March 26, 2008

Comparative Tai Source Book

Lately I've been reading William J. Gedney's Comparative Tai Source Book, a new publication from Thomas John Hudak. Gedney, who died in 1999, is a giant in the study of the Tai languages. His 1947 PhD thesis, Indic Loanwords in Spoken Thai, is still a good read more than 60 years thence (available here).

This volume brings to completion a book of comparative Tai originally planned by Gedney. Hudak has organized Gedney's notes on 1159 cognate Tai words, making it easy to quickly compare the various cognate forms for a given word. Hudak has also added a chapter for each of the major branches of (Gedney's) division of the Tai language family: Southwestern, Central, and Northern. These chapters give detailed information about the phonology of each of the languages cited in the book.

Gedney collected comparative data on 19 Tai languages:

Southwestern Tai
  • Siamese (Standard Thai)
  • White Tai (Tai Khaw)
  • Black Tai (Tai Dam)
  • Shan
  • the Tai dialect of Nong Khai
  • Lue of Chieng Hung
  • Lue of Muong Yong
  • the Tai dialect of Chiengmai
Central Tai
  • the Tai dialect of Lei Ping
  • the Tai dialect of Lungming
  • the Tai dialect of Western Nung
  • the Tai dialect of Bac Va
  • the Tai dialect of Lungchow
  • the Tai dialect of Ping Siang
  • the Tai dialect of Ning Ming
Northern Tai
  • Yay
  • Saek
  • the Tai dialect of Wuming
  • the Tai dialect of Po-ai
Here's a map from the book of the distribution of these languages. Note that it's a map of just the 19 Tai languages Gedney collected data for, not all Tai languages. Obviously there are Tai speakers in Laos, too, among other places.

[Click image to enlarge]

In reading through the book today, I discovered my new favorite word (okay, well, my favorite word for today). It's the Shan cognate of the word คา /khaa/ in Thai. The Thai meaning is 'stuck'. The Shan meaning is significantly more interesting. Here's the entry from the book:
0497 - stuck, A4
SW - S khaa¹; W, B kaa⁴; Sh kaa⁴ 'to escape, as an animal pierced by any weapon, and carrying the weapon in its flesh'; LNK khaa⁶; LMY kaa⁴
CN - LP khaa⁴; LM kaa⁴; WN kaa⁴, caa⁴; PS, NM kaa⁴
N - Y ka⁴; Sk khaa⁴
In case you missed that: to escape, as an animal pierced by any weapon, and carrying the weapon in its flesh. Granted, the data is 50 years old. I wonder if that word is still used much these days. Time to go ask my Shan-speaking friend.


  1. hey i now have a thai news widget on my computer and i need a good dictionary that i can cut and paste words to translate. are there any widgets that do this, or any web site you suggest?

  2. I have made a collection here:

    My preferred one for English to Thai and Thai to English by paste and copy is (

  3. Dave, try out thai2english,, or SEAlang, and see which one suits your fancy.

    There are different tools for automating lookup with these dictionaries, too. If you use Firefox, you can use the Click SEAlang extension, or the thai2english plug-in, or see this page about adding these dictionaries to the search bar in Firefox. I don't use other browsers, so I don't know about those.

  4. so a couple of translation questions...what is "olympic torch relay" in thai? also, what is "we'll give you the olympics, a symbolism of peace and the art of athletics, despite your horrible lack human rights record" in thai as well?

  5. "Olympic torch relay" is การวิ่งคบเพลิงโอลิมปิก. As for the other one, well, probably something like:

    เรายอมให้(ประเทศจีน)เป็นเจ้าภาพงานโอลิมปิก ซึ่งเป็นสัญลักษณ์ของสันติภาพและศิลปะการกีฬา ทั้งๆที่(ประเทศจีน)มีประวัติที่แย่มากเรื่องการละเมิดสิทธิมนุษยชน

    The bits in parentheses can be modified to คุณ or เขา or whatever. And แย่มาก is very strong language, you might say fightin' words, but I think it matches your word choice of "horrible", as well as the truth of the situation.

    Why do you want this in Thai, may I ask?

  6. well, originally i had hoped that you might come back with a witty and humorous explanation but i also have been trying to find news stories in thai that talk about the torch relay so i can get the feel of what thailand thinks about this mess. there is a large chinese-thai population and i would be surprised to hear that they don't have some feelings about this debacle, but nevertheless there are important stories about motorcycle crashes that the news has to plaster across the front pages. "News flash: guy crashes motorcycle into a pile of's a picture"

  7. about the interesting คา definition, do you think it might just be a result of the lexicographer recording an explanation given of the use of the word?

    we could look at คา in modern central thai and, from the example จับได้คาหนังคาเขา, define คา as 'of being caught acting improperly, in the state of having the proof of such improper act still in one's hands'.

    similarly, from the example of ตายคาที่, we could conclude that คา means 'of death, for it to occur swiftly and at the very location of an accident or act of violence'.


    i've found your blog interesting reading of late, thank you for all your work.

  8. That's possible, certainly. I would say that it seems unlikely, given that Gedney was an expert with already two decades of experience under his belt at the time (I think the data was collected in the 60s).

    Not only that, but according to the book Gedney used central Thai, Lao and Black Tai (all of which he spoke) as the medium language, and rarely resorted to an interpreter. So he should have been getting very good, clean data with close cognate correspondences.

    Of course, that's no guarantee, and it wouldn't surprise me if the word isn't really that specific. :P