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Alternative Name: Kam-Tai.

Overview. Tai-Kadai is a large group, of more than 50 languages, originated, probably, in the border area between southeastern China and northern Vietnam that spread through migration into most countries of mainland South-East Asia. The time-depth of the family is around two millennia. Once thought to belong to Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai languages are now considered to constitute an independent family. They are monosyllabic and have tones, showing little inflectional morphology.

Distribution. The Tai-Kadai family predominates in Thailand and neighboring Laos as well as in eastern Myanmar. It has also speakers in northern Vietnam, southern mainland China and Hainan Island, off the China coast, plus a handful in northeastern India.

Internal Classification. Tai-Kadai languages are divided into four branches: Tai, Kam-Sui, Kra or Kadai and Hlai, plus the isolate Ong Be. The Tai branch is the largest and has the widest distribution with members in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, China and India. The other branches and Ong Be are restricted to southern China and north Vietnam.

  1. A)Tai languages. They include Southwestern, Central and Northern groups plus the isolate Saek. They are spoken by close to 90 million people.

  1. Map of Tai-Kadai languages distribution


  1. 1)Southwestern Tai. It is the largest group of the entire family, having more than 67 million speakers. It includes the national languages of Thailand (Thai) and Laos (Lao) as well as  one of the largest minority languages of Myanmar (Shan). Southern Thai and Kam Muang (Northern Thai) are considered dialects of Thai by some scholars and as independent languages by others.


  1. 2)Central Tai. Spoken in southern China and northern Vietnam, it has about 8.5 million speakers. It includes Southern Zhuang with 5.5 million speakers living in South China, plus three exclusively North Vietnamese languages: Tày (1.5 million speakers), Nung (860,000), and Cao Lan (145,000).

  1. 3)Northern Tai. It includes Bouyei and Northern Zhuang, spoken north and south of the Hongshui river, in southern China, by 3 and 10.5 million, respectively. The latter is a dialect continuum, which should not be confused with the language of the same name belonging to the Central group.

  1. 4)Saek. Generally treated as a Northern Tai language, but showing certain phonological peculiarities that set it apart from all other Tai languages. It had 25,000 speakers in 1990.

B) Kam-Sui languages, all spoken in southern China, by about 2 million people. They include Dong (Kam) with 1,600,000 speakers, Sui with 230,000, Mulan with 90,000, Maonan with 30,000, Chadong with 20,000, Then with 15,000, Mak with 10,000, and Ai-Cham with 2,700.

C) Kra languages. Also known as Kadai, they are a small number of languages of southern China and North Vietnam, spoken by about 25,000 people. They include Lachi and Gelao in South China and North Vietnam with, respectively, 10,000 and 7,900 speakers, Buyang spoken by 2,000 people in South China, and Laha with 1,400 speakers in North Vietnam.

D) Hlai languages, spoken in Hainan island, off the south China coast, include Hlai (Li) with 700,000 speakers, and Jiamao with 54,000.

E) Ong Be. Also known as Lingao,  it is an isolate on the northern coast of Hainan Island. It was spoken by 600,000 people in the year 2000.

Speakers. The total number of native speakers of Tai-Kadai languages is around 93 million of which more than 67 million in the Southwestern Tai group alone. Most speakers live in Thailand (around 57 million) and the next largest number in China (about 24 million). Smaller numbers reside in northern Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. The largest Tai-kadai languages are the following (speakers in millions):

  1. 1.Thai speakers include here those of Thai proper plus those of Southern Thai and Kam Muang (Northern Thai).


  1. Word Structure and Lexicon

  2. -Tai-Kadai languages are essentially monosyllabic. Non-monosyllabic words are either loans or former compounds. Each syllable may begin with a consonant or a consonant cluster, being followed by a vowel or a vowel cluster and, may be, a final consonant (frequently a nasal). Distinction between formally identical words is achieved by assigning different tones to them.

  1. -Their inherited lexicon is frequently obscured by changes in the initial sounds of words and/or their tones leading to mutual unintelligibility. Geographical location has influenced word borrowing. Tai-Kadai languages spoken in Vietnam and China have loanwords from Chinese, and members of the southwestern branch from the Indic languages Sanskrit and Pali, as well as from neighboring Khmer.

  1. Phonology

  2. -Tai-Kadai languages have tones which serve to make lexical distinctions. Each syllable has its own tone. At some point, all Tai languages were affected by the Great Tone Split which increased the number of tones while reducing the number of initial consonants. As a consequence, some languages of the family have a considerable number of tones. For example, some in the Kam-Sui group are reported to have as many as fifteen. In contrast, Thai has five, described as mid, low, falling, high and rising.

  1. Morphology

  2. -There is little or no inflection at the nominal or verbal level: no marking for case, gender, or number, no verb conjugation.

  1. -Tai-Kadai languages use numeral classifiers. In those of the Southwestern group the order is noun-numeral-classifier, but in those of Vietnam and southern China it is usually numeral-classifier-noun, probably due to the influence of Chinese.

  1. -Compounding, reduplication (repetition of a word or part of a word) and affixing are the most common types of derivational processes (formation of new words from others).

  1. -Serial verb constructions are common.

  1. Syntax

  2. -Almost all of Tai-Kadai languages have Subject-Verb-Object word order. Exceptionally, in Khamti and other languages of northeastern India the order is Subject-Object-Verb, possibly as a result of influence from Tibeto-Burman or Indo-Aryan languages.

  1. -Due to lack of inflections, syntactical functions are determined, mainly, by word order and prepositions.

  1. -The order of the noun phrase is usually: noun, adjective, numeral, classifier, demonstrative. In the verb phrase, the verb may be followed by its object and/or its complements (to indicate place, time, direction of action, etc).

  1. -Particles, which tend to occur at the end of the sentence, play many roles like expressing politeness or familiarity, adding emphasis, posing a question or giving a command.

Scripts. Some central and northern Tai languages are written with Chinese characters. Southwestern Tai languages are written with alphabetic scripts derived from south Indian ones. Many Tai languages with a small number of speakers have no writing system.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Tai-Kadai Languages. A. N. V. Diller, J.A. Edmondson & Y. Luo (eds). Routledge (2008).

  2. -A Handbook of Comparative Tai. F. K. Li. University Press of Hawai (1977).

  3. -'Tai Languages'. D. Strecker. In The World’s Major Languages, 653-659. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  4. -'Tai Languages'. D. Strecker. In The Major Languages of East and South-East Asia, 19-28. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (1990).

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