Thai is spoken by
over 85 percent of the population of Thailand, or about 50
million people. It is a member of the Sino-Tibetan family of
languages, which means that it is distantly related to Chinese.
It is closer, however, to Lao, spoken in Laos, and to the Shan
language of northern Burma. Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal
language, meaning that different tones, or intonations,
distinguish words that would otherwise be homonyms.
The origin of the
Thai alphabet is obscure, but it is believed to have had its
origin in southern India. It consists of forty-four consonants
and thirty-two vowels, the latter consisting not of an individual
letter, but of a mark written above, below, before, or after the
consonant with which it is pronounced. Of the five tones, four
are indicated by signs over the consonants, the absence of a sign
indicating that the fifth tone is to be used. Words are not
separated from each other and the letters generally flow
uninterruptedly until the idea changes.