Shan language

Shan language

states=Burma, Thailand
speakers=3.3 million
fam6=Southwestern Tai
fam7=Northwestern Tai

The Shan language is related to the Thai language and is called "Tai-Yai", or "Tai Long" in the Tai languages. It is spoken in Northeast Burma, that is to say, in the Shan States of Burma, and in pockets in Northern Thailand. There are also Shan people and Shan speakers in the Xishuangbanna (Sipsongpanna) Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan province in southwestern China, which lies just across the eastern border from the Shan States of Burma. It has five tones and is a part of the Kam-Tai or Kadai language family, which are found from Northern Burma and India on the west through Southern China on the north, and Laos on the east.

The term "Shan" is believed to be a Burmese variation on "Siam," which surely indicates that the ethnic Burmese believed that the "Shan" were a Thai (Tai) people.

Studies of the Shan are complicated by the civil war within Burma and the difficulty of escaping to Thailand.

The number of Shan speakers is not known, in part because the Shan population is unknown. Estimates range from 4 million to 30 million, though it is likely that the true number of Shan is somewhere around 6 million, with about half speaking the Shan language; 3.3 million is the number generally estimated. Many Shan speak local dialects as well as the language of their trading partners. Few people can read or write in Shan script, especially foreigners.

Given the chaos prevailing under the current Burmese government, one choice for scholars is to study the Shan people and their language in Thailand, where estimates of Shan refugees run as high as two million, and Mae Hong Son province is home to a Shan majority.

The major source for information about the Shan language in English is Dunwoody Press's "Shan for English Speakers". They also publish a Shan-English dictionary. Aside from this, the language is almost completely undescribed in English.

As noted above, Shan is a member of the Tai family of languages (superfamily Kam-tai or Kadai). It has five tones, which do not correspond exactly to Thai tones, plus a "sixth tone" used for emphasis. It is written in what may be called a pseudo-Burmese script, which appears to be Burmese to the casual observer but is in fact entirely different, just as the Shan language has no relation to the Burmese language (a member of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages).


The Shan dialects spoken in Shan State can be divided into three groups, roughly coinciding with geographical and modern administrational boundaries, namely the northern, southern and eastern dialects. Dialects differ to a certain extent in vocabulary and pronunciation but are generally mutually understandable. While the southern dialect has borrowed more Burmese words, Eastern Shan is somewhat closer to northern Thai dialects (Kam Muang, Yuan) and Lao in vocabulary and pronunciation, and the northern so-called "Chinese Shan" is much influenced by the Yunnan-Chinese dialect. A number of words differ in initial consonants. In the north, initial 'k', 'kh' and 'm', when combined with certain vowels and final consonants, are pronounced /tʃ/ (written ky), /tʃh/ (written khy) and /my/. In Chinese Shan initial n becomes l. In southwestern regions 'm' ist often pronounced as 'w'. Initial 'ph' becomes 'f' in the east. Prominent dialects are considered as separate languages, such as Khün (or Tai Khuen, called Kon Shan by the Burmese), which is spoken in Keng Tung valley, and Tai Lü (or Tai Lue). Chinese Shan is also called (Tai) Mao, referring to the old Shan State of Mong Mao. 'Tai Long' is used to refer to the dialect spoken in southern and central regions west of the Salween River. There are also dialects still spoken by a small number of people in Kachin State and Khamti Shan, spoken in Northern Sagaing Division.



Shan has 18 consonants.As in other Tai languages there are no voiced plosives [g] , [d] and [b] .

The Shan tones correspond to Thai tones as follows:
# The Shan rising tone is close to the Thai rising tone.
# The Shan low tone is equivalent to the Thai low tone.
# The Shan mid-tone is different from the Thai mid-tone. It falls in the end.
# The Shan high tone is close to the Thai high tone. But it is not rising.
# The Shan falling tone is different from the Thai falling tone. It is short, creaky and ends with a glottal stop.

yllable structure

The syllable structure of Shan is C(G)V((V)/(C)), which is to say the onset consists of a consonant optionally followed by a glide, and the rhyme consists of a monophthong alone, a monophthong with a consonant, or a diphthong alone. (Only in some dialects, a diphthong may also be followed by a consonant.) The glides are: -w-, -y- and -r-.There are seven possible final consonants: /ŋ/, /n/, /m/, /k/, /t/, /p/ and IPA|/ʔ/.

Some representative words are:
*CV /kIPA|ɔ/ "also"
*CVC /kà:t/ "market"
*CGV /kwà:/ "to go"
*CGVC /kwa:ŋ/ "broad"
*CVV /kǎi/ "far"
*CGVV /kwá:i/ "water buffalo"

Typical Shan words are monosyllabic. Multisyllabic words are mostly Pali loanwords, or Burmese words with the initial weak syllable /ə/.

Writing Systems

The Shan script is characterised by its circular letters, very similar to Burmese. The old Shan script used until the 1960s did not differentiate all vowels and diphthongs and had only one tone marker. Therefore, a single form could represent up to 15 sounds, and hence meanings. Hence, only the well trained were able to read Shan. This has been mended in a reform, making Shan quite easy to read, with all tones indicated unambiguously.

The standard Shan script is an abugida, all letters having an inherent vowel a. Ultimately deriving from the Brahmic system, Vowels are represented in the form of diacritics placed around the consonants.

The Shan writing system is much less complex than the Thai writing system, and lacks the notions of high-class, mid-class and low-class consonants, distinctions which help the Thai alphabet to number some 44 consonants. Shan has just 18 consonants, and all tones are clearly indicated with unambiguous tonal markers at the end of the syllable (in the absence of any marker, the default is the rising tone).

The number of consonants in a textbook may vary: there are 18 universally-accepted Shan consonants, and four more which represent sounds not found in Shan, namely 'b,' 'd,' f,' and 'th' (IPA|θ/IPA|ð) as in 'thin.' The last four are quite rare. In addition, most editors include the 'dummy consonant' used to support leading vowels, but some do not. So a given textbook may present 18-23 Shan consonants.

The representation of the vowels depends partly on whether the syllable has a final cosonant.

The tones are indicated by tone markers at the end of the syllable (represented by a dash in the following table), namely:While the reformed script originally used only four diacritic tone markers, equivalent to the five tones spoken in the southern dialect, the Lashio-based Shan Literature and Culture Association now, for a number of words, promotes the use of the 'yak khuen' to denote the sixth tone as pronounced in the north.

Two other scripts are also still used to some extent. The so-called Lik To Yao ('long letters'), which derives from Lik Tai Mao, or Lik Hto Ngouk ('bean sprout script'), the old script of the Mao, or Chinese Shans, may be used in the north. In this systems, vowel signs are written behind the consonants.
Keng Tung Shan, or Tai Khuen (Khün, Khun), is written in the Yuan script (called Kon Shan in Burmese), which has come from Lanna.


* "The Major Languages of East and South-East Asia". Bernard Comrie (London, 1990).
* "A Guide to the World's Languages". Merritt Ruhlen (Stanford, 1991).
* "Shan for English Speakers". Irving I. Glick & Sao Tern Moeng (Dunwoody Press, Wheaton, 1991).
* "Shan - English Dictionary". Sao Tern Moeng (Dunwoody Press, Kensington, 1995).
* "An English and Shan Dictionary". H. W. Mix (American Baptist Mission Press, Rangoon, 1920; Revised edition by S.H.A.N., Chiang Mai, 2001).
* "Grammar of the Shan Language". J. N. Cushing (American Baptist Mission Press, Rangoon, 1887).

Further reading

* Sai Kam Mong. "The History and Development of the Shan Scripts". Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2004. ISBN 9749575504

External links

* [ Ethnologue entry]

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