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Shan language

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Title: Shan language  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Northern Thai language, Southwestern Tai languages, Tai languages, Tai Nüa language, Saopha
Collection: Languages of Myanmar, Languages of Thailand, Shan Language, Tai Languages, Tonal Languages
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Shan language

lik tái
Native to Burma, Thailand, China
Region Shan State
Ethnicity Shan people
Native speakers
3.3 million  (2001)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-2 shn
ISO 639-3 shn
Glottolog shan1277[2]

The Shan language (Shan: လိၵ်ႈတႆး, Shan pronunciation: , ၵႂၢမ်းတႆး, , or ၽႃႇသႃႇတႆး, ; Burmese: ရှမ်းဘာသာ, ; Thai: ภาษาไทใหญ่) is the native language of Shan people and spoken mostly in Shan State, Burma. It is also used in pockets of Kachin State in Burma, 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 the 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, though the true number is somewhere around six million, with about half speaking the Shan language. 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.[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 script, which was derived from the Burmese script.


  • Names 1
  • Dialects 2
  • Phonology 3
    • Consonants 3.1
    • Vowels and diphthongs 3.2
    • Tones 3.3
      • Contrastive tones in unchecked syllables 3.3.1
      • Contrastive tones in checked syllables 3.3.2
    • Syllable structure 3.4
  • Alphabet 4
  • Pronouns 5
  • Resources 6
  • References 7
  • Further reading 8
  • External links 9


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

  • In Shan, the language is commonly called kwam tai (ၵႂၢမ်းတႆး Shan pronunciation: , literally "Tai language").
  • In Burmese, it is called shan: bhasa (Burmese: ရှမ်းဘာသာ, ) whence the English word "Shan" is. The term "Shan," which was formerly spelt သျှမ်း (hsyam:) in Burmese, is an exonym believed to be a Burmese derivative of "Siam" (an old term for Thailand).
  • In Thai, it is called phasa tai yai (ภาษาไทใหญ่, Thai pronunciation: , literally "big/great Tai language"), or more informally or even vulgarly by some phasa ngiaw (ภาษาเงี้ยว, Thai pronunciation: ).
  • In Northern Thai, it is called kam tai (กำไต, Northern Thai pronunciation: , literally "Tai language"), or more informally or even vulgarly by some kam ngiao (กำเงี้ยว, Northern Thai pronunciation: ), literally "Shan language").
  • In Lao, it is called phasa tai yai (ພາສາໄທໃຫຍ່, Lao pronunciation: , literally "big/great Tai language"), or phasa tai nuea (ພາສາໄທເໜືອ, Lao pronunciation: , literally "northern Tai language"), or more informally or even vulgarly by some phasa ngiao (ພາສາງ້ຽວ, Lao pronunciation: ).
  • In Tai Lü, it is called kam ngio (ᦅᧄᦇᦲᧁᧉ, Tai Lü pronunciation: ).


The Shan dialects spoken in Shan State can be divided into three groups, roughly coinciding with geographical and modern administrational 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 dialects (Kam Muang, Yuan) 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 /pʰ/ becomes /f/ in the east. Prominent dialects are considered as separate languages, such as Khün (or Tai Khuen, called Kon Shan by the Burmese), which is spoken in Keng Tung valley, and Tai Lü (or Tai Lue). 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 Shan, spoken in Northern Sagaing Division.

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 (located in the Golden Triangle); closer to Northern Tai and Lao



Shan has 18 consonants. Unlike in Thai and Lao there are no voiced plosives [d] and [b].

  Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive [p]
Nasal   [m]
Fricative   ([f])2
Affricate       [ts]
Trill       ([r])3
Approximant         [j]
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." Triphthongs are absent. Shan has no systematic distinction between long and short vowels characteristic of Thai.


Shan is a tonal language, which means phonemic contrasts can be made on the basis of the tone of a syllable.

There are five to six tones in Shan, depending on the dialect. The sixth tone is only spoken in the north, in other parts it is only used for emphasis. Recently, some Shan scholars and teachers try to establish this tone in "correct" Standard Shan.

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 Contour 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 falling (creaky) 42 ˦˨ Short, creaky, strongly falling with lax final glottal stop âʔ, â̰ a.
6 emphatic 343 ˧˦˧ Starting mid level, then slightly rising, with a drop at the end (similar to tones 3 and 5)
* 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 Phonemic Transcription English
rising ၼႃ /nǎː/ na thick
low ၼႃႇ /nàː/ na, very
mid ၼႃႈ /nāː/ na; face
high ၼႃး /náː/ na: paddy field
creaky ၼႃႉ /na̰/ na. aunt, uncle

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 Transcription English
high လၵ်း /lák/ [lak˥] lak: post
creaky လၵ်ႉ /la̰k/ [la̰k˦˨] 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:

  • CV /kɔ/ also
  • CVC /kàːt/ market
  • CGV /kwàː/ to go
  • CGVC /kwaːŋ/ broad
  • CVV /kǎi/ far
  • CGVV /kwáːi/ water buffalo

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


A sign written in Shan in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Shan script is characterised by its circular letters, very similar to Burmese. The old Shan script used until the 1960s did not differentiate all vowels and diphthongs and had only one tone marker. Therefore, a single form could represent up to 15 sounds, and hence meanings. Hence, only the well trained were able to read Shan. This has been mended in a reform, making Shan quite easy to read, with all tones indicated unambiguously.

The standard Shan script is an abugida, all letters having an inherent vowel a. Ultimately deriving from the Brahmic system, vowels are represented in the form of diacritics placed around the consonants.

A sign written in Shan along with other languages in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The Shan writing system is much less complex than the Thai writing system, and lacks the notions of high-class, mid-class and low-class consonants, distinctions which help the Thai alphabet to number some 44 consonants. Shan has just 18 consonants, and all tones are clearly indicated with unambiguous tonal markers at the end of the syllable (in the absence of any marker, the default is the rising tone).

The number of consonants in a textbook may vary: there are 18 universally-accepted Shan consonants (ၵ ၶ င ၸ သ ၺ တ ထ ၼ ပ ၽ မ ယ ရ လ ဝ ႁ ဢ), and four more which represent sounds not found in Shan, namely 'b,' 'd,' f,' and 'th' ([θ] as in 'thin'). The last four (ၿ ၻ ၾ ႀ) are quite rare. In addition, most editors include the 'dummy consonant' used to support leading vowels, but some do not. Thus, a given textbook may present 18-23 Shan consonants.

The representation of the vowels depends partly on whether the syllable has a final consonant.

The tones are indicated by tone markers at the end of the syllable (represented by a dash in the following table), namely:
Sign Name Tone
(not marked) pao 1
ယၵ်း (ják) 2
ယၵ်းၸမ်ႈ (ják tsam) 3
ၸမ်ႈၼႃႈ (tsam naː) 4
ၸမ်ႈတႂ်ႈ (tsam tau) 5
ယၵ်းၶိုၼ်ႈ (ják kʰɯn) 6

While the reformed script originally used only four diacritic tone markers, equivalent to the five tones spoken in the southern dialect, the Lashio-based Shan Literature and Culture Association now, for a number of words, promotes the use of the 'yak khuen' to denote the sixth tone as pronounced in the north.

Two other scripts are also still used to some extent. The so-called Lik To Yao ('long letters'), which derives from Lik Tai Mao, or Lik Hto Ngouk ('bean sprout script'), the old script of the Mao, or Chinese Shans, may be used in the north. In this systems, vowel signs are written behind the consonants.

Keng Tung Shan, or Tai Khün, is written in the Yuan script (called Kon Shan in Burmese), which has come from Lanna.


Person Pronoun 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.


  • The Major Languages of East and South-East Asia. Bernard Comrie (London, 1990).
  • A Guide to the World's Languages. Merritt Ruhlen (Stanford, 1991).
  • Shan for English Speakers. Irving I. Glick & Sao Tern Moeng (Dunwoody Press, Wheaton, 1991).
  • Shan - English Dictionary. Sao Tern Moeng (Dunwoody Press, Kensington, 1995).
  • An English and Shan Dictionary. H. W. Mix (American Baptist Mission Press, Rangoon, 1920; Revised edition by S.H.A.N., Chiang Mai, 2001).
  • Grammar of the Shan Language. J. N. Cushing (American Baptist Mission Press, Rangoon, 1887).
  1. ^ Shan at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Shan". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 
  3. ^
  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

Further reading

  • Sai Kam Mong. The History and Development of the Shan Scripts. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2004. ISBN 974-9575-50-4

External links

  • Shan-language Swadesh vocabulary list of basic words (from Wiktionary's Swadesh-list appendix)
  • Shan Alphabet
  • Basic Shan phrases
  • SIL Padauk Font (Shan Unicode)
  • SEAlang Library Shan Dictionary
  • Titles of Shan-foreign language dictionaries
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