Tai Yai
Native toMyanmar, Thailand, China
RegionShan State
Native speakers
3.3 million (2001)[1]
Mon–Burmese (Shan alphabet)
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2shn
ISO 639-3shn
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The Shan language (written Shan: လိၵ်ႈတႆး, pronounced [lik táj] (listen), spoken Shan: ၵႂၢမ်းတႆး, pronounced [kwáːm táj] (listen) or ၽႃႇသႃႇတႆး, pronounced [pʰàːsʰàː táj]; Burmese: ရှမ်းဘာသာ, pronounced [ʃáɰ̃ bàðà]; Thai: ภาษาไทใหญ่, pronounced [pʰāː.sǎː.tʰāj.jàj]) is the native language of the Shan people and is mostly spoken in Shan State, Myanmar. It is also spoken in pockets of Kachin State in Myanmar, in Northern Thailand and decreasingly in Assam. Shan is a member of the Tai–Kadai language family and is related to Thai. It has five tones, which do not correspond exactly to Thai tones, plus a "sixth tone" used for emphasis. It is called Tai Yai or Tai Long in other Tai languages.

The number of Shan speakers is not known in part because the Shan population is unknown. Estimates of Shan people range from four million to 30 million,[citation needed] with about half speaking the Shan language.[citation needed] In 2001 Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk estimated 3.2 million Shan speakers in Myanmar; the Mahidol University Institute for Language and Culture gave the number of Shan speakers in Thailand as 95,000 in 2006, though including refugees from Burma they now total about one million.[2][3] Many Shan speak local dialects as well as the language of their trading partners. Due to the civil war in Burma, few Shan today can read or write in Shan alphabet, which was derived from the Burmese alphabet.


The Shan language has a number of names in different Tai languages and Burmese.


The Shan dialects spoken in Shan State can be divided into three groups, roughly coinciding with geographical and modern administrative boundaries, namely the northern, southern, and eastern dialects. Dialects differ to a certain extent in vocabulary and pronunciation, but are generally mutually intelligible. While the southern dialect has borrowed more Burmese words, Eastern Shan is somewhat closer to northern Thai languages 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 /mj/ (written my). In Chinese Shan, initial /n/ becomes /l/. In southwestern regions /m/ is often pronounced as /w/. Initial /f/ only appears in the east, while in the other two dialects it merges with /pʰ/.

Prominent dialects are considered as separate languages, such as Khün (called Kon Shan by the Burmese), which is spoken in Kengtung valley, and Tai Lü. 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 spoken in northern Sagaing Region.

J. Marvin Brown (1965)[4] divides the three dialects of Shan as follows:

  1. Northern — Lashio, Burma; contains more Chinese influences
  2. Southern — Taunggyi, Burma (capital of Shan State); contains more Burmese influences
  3. Eastern — Kengtung, Burma (in the Golden Triangle); closer to Northern Tai and Lao



Shan has 19 consonants. Unlike Thai and Lao there are no voiced plosives [d] and [b].

Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal /m/
Plosive unaspirated /p/
aspirated //
Fricative (/f/)[b]
Trill (/r/)[c]
Approximant /j/
Lateral /l/
  1. ^ The glottal plosive is implied after a short vowel without final, or the silent 'a' before a vowel.
  2. ^ Initial [f] is only found in eastern dialects in words that are pronounced with [pʰ] elsewhere.
  3. ^ The trill is very rare and mainly used in Pali and some English loan words, sometimes as a glide in initial consonant clusters. Many Shans find it difficult to pronounce [r], often pronouncing it [l].

Vowels and diphthongs

Shan has ten vowels and 13 diphthongs:

Front Central-Back Back
/i/ /ɨ/~/ɯ/ /u/
/e/ /ə/~/ɤ/ /o/
/ɛ/ /a/

[iu], [eu], [ɛu]; [ui], [oi], [ɯi], [ɔi], [əi]; [ai], [aɯ], [au]; [aːi], [aːu]

Shan has less vowel complexity than Thai, and Shan people learning Thai have difficulties with sounds such as "ia," "ua," and "uea" [ɯa]. Triphthongs are absent. Shan has no systematic distinction between long and short vowels characteristic of Thai.


Shan has phonemic contrasts among the tones of syllables. There are five to six tonemes in Shan, depending on the dialect. The sixth tone is only spoken in the north; in other parts it is only used for emphasis.

Contrastive tones in unchecked syllables

The table below presents six phonemic tones in unchecked syllables, i.e. closed syllables ending in sonorant sounds such as [m], [n], [ŋ], [w], and [j] and open syllables.

No. Description IPA Description Transcription*
1 rising (24) ˨˦ Starting rather low and rising pitch ǎ a (not marked)
2 low (11) ˩ Low, even pitch à a,
3 mid-falling (32) ˧˨ Medium level pitch, slightly falling in the end a (not marked) a;
4 high (55) ˥ High, even pitch á a:
5 high-falling and creaky (42) ˦˨ˀ Short, creaky, strongly falling with lax final glottal stop âʔ, â̰ a.
6 emphatic (343) or middle (33) ˧˦˧ / ˧ Starting mid level, then slightly rising, with a drop at the end (similar to tones 3 and 5) a᷈ a-
* The symbol in the first column corresponds to conventions used for other tonal languages; the second is derived from the Shan orthography.

The following table shows an example of the phonemic tones:

Tone Shan IPA Transliteration English
rising ၼႃ /nǎː/ na thick
low ၼႃႇ /nàː/ na, very
mid-falling ၼႃႈ /nà̱ː/ na; face
high ၼႃး /náː/ na: paddy field
high-falling and creaky ၼႃႉ /nâ̰(ː)/ na. aunt, uncle
emphatic or middle ၼႃႊ /nāː/ na- (for interjection / transcription)

The Shan tones correspond to Thai tones as follows:

  1. The Shan rising tone is close to the Thai rising tone.
  2. The Shan low tone is equivalent to the Thai low tone.
  3. The Shan mid-tone is different from the Thai mid-tone. It falls in the end.
  4. The Shan high tone is close to the Thai high tone. But it is not rising.
  5. The Shan falling tone is different from the Thai falling tone. It is short, creaky and ends with a glottal stop.

Contrastive tones in checked syllables

The table below presents four phonemic tones in checked syllables, i.e. closed syllables ending in a glottal stop [ʔ] and obstruent sounds such as [p], [t], and [k].

Tone Shan Phonemic Phonetic Transliteration English
high လၵ်း /lák/ [lak˥] lak: post
creaky လၵ်ႉ /la̰k/ [la̰k˦˨ˀ] lak. steal
low လၢၵ်ႇ /làːk/ [laːk˩] laak, differ from others
mid လၢၵ်ႈ /lāːk/ [laːk˧˨] laak; drag

Syllable 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 /ʔ/.

Some representative words are:

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


Person Pronoun IPA Meaning[5]
first ၵဝ် kǎw I/me (informal)
တူ I/me (informal)
ၶႃႈ kʰaː I/me (formal) "servant, slave"
ႁႃး háː we/us two (familiar/dual)
ႁဝ်း háw we/us (general)
ႁဝ်းၶႃႈ háw.kʰaː we/us (formal) "we servants, we slaves"
second မႂ်း máɰ you (informal/familiar)
ၸဝ်ႈ tsaw you (formal) "master, lord"
ၶိူဝ် kʰə̌ə you two (familiar/dual)
သူ sʰǔ you (formal/singular, general/plural)
သူၸဝ်ႈ sʰǔ.tsaw you (formal/singular, general/plural) "you masters, you lords"
third မၼ်း mán he/she/it (informal/familiar)
ၶႃ kʰǎa they/them two (familiar/dual)
ၶဝ် kʰǎw he/she/it (formal), or they/them (general)
ၶဝ်ၸဝ်ႈ kʰǎw.tsaw he/she/it (formal), or they/them (formal) "they masters, they lords"
ပိူၼ်ႈ pɤn they/them, others


Given the present instabilities in Burma, 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.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Shan at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ "Shan". Ethnologue. Retrieved Apr 27, 2020.
  3. ^ "Refugee Conundrum: Little movement in Myanmar's repatriation schemes".
  4. ^ Brown, J. Marvin. 1965. From Ancient Thai To Modern Dialects and Other Writings on Historical Thai Linguistics. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, reprinted 1985.
  5. ^ "SEAlang Library Shan Lexicography". Retrieved Apr 27, 2020.

Further reading