Phu Thai

A Tai Language of the Mid-Mekong

Appendix II

Bangkok, December 2014. In Print.



English version as PDF
Thai version as PDF

Appendix II:

The ambiguous use of the term Phu Tai:

a specific ethnic group or a Tai-person in general.


Thanyalak Chaiyasuk & Asger Mollerup

March 2014


       There is probably no other Tai group, about which there is so much confusion about it's ethnonym and history as the ethnic Phutai of the mid-Mekong[1] - often being mistaken with distantly related Tai groups of northern Vietnam and southern China.

       The term Phutai is often attached to other ethnic groups than the Phutai of the Mid-Mekong. In the SW-Tai[2] branch of the Tai-Kadai language stock the Tai Dam, Tai Khao and the Tai Daeng of NW-Vietnam have been referred to as Phutai Dam, Phutai Khao, and Phutai Daeng. In the Central-Tai branch the various Budai[3] groups of Yunnan and Guangxi, China, have been subject to insinuation of being identical to or closely related to the Phutai of the Mid-Mekong. This inconsistent use of the ethnonym Phutai has caused confusion among scholars[4], the general public and the Phutais themselves, and this article focuses on the ambiguous[5] meaning of the term phu-tai.
       The first meaning of phu-tai[6] refers to a specific ethnic group and is apparently used among different Tai groups in two different regions: 1. The Phutai of the Mid-Mekong (NE-Thailand and Mid-Laos), 2. The various Budai (bu Dai, pu Tai) of the Sino-Vietnamese borderlands. The ethnonym shares in both regions an identical meaning, “phu/bu/pu”: “tribe, people, person, ethnic group”, thus Phutai/Budai simply means “Tai person / Tai group”; but the language, beliefs, religion etc. of the Phutai and Budai is very different.         The Budai in Wenshan district, southern Yunnan, were first described by the American missionary Dodd in 1923[7]. In the 1990s two prominent Thai linguists, Pranee Kullavanijaya and Theraphan L-Thongkum, performed a 3-year field-research project in Laos, Vietnam and China and with Dodd in mind they compared the Phutai of the Mid-Mekong with the Budai of Yunnan and concluded, that they are two different ethnic groups[8]. Also Erik Johnson has conducted linguistic research in Wenshan[9] and suggests that the Phutai and the Budai have a time-split in the order of app. 1.200 years[10]. Another Tai group who also refer to themselves as “Tai group” is the Po Tai[11] in Jinlong, Longzhou, Chongzou, Guangxi, who are related to the Tay of the Central-Tai branch of the Tai-Kadai in nearby N-Vietnam.
         The second meaning of phu-tai is a grammatical feature of most Tai languages. The prefix phu means “person, tribe, people, ethnic group”, thus Phutai Dam means “Taidam person” or “Taidam group” and should correctly be written phu Taidam - only the ethnonym with capital letter. Another word with similar meaning is khon, which can be used as a substitute, when referring to for example khon Taidam: Tai Dam people”.
       If a Tai from Sipsong Chu Tai in NW-Vietnam is asked: “Are you a phu Tai? then the answer will most likely be: “yes, I am a phu Tai” - meaning “yes, I am a Tai person” or short “yes, I am Tai” (not Vietnamese), phu being understood as “person, human, group” etc.
       During a Phutai field research in Xepon district, Laos P.D.R, we met a woman in the market, who spoke a dialect, which we did not recognize, and when we asked her: “Are you Phutai”, she answered: “Yes”. When we furthermore asked: “Are you a Phutai from Xepon?”, she answered: “no, I am a Tai Daeng, who moved from Houa Phan province to marry a Phutai from here”, and she explained, that her native Tai Daeng language was quite different from Phutai and that the Tai Daeng were not Buddhist; but animist (spirit worshipping). In her daily life in Mid-Laos she never spoke her native language, because the local Phutai did not understand Tai Daeng.
       We have experienced a similar ambiguous use of “phu-Tai”, when visiting ethnic Tai Dam in Xieang Khouang in northern Laos, and know that other researchers have been confused as well, when interviewing Tai Don (Khao), Tai Dam and Lao Noi
[12] of NW-Vietnam.


Above: Distribution of languages in NE-Thailand and mid-Laos.
The red dots depict the main habitats of the Phutai.
The Phutai of Laos P.D.R. mostly live in the eastern parts of the  provinces of Savannakhet and Khammouane. Mueang Vang (MV), Mueang Phin (MP), and Mueang Xepon (MX) are ancient Phutai settlements, from where the Phutai and other ethnic groups were relocated to west of the Mekong app. 180 years ago.
The Phutai of NE-Thailand (Isan) live in the vicinity of the Phu Phan mountain chain with the Phutai Khao Wong residing as depicted by the green arrow south of the mountains.

Right: Map of SE-Asia.
1: The Phu Phan mountains in NE-Thailand.
2: ''Mueang Vang'' the legendary origin of the Phutai of NE-Thailand.
3: Mueang Phuan or Xieang Khouang, N-Laos: The former Phuan polity.
4: Houa Phan - Sam Nuea, N-Laos, also known as Houa Phan Tang Ha Tang Hok.
5: ''Mueang Thaen'', now Dien Bien Phu, N-Vietnam.
6: The proto Tai-Kadai area of Guangxi and Guizhou
provinces, southern China.
7: Wenshan, Yunnan.
Arrows: Tentative indications of approximate migration routes

Maps: Chaiyasuk and Mollerup

       This ambiguous and confusing use of Phutai (as a specific ethnic group) and “phu-Tai” (as a Tai person in general) has led many writers to misunderstand that the Phutai of the Mid-Mekong belong to the same ethnic group as - or are genetically closely related - to the Tai groups of northern Vietnam and southern China. Some writers even postulate a Phutai migration from NE-Vietnam to mid-Laos only a few centuries ago. We disagree for several reasons: 1) The Tai Dam, Tai Khao and Tai Daeng have all had their own indigenous scripts for more than half a millennium; whereas the Phutai have no script of its own. 2) None of the Tai languages of NE-Vietnam are mutually intelligible with Phutai, and 3) other ethnic markers as religion, beliefs, customs, architecture, and dressing, are different as well.
       Even Phutai forms a linguistic continuum of Tai Dam, Tai Khao, Tai Daeng and other Mountain-Tai languages, then Phutai is not mutually intelligible with any of these languages; the vocabulary and tonal systems being too different.
Phutai language is closely related to and mutually intelligible with Phuan and Nyo
[14]. When a Phuan speaker asks pai ka-loe - meaning “where are you going? - a Phutai will ask pai si-loe[15]. The letter sara-ai-mai-muan () is in Phutai and Phuan pronounced as oe; in contrast to Thai and Lao, where the pronunciation is ai. Also: where the Phuan have diphthongs, the Phutai have lost them: Phuan nuea - for “meat - is in Phutai noe. Finally: Where Lao and Thai speakers will say khaen for 'arm'; Phutai and Phuan say haen. (khh).
       We have experience with Tai Nyo from our home-area in the Phu Phan mountains of NE-Thailand, Thanyalak being a native Phutai. When doing field research on Phuan language in N-Laos the conversation was in Phutai and Phuan, but when visiting neighboring Tai Daeng and Tai Dam villages, the conversation was held in Lao.

Thanyalak Chaiyasuk interviewing an elder local Phutai speaker of Ban Lahanam, Savannakhet, Laos P.D.R.   Asger Mollerup recording sample-words for determination of the tonal-system of the former “Mueang Vang”, Vilabouli, Laos P.D.R.

James R. Chamberlain, splits the Tai languages of the Southwestern Tai group into two groups based on the pronunciation of initial consonants: 1) Un-aspirated consonants (the P-group: /k t p/) and 2) aspirated consonants (the PH-group /kh th ph/). Phutai, Phuan, Nyo, Lao and Thai of the Mekong watershed all belong to the PH-group, whereas the Tai Dam, Tai Khao, and Tai Daeng belong to the P-group.[13]
       Another linguist, Oraphan Bowonraksa (1998) has compared the Phutai language of Kalasin, Thailand, with the Lao Song (Tai Dam), who were relocated by Siamese forces from the Tai Dam area of Dien Bien Phu to Phetchaburi and other provinces of modern central Thailand in 1779, and informs that Phutai and Lao Song are two different languages.

       Phutai language is only spoken in the hinterlands of the Mekong River in NE-Thailand (Isan) and adjacent Mid-Laos, from where the Phutai were relocated by Siamese troops app. 180 years ago. The language belongs like the neighboring Lao, Nyo, Saek, Thai, Phuan etc. to the Tai-Kadai language stock, which comprises of nearly 100 languages and counts nearly 100 million speakers[16]. The cradle of the Tai-Kadai languages is generally believed to have been in southern China app. 3000 years ago. The Huashan rock-paintings[17] in Guangxi province, southern China, were most likely executed by the ancestors of the Tai app. 2.200-2.400 years ago, who formed some of the Bai-yue (百越) (“Hundred Yue”) or Bai-phu (百濮) groups (“Hundred Tribes”). The app. 2000 years old Dong Son drums can most likely be credited to these proto Tai groups. In present times the Tai-Kadai languages can be found from southern China to northern Cambodia, southern Thailand and as far west as Assam, eastern India, being the national languages of present day Thailand and Laos P.D.R.
       The Phutai probably migrated from somewhere in Sipsong Chu Tai in NW-Vietnam to the Khamkoet area on the Nakai plateau in Mid-Laos approximately a millennium ago
[18] coinciding with the assumed era of the Khun Borom the legendary progenitor of the Tai-speaking peoples, installed by the heavenly Phya Thaen[19]. Only during the decline of the Khmer Empire the Phutai could have continued their migration and settled south of the Nakai plateau in the area of the legendary Mueang Vang in eastern Savannakhet.

       The existence of Tai groups in Dien Bien Phu, who refer to themselves as “phu-Tai” - Tai people - has not gone unnoticed in the Phutai communities of NE-Thailand, who together with the Lao, Thai, Phuan etc. share the legend of having an origin in Mueang Thaen, NW-Vietnam.
       At the 2nd International Phutai Festival in Khao Wong, Kalasin, Thailand, the local Phutai audience was presented for slogans like: “We are all Phu Tai Dam”. After having listened to songs of the Tai Dam, Tai Khao, Tai Daeng, and Lao Noi, whom the organizers had invited from Dien Bien Phu, one local girl asked the authors: “How can the Phu Tai Dam from Vietnam be Phutai like me, when I do not understand their songs; but I do understand the songs of the Phutai from Laos?” Being reminded about the Emperor's New Clothes, we answered with a smile: “They are not Phutai like us; they are our Tai cousins from Vietnam, with whom we have common ancestors. Our common roots date back in time more than a millennium. We only find Phutai speaking our language and sharing our culture here in Isan and in Laos”
       But behind the smile we hid a rising concern about how the new Phutai generations will conceive their ethnic identity. Where are the Phutai of the Mekong heading?

Left: An ethnic Lao Noi was presented at the 2nd International Phutai festival as a ''Phutai'' (!). She was intervied by the author and Patricia Chessman - both fluent in Lao. Her language was Lao of a kind, but not Lao Vieng or Luang Prabang. Like her dressing her language could have originated in the Houa Phan area of N-Laos.
Mid: Photo of a Phutai woman from Xepon, 1890.
(Malglaive, 1902, p. 139)
Right: Professional Tai Dam singer from Dien Bien Phu, NW-Vietnam, performing at the 2nd International Phutai Festival in Khao Wong, Kalasin, Thailand, 2013.


“Pointed Headdress” Tu (Bu Dai) women spinning cotton at Maguan County’s Majiachong Village, page 103


“Piled Headdress” Tu (Bu Dai) young women wearing traditional costumes and jewelry in Yanshan County’s Pingyuan Township, page 105

The photos above and right show three variations of Budai /bu dai/ in Wenshan, Yunnan, China.
They dress slightly differently and pronounce their ethnonym slightly differently, but the meaning is identical: Budai means Tai-people.

photo courtesy to: Mingfu and Johnson, 2008.
to whom we are very grateful
for having let their research be accessible on-line as an E-book:



“Flat Headdress” Tu (Ping Tou Tu, Bu Dai) [ʔbułłʔdai˛˛ ] in Kaihua and Panzhihua Townships of Wenshan County, page 102


     The two photos above are borrowed from the Internet as well and show ethnic Potai from Jinlong, Longzhou, Gouangxi, China. The location is app. 10 km from the Vietnamese border. Tay and Nung friends from N-Vietnam have informed that they understand their songs. Also the dressing resample the Tay and Nung and all three groups belong to the Central Tai of the Tai-Kadai language stock.
     The Po Tai language is described by Suwatthana (1998), who only renders their ethnonym in Thai:
ป้อไต”; not in IPA. We transcribe it as Po Tai and assume that the IPA should be /21 tai32/ - meaning Tai people.

     Many different Tai groups refer to themselves as Bu Dai, Pu Tai, Kon Tai, Khon Thai, Phu Tai, Pu Tai, phu Taidam etc. - which should surprise no-one, as the meaning is the same: Tai people - or just Tai.


Left: Rock-paintings at Huashan in Guangxi, China.
Right: Dong Son drum excavated in Savannakhet and exhibited in Savannakhet Museum, Laos. It could have been cast in the Xepon gold-mine area of eastern Savannakhet.


[1] Mainly in the provinces of Mukdahan, Kalasin, Sakon Nakhon and Nakhon Phanom of Thailand and Savannakhet and Khammouane of Laos P.D.R. Several scholars have suggested the existence of Phutai in adjacent Nghe An province of mid-Vietnam, but this has not been confirmed by field studies.

[2] Li Fang Kuei, 1977, splits the Tai-Kadai language stock into the three groups: The South-western Tai Group, the Central Tai Group, and the Northern Tai Group). See also Johnson, 2010, pgs. 7-9

[3] Pranee and Theraphan, 1998, page 280 and 291: “Pu Dai”, “Pu Tai (Budai)”. Mingfu & Johnson, 2008, page 14: “Bu Dai (Pu Dai)”. Eric Johnson, private communication: “phu22 tai33”. Johnson, 2010, page 16: “ ... the Taic word pu/phu/bu still used to this day by most Zhuang groups, meaning “tribe, people, person, ethnic group.” and on page 19 Johnson informs, that one of the major ethnic subgroups in Wenshan Prefecture, Yunnan, is the: “pu Dai”, in IPA: “phu55 daai31, phu22 taai31”  and that other “exonyms and autononyms used in some areas: Tulao (土僚、土老), Tuzu (土族), Pulao (濮僚; ancient ethnonym)”. In his work Johnson hereafter uses Dai Zhuang for the pu Dai language and ethnicity. Note that only Dai is written with capital letter, pu being a classifier for “group/people”.

[4] Even a respected institution as Ethnologue (SIL-International) erroneously informs about 209.000 Phu Thai speakers residing in N-Vietnam confusing the Phutai with the Tai Dam, Tai Khao and Tai Daeng.

[5] Chamberlain, 1983: “the term Phu Tai is to some extend an ambiguous one, since freely translated it means simply “Tai Person” and a great many Tai speakers refer to themselves in this way, including the Black Tai, White Tai, Red Tai, etc. However there is a large population of Tai Speakers known only as Phu Tai. They are to be found today in Savannakhet, Khammouane, Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, and Kalasin.”

[6] Phutai is in Thailand written in various ways with various meanings. The majority of the Phutai in Thailand use ภูไท, meaning “mountain-Tai”. This form was introduced by a famous non-Phutai monk, Uan Titso (อ้วน ติสโส) in 1926: ภูไทย. The official writing in Thailand is ผู้ไทย (written with a final “”) and used in the Royal Thai Dictionary, where ไทย is explained as meaning “free”. This form dates back to Prachum Phongsawadan 4 (“the 4th Meeting about Chronicles”) from 1915. The Phutai in Laos P.D.R. exclusively use ຜູ້ໄທ (ผู้ไท) meaning “human/group-Tai”. This form is also used in most modern publications - including this article - in order not to confuse the ethnonym with the national name of Thailand: Prathet Thai (ประเทศไทย). For the same reason many scholars do not use transcriptions as Phuthai or Phu Thai, even linguistically being the correct form. The ambiguity dates back to the end of the 19th century (the Pavie Mission) and to the mid of the 19th century (the Mekong Mission), when the French explorers indiscriminately used forms as Pou Thai for all Tai groups met with in the Lao-Vietnam border mountains from Cambodia to China, and had ''a lot of esteem for the straightness of the mountain Lao''. (Malglaive, 2000, p. 65)
For Phutai language, see Chaiyasuk and Mollerup, 2013 (in Thai).

[7] Dodd, 1923, p. 155: “Pu Tai”

[8] Pranee and Theraphan, 1998, page 291: “The conclusion that Pu Tai (Budai) and Pu Tai (Phu Thai) are of different ethnic groups ...

[9] Johnson, 2010 and Mingfu and Johnson, 2008.

[10] Johnson, personal communication

[11] Suwatthana, 1998, page 98.

[12] The ethnic Lao Noi forms one of several ethnic Lao groups in NW-Vietnam (see Howard, 2002). The authors interviewed a Lao Noi, who was presented as a “Phutai” (sic.) at the 2nd International Phutai Festival in Khao Wong, Kalasin, Thailand in 2013. Her dressing and language indicated that the Lao Noi migrated from Houa Phan in N-Laos to the Dien Bien Phu area of NW-Vietnam, a distance of app. 100 km. Vietnamese sources have proposed the migration to have taken place app. 300 years ago, but could as well have been caused by the Ho terror app. 150 years ago.

[13] Chamberlain, 1975, page 50

[14] Chamberlain, 1975, page 63, includes Phutai, Phuan, Nyo, Tai Xam Nuea in an Old Nuea subgroup.

[15] English: Where are you going? Phutai: /pai1 si6-lFF2/? ไปสิเลอ (ไปสิใล)? Phuan: /pai2 ka3-lFF3/? ไปกะเลอ? (ไปกะใล) Thai: ไปไหน? /pai2 nai1/? Lao: ไปใส /pai1 sai1/?

[16] Chaiyasuk and Mollerup, 2013.

[17] Qian, 2013. page 26. On our map located at 6”.

[18] ... “we might conclude that the Tai began migrating westwards and south-westwards” ... “in the eight century, and that during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries they found their way approximately to their present homes in Southeast Asia” Chamberlain, 1975, p. 58.

[19] Phongsawadan 1, the Lan Xang Chonicle, p. 293, is an often quoted source in Thailand for this creation myth, which is shared by many different SW-Tai groups. It was compiled in 1916, based on interviews conducted by military officers in N-Vietnam in the 1880s. Souneth Phothisane, 1996, has in his work compared some 30 versions of the Borom myth (Bulom in Lao) and attributes the oldest version at 1422, originating in Xieang Khuang. Michel Lorrillard, 1999, dates the oldest to the end of the same century, originating in Luang Prabang. In both cases in N-Laos south of Dien Bien Phu, formerly Mueang Thaen, where Khun Borom is believed to have ruled the first humans in Na Noi Oi Nu., a place of unknown location. We have no mention of Na Noi Oi Nu from chronicles written in Tai Dam or Tai Khao script.


ธัญญลักษณ์ ไชยสุข มอลเลอร์รพ และ Asger Mollerup, 2556, ภาษาผู้ไท เพื่อสุขภาพ กรุงเทพฯ

Thanyalak Chaiyasuk and Asger Mollerup, 2013, Phasa Phu Thai Phuea Sukkhaphap, Bangkok.

ประชุมพงษาวดาร ภาคที่ 1, 2457 กรุงเทพ ฯ Prachum Phongsawadan Phak Thi 1, 1914, Bangkok

ประชุมพงษาวดาร ภาคที่ 9, 2461, กรุงเทพ ฯ Prachum Phongsawadan Phak Thi 9, 1918, Bangkok

พระโพธิวงศาจารย์ (อ้วน ติสโส) 2469 ลัทธิธรรมเนียมต่าง ๆ ภาคที่ 18 ตอนที่ 1 ว่าด้วยชนชาติภูไทยแลชาติญ่อ พระนคร
Praphothiwongsachan (Uan Titso), 1926, Latthithamnueang Tang Tang Phak Thi 18 Wa Duai Chot Chat Phu Thai Lae Chat Yo, Bangkok.

พิเชฐ สายพันธ์, 2544. ผู้ไท: ข้อถกเถียงทางประวัติศาสตร์ชาติพันธุ์ จุลสารไทยคดีศึกษา 18,2 (พ.ย.44-ม.ค.45) หน้า 44-52 มหาวิทยาลัยธรรมศาสตร์ กรุงเทพฯ
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——. 2554. เมืองแถง-เดียนเบียนฟู: การเมืองชาติพันธุ์และการเปลี่ยนผ่าน สู่รัฐสังคมนิยมของกลุ่มไทในเวียดนาม, วารสารสังคมวิทยามานุษยวิทยา 30 (1) มกราคม-มิถุนายน,

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สุรจิตต์ จันทรสาขา, 2543, เมืองมุกดาหาร กรุงเทพ ฯ
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21 March 2014 © Asger Mollerup and ธัญญลักษณ์ ไชยสุข มอลเลอร์รพ