Tai Yai
ၵႂၢမ်းတႆး (kwáam tái), လိၵ်ႈတႆး (līk tái)
Pronunciation[kwáːm táj]
[lik táj]
Native toMyanmar
RegionShan State
EthnicityShan, Dai, Kula
Native speakers
4.7 million (2017)[1]
Mon–Burmese (Shan alphabet)
Official status
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2shn
ISO 639-3shn
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library

The Shan language is the native language of the Shan people and is mostly spoken in Shan State, Myanmar. It is also spoken in pockets in other parts of Myanmar, in Northern Thailand, in Yunnan, in Laos, in Cambodia, in Vietnam and decreasingly in Assam and Meghalaya. Shan is a member of the Kra–Dai 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. The term Shan is also used for related Northwestern Tai languages, and it is called Tai Yai or Tai Long in other Tai languages. Standard Shan, which is also known as Tachileik Shan, is based on the dialect of the city of Tachileik.[citation needed]

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] Ethnologue estimates that there are 4.6 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,[1] though including refugees from Burma they now total about one million.[2] Many Shan speak local dialects as well as the language of their trading partners.


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 language and Lao in vocabulary and pronunciation, and the northern so-called "Chinese Shan" is much influenced by the Yunnan-Chinese dialect.[clarification needed]

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/.

J. Marvin Brown divides the three dialects of Shan State as follows:[3]

  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 Thai and Lao

Prominent divergent dialects are considered separate languages, such as Khün (called Kon Shan by the Burmese), which is spoken in Kengtung valley. Chinese Shan is also called Tai Mao, referring to the old Shan State of Mong Mao. Tai Long is used to refer to the Southern Shan State dialect spoken in southern and central regions west of the Salween River,[4] the Northern Shan State dialect,[5] and the dialect spoken in Laos. There are also dialects still spoken by a small number of people in Kachin State, such as Tai Laing, and Khamti spoken in northern Sagaing Region.



Shan has 19 consonants. Unlike Thai and Lao (Isan) there are no voiced plosives /d/ and /b/.

Labial Dental/
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
/i/ /ɨ/~/ɯ/ /u/
/e/ /ə/~/ɤ/ /o/
/ɛ/ /a/

[iw], [ew], [ɛw]; [uj], [oj], [ɯj], [ɔj], [ɤj]; [aj], [aɯ], [aw]; [aːj], [aːw]

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[6]
first ၵဝ် [kǎw] I/me (informal)
တူ [tǔ] 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 [tɕaw] you (formal) "master, lord"
ၶိူဝ် [kʰɤ̂] you two (familiar/dual)
သူ [sǔ] you (formal/singular, general/plural)
သူၸဝ်ႈ [sǔ.tɕaw] you (formal/singular, general/plural) "you masters, you lords"
third မၼ်း [mán] he/she/it (informal/familiar)
ၶႃ [kʰǎː] they/them two (familiar/dual)
ၶဝ် [kʰǎw] he/she/it (formal), or they/them (general)
ၶဝ်ၸဝ်ႈ [kʰǎw.tɕaw] 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. ^ a b Shan at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  2. ^ "Refugee Conundrum: Little movement in Myanmar's repatriation schemes".
  3. ^ Brown, J. Marvin. 1965. From Ancient Thai To Modern Dialects and Other Writings on Historical Thai Linguistics. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, reprinted 1985.
  4. ^ Jirattikorn, Amporn (April 2008). ""Pirated" Transnational Broadcasting: The Consumption of Thai Soap Operas among Shan Communities in Burma". Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia. 23 (1): 30–62. Retrieved 21 April 2023.
  5. ^ Soh, Jyr Minn (2019). Serial verb constructions in Tai Long Shan (M.A. thesis). Nanyang Technological University. doi:10.32657/10220/47853. hdl:10356/106030.
  6. ^ "SEAlang Library Shan Lexicography". Retrieved Apr 27, 2020.

Further reading