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Regional dialects mapped in Thailand

Thailand’s most comprehensive and detailed language atlas is being compiled to pinpoint the geographical boundaries of each regional dialect and answer the question: Who speaks what and where? The research findings, to be published in March, will clarify which dialect most residents in each tambon (sub-district, or cluster of villages) speak, in order to understand the current status of dialects, officials said. The Ministry of Culture, working with Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Arts, started the project two years ago, distributing more than 7,500 questionnaires to schoolteachers in every tambon, excluding Bangkok, said faculty dean MR Kalaya Tingsabadh.

The teachers have been asked to choose the word that most people in their sub-district speak out of four choices, made up of words of the same meaning in central Thai and three regional dialects. Each questionnaire includes 170 semantic units, with each unit represented by different words in different dialects. The units cover several definitions of everyday words and feelings such as tum ngaan (to work), malaeng por (dragonfly), khao chow (breakfast), and khid theung (to miss). But the unit that could best demarcate the boundaries between each dialect was phood (to speak), Kalaya said.

Ministry of Culture permanent secretary MR Chakrarot Chitrabongs said the atlas would be a valuable tool for understanding the interplay between standard Thai and each regional dialect. “Now less people in the Northeast use the word in their dialect, phu, to refer to a mountain,” Chakrarot said, adding that they now favoured phu khao from standard Thai instead. Over the next few months, the researchers will use a computerised geographic information system to interpret the data into maps depicting the distribution of each semantic unit. Kalaya said the project was not yet complete, but the results gathered so far indicate that regional dialects have yet to lose their popularity.