With the vast majority of its population originating in Southern China and home to the most established overseas Chinese community, many would assume Thailand’s language is at least related to Mandarin Chinese.
Even scholars long held the belief that Thai was of the Sino-Tibetan language family of which Mandarin is a derivative. While Thai is a subset of the Tai language group which originated in China, it actually belongs to the Kra-Dai language family and shares no genetic origin with Mandarin Chinese. Despite sharing similar tones, a comparable grammatical structure, and cultural similarities in its spoken expression, Mandarin and Thai are mutually unintelligible; their resemblance is only in appearance.
Below is a comparative analysis of these seemingly intertwined, yet strikingly different languages.
So, What is the Difference Between Mandarin and Thai, Really?
Beginning in the 8th century, Tai people began migrating from China to intersperse and form the native populaces of SE Asia to include Thailand. Huge numbers of Mainland Chinese again migrated to Thailand in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to become the largest, most established overseas Chinese community worldwide. Despite the tremendous Chinese history and influence in Thailand, Mandarin speakers will find almost no loan words in the Thai language.
Although the Thai language was influenced heavily by Middle Chinese, the majority of Chinese influence is from Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew, and other Southern Chinese dialects. This is especially noticeable in many Thai numerals (most notably 3-11), some cooking-related verbs, certain foods, and household objects. Three is sam, cooked is suk, chicken is gai in both Cantonese and Thai (with slight differences in pronunciation). There are very, very few examples, however, of vocabulary that suggest Mandarin origination.
Mandarin and Thai are both monosyllabic though, and each language will often group individual syllables together to form words. Many syllables are in and of themselves morphemes: the smallest unit of meaning in a given language. This is less often true in Thai, but almost always so in Mandarin. School, for example, in Mandarin is 学校. 学 alone means study. 校 alone means school. School in Thai is โรงเรียน (pronounced Rongreīyn). โรง (pronounced rong) alone means hall or large room. เรียน (pronounced reīyn) alone means study.
The grammar of Mandarin and Thai share more noticeable characteristics. Both are analytical which is to say word order determines meaning as opposed to any change in conjugation, inflection or suffix. Both communicate tense (time) through particles and context. Both are constructed of Subject – Verb – Object (SVO). Both languages often drop the copula (connecting word typically of to be) in adjectival sentences. Both incorporate measure words or classifiers when specifying numeral values of various nouns.
The exact structure of the languages still vary. Adjectives in Chinese, for example, are placed before the noun much like English. Adjectives in Thai, however, are placed after the noun more like Spanish. The specification of time placement in sentence structure also varies. “I ate rice this morning” is ฉันกินข้าวเมื่อเช้านี้ (I eat rice morning this) in Thai and 我今天早上吃了米饭 (I today morning ate rice).
Both languages are tonal. Mandarin has four tones (five if including the neutral tone), and Thai has five. Thai’s tones include the mid, falling, rising, high and low. Mandarin’s tones include level/ high (1st), rising (2nd), falling/ rising (3rd), falling (4th), and neutral (5th). While each language’s tone system is different, individual tones of each system share undeniable characteristics. See images below as visual representation provides far greater clarity of tonal similarities and differences.
The two languages are mutually unintelligible with noticeably different tones/ styles to any listener. Many regard Thai as a far softer, gentler language while Mandarin is much harder and harsher. The two nonetheless share a comparable rhythm at times. “And then” is แล้วก็ (Læ̂w k̆o) in Thai and 然后 (Ránhòu) in Mandarin. The first syllable in each is rising, and the second is falling thus forming a very similar sound.
The two also share a seemingly related approach to communication which is arguably more reflective of their shared, respective cultures. “Have you eaten rice yet?”, for example, is a very common greeting in both languages. This similar approach is evident in much spoken language and extends to grammatical structures.
Pronouns may be dropped in both spoken languages, and affirmative responses to questions may be merely the verb. For example, in Mandarin one can ask, “will you eat?” with the simple “吃不吃?” (eat no eat) to which you can respond, “吃” (eat), affirming that “yes, I will eat.” In Thai, one can ask, “will you eat?” with the simple “กินหรือไม่” (eat or no) to which you can respond, “กิน” (eat), affirming that “yes, I will eat.”
Ancient Thai did use Chinese characters in its writing system. As a result of Indian and Khmer influence, however, Thai later adopted a modified Khmer script in the 13th Century. The modern Thai script now has zero similarities to the Chinese writing system. The Thai script is phonetic (like the English alphabet) and is composed of vowels, consonants, and tone marks.
Chinese Mandarin is logosyllabic and originally developed as a series of pictographs and ideographs. Each character represents one morpheme and is often composed of parts that together (or individually) represent objects, concepts and/ or pronunciation. 一 yi (one) and 二 er (two) are clear examples of ideographs which represent more abstract concepts like numbers. 好 (hǎo) is an interesting example of two pictographs to represent the abstract concept of “good.” 女 (nǚ) is woman and 子(zi) is child; one can see the visual representations. Together they form 好 hǎo (good). A woman having a child is good. 🙂
Mandarin is obviously a far more common language with 1.3 billion speakers worldwide compared with the roughly 80M Thai speakers. It is also the (or one of the) official languages of some of the world’s most powerful countries: Hong Kong, China, Macao, Taiwan and Singapore. Thus Mandarin holds far greater utility on a global scale.
With that being said, however, this shouldn’t determine one’s decision in learning Mandarin vs Thai. Of far greater importance is relevance. One with a passion for Thai food, currently or planning to live and travel in Thailand, an affinity towards Thai people and culture, etc. will find Thai of greater value.
Both languages open doors into rich and vast cultures that one may only experience on a more surface level without the respective language ability.