Around 80% of the people living in Chiang Mai Province are native to the area, belonging to an ethnic group once known as Yuan or Yün, or less frequently Phayap. Nowadays many Chiang Mai residents consider these to be pejorative names and they prefer the term khon meuang (meaning people of the Tai principality).
Most non-hill-tribe people speak Northern Thai as their first language. Northern Thai – or kham meuang (speech of the Tai principality) – is very similar to Central (or ‘Standard’) Thai, as spoken in central Thailand, and with a mutual intelligibility rated at greater than 70%.
Central Thai is taught in local schools and is the official language of all government agencies. Thus most educated Chiang Mai residents can speak Central Thai, and will usually do so automatically with anyone from outside the region.
Northern Thai has its own script, based on a half-millennium-old Mon script that was originally used only for Buddhist scripture. The script became so popular during the Lanna period that it was exported for use by the Thai Lü in China, the Khün in the eastern Shan State and other Thai–Kadai-speaking groups living between Lanna and China. Although few northerners nowadays can read the Northern Thai script – often referred to as ‘Lanna script’ – it is occasionally used in signage to add a Northern Thai cultural flavour. The script is especially common for use on signs at the entrance gates of Chiang Mai monasteries, although the name of the wat (temple) will also be written in Thai (and occasionally Roman) script.
Very few outsiders bother to learn Northern Thai, since Central Thai is so widely spoken. Unless you have a very keen interest in learning the Northern dialect, it’s best to stick to Central Thai, as many northerners seem to take offence when outsiders try speaking kham meuang to them. This attitude dates back to a time, perhaps no more than 25 or 30 years ago, when central Thais considered northerners to be very backward, and thus made fun of their language.
The Language chapter covers only the Central Thai dialect. If you’re interested in learning kham meuang, the only generally available book is Lanna Language by Kobkan Thangpijaigul. All materials are written out in Lanna script, International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), English translation and Thai translation. It’s mostly intended for people who are already fluent, or very familiar with, Central Thai. An optional 90-minute cassette tape is also available to go with the text.
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