Lao, also known as Laotian, is a member of the Tai-Kadai language family. It is spoken by 3 million people in Laos and in the northeastern part of Thailand. Lao is also spoken in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Thailand, and USA. The total Lao-speaking population of all countries is estimated at 3.2 million (Ethnologue).
The origins of Tai-speaking people can be traced back some 2,000 years ago to southern China and bordering areas of northern Vietnam. It is believed that people from these areas moved into the central Mekong valley some time in the 12th century AD.
Click here on the Modern Language Association Interactive Language Map to find out where Lao is spoken in the United States.
Lao is the official language of Laos, where it is spoken by 3 of the country’s 5.6 million people. It serves as a lingua franca in this highly multilingual country with a population that speaks 86 languages that belong to Mon-Khmer, Hmong-Mien, and Sino-Tibetan language families besides other Tai-Kadai languages. A vestige of colonial times, French occupies a special place in this multilingual country. In fact, French is doing better in Laos than in other Francophone countries of Asia. It is a required language in many schools, and about a third of students in Laos are educated in French. French is used among professionals and the educated elite. However, English is becoming more popular among younger people largely due to its role as the language of international business, technology, and the Internet.
Scholars do not agree on the number of Lao dialects. Ethnologue lists five (Vientiane, Luang Phrabang, Sawanakhet, Pakse, Lao-Kao, Lao-Khrang) while other scholars list three.The standard language is based on the Vientiane dialect, spoken in the capital of Laos, which is widely understood throughout the country. Written Lao is also based on the Vientiane dialect.
Lao has ten vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. Most vowels can be short or long. Vowel length distinguishes between otherwise identical words. There are also three diphthongs.
- /ɛ/ = e in bet
- /ɯ/ has no equivalent in English
- /ɤ/ has = no equivalent in English
- /ɔ/ = o in bog
Lao has 23 consonant phonemes, i.e., sounds that make a difference in word meaning. All consonants can be used at the beginning of syllables but only some can be used in syllable-final position. Dialects vary as to the number of consonant clusters they allow. Lao consonant phonemes are listed below.
- Lao has a three-way contrast between voiceless unaspirated – voiceless aspirated – voiced stops, e.g., /p/ – /pʰ/ – /b/.
- /ɲ/ = first n in cayon
- /ŋ/ = ng in song.
Lao is a tonal language. The tone of a syllable is determined by a combination of the type of consonant, the type of syllable (open or closed), and the type of vowel. Vientiane Lao has six tones: Low, Mid, High, Rising, High Rising and Low Falling. Other dialects have 5 -7 tones. As a rule, dialects with fewer consonant clusters have more tones.
Like its closest relative Thai, Lao is an analytic language which means that it does not use inflections to represent grammatical relations, such as case, gender, number or tense. The syntactic function of words is marked by word order and by various particles that follow nouns and verbs, rather than by inflections, as is the case in Indo-European languages. Particles function as subject markers, equivalents of prepositions, and classifiers, among other uses.
- Nouns are not marked for number, gender, or case.
- Lao uses a system of classifiers that follow the numeral and precede the noun, e.g., tua ‘body’ for animals. For example, saang saam tua ‘elephant three-body’, meaning ‘three elephants’. There are separate classifiers for different classes of people, objects of different shapes and functions, clothes, foods, animals, etc.
- Possession is expressed by juxtaposition of the object possessed next to possessor, or by a particle.
Lao has a complex system of pronouns. The choice of pronouns in any given situation is determined by the sex, age, social position and the attitude of the speaker towards the addressee. Different pronouns are used in different situations.
- First person
Lao pronouns for ‘I’ are different for male and female speakers. However, it is common to drop these formal pronouns in face-to-face conversations or to use kinship terms, such as aunt, uncle, younger/older sibling, or first names instead.
- Second person
Different second-person pronouns are used depending on the situation and who is speaking to whom:
|– in a polite conversation with strangers and acquaintances;
– when showing deference in a conversation with a superion;
– in an informal conversation with friends and family members;
– in a conversation between intimate friends of the same sex;
– when speaking to a child;
|– when speaking to an adult;
– when speaking to an older sibling;
- Third person
There are fewer choices in third-person pronouns whose choice is determined by the following:
|– when speaking about inferiors, non-humans, or for expressing anger;
– when talking about someone politely;
– when showing deference when talking about superiors;
– when talking about royalty
Verbs are not inflected for person, number, tense, aspect, or mood. These functions are determined by context or by adverbs and expressions of time.
Lao has three broad classes of particles that occur at the end of sentences.
- Politeness particles express deference towards the addressee. Polite language in Lao requires that a politeness marker be at the end of every phrase. The markers differ according to the gender of the speaker.
- Mood particles express the attitude of the speaker towards the situation at hand, such as urging, persuading, encouraging, etc.
- Different question particles are used in yes-no questions depending on whether the speaker has expectations as to what the answer may be.
In Standard Lao, Subject-Verb-Object word order is considered to be the norm. Modifiers follow the nouns they modify.
Historically, Lao has borrowed words from Sanskrit and Pali, particularly iwith respect to religious terms. The vocabulary of Lao spoken in Laos has been has been influenced by French, while that of Lao spoken in Northeastern Thailand has been influenced by Thai and English. Chinese has also been an important source of early loans, contributing numerals and a few hundred basic terms. English has now become an important source of loans, especially in the areas of popular culture, mass media, and business.
The most productive word formation processes in modern Lao are compounding and reduplication. Below are some examples:
cap-cay ‘to impress’ from cap ‘catch’ + cay ‘heart’
khon ‘man,’ khon-khon ‘people’
Below are Lao numerals 0-10 in Lao script and in romanization.
- As in the case of most Indic-derived scripts, the alphabet of Modern Lao is syllabic which means that Lao consonants all have an inherent vowel. The inherent vowel can be replaced by other vowels through the use of vowel diacritics that can appear next to, above, or below a consonant. At the beginning of syllables, vowels represent a glottal stop.
- Tone marks always appear above the consonant.
- Words in Lao are not separated by spaces. These are used to separate clauses and sentences.
There is no official Latin transliteration system for Lao. In Laos, French-based systems are used with considerable variation in spelling. In Thailand, the Royal Thai General Transcription system is used.
Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Lao script and in romanization.
|ມະນຸດ ທຸກ ຄົນ ເກີດ ມາມີກຽດ ສັກ ສີ, ສິດທິ, ເສຣີ ພາບ ແລະ ຄວາມ ສເມີ ພາບ ເທົ່າ ທຽມ ກັນ. ທຸກໆ ຄົນ ມີເຫດ ຜົນ ແລະ ຄວາມຄິດ ຄວາມ ເຫັນ ສ່ວນ ຕົວ ຂອງ ໃຜ ຂອງ ມັນ, ແຕ່ວ່າ ມະນຸດ ທຸກໆ ຄົນ ຄວນ ປະພຶດ ຕໍ່ ກັນ ຄື ກັນ ກັບ ເປັນອ້າຍ ນ້ອງ ກັນ.
Manut tʰuk kʰôn kœ̄t māmīkẏat sâk sī, sittʰi, sēlī pʰāp læ kʰwām smœ̄ pʰāp tʰàw tʰẏam kân. tʰuk tʰuk kʰôn mīhēt pʰôn læ kʰwāmkʰit kʰwām hian swàn tôw kʰɔ̄ṅ pʰai kʰɔ̄ṅ mân, tǣ̀vā̀ manut tʰuk tʰuk kʰôn kʰwan papʰʉt tàṃ kân kʰʉ̄ kân kâp pianā́y nɔ̄́ṅ kân.
|All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Lao is considered to be a Category III language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.