SLLT, Vol. 4, 2004

John Draper


...languages are a tool of humanity. They are a way to express opinions and are things of beauty, for example in the form of literature. It is necessary to carefully preserve languages... (His Royal Highness King Bhumibhol; translation of a quotation from the preface of The Isan - Central Thai Dictionary, Khon Kaen University & Sahawittayalai Isan, 1989).

All persons able to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue...The Member States commit themselves to...Encouraging linguistic diversity - while respecting the mother tongue - at all levels of education, wherever possible, and fostering the learning of several languages from the youngest age. (Adapted from the "Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity", adopted by the 31st Session of UNESCO's General Conference, Paris, 2 November, 2001. UNESCO, 2001).


Thailand consists of four geo-linguistic regions: Central, Northern, Northeastern, and Southern. The Northeast, also known as Isan, is arguably the least integrated into Thailand, after the deep South. In addition, it was among the last areas to be integrated. While Thai policies have brought great benefits to Isan in education, transportation, affordable electricity, and democratic institutions, there has been a downside. The introduction of Thai as an administrative and educational language, especially after the Second World War, has been almost wholly successful at eliminating written Isan from the Northeast (Rogers, 1996).

This loss may be the most significant result of Central Thai efforts for Isan acculturation. Although Isan language can still be seen on the walls of old Isan temples in the form of Thai Noi, a Sukothai-period Mon-Khmer orthography, (e.g., see Yenchuay, 2002), and a few Isan people can read it, very few now teach it. This has fundamental consequences for the region, as Isan has not yet been replaced by Thai as the mother tongue. 88% of Isan speakers use an Isan dialect in the home; 11% speak both Isan and Thai, and 1% use exclusively Central Thai (Ethnologue's Northeastern Thai entry, n.d.). Isan cannot accurately be written by its native speakers, for though both Isan and Thai are part of the Tai linguistic family, there are differences. At least one Isan dipthong (a final /?a/) and one Isan consonant sound /?/ cannot be written in Thai (referring to Hoshino & Marcus' 1989 phonetic system). While Isan writing systems using the Thai alphabet as a basis have been sug! gested (e.g., see Mollerup, 2001), no systematic approach is popularized. Literacy in Thai Noi is restricted to a few individuals in the older generation and to a few monks and academics, for example some teachers at Mahasarakham University, and a handful of monks at Ubol Ratchatani's Wat Mahawanaram (Wat Pa Yai). The lack of a written language means Isan people must express their political and economic desires and communicate with each other through a written language that is not their first language.

This paper attempts to work through some of the planning circumstances regarding the revitalization of Isan language, culture, and the economy, and details a Pilot Study currently underway. It includes a discussion of the principle of choice, a presentation of the language situation in Isan, an evaluation of the prerequisites for language maintenance in the Isan context, a discussion of the planning context for language maintenance and revitalization, and an outline of the Isan Language Maintenance and Revitalization Project, including progress to date.



This paper takes the standpoint that Isan as a language, and possibly as a culture, will, after a long process of language shift rather than a sudden reduction in a number of speakers, die in the next 100-200 years. Tossa (1999) is less optimistic, and argues that the next generation is crucial, with mutual incomprehensibility already manifesting itself in the case of urban and rural Isan, and significant culture death already occurring. Without a written language, the likelihood is that Isan will never attain "safe" status as an official regional language of Thailand, and consequently will be one of the 6,000 "local vernacular languages" that will die out (Kraus, 1992, cited in Ash, Little Doe Fermino & Hale 2001).

This paper also takes the point of view that if Isan people so wish, nothing should be done to prevent this death, and that in this case Isan as a language and a culture should be recorded, catalogued and preserved in libraries and museums for mainly academic purposes.

Some discussion of the choices available is now presented, followed by a discussion of potential disadvantages and advantages of language maintenance and revitalization.

The choice

Significant support for the right to choose the mother tongue with respect to education, literacy and culture is evident in the UNESCO "Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity" (2001), which was endorsed by Thailand, and in UNESCO's Guidelines on Language and Education (see Appendix). Though language death may be the chosen route for Isan language (with the concurrent implications for Isan culture), Isan people should be able to consciously choose whether or not to maintain and revitalize their own language and culture within the one country, one national language framework. In a bilingual planning approach, Isan people could learn Isan as a language at school, and possibly undertake bilingual Isan / Thai basic education at elementary and primary levels. Isan people should also be able to choose not to study Isan, so Isan courses must be elective. As previously noted, Isan courses must include writing in Isan to stand a chance of success in long-term maintenance.

This choice should be made soon. Those who can remember written Isan are few in number and passing away every day. Critically, the loss of this community memory will likely make a real choice almost impossible within another generation. Currently, written Isan stands at Stage 8 of Fishman's GIDS scale, and spoken Isan at 6 or 7. If written Isan died completely, the effort needed to reestablish it as a viable option would be immense.

Weak Side

Strong Side

Stage 8

Stage 7

Stage 6

Stage 5


Stage 4

Stage 3

Stage 2

Stage 1

So few fluent speakers that the community needs to reestablish language norms; requires outside experts (e.g., linguists)

Older generation uses language enthusiast-ically but children are not learning it.

Language and identity socializat-ion takes place in home and community.

Language socializat-ion involves extensive L1 literacy, usually including L1 schooling.

L1 is used in children's formal education in conjunct- ion with national or official language.

L1 is used in the workplaces of larger society, beyond the normal L1 boundaries.

Lower govt. services and local mass media are open to L1.

The L1 (ethnic) community is recognized nationally. L1 is used at upper govt. level.

Table 1: Fishman's (1991) Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS)

While attitude surveys and forms of local referendum have their place in project development and language planning, the choice would effectively be made by the success or otherwise of elective Isan courses in schools. If parents do not encourage children to study the language, or children are not motivated to study it, the elective courses will fail, and written Isan will not be popularized. The choice will have been made: Isan as a language will slide further down the scale and will eventually shift so far to Central Thai that it effectively dies.

Possible collateral disadvantages of the revitalization of Isan

A number of potential disadvantages can be identified:

Isan students will inadequately acquire central Thai

Parents may feel that their children cannot learn two languages at the same time, or that their children may be ridiculed for knowing Isan.

Isan may be open to accusations of "Regionalism"

Isan is, after the deep South, arguably the region least integrated into Thailand. In addition, it was integrated comparatively recently, being annexed from Lao in 1907, although anti-government insurgency flared in remote regions of Isan until the 1980's (Rogers, 1996). The historian and writer Artha Nantachukra of Mahasarakam University directly linked central government policies with the abolition of Isan as an administrative language. Such moves were aimed at "weakening the cultures of people... to make control from Bangkok possible", and Nantachukra connects this linguistic manipulation to underlying resentment still felt in Isan (quoted in Tha Hla, 1995, cited in Rogers, 1996).

Moves to maintain or revitalize Isan speech as a language may consequently be seen as destabilizing, or even secessionist; at the least; it could be accused of polarizing the local political situation.

Resources may be wasted if the project fails

A long-term language planning initiative will cost millions of baht, if not tens of millions. Even though some of this money could come from private foundations and trusts, a failure would imply depriving other, worthy projects of funding. Also, teachers' time would be wasted in an Isan school context of massive understaffing.

Possible collateral benefits

Education and cognitive abilities

Isan is the poorest region in Thailand, and its education system is poorly developed (Rogers, 1996). Use of the vernacular has proven results in increasing the efficacy of education systems. UNESCO states that "Studies have shown that, in many cases, instruction in the mother tongue is beneficial to language competencies in the first language, achievement in other subject areas, and second language learning." (UNESCO, 2003, p. 15). Hinton (2001) refers to Bialystock's (1991) and Diaz and Klinger's (1991) findings that bilinguals possess enhanced cognitive abilities in the form of metalinguistic skills, concept formation, classification, creativity, analogical reasoning, and visual-spatial skills.

Litteral (1999) provides evidence that education in the vernacular language academically benefits minorities; in one case study in Papua New Guinea, students educated in the vernacular outperformed students educated in the first language by three hundred percent in high school selection tests (Litteral, 1986, cited in Litteral 1999). Siegel (1999), reporting on previous research by the same author (1992, 1997), describes higher academic results, when compared with English-only education, for prep-school children instructed in the vernacular with English as a second language. These benefits extended to subsequent education, suggesting that Isan students taught initially in Isan would perform better in later Thai-medium education at the high school and university level. Economic benefits would possibly result.

Psychological and Sociocultural benefits

In addition to academic benefits, the psychological and sociocultural benefits of such a reform are significant. Siegel (1999, 2002) notes education in a language other than the first language causes disadvantages, including negative attitudes from teachers, negative self-image of students, inhibition of self-expression, and difficulty in acquiring literacy.


In Isan, negative attitudes from teachers towards students is not a major concern, as the majority of teachers and students are Isan. However, classroom communication breakdown between Isan teachers and students can occur as they are required to communicate in a second language. Anecdotal evidence suggests teachers and students become co-conspirators in the occasional use of Isan to solve communication breakdowns resulting from the use of Thai.

Despite occasional exceptions, only when an Isan student goes to Bangkok is explicit prejudice from teachers encountered, in the form of jokes referring to socioeconomic, cultural, or linguistic status. Furthermore, indications of subconscious bias against the use of non-standard aspects of language use are evident in the American context (e.g., see McGroarty, 1996), and it is possible that a similar subconscious bias is encountered by Isan students in Bangkok universities. In addition to rejection by teachers, there is also a risk that Isan students reject the education system in which they are studying. Mangubhai (1997) notes that minority student attitudes toward the dominant or majority educational system take the form of either a desire to integrate while preserving the L1 culture, or a rejection of the L2 educational system. The present author has also noticed a third phenomenon: integration into the L2 system while rejecting the L1 culture.

Finally, one wonders how much integration is truly possible for Isan people. The average Isan person, even if fluent in written and spoken Thai, can still be differentiated by anthropological features. Thus, bias due to underlying ethnic identity issues including perceptions of poverty and lack of education will likely continue.


Identity and language are interwoven (e.g., see Hornberger, 2002). While the trend is towards a more positive portrayal of Isan people, decades of linguistic indoctrination in the media and negative media have persuaded Isan students their own language is an embarrassment; by implication, they may see themselves as substandard citizens. Consequently, parents might attempt to deprive their offspring of the vernacular for fear of ghettoisation, or native speakers, particularly those with education outside the vernacular area, may reject their vernacular out of disdain (the phenomenon of auto-odi, e.g., see Bartens, 2001). Isan as a language can also be stigmatized for its resemblance to Lao, the language of The People's Democratic Republic of Laos, a country generally viewed by Thais as inferior to their own.

In the experience of this author, Thai television soap operas rarely portray Isan business people or academics; more frequently they are labourers or peasants, less generously country bumpkins or petty criminals. In addition, the Central Thai spoken by Isan people can be ridiculed when the phonetic and lexical influences of Lao show through. The psychological effects of speaking a language outlawed in the classroom, and being forced to use a second language for all educational and official purposes, effectively delegitimize a people. That rifts occur in the psychological and sociocultural fabric is not surprising. One frequently expressed sentiment in Isan stories is parents' fear of rejection and abandonment by one's "Thaiified" offspring (e.g., see the writings of Nobel Prize nominee Pira Sudham, for instance Monsoon Country, 1993). Legitimization of language, and the higher academic prowess that would result from vernacular use, would increase pride and self-worth (e.g., see Burtoff, 1985, cited in Siegel, 1999).


Drawing on concepts of sociopolitical and educational rights, UNESCO began recommending use of the vernacular for basic education in 1953 (cited in Litteral 1999). It seems reasonable to expect that acceptance of one's own language as a writing form will encourage self-expression through endowing the ability to write poetry, stories, songs, diaries, essays and academic articles. Heath and McLaughlin (1993; cited in McGroarty 1996) note that public speaking and dramatic performance in the vernacular can develop transferable personal and public skills. The resulting psychological and educational benefits have even been accepted by some opponents of vernacular education (e.g. Bull, 1955, cited in Litteral 1999). The opponents have instead argued against it on grounds of practicality, or because it may inhibit acquisition of the language of education and power through interference and confusion, and thus deprive non-standard language students of opportunities. Thus, opponents generally cast doubt on whether it's worth funding and the concept of additive bilingualism.


The difficulties in acquiring literacy in the Isan language are quite apparent. The lack of a living alphabet is one problem, resulting in a current Isan literacy rate of almost zero (although, it can be approximated in Thai). Nevertheless, there are very good reasons for supposing that the legitimisation of Isan will increase literacy levels. Siegel (1999, 2002) notes UNESCO's (1968) support for vernacular as a language of literacy and academic development, drawing on research demonstrating a link between literacy and cognitive development (such as the ability to reason critically) and first language instruction. As regards literacy in Thai, while the overall country rate is around 89% (according to the Ethnologue Thailand entry, n.d.), it is generally recognized that literacy rates outside urbanized areas in Isan are unsatisfactory. A disadvantaged educational system is a potential cause of unsatisfactory levels. According to the Thai Ministry of Education (Ne! w aspirations for education in Thailand: Towards educational excellence by the year 2007, n.d.), poverty, geographical distance, and a lack of teachers are some of the factors limiting the education system, especially in rural areas. Rogers (1996) estimates Isan poverty levels between 1975 and 1989 averaged 42%, compared to 5% in Bangkok.

Legitimising the vernacular through the introduction of a suitable orthography appears to be a valid method of increasing literacy rates. Notably, Siegel (1992; 1997) and Boggs (1985, cited in Bartens, 2001) found that the benefits of L1 primary education also extended to literacy in the L2. The implication is that Isan children who were taught initial literacy in Isan, and who then studied Thai, would outperform Isan children taught only in Thai.

Economic / Cultural benefits

Cost-benefit theory has been applied to language planning since at least the 1970s (e.g., Fishman, 1973; Jernudd, 1975; Thorburn, 1975). It was formerly an extremely contentious and problematic area of language planning. However, Baker (2002), citing Dutcher's 1995 World Bank paper, notes that the development of the mother tongue appears to be critical for cognitive development and learning a second language, and states that "developmental maintenance bilingual education creates cost savings for the education system and for society" (p.240). This occurs through lower drop-out rates, faster academic achievement, and the acquirement of "productive characteristics" facilitated by studying in the native language.

Dutcher's World Bank report is quite unambiguous, and Baker (2002) cites Dutcher's examination of Guatemala as a case study. Due to lower drop-out and repetition rates, faster achievement, and improved results (including in the L2 national language, Spanish), US$5.6 million (227 million baht) were achieved in cost savings per year, and US$33.8 million (1.4 billion baht) per year in cost benefits. This is impressive for a country one third smaller than Isan with a similar socioeconomic background. By analogy, it can therefore be hypothesized that a better-educated Isan people will be more economically successful; the correlation between high levels of education and economic prosperity is generally accepted and is very evident in the 2003 UNDP Thailand Country Report.

In addition, cultural benefits, such as an Isan renaissance based on the production of Isan-language materials, may directly benefit the Isan regional economy through improved tourism. One could envisage a situation very similar to Chiang Mai's celebration of Lanna culture and civilization, recently evidenced in the 2004 new year celebration of Lanna civilization. Isan, containing Thailand's major Khmer historical sites as well as Lan Xang monuments such as That Panom, could be ideally placed to enjoy the economic benefits of such a renaissance, and multilingual plurality as part of a multicultural approach would likely strengthen Thai political and economic linkages with Lao and Cambodia.


Wardhaugh (2002) notes that Bell's (1976) criteria approach to language assessment may be used to distinguish separate languages and make a value judgement as to the extent of a language's development viz. a viz. dialect based on a certain level of objectivity. Bell introduced seven criteria: standardization, vitality, historicity, autonomy, reduction, mixture, and de facto norms. In this section, each of these criteria is applied to Isan.


"Standardization is the single most technical issue in language reinforcement" (England, 1998, cited in Crystal, 2000, p. 140).

Standardization can be divided into three subsets: codification, elaboration, and function. In terms of codification, the author knows of few native Isan dictionaries, primers, or grammars outside of the academic domain (e.g. university research papers / projects such as the Khon Kaen University & Sahawittayalai Isan Isan-Central Thai Dictionary, 1989). Thai dictionaries include some, but not all Isan words, and some everyday Isan words are considered taboo in Central Thai dictionaries, thereby resulting in a stigmatised definition. For example, the Isan word for buffalo, "kuwai", may appear in a Central Thai dictionary, but it will be marked taboo because of its similarity to the Central Thai word for "penis". While Lao dictionaries exist and may be applied to Isan, some of the Lao lexical items contained in such works are now viewed as archaic in Isan, e.g. the Lao word for "ice", "nam gaun" is viewed as archaic. There also exists at least one Thai-Isan-Lao phras! ebook (Mollerup, 2002). At present, the Phinthong dictionary (1989) probably provides the most definitive lexicographic description of Isan.

Regarding elaboration, there are few examples of nationally or internationally recognized Isan native literature outside of palm leaf manuscript archives. The introduction of Central Thai as an official language through compulsory primary education after the 1930's (Vandergeest, 1993) restricted elaboration in the modern period. While Isan has its own social commentator in the form of Nobel Prize nominee Pira Sudham, this author writes in English. Historical examples of traditional Isan literature can be found in the form of Isan folk tales, such as The White Nightjar (Peltier, 2000) or Buddhist non-canonical materials written in the Thai script. Some folk literature has been translated into English from the oral record, including the popular story Phadaeng Nang Ai (Tossa, 1990). However, such initiatives are usually small-scale and attract little attention, even in Isan communities. There is an Isan Bible translation project in process using the Thai orthography (Myers, n.d.).

Notwithstanding the general lack of available literature, there is a substitute. Mor lam, the indigenous music style of Isan, has a repertoire of hundreds, if not thousands of songs, readily available on pirated MP3 VCDs, and together these form an impressive corpus of oral elaboration. Furthermore, the rigidity in the style of mor lam, including its subdivisions and position in a stylistic hierarchy of other lam, such as lam Tungwai, lam Salavan, and lam Phu Thai (see the SavannaNet Website for samples) ensures a certain measure of standardization inherent in this oral song-form.

Concerning function, SIL divides Isan into several dialects: Northern Isan, Central Isan (Kalerng, with a few thousand speakers only), Southern Isan, and Khorat (Ethnologue's Northeastern Thai entry, n.d.). Brown (1985) sees around 14 principal Isan dialects, most of which are in the Lao Isan subgroup of the Vientiane group:

Figure 1: Dialects of the Lao Group (Adapted from Brown, 1985, p. 44).

It is theoretically possible to establish a norm for official functions, as the various Isan dialects are lexically similar, though differentiated by accent. However, regional "tone" and "accent" variations, as well as the phenomenon of language mixture (e.g., see Akharawatthanakun, 2002), may cause morphophonemic difficulties if one attempts to adopt a standardized phonetic-based orthography. In addition, borrowings from Central Thai have confused the situation. For example, Khon Kaen, a central Isan province, uses a Khon Kaen Isan variant of the Central Thai word for tomatoes ("bak keua ted"), whereas provinces bordering Lao PDR may use the original Isan word, "mak len". There is no "official" Isan norm, as the language has been replaced by Central Thai. Nevertheless, the potential for a standardized functional norm does exist, centered around the populous Lao Isan subgroup (containing at least fifty per cent of the Isan population, or around 11 million speakers, Premsrirat, 1998, p. 7), for despite various academic dialect classifications and accent differences, Isan speakers do view themselves as speaking one mutually intelligible language. Socially rather than officially normalized varieties do exist in radio and television broadcasts (Smalley, 1994). Nevertheless, the technical issues involved cannot be underestimated (Crystal, 2000).


Isan is spoken in 17 provinces throughout the Northeastern region. While it is generally acknowledged that Isan is in decline, 1983 SIL data suggested 15 to 23 million speakers of Isan dialects in Thailand, including one million in Bangkok. In 1983, 88% of Isan speakers used Isan in the home; 11% spoke both Isan and Thai, and 1% used exclusively Central Thai (Ethnologue's Northeastern Thai entry, n.d.). These are a testament to the vitality of Isan, despite a century of disadvantageous language planning, including the abolition of the script, the burning of manuscripts, and the introduction of a foreign official language.


Throughout the historical period, Isan has formed part of a Lao Northeastern polity separate from Central Thai kingdoms such as Sukothai and Ayudhaya. Both Lao PDR and Isan once formed part of Lan Xang, a massive Tai / Dai polity created as a Khmer vassal state in the 14th century which achieved independence and temporarily incorporated the Tai / Dai kingdom of Lanna (Northern Thailand) in the 16th century (Tarling, 1999a). Sixteenth century local and foreign sources clearly differentiate between Ayudhayan 'Tai' and Lan Xang Lao (Tarling, 1999a, p. 71). However, by the 18th century, after periods of subservience to Burma, the Lan Xang polity had broken up into the three kingdoms of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Champasak. By the end of the 19th century, all three were vassal states of Siam, though not directly administered outer provinces (Rogers, 1996). Isan formed part of the kingdoms of Vientiane and Champasak until all territory west of the Mekhong was finally ceded to Siam in Franco-Siamese treaties in 1893 and 1907 (Rogers, 1996; Tarling, 1999b).

Siamese influence in the Northeast since the early Ayudhaya period is testified to by the presence of certain Central Thai-style Buddha images (Vallibhotama, 1990, cited in Rogers, 1996), but Lao influence due to ethnic Lao population influx since the 14th century seems to have been greater (Rogers, 1996). Central Thai bureaucratic influence did not extend beyond Khorat until the end of the eighteenth century, and then only in the form of tribute or protection to local rulers, who were allowed to use Thai gubernatorial titles (Rogers, 1996). This situation continued until the annexation of the Northeast by Siam. The extension of Siamese influence encountered opposition within the Northeast. This includes two 17th century Khorat rebellions, apparent Isan acquiescence in the 1826 Lao uprising by Prince Anu of Vientiane, the Holy Man's Rebellion of 1902, and armed Communist Party of Thailand insurrection in the 1960's, later incorporating student armed insurrection against the Central Thai government in the 1970's and 1980's (Rogers, 1996; Tarling, 1999c). In the late 20th century, Isan NGO opposition to perceived Central Thai corruption and abuse of human rights continued (Vandergeest, 1993). In 1999, members of the Forum of the Poor, an influential Isan NGO, attempted to symbolically give up their Thai citizenship for Lao PDR citizenship (Poor Isan, n.d.). On the balance of historical evidence, Isan has a strong claim to a separate identity, within the contemporary Central Thai hegemony.


There are strong linguistic grounds for identifying the various Isan dialects as a language group separate from Central Thai (Brown, 1985, cited in Chanthao, 2002). Significantly, Central Thais view Isan and Thai as largely unintelligible. Despite a similar syntax, lexical differences present a significant obstacle to mutual understanding. The reverse is less true as the majority of Isan children study Central Thai as the official language of education, and exposure to mass media in Central Thai has likely raised the intelligibility of Central Thai (Chanthao, 2002). In addition, Isan and Lao are mutually intelligible to the extent that an Isan speaker with additional vocabulary and linguistic knowledge regarding formality markers etc. is capable of impersonating a Lao, and vice versa, in certain domains. Isan therefore possesses strong claims to linguistic autonomy.


Isan is usually not described as a variety or dialect of Central Thai outside of Thailand. However, some internationally published Thai authors, such as Ronnakiat (1994, cited in the UCLA Language Materials Project entry for Thailand, n.d.), do identify Isan as a dialect of Central Thai. Such a distinction may reflect the official Thai language policy. Nevertheless, it is generally seen as a separate language group (e.g., Diller, 1992), usually as a dialect group of Lao (e.g. Ethnologue's entry for Lao, n.d.; Brown, 1985).


There are a substantial number of borrowings in Isan from Central Thai, mainly in the form of lexical items and technical or academic words. However, many Isan and Central Thai speakers refer to Isan as "pasaa Lao" (Lao language), and themselves view it as a separate language. Nevertheless, the pace at which borrowings occur is frequent, and probably one of the greatest threats to Isan as an independent language, as its own lexicon is seen as increasingly archaic. There are significant generational differences between the younger and older generations. For example, the older generation may use the Lao word for bridge, "keua", while the younger generation use the Central Thai word, "saphaan". In addition, code-mixing and code-switching among the younger urban generation is frequent (Chanthao, 2002), and the language shift that is taking place appears rapid.

De Facto Norms

It is possible to establish a norm for Isan. Anecdotal evidence suggests older Isan people sometimes bemoan the fact that the younger generation is speaking "bad" Isan, borrowing Central Thai lexical items and phrases. If we are to see the language of older Isan people as the de facto norm, we are considering a de facto language similar to Lao. Nevertheless, this is an idealized situation, and it ignores the rapid language shift, which renders the identification of a de facto norm problematic.


Isan's claims to be a separate language cannot rely on any claim to standardization due to inadequate documentation, though there is an ethnic corpus of folk songs. Despite the lack of official standardization, Isan exhibits strong vitality and historical and linguistic autonomy, linked to political factors and its existence on a dialect continuum with Lao. However, its vitality is being threatened by the pace at which Isan is adopting Central Thai borrowings, a logical consequence of the official Central Thai policy.


There is little doubt that language loss is occurring in the case of Isan, with a significant language shift occurring in the direction of Central Thai as a result of mass media and central government policies (Vandergeest, 1993; Chanthao, 2002). The loss of a written language and increasing bilingualism and borrowings clearly place Isan in May's (2000) second stage of language shift, with stage three being language death. Crystal (2000) stresses the inter-generational differences that occur in such situations, and attaches importance to six factors seen as prerequisites to establishing the minority language as a "tool of inter-generational communication" (p. 130), and hence ensuring maintenance. In this section, Crystal's six factors are applied to the case of Isan.

Prestige within the dominant community

Within the Northeast, Isan is the language of parades, festivals and fairs, such as the skyrocket festivals that herald the start of the rainy season, or the Khon Kaen December silk festival. In addition, mor lam societies exist at the high school and university level. There are local radio programs in Isan, and local television stations occasionally carry Isan programs, e.g. Channel 11 in Khon Kaen. At a national level, mor lam and Isan luuk thung (a folk music style shared with Central Thailand) can be seen on national television stations, such as Channel 3, Channel 7, Channel 9, and ITV, though programs are often at off-peak times. However, Thai television soap operas rarely portray Isan business people or academics; more frequently they fulfil a role as comedy element. Despite this stigmatization (see also Smalley, 1994), promotion of some Isan ethno-linguistic traditions has come from unexpected quarters. For example, HRH Crown Princess Sirindhorn was the patron of the 2003 "Thai Youth Mor Lam Competition". In addition, the national government holds annual Thai youth singing competitions, and both Central Thai and Isan variants are accepted in the luuk theung category. Nevertheless, the lack of an orthography means Isan has no role in the public domain, such as in advertising or on road signs, and therefore little chance at starting along the road to gaining prestige in this area.

Increasing wealth relative to the dominant community

Economic wealth is required to fund and manage language revival campaigns, and to increase the self-esteem of language speakers and the prestige of the language community (Crystal, 1990). In terms of household current income changes from 1998-2000, four out of the five worst performers in Thailand at a provincial level are in the Northeast, experiencing reductions in income of over 30%. On average, the Northeast experienced a 9.58% reduction in income compared to a 6.09% reduction for Thailand as a whole, a 4% increase in the Bangkok metropolis, and an 8.63% increase for Central Thailand (UNDP, 2003, pp. 96-142). It is clear that the income situation of the Northeast relative to the dominant Central Thai community was worsening during that period.

Increasing legitimate power in the eyes of the dominant community

"It is clear that community empowerment in Thailand means evolving an entirely new enabling environment for rights and accountability, indeed, a whole new way of thinking" (Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, UNDP, 2003, p. iii).

The UNDP Thailand Human Development Report 2003 (UNDP, 2003) takes as its theme "community empowerment", and is generally optimistic as regards autonomy and de-centralization, principles that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra says mirror the Thai government's own "people-centred" approach, and which are enshrined in Thailand's Ninth Plan (2002-2006). The report acknowledges that community empowerment is at the beginning of its life, and that momentum must be maintained, and inertia overcome. The Northeast is certainly gaining power in this respect. Within the Northeast, and throughout Thailand, such community actions as the Pak Mun River Dam protests have become a cause celebre, and have forced Central Thai government and academics to directly engage with Isan people. The protests were illegitimate in that they did not have the support of any MPs or local officials, nor were they conducted through the judicial system. Nevertheless, the UNDP report notes the ! special difficulties attached to the political and legal systems in Thailand (UNDP, 2003, p. 26), and it can be hoped that increasing quasi-legitimate power will translate into legitimate power in due time.

Strong presence in the educational system

As noted previously, 88% of Isan speakers use Isan in the home. The case for a strong Isan presence in the educational system at the primary level can be made, focusing on evidence that a vernacular education results in better academic performance, improved self-image, and positive socio-psychological effects (and also see Premsrirat, 1996). However, Isan is not currently represented as a school subject in the primary or secondary school systems. As Crystal (2000, p. 136) notes, in such a situation, the future is bleak.

Nonetheless, there are some promising initiatives. At the tertiary level, Khon Kaen University, the most influential university in the Northeast, will be starting two elective courses, "Isan Dialects" and "Isan Literature", in 2004. The first focuses on phonology, morphology, syntax, alphabet and orthography (Thai Noi and other forms), and existence and change. The second focuses on the characteristics of literary works and society, wisdom and ways of transmitting literary works (Khon Kaen University, 2003). The Lao Studies MA currently in the planning stage may also refer to Isan culture, trade, and language issues (Apichatvullop, Y., personal communication, November 10, 2003). However, without integrating such courses with primary and secondary education, Isan will effectively be treated as a foreign language by its own community, and its educational presence can at best be described as weak.

The ability to write the language

There is no contemporary orthography for Isan, though forms (principally Thai Noi) existed prior to the imposition of Central Thai as an official language, in documents and in temple murals (Smalley, 1994; for examples, see Yenchuay, 2002; Samosorn, n.d.). A thorough evaluation of Central Thai / Isan orthographic and phonetic issues is required prior to any move to introduce a contemporary Isan orthography. This is a complex issue that requires consideration of government policy, stylistic features, community acceptance, and linguistic issues of pronunciation, vowel length, accent, tone and orthographic representation.

The ability to use electronic technology

The UNDP Thailand Human Development Report 2003 (UNDP, 2003, pp. 150-151) estimates that 7.4% of households and 2.6% of the Northeast population have access to the Internet, compared to national figures of 14.1% and 5.6%, and Bangkok Metropolis figures of 34.4% and 16%. Khon Kaen is the most "wired" province, with figures of 13% and 5.4%, while Nong Bua Lam Phu languishes at 3.6% and 1.0%. No figures are available for access to computers, although these are presumably more promising. However, the low level of Internet access in most Northeast provinces restricts the ability of its citizens to become aware of or access Websites with Isan language or Lao language material, such as online radio stations or music sites, e.g.,, or to word-process any new font.


There are significant obstacles to language maintenance and revival initiatives as regards the Isan language, including low relative prestige, decreasing relative wealth, no official presence in the primary or secondary education system, impediments to writing the language, and low relative access to technology. These obstacles may appear insurmountable except for the fact that the Thai government has begun policies to vigorously promote community empowerment and autonomous development, in terms of both civil society and the education system. Indeed, these may present an unparalleled opportunity.


The UNDP Thailand Human Development Report 2003 envisages that the 1999 passing of the National Education Act will work hand in hand with the extension of support "to community education projects which aspire to bridge the gap between local wisdom and learning, and the national education system" (UNDP, 2003, p. 74). This section examines the practicality of language planning initiatives to bridge such a gap for Isan using Haugen's (1983, p. 275) revised language planning model, as reproduced in Kaplan and Baldhauf (1997, p. 29):


Form (policy planning)

Function (language cultivation)

Society (status planning)

1. Selection (decision procedures)

3. Implementation (educational spread)


a. problem identification

a. correction procedures

b. allocation of norms

b. evaluation

Language (corpus planning)

2. Codification (standardisation procedures)

4. Elaboration (functional development)


a. graphisation

a. terminological modernisation

b. grammatication

b. stylistic development

c. lexication

c. internationalisation

Table 2: Haugen's (1983, p. 275) revised language planning model with additions (reproduced in Kaplan & Baldhauf, 1997, p. 29).

In addition, Haarmann (1990, cited in Kaplan & Baldhauf 1997, p. 50) adds the dimension of prestige planning and differentiates between language cultivation and language planning, the former being associated with individual and pressure group promotion, and the latter with institutional and official promotion. Official promotion is seen as the most effective.

Status planning

Language selection

For the various reasons outline above, one route would be for Isan be instituted as the regional official language of Isan in a sociolinguistic context where multilingualism is promoted and seen as a resource (e.g., Fasold, 1987). This is in line with Thai government policies, which place increasing emphasis on autonomous education and the learning of community languages at the primary and secondary levels (Department of Academic Affairs, Ministry of Education, 2001). There is no conflict with the current official language policy as Central Thai would continue to be the official language in national domains, and a bilingual or multilingual system, including Central Thai, would exist in regional domains.

Concerning allocation of norms, it is recommended that Lao Isan, with approximately 11 million speakers, be taken as the standardized norm for official purposes. Its clear numerical superiority to and wider geographical spread than other dialects (Premsrirat, 1996) make it the obvious choice for resource allocation. This is not to say that establishing a Lao Isan norm will be an easy task, nor is it to suggest that other languages of the Northeast may not also become official "community languages" as resources allow.

Language implementation

Prior to regional legitimization in the form of official promotion, institutional support is required in order to investigate policy and implementation issues, and to this end the author is currently seeking support for an Isan language revitalization team, as suggested by Crystal (2000), based at Khon Kaen University's Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. It is anticipated that strong institutional support will lead to official (government) support.

Corpus planning

Corpus planning, while primarily linguistic, has social implications, which may evolve during the proposed period of Isan language revitalization. Bamgbose (1989, cited in Kaplan & Baldhauf, 1997, p. 38) and Vikor (1988; 1993, cited in Kaplan & Baldhauf, 1997, p. 38) present various typologies of corpus planning principles that may serve to aid the proposed language revitalization project. However, this section follows Haugen in surveying codification and elaboration.

Codification of Isan


Isan graphisation would aim to produce a prescriptive orthography, a grammar, and a dictionary. Archaic Isan orthography do exist and are still understood among older members of the community. A modernised form of an archaic orthography may be the most practical and well-received in the community, but it must be rigorously tested against issues such as morphophonemicity. There is, however, a degree of urgency lest the potential to bridge the gap recedes as those members of the community having knowledge of prior Isan literacy pass away.


A survey of existing literature and works is required, possibly with new research, to create a grammar of Isan. Such a grammar must deal with issues of standardization and pedagogy, with reference to both mother-tongue speakers of Isan and speakers of Isan as a second language.


Isan lexication must cope with the realities of language shift and many Isan speakers borrowing from Central Thai and even English. Existing Thai and Lao dictionaries may be of use as sources for lexication; however, new surveys may also be required. While archaic forms may be revived, much will depend on community attitudes.

Elaboration of Isan

Terminological Modernisation

It is likely that Central Thai will continue to play a significant role in modernisation as regards lexifying technical fields in the Isan language; nevertheless, the possibility exists that the Isan community will embrace Isan-generated lexical items, perhaps even for the simple reason that Isan lexical items are shorter when compared to Central Thai. To a large extent, attitudes in the Isan-speaking community will drive this, and it is likely that any official dictionaries will be descriptive rather than prescriptive as regards the community domain. In the public domain, it is possible to conceive of introducing modern Isan terms derived from Isan roots or other word-coinage techniques. Such terms would likely be adopted by villagers: "virtually all Isan villages have, at one time or another, been the targets of 'planned change' and locals are thoroughly familiar with receiving guide-lines about how to behave" (Lyttleton, 2000, p. 191). However, principles for new terms should be developed with community attitudes in mind.

Stylistic Development

Gonzalez (1990, cited in Kaplan & Baldhauf, 1997) suggest that educational expansion and the development of a language into new genres are interrelated. Isan literature could very easily incorporate folk tales and folk songs. However, to be a complete language, Isan needs to be capable of developing multiple discourse styles, such as various fictional and non-fictional styles, or information brochures. High schools and universities appear to be obvious candidates for initiatives to promote Isan stylistic development. In some instances, this could be a natural extension of autonomous local curriculum development, or even oral discourse. For example, some pharmacists in Isan use Isan in contact situations with patients, rather than the official Central Thai language, in order to better convey instructions and avoid abuse of medicines (Chanthosuth, N., personal communication, November 11, 2003). Consequently, developing literacy in Isan-language health literature could be a target area.

Prestige of Isan

Language Cultivation

Individual and pressure group promotion of Isan already occurs in the form of community events, and high school and university societies promoting Isan, such as Kaennakorn High School's Mor Lam Society or Khon Khaen University's Isan Club. Existing cultivation takes the form of oral activities such as folk singing at group meetings, competitions, fairs, and festivals; there is also Isan artistic culture, and local artists such as Yenchuay, active in Khon Kaen, have also shown interest in language and orthographies. In addition, the Northeast has the highest rate of civil society participation in Thailand (UNDP, 2003). It is to be hoped that proposed literacy initiatives concerning written Isan may receive prestige promotion through these traditional cultural networks.

Language Planning

Institutional support for Isan as an academic subject is currently provided at Northeastern Thai universities, such as Khon Kaen University and Mahasarakham University, where Isan heritage, language, and traditional stories are subjects for study. Institutional support for Isan as a modern language of literacy can be envisaged through community-based language maintenance and revitalization initiatives and centers or institutes for regional language studies, following Bangkok examples such as Mahidol University's Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development. In addition, it is known that certain Thai government politicians strongly support Isan language maintenance, and it is anticipated that networks based around these individuals may secure official promotion for Isan language revitalization in the future.


The project exists at the pilot study stage. The Pilot Study is hosted by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Khon Kaen University, as an interdisciplinary project involving the Department of Foreign Languages and the Thai Department. The stated objectives that follow are subject to change as the project evolves.


The long-term objectives of the Isan Language Maintenance and Revitalization Project are to:

The short-term objectives of the Pilot Study are to:

  1. Stage 1: generate a knowledge base of linguistic and sociolinguistic issues pertaining to Isan within Khon Kaen University's Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, including a linguistic description of Isan and an analysis of former Isan orthographies
  2. Stage 2:
    i) create and test a living Isan orthography
    ii) obtain data about Isan people's attitudes to the reintroduction of an Isan orthography
    iii) depending on the results of the Pilot Study, develop the long-term theoretical framework for the Project.


The methodology for Stage 1 of the Pilot Study consists of an extended literature review, focusing on both sociolinguistic issues and linguistic description. The methodology will involve:

  1. Cataloguing existing material according to basic bibliographic information and key words
  2. Identifying potential sources of information by using existing references to provide further references and by communications with or visits to relevant experts at Thai universities such as Khon Kaen, Chulalungkorn, Thammasat, Mahidol, Mahasarakham, etc. and foreign organizations such as SIL or Northern Illinois University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies
  3. Acquiring further sources through purchase, photocopying, etc. and their translation (into English) if required, followed by cataloguing and analysis
  4. Linguistic descriptions of the spoken and written (archaic) forms of Isan need to be acquired and if necessary, refined. The descriptive approach adopted will likely be tagmemics, which is linguistic analysis according to a hierarchy of ranks, and which is used by the Summer Institute of Linguistics to train field researchers (Thomas, 1993). The general ontology of tagmemics divides a language into grammatical, phonological, and referential components. It is almost certain that linguistic descriptions for Isan already exist. It is proposed they be surveyed from the point of view of creating an orthography.

For Stage 2, data accumulated from the literature will be field-tested using criterion-selected informants. Standard field methodology such as observation, interviews, and questionnaires will be used. One of the outputs of Stage 1 is a project report with a description of a detailed methodology for Stage 2.

Scope of study

The scope of the Pilot Study (Stage 1) is limited to examining policy planning issues (selection, codification) and generating related end products (problem identification, allocation of norms through linguistic description).

There will be no attempt to test any orthography (through attitude surveys or qualitative field-testing) or cultivate any standardised orthography through educational spread, or elaborate a standardised literate form of Isan. These are reserved for later stages of the project.

Progress to date

Through necessity, Stage 1 of the project is very flexible, and very much seeks to establish dialogue with experts in various fields, encourage academic discussion of the topic, and acquire, catalogue, and analyze materials. The following are some developments that have taken place:

Materials acquisition

The acquisition and cataloguing of about 150 papers, articles, and works relevant to sociolinguistics generally and Isan specifically has taken place.


A nascent outline methodology for Stage 2 is being developed. While a sociolinguistic survey of a Khon Kaen community to examine attitude is feasible, a detailed descriptive linguistic survey may not be possible due to lack of specialist expertise. The design of the attitude survey is underway. It will be subjected to peer review and pilot tested in 2004.

Networking and communication

Contacts have been established with a number of experts in relevant fields. Site visits have taken place to Mahidol University's Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development, and to Mahasarakham University, Wat Pa Yai in Ubol Ratchatani, and to Pra Khu Suthep, the main teacher at the Buddhist Mahachulalongkorn University, Wat That, Khon Kaen.

A version of this paper was subjected to academic criticism at the 14th Annual Conference of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society (SEALS XIV) at Thammasat University, on 19th May 2004. Professor John Hartman (Northern Illinois University) and Professor Anthony Diller (retired, formerly Australian National University) agreed to act as advisers / consultants to the project, and to head requests for funding. Professor Hartman agreed in principle to sign a memorandum of understanding between Khon Kaen University and NIU. It is hoped that this will form the basis of multilateral MOUs, eventually leading to a consortium.

Website development

The project will work towards the development of a Thai Noi / Isan website, with a lexical database, digitized samples of Thai Noi, and relevant academic papers in order to forward a UNICODE proposal for Thai Noi. Support has already been offered by Professor John Hartmann of Northern Illinois University (NIU), which has already digitized a Thai Noi manuscript, and Doug Cooper at the Bangkok-based Centre for Computational Linguistics. This website would attempt to initiate a Web point-of-presence for Isan Thai Noi, similar to the Web presence enjoyed by Lanna's Kham Muang (e.g., see Northern Illinois University's list of Lanna on-line resources).

Codification / Corpus development

Parinya Phinthong, the copyright owner of the Phinthong Dictionary, has agreed in principle to cooperate in an electronic version of the dictionary, which may be hosted on the proposed Thai Noi / Isan website. Planning and funding for this project have not yet been organized, but a proposal to the Toyota Foundation, which part-funded the production of the hard-copy dictionary, is envisaged.

Pha Khu Suthep has in principle agreed to the digitization and transcription of Wat That's Thai Noi bai lan, in what will be a pilot study for the eventual digitization of the entire Thai Noi bai lan corpus, hopefully involving Khon Kaen University Mahasarakham University, Wat Pa Yai, Ubol Ratchathani University, relevant Khorat institutions, relevant overseas institutions and the National Library of Thailand. In addition to serving as a major cataloguing and preservation initiative, this project will be of value in developing corpus analysis capabilities to complement the proposed online dictionary.

At SEALS XIV Professor Diller communicated the belief that a very limited number of books in Thai Noi had been published in the first decades of the twentieth century. He was not sure of the location of any surviving books. This issue will be followed up with the National Library of Thailand, as it is relevant to codification and elaboration (terminological modernization and stylistic development).

Curriculum development

Increased exposure to Thai Noi will be provided in Khon Kaen University's own Isan language and literature BA courses, beginning late 2004. Experiments will be conducted in expanding the range of domains in which Thai Noi is used, as well as the lexicon. For example, letters could be written using contemporary Isan, including using foreign loan words such as "computer" and "Toyota". In addition, "New Thai Noi", which is already being developed independently at Wat That, will be promoted. "New Thai Noi" includes a 5-tone diacritic system to simplify the writing system for students wishing to read and write Thai Noi.

The project will also attempt to provide support for Thai Noi curriculum development at Mahachulalongkorn University (Wat That) in Khon Kaen. This may also benefit Wat Pa Yai, if interest in such a program can be encouraged. Also, Mahasarakham University has agreed in principle to cooperate in the production of a proof-of-concept multilingual reader in Thai, English, and Isan, using Thai Noi.


The planning context for language maintenance and revitalization as regards Isan language is complex and challenging. Mistakes will inevitably be made in the attempt to address sociolinguistic issues in Isan, and it is not certain that Isan will survive as a language and culture in a globalizing world and in competition with a strong official national language. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that Isan people will in time be able to exercise an informed choice about the future of their own language - linguistic self-determination. At the least, a comprehensive understanding of their linguistic heritage may be achieved.

Appendix: UNESCO Guidelines on Language and Education (adapted from UNESCO (2003) pp. 31-33)


UNESCO supports mother tongue instruction as a means of improving educational quality by building upon the knowledge and experience of the learners and teachers.

(I) Mother tongue instruction is essential for initial instruction and literacy and should 'be extended to as late a stage in education as possible':

(II) 'Literacy can only be maintained if there is an adequate supply of reading material, for adolescents and adults as well as for school children, and for entertainment as well as for study':

(III) With regard to teacher training and mother tongue instruction: 'All educational planning should include at each stage early provision for the training, and further training, of sufficient numbers of fully competent and qualified teachers of the country concerned who are familiar with the life of their people and able to teach in the mother tongue.'


UNESCO supports bilingual and/or multilingual education at all levels of education as a means of promoting both social and gender equality and as a key element of linguistically diverse societies.

(I) 'Communication, expression and the capacity to listen and dialogue [should be encouraged], first of all in the mother tongue, then, [if the mother tongue is different from the official or national language,] in the official [or national] language in the country, as well as in one or more foreign languages' through:

(II) 'International exchanges of primary- and secondary-school teachers [should be promoted] for teaching their subjects in schools in other countries, using their own languages and thus enabling their pupils to acquire both knowledge and linguistic skills'.

(III) Emphasis should be given to the formulation of 'strong national policies designed to promote... language teaching in cyberspace [and the strengthening and extension of] international support and assistance to developing countries to facilitate the development of freely accessible materials on language education in the electronic form and to the enhancement of human capital skills in this area'.


UNESCO supports language as an essential component of inter-cultural education in order to encourage understanding between different population groups and ensure respect for fundamental rights.

(I) Measures should be taken 'to eliminate discrimination in education at all levels on the basis of gender, race, language, religion, national origin, age or disability or any other form of discrimination'.

(II) The 'educational rights of persons belonging to ... minorities, as well as indigenous peoples' should be fully respected, through:

(III) Education should raise 'awareness of the positive value of cultural [and linguistic] diversity', and to this end:



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