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Minnan Dialect Influence on the Thai Language

Paul has spent a lifetime traveling and learning many languages. He is now conversant in Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, and Thai.

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Chinese Influence on the Thai Language

The Thai language today uses many words borrowed from the Minnan and other dialects of Chinese. These words appear in everyday language, and I have been discovering new ones ever since I started studying Thai in 2003. This article will list and discuss Chinese words in Thai primarily originating from Minnan.

History of the Chinese People in Thailand

Historical records indicate that settlers probably from Southern China had arrived in the present Ayutthaya area of Thailand by the 13th century. Then, about 400 years ago, Chinese from the southeastern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong came to Thailand. They settled in the cities and coastal areas and became mostly merchants and money lenders. Linguistically, these Chinese spoke Taechew and Hokkien, sub-dialects of Minnan, and the Cantonese dialect. In the 1700s, General Taksin, a Thai Chinese, encouraged Chinese from the Chaozhou area of Guangdong Province to immigrate to Thailand. Those Chinese spoke the Taechew sub-dialect of Minnan. Today, through immigration and intermarriage between ethnic Thais and Chinese, about 15 percent of the Thai population has Chinese blood. 56 percent of the Chinese speak Taechew, 16 percent Hakka, 7 percent Hokkien, 7 percent Cantonese, and the remainder other dialects of Minnan such as Hainanese, and the Haw sub-dialect of the Southwest Mandarin dialect of Chinese. In Thailand today, Thai Chinese are very active as businessmen and politicians. The former Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva is a Thai Chinese as well as the former well-known prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Minnan Dialect Influence on the Thai Language

When I began learning the Thai language, I immediately noticed words in Thai that were the same or almost identical to Minnan words and Mandarin vocabulary that I had used in the past. Most of the words were related to numbers, grammatical expressions, and food. The following is a listing of words by category in Thai and Minnan with the corresponding English meaning. I have used romanization to represent Thai and Minnan words.

1. Numbers:

Thai - Minnan - English

sam - sam - 3

si - si - 4

chet - chit - 7

baet - boe - 8

gao - gao - 9

sip - tzap - 10

sip-et - tzap-it - 11

yee-sip - li-tzap - 20

sam-sip - sa-tzap - 30

si-sip - si-tzap - 40

chet-sip - chit-tzap - 70

baet-sip - boe-tzap - 80

gao-sip - gao-tzap - 90

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2. Food:

va-tsang - va-tsang - glutinous rice dumpling

gai - gei - chicken

dao-hui - dao-hui - gelatin bean dessert

dao-hu - dao-hu - bean curd

bah-mi - mi - egg noodle

ce - cay - vegetarian

sa-la-bao - sa-la-bao - steamed bun filled with pork

3. Miscellaneous:

dtoh - dtoh - table

gao-ee - ee - chair

suai - sui - beautiful

gao - gao - old

gei - gei - false or artificial

sa-bao - sat-bun - soap

sia - sia - sound or noise

4. Grammatical Words:

liao - liao - already

anni - anni - this

bo (Northeast Thai) - bo - no

5. Place names:

Bak-king - Bak-king - Beijing

Sing-ga-po - Sing-ga-po - Singapore

Thai Words Borrowed From Other Chinese Dialects

There also are words in Thai which are borrowed from other Chinese dialects. A few of these words are as follows:

Thai - Cantonese - English

ngen - ngan - money

gai - gai - chicken

Thai - Mandarin - English

ma - ma - horse

cha - cha - tea

mai-iu - mei-you - don't have

There are certainly many other Chinese loan words in Thai which I have not noted in this article. What is important is to recognize the influence of Chinese dialects on the Thai language.


Thai Words from Chinese Dialects

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 18, 2013:


Thank you for your comments. I will definitely consider your questions and update this hub as soon as I can.

Josh on October 17, 2013:

How do you know the Minnan numbers, for example, didn't originate with Thai? The Austro-Tai family of languages pre-dates Chinese to begin with. And as you point the influence of Chinese on Thai was rather late. There are also a number of Austra-Tai loan words in Chinese dialects.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 17, 2012:

Alex, thank you very much for your enlightening comments. I agree with what you say. Yes, as much as a lot of Thais hate to admit it, their earlier ancestors were in fact from southern China.

Alex on April 17, 2012:

In fact, the exchange of words between Chinese and Thai happened much earlier, and can be dated to more than 2000 years ago.

The ancestors of the Thai-speaking people originally lived in nowadays southern China, including Canton, Fujian, Zhejiang and probably Jiangsu and Shanghai. During the Chinese expansion, they were either assimilated or forced to migrate further away. They finally settled in nowadays Thailand.

There are lots of dialects related to Thai spoken by minority spoken in southwestern China, and there were little influence from Minnan, yet they have the same vocabulary.

As a matter of fact, the word chicken 'gai' is a Thai word borrowed into Chinese. That's why it's not a pictorial character in Chinese. The mandarin 'ji' went through a change not unlike the change of pronunciation of 'g' to 'j' in European languages. So don't be fooled by the romanization of Chinese characters.

Similarly, the word for 'elephant' is also thought be borrowed from Thai.

As for the numbers, they were borrowed from Chinese much much earlier. Linguists now agreed that the character for six was pronounced like 'hrok' in ancient Chinese. In Thai, the 'r' was lost, so it is now pronounced 'hok'; yet in Chinese, 'h' was lost and 'r' became 'l'. So in Cantonese it's pronounced as 'lok'. 'k' is lost in Mandarin. So in Mandarin, it's pronounced like 'liu'.

The reason why Minnan and Cantonese words sound similar to Thai words is all these 3 languages/dialects have been changing in a slower pace than northern Chinese dialects, which went through a gigantic change during the Mongolian invasion, such as losing the ending stops '-k', '-p' and '-t', and '-m' became '-n' (so 3 is san in Mandarin), and 'g', 'k' and 'h', when spelled with 'i' became 'j', 'q' and 'x' etc.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 02, 2012:

Thanks for the information about sat-pun and thank you very much for reading the hub.

Joe on April 02, 2012:

I think sa-bao (sat-pun) is actually a Portuguese word, I am a Portuguese native speaker and soap in Portuguese is Sabao, I don't think it is a coincidence, as it is a Latin word available in other Romance languages.

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