Languages and religion in Thailand

Thailand’s official language is standard Thai, formerly known as Siamese, which is spoken by about 40 percent of the population. Thai is the predominant member of the Tai family of languages, which includes about 60 languages spoken throughout Southeast Asia. The Tai languages are difficult to place linguistically but usually are linked to either the Sino-Tibetan or Austronesian language families. Standard Thai is written in the Thai alphabet, derived from the Indian Devanagari script, and is characterized by the use of five tones. A strong Thai literary tradition goes back to the 13th century.

Another 50 percent of Thailand’s population speak Tai languages other than Thai, such as Lao, spoken in the northeast. Most educated Thai speak English, and Chinese is also widely used. English, Chinese, and Japanese are often the languages of commerce. The Mon-Khmer family of languages is represented both among the hill peoples of the north and in lowland groups of Mon and Khmer peoples. Some Malay is spoken in the south.

Theravada Buddhism is the prevailing religion in Thailand, with about 95 percent of the Thai majority being Theravada Buddhist. Theravada is a school of Buddhist belief that spread to Thailand beginning in the 13th century, primarily via Sri Lanka.

Thailand’s most characteristic architectural feature is the wat, the Thai Buddhist temple, of which there are an estimated 18,000. Nearly all Thai men enter a Buddhist monastery for at least a few days or months.

Despite the predominance of Buddhism, Thai religion is highly syncretic, meaning that it combines different systems of religious practice and belief. Many Buddhist ceremonies include elements of animism (worship of objects and phenomena of nature), Hinduism, and even Christianity. Small Muslim groups, comprising about 7 percent of the population, are found throughout the country, especially in the southern peninsula.

Statue of Buddha in Thailand
Statue of Buddha in Thailand. Encarta
Some hill peoples, including members of the Karen, are Roman Catholic, while missionaries from Europe and North America have converted others to Protestantism. Very few ethnic Thai have converted to Western religions. Encarta
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