Why is the Thai language classified as Sino-Tibetan/Sino-Burmese when its script looks like Sanskrit to me?

  • 15
    Romanian was spelled using Cyrillic script for centuries, this does not make it a Slavic language. – Lucian May 5 '17 at 6:04
  • 1
    Why is Vietnamese classified as Austroasiatic when its script looks Latin to me? – TonyK May 10 '19 at 23:57

The script has nothing to do with the origin of the language. In fact, every script can be used to write any language. Usually a language adopts the script that is associated with the religion and/or dominating cultural influence. For example, Malay, which belongs to the Austronesian family of languages, used the Arabic script (with some variations) when the Arabic influence on the Malaysians was at its peak, but that doesn't mean they are a Semitic people. Now they use the Latin alphabet, because the Western influence on Malaysia is far more intense than previously, but that doesn't mean they are related to Romans or to Indo-Europeans directly.

As far as Thai is concerned, firstly, it does not belong to the "Sino-Tibetan/Sino-Burmese" languages, Thai is a member of the Tai–Kadai language family and it is not related to Chinese, although Chinese has influenced it a lot. When the Chinese influence on Thai was at its peak, Thai was written in Chinese characters. But later, in about the 13th century, the Thai people came under the cultural influence of Khmers who were Buddhists. The Thais converted to Khmer-style Buddhism and borrowed their script, having transformed it a bit. All the southern Buddhists like Khmers or Thais use scripts that come from India; those scripts are all descendants of the ancient Indian script Brahmi.

Sanskrit, being one of the languages the sacred Buddhist scriptures were written in, also greatly influenced Thai, which has lots of loan words from Sanskrit. Still, neither borrowed words nor borrowed scripts make languages related. To see the relationships between languages is much harder than noticing similarities in scripts.

  • 1
    Edited a bit; "Buddhist languages" in the last paragraph looked like a category; feel free to roll it back my edit is wrong. – bytebuster Apr 6 '17 at 19:59
  • It is not correct to write "every script can be used to write any language". – jeffmcneill Nov 19 '17 at 4:37
  • 3
    @jeffmcneill Your comment would be more helpful if you gave a concrete counterexample. Characters in scripts can be repurposed e.g. Japanese kana are derived from Chinese characters – brass tacks Nov 19 '17 at 15:50
  • Fair enough. If the idea is to provide transliteration from one script to another, I guess a rule system of any sort could be proposed. However, if the goal is phonemic transcription, then some scripts (in terms of their native language) simply don't have the ability to represent sounds in other languages (that is, those sounds which are not present and do not have representation in another script). Languages are phonemically rich and disparate. Scripts are a lot more restricted and brittle (except for example the IPA, though even that is limited). Not to mention scripts without tonal chars. – jeffmcneill Nov 19 '17 at 17:28
  • 2
    But the goal in writing is very often not phonemic transcription, @jeffmcneill. If it were, English, Irish, French, Hebrew, Tibetan - to name but a few - would not have the awkward writing systems they have. – Colin Fine Nov 20 '17 at 1:05

The modern Thai script is descended from Pallava, itself descended from Brahmi. It is similar and draws from Khmer, and is closest in similarity to Lao. Note that it is largely unrelated to the Myanmar/Burmese script. Sanskrit is itself is a language written in a variety of scripts, including Thai). On the other hand, Pali (the liturgical language of Theraveda Buddhism) can be written in Thai, with the addition of three specifically Pali characters found in Thai fonts (Nikkhahit, Pinthu, Yamakkan). On the other hand, Thai has many loanwords from Pali and Sanskrit.


I see people have talked more on borrowing scripts to write words but less on the origin of words. When I look at Thai words(I am not a linguistic expert) I find a lot of words directly from Sanskrit. It looks as if Sanskrit had far great influence in Thailand area at some or most parts of last 1000 years or so which is also evident from Hindu(Sanatan Dharma) cultural influence in Thailand.


It' s not a sino language (I'm Thai and Chinese mixed, I know most of the Chinese dialects that exist and I know Thai and Lao) but Thai has MOST of its words from China, while the 2nd most words are from India (with the exception that the Thai words versions from India have tonals). The Thai script has nothing to do with the language btw. Thai and Cantonese for example share a similar pronounciation, it sounds similar and also has words who mean the exact same thing. There's a dialect spoken in south china that is very similar to Thai, even more then Cantonese.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.