Ancient Isaan script to be revitalized in new public effort

The Khon Kaen Municipality, Khon Kaen University and the Isan Culture Maitenance and Revitalization Program are collaborating to create programs to teach the Isaan heritage script, Tai Noi.

Learning how to write Tai Noi will allow Isaan people to write the language they most commonly speak in every day life. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

Learning how to write Tai Noi will allow Isaan people to write the language they most commonly speak in every day life. Photo credit: Jeremy Starn

KHON KAEN– In Northeast Thailand fourteen million people speak the Isaan language in their homes, however, the language lacks a writing system and it is not taught in public schools. In a recent effort, Khon Kaen University (KKU), the Khon Kaen Municipality, and the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Program (ICMRP) hope to reconcile the disconnect.

On 27-28 February, Khon Kaen Municipality and the Department of Culture at KKU held a two-day seminar as the culmination of a three-year effort to develop a syllabus and resources to teach the Isaan language using the Tai Noi script, an initiative supported by ICMRP. The university and the Khon Kaen Municipality signed a memorandum of understanding that will enable schools to teach the Isaan language using the ancient script. The event was attended by approximately 100 people from schools, temples, universities, and municipalities in Khon Kaen Province.

The Tai Noi script dates back to the Sukothai period, and accommodates the six tones of Isaan, allowing the speaker to pronounce the language more accurately than when Thai phonetics are used.

Supporters of the effort to formally teach the Isaan language argue that forging a connection to the region’s written past will help create a living culture of literacy in Isaan, as well as boost people’s pride in Isaan’s heritage. Many have argued that Northeasterners have been historically looked down upon by other Thais, especially those in Bangkok, and the impulse to bolster Isaan’s cultural uniqueness is a means to mitigate such discrimination.

The project is limited to eighteen schools in four municipalities in Khon Kaen Province, and works with a dialect of Isaan originally derived from the Vientiane sub-family of Lao. There are also efforts on behalf of Georgia State University to create a Thai-English-Isaan dictionary.

The university’s support of the project was surprising to some because the Thai educational system has historically emphasized the exclusive use of Central Thai and English for instruction. The Thai state has long insisted on the unity of people within the kingdom under the ethno-national concept of “Thai-ness.” State support, however small, for the countries’ minorities and various ethnic groups is uncommon.

The MOU signals more corporation between the municipality and KKU to facilitate events and workshops that highlight Isaan culture.

The MOU signals more corporation between the municipality and KKU to facilitate events and workshops that highlight Isaan culture.

According to John Draper, the coordinator of ICMRP, recognizing and preserving Thai cultural diversity is necessary and not divisive.

“Most Isaan people, whose culture started as Lao and is now a mix of Thai and Lao, would still not like to be called ‘Lao’ by outsiders, though among family and friends they would be more likely to describe their language, festivals, food, and music as ‘Lao.’ The danger comes when people stress differences over similarities in order to create ethnic conflict and disunity, or when people stress similarities over differences to go beyond what is a reasonable level of nationalism.”

Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration at KKU also validated the necessity of the initiative, “The MOU will bring all participating organizations to work together and achieve the goal of revitalizing the cultural identity and values of the Northeast region.”

Few people have learned Tai Noi as it has traditionally only been used by monks in village ceremonies, according to Dr. Udom Basri, a scholar of Tai Noi and Isaan at Maha Chulalongkorn Buddhist University. This has posed a challenge to common people who might use the script.

“Only monks can learn it, or people who go to temples to learn from the monks. But, now new monks don’t know how to learn Tai Noi. Now, palm leaf manuscripts have been put away like treasures and cannot be touched. This project is important both for new monks who want to read manuscripts and for villagers who want to read the manuscripts.”

Now that instruction in the mother language of most people in the Northeast has gained support both from KKU and the municipality, greater cultural development within Isaan is a possibility.

“We need to look at the Northeast as rich in culture rather than looking at it as a region of poverty,” says the mayor of Khon Kaen, Teerasak Teekhayuphan, “In Thailand, we note that the Southerners speak in their own language fluently and gracefully in social contexts. This is the same in the North. However, our children are shy about doing this. We need to create a future where they are also proud of their identity, and we look forward to working with Khon Kaen University to do this.”

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