Is it Lao’d in here or is it just meSorry bad pun I know 🙁
The Laotian language is interesting and varied. It is also bloody difficult to get your head around!
If you are speaker of a Latin based language (which I will just call English from here on out for ease of use), you are going to find some major issues when speaking this language, and actually most Asian languages come to think about it.
You see, the two main issues surrounding it for me at least, is that:
- It is a tonal language, meaning that you can have two similar sounding words but with completely different meanings.
- The alphabet is based on different symbols to the English one. There are 27 consonants and 28 vowels. Oh and also 4 tone marks! However only 2 of these are commonly used thank goodness!
- Different parts of Laos use their own, sometimes very unique, dialects of Lao. So even if you learn it, someone in another part may not understand you. However, the Vientiane dialect is most commonly used nationwide so that is really the best starting point.
- When you romanticize the language, which is to say translate it into English looking letters, it is very difficult to capture some of the sounds and so you can write it in one way and give your translation to another English speaker who may pronounce what you have written, differently.
So I will first discuss its history, then move onto the structure of the language.
I will also make sure to describe the difficulties inherent in the Lao language for English speakers, but will also highlight some of the more beautiful and clearer aspects to it.
I will then finish off with some examples, romanticized in the best way I can!
Lao or Laotian is the official language of Laos.
It is the main language that is spoken in Laos and also the only one that is taught in schools.
There are a number of minority languages, the main ones being Hmong & Khmu, but these are only spoken in there own villages and families. In the major cities, Lao is the big boy.
Lao is also understood in the Northeastern part of Thailand called Issan Province, which used to be part of Laos before Thailand (then called Siam) invaded and annexed it. You can find out more about the history of Laos here.
You can almost imagine Lao as being similar to how English is used in the world; not the most spoken main language, but the most widely spoken second language.
Except it is also the most widely spoken first language as well with well over 60% using it as such.
Lao is an off shoot of theTai-Kadai language family.
Its written form was derived from Tham script which itself came from the Pali language that began in India.
Throughout my posts, you will probably start to see a pattern emerging of many cultural things in Laos having roots in India. This is no coincidence and I will expend on this in later posts.
The script was brought to the region by Theravada Buddhists over two thousand years ago, just as Buddhism was expanding into this region.
To give you an idea of the difference, check out the translation below: (For any Lao language speakers out there, I used Google translate so it may not be completely accurate. I only want to show the difference between the scripts)
Lao has been altered and changed throughout the years and has evolved into the language you can see and hear today.
The actual spoken language has changed only slightly, with the script being altered the most.
Lao is a tonal language with six tones in the Vientiane dialect (which is the most widely spoken and understood version): low, mid, high, rising, high falling, and low falling.
Take for an example, the number four or in Lao sii. This one word has 3 different meanings depending on how you use the tone.
It can either mean:
- The number four
- The word for color or
- A rude word for creating children!
One similarity it shares with English is that it is phonetic and not symbol based like Chinese.
Words are spelled according to phonetic principles as opposed to etymological principles. In addition to consonants having tone classes, tone marks facilitate marking tones where they are needed.
The letters and vowels can be arranged to create many different sounds which gives it some flexibility and also makes it (relatively) easier to learn the alphabet.
But with over 40 different characters to learn, including the placements of the vowels, it can be hard which is what I am finding out!
The issue I am having right now is remembering the vowels. One big issue for me is that if certain consonants are in a specific position relative to a certain vowel, it will change the entire sound of the letter!
Lao has influenced Khmer language and Thai language and vice versa.
The majority of Lao understand spoken Thai and Lao literate people can read Thai, because Lao and Thai languages have close similarities.
However, they not able to comprehend Khmer as the language is quite different from Lao.
Actually, most Lao people now, even in remote villages such as my wife’s, can understand Thai.
This is really because of the proliferation of television. There are many different channels to choose from, but only one or two Lao channels.
The rest are foreign, and probably 95% of those foreign channels are from Thailand.
In the village where my wife is from called Ban San in Xieng Khoung province, most of the younger generation are able to speak and read Thai, even though it is only about 50 km from the Vietnamese border.
Interestingly, most of the older generation do not understand Thai, but do have some intermediate to advance skill with the Vietnamese language.
This can really be attributed to its proximity to its much larger neighbor, as well as the influence Vietnam had on Laos since the 1950’s onward.
However, it is really Thailand that has taken over and is slowly changing Laos from Vietnamese influenced, to Thai influenced.
For example, a popular trend among the urban young of Laos is to copy the Thai fashion of using O instead of OK. They use it thusly:
Trendy young person number 1 – “Is your sushi O?”
Trendy young person number 2 – “Yes it is O, how about yours?”
Lao language speakers
The Lao language is spoken by approximately 15 million people in Laos and Thailand. There are actually more Lao language speakers in Thailand than in Laos! This is a result of the Issan province on Thailand formerly being part of Laos and many people there being ethnically Lao.
However it really is only this province that is able to understand the Lao language and is only really still able to because of the huge amounts of Lao people who travel to Thailand for medical care and shopping. However I foresee the Issan people losing their ability to converse in the Lao language because most Lao people now find it fashionable to converse in Thai, and becuase they are all fluent in Thai ti really is not too difficult for them to do so.
Other Thai speakers outside of Issan province find it more difficult to understand Lao due to lack of exposure to the language.
Some of the main points surrounding its structure include:
- Syllabic alphabet writing system
- Direction of writing: left to right in horizontal lines[footnote]in fact it is only a surprisingly few languages that alter the direction of their writing and would include, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean just to name a few[/footnote]
- Syllables are based around consonants. Vowels are indicated with diacritics which can appear above, below or around the consonant letters. When they occur on their own or at the beginning of a word, vowels are attached to the glottal stop symbol (the final letter in the third row of consonants).
- Lao is a tonal language with 6 tones. The tone of a syllable is determined by a combination of the class of consonant, the type of syllable (open or closed), the tone marker and the length of the vowel. However only 4 of these tones are widely used.
- For some consonants there are multiple letters. Originally they represented separate sounds, but over the years the distinction between those sounds was lost and the letters were used instead to indicate tones. Various official reforms of the Lao script have reduced the number of duplicate consonants.
- There are no spaces between words, instead spaces in a Lao text indicate the end of a clause or sentence.
Written Lao is based on the dialect of the Lao capital, Vientiane. To indicate the end of a word, word stops are used in conjunction with specific vowels. These tell a reader when the word has stopped.
- There is no official Latin transliteration system for Lao. In Laos, French-based systems are used and there is considerable variation in spelling, particularly of vowels. In Thailand, the Royal Thai General Transcription is used. This can cause some confusion for English speakers as with the example of Laos old name, Land of a Million Elephants. The French transliteration is Lane Xang which English speakers would pronounce lain. A better English transliteration would be Lan Xang.
Difficulties of Lao language
Apart from some the issues already explained, there are numerous others that can really hinder the learning process:
- French based transliteration
- Different alphabet
- over 40 symbols to memorize and another amount of stop words and vowel positions and variations
- Tone based with 4 mostly used
- Different dialects in different provinces (although Vientiane is the most widely recognized). E.g. Where are you going? in Vientiane: Bpai sai? in Xieng Khoung: Bpai golor?
- Some very unique sounds that English speakers can find difficult such as “ng” pronounced like the end of “song”, or “uu” said almost as though you are puckering your lips slightly!
Things that I love about the Lao language
There really is a lot to love about this language.
However many pitfalls there are to learning it, there are an equal amount of lovely things that must be mentioned.
To begin with, the script is beautiful. So curvy and voluptuous, it loops and spirals and flows like a vine ascending a tree.
It is nicely squared, by with I mean all the letters can fit into a square shape of some kind, making it nice and symmetrical.
For example, the word for fire is: fai. The world for flower is: dok. The word for light, as in a room light is: dok fai. Literally flower light or light flower!
It’s beautiful, right!?
The word for electricity is also fai and electric cable is: fai faa.
I could go on, but I just want you to see how it is put together and how they have no need to reinvent words, they just reuse them, kind of like recycling words.
Much like the other things they put to good use here, old words become and new words become old and so the circle of lexicographic life goes on.
OK so now I will give you some useful phrases that may help you to ask some basic questions to make your time here a little bit easier.
Like everywhere in the world, if you have taken the time and effort to learn some of the words, people will respect that little bit more.
No one expects you to converse completely in the Lao language, but a little certainly goes a long way!
1 – Neung
2 – Song
3 – Sam
4 – Sii (remember, be careful with this one!)
5 – Ha
6 – Hok
7 – Jet
8 – Bpead
9 – Gao
10 – Sip
So I hope you enjoyed this basic romp through the Lao language, I certainly enjoyed researching it.
Living here also gives me some extra insights into how the language is actually used in a day to day way.
he one main thing that I get out of that is that Lao people speak really fast, but they still appreciate that a foreigner has taken some effort to learn their language.
As the great Nelson Mandela once said:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
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