The Shan language (Shan written: လိၵ်ႈတႆး, pronounced [lik táj] (listen)), Shan spoken: ၵႂၢမ်းတႆး, pronounced [kwáːm táj] (listen)), or ၽႃႇသႃႇတႆး, pronounced [pʰàːsʰàː táj]; Burmese: ရှမ်းဘာသာ, pronounced [ʃáɴ bàðà]; Thai: ภาษาไทใหญ่, pronounced [pʰāː.sǎː.tʰāj.jàj]) is the native language of the Shan people and is mostly spoken in Shan State, Burma. It is also spoken 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. 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 alphabet.
|Native to||Burma, Thailand, China|
|3.3 million (2001)|
|Burmese script (Shan alphabet)|
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 languages 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 /f/ only appears in the east, while in the other two dialects it merges with /pʰ/.
Prominent dialects are considered as separate languages, such as Khün (called Kon Shan by the Burmese), which is spoken in Kengtung valley, and Tai Lü. 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 spoken in northern Sagaing Region.
Shan has ten vowels and 13 diphthongs:
[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" [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.
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.
|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 ˦˨ˀ||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)||a᷈|
The following table shows an example of the phonemic tones:
The Shan tones correspond to Thai tones as follows:
|low||လၢၵ်ႇ||/làːk/||[laːk˩]||laak,||differ from others|
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/.
The Shan script is characterised by its circular letters, which are very similar to those of the Mon script. The old Shan script used until the 1960s did not differentiate all vowels and diphthongs and had only one tone marker, and a single form could represent up to 15 sounds. Only the well-trained were able to read Shan. This has been fixed, making the modern Shan alphabet easy to read, with all tones indicated unambiguously. The standard Shan script is an abugida, all letters having an inherent vowel a. Vowels are represented in the form of diacritics placed around the consonants.
The Shan alphabet is much less complex than the Thai one 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 only 19 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 19 universally accepted Shan consonants (ၵ ၶ င ၸ သ ၺ တ ထ ၼ ပ ၽ ၾ မ ယ ရ လ ဝ ႁ ဢ), and five more which represent sounds not found in Shan, g, z, b, d and th ([θ] as in "thin"). These five (ၷ ၹ ၿ ၻ ႀ) are quite rare. In addition, most editors include a dummy consonant used to support leading vowels. A textbook may therefore present 18-24 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:
|ႈ||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.
|ၶႃႈ||kʰaː||I/me (formal) "servant, slave"|
|ႁႃး||háː||we/us two (familiar/dual)|
|ႁဝ်းၶႃႈ||háw.kʰaː||we/us (formal) "we servants, we slaves"|
|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"|
|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"|
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.