In January of 2002, while living in Sichuan, China, I packed my bags and headed south to while away part of the winter. A a change of scenery from monotonous, grey Chengdu was needed. Traveling southbound through Yunnan Province, I noticed a different atmosphere setting in as I headed for Ruili (瑞丽), a town on the border with Myanmar. All I knew of Ruili arriving was that it had the typical reputation of a border town: rough around the edges, multicultural, seedy, isolated, and buzzing with the comings and goings of tourism and trade. Most importantly, though, I was also aware that in Ruili they spoke a language closely related to Thai.
Dehong Dai or Tai Nüa (德宏傣語／傣哪語) is a Southwestern Tai-Kadai language spoken by some 500,000 people of the Dai nationality (傣族) in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture (德宏傣族景頗族自治州) of southern Yunnan province. Across the border in Myanmar, the language is considered a dialect of Shan and is spoken by roughly another 70,000 people. Elsewhere along China’s southern border, other related Tai languages are spoken by the Dai nationality and are also commonly referred to in Chinese under the umbrella term Dai language (傣語). These Tai languages, however, are distinct and have limited mutual intelligibility. In Myanmar, all varieties of the closely related Shan language combined have about 3 million speakers, and Tai Nüa is in fact also referred to as “Chinese Shan”. For such a sizable group, Tai Nüa and Shan are hardly known to the outside world. In and around Ruili, though, the Dai culture is omnipresent, and the language is thoroughly woven into daily life, alongside Mandarin, Yunnanese, and Burmese.
Stepping off the bus in Ruili, I felt like I had left China. The bus station was humming with activity. Two Bangladeshi children tugged at my shirt asking for money as a pair of pink-clad Buddhist nuns targeted me for the same reason. There were women with large belt-bags and wide-brimmed hats counting enormous wads of Burmese kyats at makeshift currency exchange stands along the street curb. A Pakistani merchant offered to sell me some jewelry. Another one offered opium. The sounds of Mandarin, Yunnanese, Dai, and Burmese mixed with the smells of a more Southeast Asian cuisine wafting over from a row of food vendors. Away from the chaos of the town centre, I realised that Ruili was actually a pretty sleepy place. As I walked around and got my bearings I quickly fell in love with the place.
getting acquainted with the language
Within the first few days I had a routine which involved starting my mornings off in a nice café that served excellent Burmese tea. They played good music and had comfortable tables and chairs, so it was an ideal spot to sit each morning and study some Burmese and Dai before venturing out to see sites. On one of these mornings after my tea fix, I met a man who went by Lao Feng (老冯). He was a friendly and talkative man who drove a tractor for work, collecting scrap or hauling things that needed to be hauled. He offered to take me around and show me a few temples. I gladly accepted his offer and soon I was hanging on the back of a tractor zipping down sunny country roads with palm trees and rice fields on either side.
We arrived at a small temple in a village on the outskirts of Ruili, and several monks came out to greet us. It is customary for many families to send one of their sons to go live and study at a temple, so most of the monks were quite young, ranging in age from about 8 to 18 or so. I was surprised that Lao Feng spoke to them in fluent Dai. The temple was raised on stilts, in the Dai style, with a wrap-around porch and open windows on all sides. Inside, the hall was empty except for a large altar with flowers and golden statues against the back wall. It was a much simpler aesthetic than in the Chinese Buddhist Temples I was accustomed to. The Dai practice a form of Theravada Buddhism mixed with some Dai folk beliefs. The monks showed me how to bai fo (拜佛 – prostrate to the Buddha) and pay respects to the head monk, and then we all sat down to have a chat.
Most of the conversation was in Dai, and again I was taken aback by how fluent Lao Feng seemed in the language. He had told me that he was Han Chinese, but I had never encountered a Han Chinese person who could speak any of China’s many ethnic minority languages. I tuned out, reflecting on how rare it would be in the U.S. to encounter a non-Native American with any knowledge of Native American languages, let alone the ability to converse in one. Suddenly I was being addressed in Chinese – the head monk had extended an invitation to me.
The proposition was that I would stay at the temple with free room and board for as long as I wanted in exchange for a daily English lesson with the head monk, whose name I now knew was Zawotika. I thought it over and told him I had one month before I had to report back to work in Chengdu. He seemed happy with a month, and he had one of the smaller buildings on the temple grounds opened up to house me for the ensuing weeks.
Zawotika and I spent a couple hours every morning having basic English conversation and breaking down some fundamentals of grammar and common speech patterns. We made due with Mandarin when we had trouble communicating, but I was surprised at how much English he had already picked up through his own study and from the occasional international tourist that came by. I admired his drive.
The rest of the day I was free to do whatever I wanted. I usually ended up in the company of the junior monks or on the back of Lao Feng’s tractor, as he would stop by every couple days to take me on some outing to a pagoda or lake or festival. It was an incredible level of hospitality. I learned that Lao Feng had been married to a Dai woman and that he often transported goods to Dai communities across the border in Myanmar. This is how he learned to speak Dai, as well as Burmese to a lesser degree, purely by immersion. He had only a 2nd grade education and thus had very limited literacy in Chinese, but he was clearly an astute language learner.
On the lazy, quiet days when I would stick around the temple, though, I spent a lot of time with a Dai monk from Myanmar named Osatta. I took the opportunity to try to learn some of the Dai language, and we ended up having really productive language exchange sessions. Osatta helped me to create a small phrase book for my own study. I transcribed the words and phrases he gave me and then asked him to write them out in Dai. Coming from Myanmar, he used the Shan script to write, which wasn’t uncommon on the Chinese side of the border either. When I felt like my head was full, we would switch and do the same thing in reverse, Osatta noting down English words and phrases and transcribing them in his own way. As the month went by we used less and less Mandarin and opted to communicate in an inefficient but very enthusiastic mishmash of broken Dai and broken English.
Dehong Dai proved to be a fairly straight forward language with characteristics very typical of other Tai languages. It is an analytic SVO language with no grammatical gender, plural forms, or articles. Measure words are used in counting things, and noun phrases are head-initial. The most difficult thing for English speakers is probably the tones, of which Dehong Dai has six. Tones are lexical and any inaccuracy in tone will greatly impede communication.
Here are a couple examples of Dehong Dai:
Compare the usage of this greeting to the Chinese 你吃飯了嗎？(which translates verbatim) and the Thai กินข้าวหรือยัง, which contains the obvious cognate /kin k̄ĥāw/ – to eat. The Tai Nüa word for you /maə55/ is also a cognate with the Thai มึง /mɯŋ˧/, though the latter is considered vulgar, rude, or archaic, while the former is simply the standard second person singular pronoun.
The above sentence shows that Dehong Dai is head-initial, i.e. the head precedes its complements: “language Dai Dehong” for “Dehong Dai language”.
Dehong Dai is essentially the same language as Standard Shan, though with some lexical and phonological differences. Shan has more loanwords from Burmese and Pali, whereas Dehong Dai has many Chinese loanwords. Shan also has a few added sounds and graphs to accommodate these loanwords, whereas Dehong Dai has a slightly smaller stock of phonemes. Finally, there are some differences in the tone system. For example, Dehong Dai has six lexical tones to Shan’s five. This results in many words that are phonemically identical in the two languages except for their difference in tone.
As for scripts, the situation in Dai is a little bit complicated. There are three scripts that can be used to write Dehong Dai. The first two are the new and old versions of the Tai Nüa script (also known as Tai Le script, /laːi55 tai55 lə35/, or 傣納文). The third is the Shan script (a modified version of the Burmese abugida), also known as /to35 lik54 tai55/, /laːi55 tai55 taə31/ or 傣繃文. All three writing systems are in current use.
The original Tai Nüa script did not indicate tones, but a 1956 spelling reform introduced diacritic tone marks. A further reform in 1988 replaced these diacritics with tone letters added to the end of every syllable (except for the unmarked 1st tone). As a result, older people who are literate in Dehong Dai will tend to still use tone diacritics and a slightly more flowery handwriting style, while younger people will use a more plain style with tone letters. All religious texts still use the old script, while all current materials from Chinese government approved publishers employ the newer Tai Nüa script.
In Myanmar, as Tai Nüa is considered a dialect of Shan, it is written only in the Shan script. This script is also widely used in Ruili, particularly among people who frequently cross the border. Below is a karaoke video of a Dehong Dai song with the lyrics written in both the modern Tai Nüa script and the Shan script.
At the end of the month, I returned to to Chengdu with a strong fondness for Ruili, Dai culture, and Tai Nüa. I was also left with a lot of questions, particularly regarding the language. One of the biggest challenges with encountering China’s minority languages is that it can be difficult to find materials for learning them or even information about them. For those in the target region, who can read Chinese, there are usually books and dictionaries of varying quality that can be found, and of course there are native speakers to talk with. For those seeking to learn from further away, however, it can be more difficult. There might be some videos or print material online, but the scraps of information available are often not enough to properly study the language at hand.
In Ruili I was able to find only three books in or about Dehong Dai: a small Dai-Chinese dictionary, a self-study book for Chinese people to learn Dai, and a book of short stories by a Dai author, mostly in Chinese but with one story written in Dai. Since Ruili, though, resources have been scarce, and even worse, I have yet to meet another speaker of Dehong Dai. There is something satisfying in the challenge of having to piece together a language with few resources, though. After all these years, I’m still interested.
For others interested in this language, I’m compiling my notes from 14 years ago and useful bits of information from these books into a more user-friendly format to share. I will continue to add documents here in the hopes that other people find the information useful. If you are studying Tai Nüa or a related Tai language, please reach out or join the Tai Nüa/Dehong Dai Facebook Group I recently launched. For now, here is a link to an introductory lesson in Dehong Dai: