Identification. The Central Thai speak the Central Thai (Tai-Shan) dialect, live in central and southern Thailand, and are predominantly of the Buddhist faith. The Thai name for their country is "Müang Thai," meaning "the free country," and their self-name is "Khon Thai," meaning "the free people." The terms "Siam" and "Siamese" were used mainly by Westerners; "Siam" was the official name of the country from about 1825 until 1930.
Location. Thailand is located between 6° and 21° N and 98° and 106° E. The Central Thai primarily occupy the central alluvial plain dominated by the Chao Phraya (Menam) River. This river basin covers approximately one-fifth of the total area of the country. The monsoon winds bring on a rainy season that lasts from May or June to October or November.
Demography. In 1992 the population of Thailand was estimated as 57,200,000. The population density averages 111.5 persons per square kilometer and the population is growing at the rate of 3 percent per year. Tai-speaking peoples constitute approximately SO percent of the population of Thailand. Approximately 13 million of the nation's population speak the Central Tai dialect. Speakers of other dialects of Tai are the Tai-Yuan of the north, the Tai-Lao of the northeast, and the Pak-Tai of the south. Malay-speaking Muslims constitute approximately 4 percent of the population of Thailand, and Chinese, who live primarily in the cities, constitute roughly 14 percent. Bangkok, the capital city, had an estimated population of 5,832,843 in 1989.
Linguistic Affiliation. Scholars have not reached a consensus on the affiliation of the Tai language. Tai has traditionally been considered a branch of the Sinitic Family (which includes various Chinese languages and Tibetan), but there seems to be substantial evidence that there are relationships between Tai, Kadai, and Indonesian subgroups and that these three languages should be classified together as a branch of the Proto-Austric Family (which includes the languages of the Philippines, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, and Indonesia). Tai is also related to Laotian and Shan. It is monosyllabic and tonal. The Thai script has forty-four consonants, thirty vowels, and nine tonal signs.