 30 percent. The Thai-Lao were essentially the same ethnic group that constituted the dominant population of Laos, although they far outnumbered the population of that country.

A number of linguistic scholars mark the reign of King Narai (1657-88) as the point when the Central Thai (or Ayutthaya Thai) dialect was established as the standard to which other forms or dialects were compared. Central Thai was the required form used in modern Thailand for official, business, academic, and other daily transactions. From Ayutthayan times, Central Thai borrowed words from Khmer, Pali, and Sanskrit. Thailand still maintained a court language called Phasa Ratchasap, although King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946- ) encouraged the use of Central Thai. Similarly, Pali, the religious language, although still used, gradually was being replaced by Central Thai for many ceremonies and writings. Although the Thai Royal Academy was the final arbiter of new words added to the language, post-World War II Thai has been influenced heavily by American English, especially in the area of science and technology.

Generally, before the trend toward homogenization of dress, language, and forms of entertainment fostered by modern communication, there were regional differences in costume, folklore, and other aspects of culture among the Thai people. The continuing retention of these differences into the 1980s seemed to be a function of relative remoteness from Bangkok and other urban areas. Of some importance, according to observers, was the tendency to cling to, and even accentuate, these regional differences as symbols of a sense of grievance.

In the past, some Thai governments put great pressure on the various Thai peoples to forsake regional customs and dialects for "modern" Central Thai culture. In the 1980s, however, there was a rebirth of the study and teaching of local languages, especially Lanna Thai in the North and also the Southern Thai dialect. Efforts were also made to expose all Thai to the different cultures and traditions of the various regions through regional translation and art programs. At the same time, Central Thai became more readily accepted as a second language. The success of the national identity programs could be explained in part by the Thai literacy rate, one of the highest in Asia.

Of the more than 85 percent of the country's population that spoke a language of the Tai family, only a small fraction constituted the membership of the half-dozen or so ethnic groups outside the core Thai. These groups lived in the North or Northeast and were often closely related to ethnic groups in neighboring countries. In Thailand, the largest of these Tai-speaking minorities were the Phutai (or Phuthai) of the far Northeast, who numbered about 100,000 in the mid-1960s. There were also many Phutai in neighboring Laos. The Phuan and the Saek, also in the Northeast and with kin in Laos, were similar but much smaller groups. Whereas all other Tai languages spoken in Thailand belonged to the southwestern branch of the family, that spoken by the Saek belonged to the northern branch, suggesting a more recent arrival from China.

The Khorat Thai were not considered Central Thai, despite their close resemblance in language and dress, because they and others tended to identify them as a separate group. The Khorat Thai were said to be descendants of Thai soldiers and Khmer women. The Shan (a Burmese term) in the North were part of a much larger group, the majority of whom lived in Burma, while others lived in China. Different groups of the Shan called themselves by names in which the term Tai was modified by a word meaning "great" or something similar. The Thai called them Thai Ngio or Thai Yai. Also in the North were a people called the Lue, estimated in the mid-1960s to number less than 50,000. Like the Shan, they resided in greater numbers elsewhere, particularly in southern China.

Cultural activities of people in the central region are diverse, as the flat and fertile region has sustained the development of the Thai state from the Sukhothai Kingdom to present-day Rattanakosin era, with easy access to foreign trade. The inhabitants of the Chao Phraya Basin have thus been influenced by various different cultures from Asian and European countries. The perfect blend of these influences with the Thai culture results in the fascinating identity of the central region.

Thais in the central plains are primarily rice farmers who live along rivers and canals. They lead simple lives tilling the land and tending paddy fields. Their simple entertainment forms relate to the rice cycle or religious functions, as relief from hard work or to celebrate occasions such as the completion of a successful harvest. The events are joyful and entertaining, with rousing songs and joyous dances for everyone to enjoy, such as the Sickle Dance, or it may be a night of singing duets, when men and women sing humorous dialogues, to the accompaniment provided by folk instruments such as drums, cymbals, and sticks.

The art and culture of the central region have been continuously developed, adapted, and blended with cultural traits from other regions, as well as attributes from abroad. In the process, several performing art forms of the central region have become standard stage performances of Thailand, such as ram wong, a simple and yet graceful dance to rousing music and song, in which everyone can participate.

Moreover, there are classical performing art forms requiring high-level ability and dedicated training, such as the traditional music ensembles, the classical puppet theater, lakhon (stage play), and khon (classical masked dance), formerly presented as entertainment in the royal court. Khon performances always feature episodes from the Ramakian, the Thai version of the Ramayana, which is clear evidence off Indian influence.

Major festivals in the central region evolve around rice farming and waterways, such as the Blessing of Rice Fields, to show gratitude to the environment and the weather, as well as the Goddess of Rice, in the hope to bring in good harvests. Another is the making of a Magic Rice Meal, involving grains of young rice, cooked in milk with other cereals, contributed by villagers as tributes to the Lord Buddha, and consumed as auspices for the new harvest. After the rice planting season, rivers and canals overflow, and people enjoy long-boat races and singing boat songs while waiting for the ripening of the rice in the fields.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2012 18:43:05 ZULU