LAO LANGUAGE: DIALECTS, GRAMMAR, NAMES, WRITING, PROVERBS AND INSULTS

LANGUAGE IN LAOS

Lao (the native language of the lowland Lao) is the official language of Laos. Similar to Thai, it is a tonal language with six tones (meaning that words or syllables with similar sound have a different meaning depending on the high, low, rising, falling or level tone or pitch of the sound). To untrained ears the differences between tones is often very hard to pick up.

Lao is the official national language, but English is commonly used in major tourist centers. Chinese , Vietnamese and Thai are widely understood, especially near the borders of their corresponding country. French, German, Russian and a number of other European languages are also spoken by many educated Lao as many students received higher education in Europe during 1970s-1990s.

The various ethnic groups and hill tribes have their own languages and dialects. Some speak Lao; some don't. Among the major hill tribe languages are Hmong, and Lao Theung. Some hill tribe languages have no written form.

French and English vie for dominance as the most widely spoken European language. In recent years English has won out in the tourism industry. French is widely spoken by people who were educated before 1975. It used to be the official language of commerce and education. Lao is now used for all official communication and is taught in schools. English is understood by many people in Vientiane and the major tourist areas. Many English speakers are either older people who learned the language during the Vietnam War or younger people who are picking it up now. In the countryside few people speak English or French.

You might find it hard to communicate with locals if you don’t speak Lao especially in the countryside where not many people speak English. If things don’t quite work the way you expect, remember to keep cool, don’t loose your temper or raise your voice. It won’t help, it will only make you look bad. Learn some basic Lao phases and practice them with the locals you meet, they will be impressed and you will be well received.

Lao Language

Lao or Laotian is the official language of Laos. It is the primary language of the Lao people, and is also spoken in the northeast of Thailand, where it is referred to as Isan language. A number of different Lao dialects are spoken by different groups in Laos and northeast Thailand. For the most part the dialects are mutually comprehensible and Thais can understand Lao and the Lao can understand Thai. Although there is no official standard, the Vientiane dialect has become the de facto standard.

Lao is a monosyllabic tonal language, with six tones in the Vientiane dialect: low, mid, high, rising, high falling, and low falling. It consists primarily of native Lao words. However, there are a number of borrowed words from Pali and Sanskrit, many relating to religion and introduced with the Buddhism. Lao, like many languages in Laos, is written in the Lao script, which is an abugida script.

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, we are not able to comprehend Khmer as the language is different from Lao. As most ethnic groups in Laos have their own dialects and languages, Lao is also an important second language for the multitude of ethnic groups in Laos and in Isan. Lao serves as an important second language for them as a central language to communicate with outsiders. There are variations in vocabulary, pronunciation and accent throughout the country. [Source:Laos-Guide-999.com]

1) Alternate names for the Lao language: Eastern Thai, Lào, Lao Kao, Lao Wiang, Lao-Lum, Lao-Noi, Lao-Tai, Laotian, Laotian Tai, Lum Lao, Phou Lao, Rong Kong, Tai Lao. 2) Main Dialects: Luang Prabang, Vientiane (Wiang Jan), Savannakhet (Suwannakhet), Pakse, Lao-Kao, Lao-Khrang. Dialect subgroup with Northeastern Tai of Thailand. 3) Classification Tai-Kadai, Kam-Tai, Be-Tai, Tai-Sek, Tai, Southwestern, Lao-Phutai 4) Literacy rate in L1: 30 percent–60 percent. Literacy rate in L2: 50 percent–75 percent. Bible: 1932. 5) Writing system Lao script. [Source: Ethnologue]

Lao is very difficult to speak even if you have a phrase book and there are many Lao dialects. The version of the language spoken in Vientiane is regarded as the official form and serves as a lingua franca among Lao an non-Lao tribes. Thai and Lao are similar enough that most Laotians can understand what is being said on Thai television shows.

Lao also has its own alphabet, which is about as similar to Thai as the Roman alphabet is to Greek. The writing system uses 26 consonant symbols and 18 vowel symbols that can be combined to represent 28 vowel sounds. There are two commonly-used tone markers. Orthography was simplified by the present government which came to power in 1975 and was made completely phonetic. Lao is read from left to right.

History of Languages in Laos

Lao is a Tai-Kadai language spoken by approximately 15 million people in Laos and Thailand. It is closely related to Thai and speakers of Lao are able to understand spoken Thai without too many difficulties. Thai speakers find it more difficult to understand Lao due to lack of exposure to the language. The language family is also known as Kradai, Kra-Dai, Daic or Kadai. Thai and Laotian are Ta-Kadai languages, which are spoken mainly by Thais, Laotians and some tribes in Southeast Asia and China.

The Lao language is descended from Tai languages spoken in what is now southern China and northern Vietnam (probably by some of the various peoples referred to as the Baiyue) in areas believed to be the homeland of the language family and where several related languages are still spoken by scattered minority groups. Due to Han Chinese expansion, Mongol invasion pressures, and a search for lands more suitable for wet-rice cultivation, the Tai peoples moved south towards India, down the Mekong River valley, and as far south as the Malay Peninsula. Oral history of the migrations is preserved in the legends of Khun Borom. Tai speakers in what is now Laos pushed out or absorbed earlier groups of Mon–Khmer and Austronesian languages. [Source: Wikipedia]

There are 50 million speakers of Tai-Kadai languages in the world today. Most of the speakers live in southern China, Burma, Thailand and Laos. Thai and Laotian are Ta-Kadai languages. Like Sino-Tibetan languages, Ta-Kadai languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone or pitch in which it is spoken. For example the Thai word maa means "horse" when pronounced with a high pitch, "come" with a medium pitch, and "dog with a rising pitch.

Some ethnic groups in Laos speak Miao-Yao languages. The majority of the 6 million speakers of Miao-Yao languages belong to hill tribes and ethnic groups that live in isolated areas scattered across southern China, Laos and Thailand. This family of languages consists of five languages associated the speakers clothing: Red Miao, White Miao (Striped Miao), Black Miao, Green Miao (Blue Miao) and Yao.

Other ethnic groups speak Austroasiatic Languages. There are about 90 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages in the world today. They are also called Munda or Mon-Khmer languages. Although the language may have originated in China, very few people in China speak it today (a small enclave near the Myanmar border). Vietnamese and Cambodian are Austroasiatic languages. Enclaves of people that speak Austroasiatic languages also found in Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and India.

Austroasiatic languages are characterized by an abundance of vowels. In contrast to English, which only has around a dozen vowel sounds, Austroasiatic languages have around 40 or so, including ones that are nasal, non-nasal, long, extra-short, creaky, breathy, normal, high-tongue, low-tongue, medium-high tongue, medium-low tongue, front tongue, back tongue, middle tongue and various combinations of these sounds.

Lao Dialects and Vocabulary

Lao Dialects (Dialect: Lao Provinces, Thai Provinces): 1) Vientiane Lao: Vientiane, Vientiane Capital Prefecture, Bolikhamsai, Nong Bua Lamphu, Chaiyaphum, and parts of Nong Khai, Yasothorn, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani; 2) Northern Lao: Luang Prabang, Sainyabuli, Oudomxay., Loei and parts of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen; 3) Northeastern Lao: Tai Phuan, Xiangkhoang and Houaphanh., Parts of Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani; 4) Central Lao: Savannakhet and Khammouan., Mukdahan and parts of Sakon Nakhon and Nong Khai; 5) Southern Lao, Champasak, Salavan, Sekong, and Attapeu., Ubon Ratchathani, Amnat Charoen, and parts of Yasothorn, Buriram, Si Sa Ket, Surin and Nakhon Ratchasima; 6) Western Lao: Kalasin, Maha Sarakham, and Roi Et. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In addition to the dialects of Lao, numerous closely related languages (or dialects, depending on the classification) are spoken throughout the Lao-speaking realm in Laos and Thailand, such as the Nyaw, Phu Thai, Saek, Lao Wieng, Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, etc. These Tai peoples are classified by the Lao government as Lao Loum or lowland Lao. Lao and Thai are also very similar and share most of their basic vocabulary, but differences in many basic words limit inter-comprehension. +

The Lao language consists primarily of native Lao words. Because of Buddhism, however, Pali has contributed numerous terms, especially relating to religion and in conversation with members of the Sangha. Due to their geographic proximity, Lao has influenced the Khmer and Thai languages and vice versa. Formal writing has a larger amount of foreign loanwords, especially Pali and Sanskrit terms, much as Latin and Greek have influenced European languages. For politeness, pronouns (and more formal pronouns) are used, plus ending statements. Negative statements are made more polite by ending with “dok.”

Lao Tones and Grammar

Lao is a tonal language with six 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. The six tones are (name: symbol on /e/, tone contour, . In the tone contour column, 1 stands for low pitch, 3 for medium pitch, and 5 for high pitch): 1) Rising, e(2,4 or 2,1,4; 2) High level, é, 4; 3) High falling, ê, 5,3; 4) Mid level, e-, 3; 5) Low level, è, 1; 6) Low falling, e^, 3,1. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Lao syllables are of the form (C)V(C), i.e. they consist of a vowel in the syllable nucleus, optionally preceded by a single consonant in the syllable onset and optionally followed by single consonant in the syllable coda. The only consonant clusters allowed are syllable initial clusters /kw/ or /k^(h)w/. Any consonant may appear in the onset, but the labialized consonants do not occur before rounded vowels. Only /p t k m n w j/ may appear in the coda. If the vowel in the nucleus is short, it must be followed by a consonant in the coda; // in the coda can be preceded only by a short vowel. Open syllables (i.e. those with no coda consonant) and syllables ending in one of the sonorants /m n w j/ take one of the six tones, syllables ending in /p t k/ take one of four tones, and syllables ending in // take one of only two tones. +

The majority of Lao words are monosyllabic, and are not inflected to reflect declension or verbal tense, making Lao an analytic language. Special particle words serve the purpose of prepositions and verb tenses in lieu of conjugations and declensions. Lao is a subject–verb–object (SVO) language, although the subject is often dropped. In contrast to Thai, Lao uses pronouns more frequently. +

Written Lao

Lao also has its own alphabet, which is about as similar to Thai as the Roman alphabet is to Greek. The writing system uses 26 consonant symbols and 18 vowel symbols that can be combined to represent 28 vowel sounds. There are two commonly-used tone markers. Orthography was simplified by the present government which came to power in 1975 and was made completely phonetic. Lao is read from left to right.

Written Lao is based on Thai, which in turn was created by Khmer scholars using South Indian scripts as models. After the unification of the Lao principalities (meuang) in the 14th century, the Lan Xang monarchs commissioned their scholars to create a new script to write the Lao language. The scholars probably modelled the alphabet on the the Old Khmer script, which was itself based on Mon scripts. When the Pathet Lao took power in 1975 there were four main spelling systems. The Pathet Lao standardized these into one system. 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.

Written Lao is derived from Tham script which evolved from Pali language that initiated in India. The script was brought to the region by Theravada Buddhists at the time that Buddhism was growing in popularity around two thousand years ago. The Buddhist monks used the Tham script to write the Dhamma (the Buddha's teaching). It was only taught to novices and monks in temples and that is why in the past only men (ex-monks) knew how to read and write. Today the Tham still exists in Laos and northeastern Thailand. Through the years, adjustments were made to the script and it was used for Lao writing. And through various orthographic reforms, Lao script has gradually been developed into what it is today.

The Lao religious script is written in the Tua Tham script, based on Mon scripts and still used in temples in Laos and Isan. The Lao script (Tua Lao) has roots in the Brahmic script from India. Although similar to one another, the Lao alphabet is more phonetic than the Thai alphabet due to various Lao royal decrees concerning orthographic reforms, resulting in the Lao script having fewer duplicate sounds thus making the Lao script more phonetic, efficient and easy to learn. Words are spelt 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. Romanisation of Lao is inconsistent, but is based on French transcriptive methods. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Lao is traditionally not written with spaces between words, although signs of change are multiplying. Spaces are reserved for ends of clauses or sentences. Periods are not used, and questions can be determined by question words in a sentence. Traditional punctuation marks include an obsolete mark indicating silenced consonants; used to indicate repetition of the following word; the Lao ellipsis that is also used to indicate omission of words; a more or less obsolete symbol indicating shortened form of a phrase (such as royal names); and used to indicate et cetera. In more contemporary writing, punctuation marks are borrowed from French, such as exclamation point !, question mark parentheses (), and «» for quotation marks, although "" is also common. Hyphens (-) and the ellipsis (...) are also commonly found in modern writing. +

According to Omniglot some of of Notable features: 1) Type of writing system: syllabic alphabet / abugida; 2) Direction of writing: left to right in horizontal lines; 3) 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). 4) 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 offical reforms of the Lao script have reduced the number of duplicate consonants. 5) There are no spaces between words, instead spaces in a Lao text indicate the end of a clause or sentence. 6) Written Lao is based on the dialect of the Lao capital, Vientiene. 7) Also used to write: Tai Dam, Lave, Eastern Bru, Western Bru, Mong Njua, Iu Mien, Jeh, Kuy, Kataang, Lü, Khmu, Western Katu, Lamet, Hmong Daw, Ngeq, Pacoh, Phunoi, Upper Ta'oih and Lower Ta'oih. [Source: Omniglot]

Lao Alphabet

The Lao alphabet is phonetic. Words are spelt 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. There are 27 basic consonants and six compound consonants in Lao language.

Consonants are divided into three classes which help to determine the tone of a syllable (indicated by the numbers below). The sounds represented by some consonants change when they are used at the end of a syllable. The consonants can all be used at the beginning of a syllable but only some can be used at the end of a syllable. The consonants in the final row are compounds and conjuncts used as alternatives to the basic consonants.

There are 28 vowels in Lao language. They are divided into two main groups according to their sound (short/long sound) and a set of special vowels as following ("X" is placed to designate the position of the consonant): 1) In Lao language, vowels can appear before, after, above, below and around consonants. Each vowel determines its placement eg. "Lao Vowel e'" always appears before the consonant and "Lao Vowel AA" always appears after the consonant, as in Lao vowel time (vela/time). 2) Vowels that wrap around a consonant are actually two or more vowels combined to form a sound eg. the vowel "Lao Vowel e'" and "Lao Vowel e'" combine to form the sound "é" like Lao vowel example - kick (té/kick). 3) Apart from these vowels, there are a lot more sound that acheived by combining vowels and consonants, for example if you combine vowel "Lao Vowel AA" and consonant "Lao Vowel AA" you will have Lao vowel, as in Lao vowel sample (kang/center or middle) or "Lao Vowel e'" and "Lao Vowel AA" form a sound "eng" Lao vowel, pheng (pheng/song). For more detailed information visit http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/lao3.htm. There are Lao language learning resources, exercises and MP3 to help you with prononciation.

Tone Marks: In addition to consonants and vowels, in Lao language there are 4 tone marks. Numerals may be written out as words (1 vs. one), but numerical symbols are more common. Although Arabic numerals are most common, Lao numerals, from the Brahmi script are also taught and employed. More details on tone marks, how they are used etc can be found here http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/lao3.htm . [Source: http://scriptsource.org/scr/Laoo

Learning Lao alphabet isn't difficult, however, writing can be fairly hard at the beginning as characters set are different from English not to mention composing words. Most people learn to speak the language first, then they comprehend reading and writing later.

Lao Expressions and Proverbs

There is an old Lao expression that goes, “When you smile you are twice as beautiful.” The Lao golden rule—“het dji, dai, dji, he, sua, dai sua ”—“do good and receive good; do evil and receive evil”).

1) “Create virtue while you are here. They will miss you when you are gone.” Virtue conquers all. Family, sisters, brothers, friends and others… we need to help each other, to be real human beings. When we leave, they will miss us and remember us forever. 2) “Beautiful to the eye, but not a good smell for kissing!” However beautiful someone is on the outside, if they are rude, lazy, selfish, unfriendly, or speak badly, they will not be desirable. 3) “If you have fruit, remember the grower. If you are happy, remember where it comes from.” Today we live comfortably and happily because of the ideas and hard work of past generations. We should be grateful to those who have made our lives better. [Source: from “Lao proverbs – The wisdom of our ancestors,” published by Big Brother Mouse, a publisher of Lao kids books; Lead, Challenge, Inspire blog, November 13, 2011 >>>]

4) “The animal with four legs still slips; scholars still forget. The gold swan is still trapped; the old buffalo is still scared by the plow.” Everything that lives on the earth, both animals and humans, will make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes, and don’t give up. 5) “Fill the harbor with boats. Fill the city with rice.” Whenever you can, and wherever you go, do good things. Where there is happiness there will be progress. 6) “When there is flooding, fish eat ants. When it is dry, ants eat fish.” Helping others is important, especially in Lao society. Some of us are rich, some are very poor. When you see someone with a problem, help them as much as you can. Tomorrow, it could be your turn to need help. >>>

7) “Don’t blame the buffalo if your fence is not good. Don’t blame the gnats if your shirt is open.” If you create a problem, don’t blame others. 8) “When going out, step on the dog. When coming back, step on the frog.” This saying illustrates the diligence and the work ethic held by Lao people through generations. Get up and go to work early, while the dog is still sleeping. Come back home when the sun sets, it’s dark, and the frogs are out searching for food. Sometimes, by chance, you might step on one! 9) “The same bamboo but different part. The same brother but different heart.” Even bamboo that comes from the same place will be different. Humans born to the same parents will also have different hearts and ideas. >>>

10) “Cool water, fish live. Hot water, fish escape.” When our country is at peace, we will live happily. People will not move to other countries. They will have schools for their children, and good jobs when they grow up. Then the country will flourish. 11) “If you want to eat rice, you have to work hard. If you want to be a real person, you have to learn.” You need to be diligent to grow as a human being. If we want a good education we have to study hard, with parents, teachers, and the wider society, and we must discipline ourselves to be clever, good and worthwhile. 12) “If you don’t leave the village you won’t see other villages. If you don’t attend school you won’t acquire knowledge.” We should go to school and study hard, so we will be wise when we grow up. We should acquire knowledge, wisdom, good habits, and wide experience. We can also seek out new experiences by visiting other villages. >>>

13) “Flee from the elephant and meet the tiger; Flee the tiger and meet a crocodile.” (Out of the frying pan into the fire.) 14) “If you love your cow, tie it up; If you love your child, beat him.” (Spare the rod and spoil the child.) 15) “When you enter the city of people with one eye closed, You must also close one eye.” (When in Rome, do as the Romans do.) 16) “The cat is absent and the mice dance.” (When the cat is away, the mice will play.) 17) “To judge an elephant, look at its tail; To judge a girl, look at her mother.” 18) When you are alone, be careful of your thoughts; When you are with friends, be careful of your speech. 19) “A tray full of money is not worth a mind full of knowledge.” 20) “Ten mouths speaking are not as good as seeing with one's own eyes; Ten eyes that see are not as good as what one has in one's hand.

Lao Insults and Cuss Words

1) Coi (Penis); 2) Hum (Balls); 3) Hee (Pussy); 4) Hee moi (Hairy pussy); 5) Bak ha mung (Fuck you (used as: Bastard); 6) See ma mung (Fuck your mom); 7) Hee keo (Smelly vagina); 8) Koi siemp (Pierced dick); 9) Bak (ee) maa ((boy/girl) bitch);

10) Bak ka tuy (Faggot, gay); 11) Ee ka tuy (Dyke, lesbian); 12) Koi noi (Small dick); 13) Ee ha cali (Slut); 14) Qoi noi (Small dick); 15) Ma ci ma moung (Your mother fucked a dog); 16) Ci (Fuck); 17) Gin kee (Eat shit); 18) Mit (Shut up); 19) Bak nyo (Stupid);

20) Neyo sai cow moung (Piss in their food); 21) Ha gin hua (Head biting ho); 22) Lieh guant coi (Lick my ass); 23) Moin (Pubic hair); 24) Ee ha nee (Bitch); 25) Hee mend (Smelly pussy); 26) Hee khiew (Horny for female); 27) Khoy khiew (Horny for male); 28) Kali (Hooker); 29) Mae jarng (Hooker);

30) Si mae meung (Mother fucker); 31) Hoo khee (Asshole); 32) Hua ban (Dickhead); 33) Hee moy (Pussy hair); 34) Teh dark (Kick your ass); 35) Teh park (Shut up); 36) Tob park (Shut up); 37) Ee pee bah (Crazy girl); 38) Buk bah (Crazy guy).

Lao Palm Leaf Manuscripts

The vast majority of manuscripts in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts (DLLM) collection are in the Lao, Northern Thai, Tai Lue, and Tai Nuea languages, which belong to the Southwestern subgroup of the Tai-Kadai language family, or are bi-lingual Pali-vernacular texts. A considerable number of texts are in monolingual Pali, a small number are in Central Thai, and a single Tai Dam text is also included in the collection. [Source: Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts **]

In general, each of the vernacular languages used in even the older manuscripts is understandable for contemporary speakers of that language who are familiar with the terms and idioms of traditional literature. The written languages of Lao, Northern Thai and Tai Lue are to a large extent mutually understandable, due to shared lexicon and syntax, while the pronunciation differs considerably. **

The oldest dated manuscripts from Laos and Northern Thailand, which are from the late 15th century, are in monolingual Pali. A huge number of texts containing Pali-vernacular translations, glosses, and elaborations is also to be found. The Pali used in texts in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, often diverges from the orthodox form of the language, such as laid down in Kacca-yana’s grammar. In bilingual texts, the vernacular can provide important information about local understanding or interpretation of the Pali. **

The SEAsite of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Northern Illinois contains information, online learning resources and links related to the vernacular languages found in the DLLM collection. For Northern Thai, see the Tai Lanna section of the site. The Tai Dehong section provides a useful introduction to the Tai Nuea language as used in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province, China, including the Introduction to Luo Yongxian’s Dictionary of Dehong, Southwest China. It should be noted, however, that the Tai Dehong dialect differs from that of the Tai Nuea in Northern Laos. The Southeast Asian Linguistics Archives contains an online searchable collection of scholarly publications on Southeast Asian languages and linguistics. **

‘Monolingual Pali’ was used as a manuscript category in the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme to enable scholars not familiar with the vernacular languages to find monolingual texts. In the DLLM inventory, ‘Monolingual Pali’ is found under Languages, and all texts which previously had that PLMP Category (i.e. 04) have been assigned new categories. The Web Resources for Pali Students and Pali Language Study Aids pages of the Access to Insight website provide online resources and links for Pali language study. The Pali-English Dictionary of the Pali Text Society is available online as part of the Digital South Asia Library, a project of the Center for Research Libraries and the University of Chicago. **

Scripts on the Lao Palm Leaf Manuscripts

The majority of manuscripts in the in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts (DLLM) collection are written in variants of the Tham or Dhamma script. Others are in the Lao Buhan, Lik Tai Nuea and Khom scripts, while a few remaining texts are in Central Thai and Tai Dam scripts. All of these can be traced to South Indian writing systems which were adapted for writing Pali and vernacular languages in Southeast Asia. [Source: Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts **]

The Tham script shows a strong similarity to the Mon script used in inscriptions in the ancient Mon kingdom of Haripuñjaya (present-day Lamphun Province of Northern Thailand), dating from the 13th century CE. The oldest dated document using the Tham script, from CE 1376, is a bilingual inscription on a gold folio discovered in Sukhothai, containing one line of Pali language, while the vernacular is in Sukhothai Siamese language and script. The Tham script was adapted for the writing of vernacular languages not later than the 15th century CE, most probably in Chiang Mai, from where it spread to neighbouring Tai-Lao kingdoms. The oldest known dated manuscript using Tham script (not included in the DLLM collection) is a monolingual Pali copy of a section of the Ja-taka-at.t.hakatha--van.n.ana-, from CS 833 or CE 1471, kept at Wat Lai Hin, Amphoe Ko Kha, Lampang Province, in Northern Thailand. The oldest known dated manuscript in the DLLM collection (in Tham Lao script) is a monolingual Pali copy of part of the Pariva-ra (PLMP Code 06018504078_00), from CS 882 or CE 1520, kept at the Provincial Museum in Luang Prabang (formerly the Royal Palace). Versions of the Tham script continue to be used to this day by the Lao, Northern Thai, Tai Lue and Tai Khuen. One can therefore refer to a ‘Tham script domain’ comprising present-day Laos, the Upper North and Northeast of Thailand, the Northeast of Myanmar, and the Southwest of Yunnan Province in China. **

The Lao, Lan Na, and Tai Lue versions of the Tham script are very similar, and texts in these scripts from can be read by anyone who is literate in any one of them, and most of the contents can be understood. Characteristic features of these scripts are that the inventory of 33 consonants is in concordance with that of the Pali language, and that the second components of consonant clusters are written beneath the first. Likewise, most syllable-final consonants in vernacular texts are written beneath the preceding vowel symbol. The form of some of these subscript consonant symbols differs considerably from the standard symbol. In contrast to the Thai and Lao alphabets, the Tham script uses special ‘independent’ symbols for syllable-initial vowels in Pali texts. Another special feature is the use of various ligatures and abridged forms of certain frequently used terms. The orthography of vernacular texts written in the Tham script is much less ambiguous than, for example, that of the modern Central Thai writing system. **

In Laos, the Tham script was generally reserved for religious writings, whereas texts which were considered secular were written in Lao Buhan, the precursor of the modern Lao script. A considerable number of works with identical titles are found in both Tham and Lao Buhan scripts. In most of these cases, the Lao Buhan versions are literary adaptations of religious works, intended for use by the laity. Neither Tham nor Lao Buhan scripts use tone markers, and remarkable variations in the writing of Lao Buhan add to the difficulty of reading this script. **

The Tai Nuea script belongs to a group of Indic-based scripts known as lik, which are thought to date from before the 14th century CE. Related scripts are used by the Tai Nuea (Tai Le) in the Dehong region of Yunnan Province in China, and by Tai Khamti, Tai Phake, Tai Aiton, Tai Ahom, and other Tai peoples across Northern Myanmar and into Assam State of Northeastern India. Several of the consonant symbols are similar to Tham script, while others bear no clear resemblance to their Tham equivalents. In contrast to the Tham script, the very limited inventory of 16 to 18 consonant symbols indicates that these scripts were perhaps not developed for writing Pali. Even for vernacular texts, the number of consonant and vowel symbols is less than the phoneme inventory. Together with minimal written indication of tones, this makes the orthography ambiguous, with several possible readings and semantic interpretations for some written words. While the Tai Nuea manuscripts in the DLLM collection are all kept in Mueang Sing District in Northern Laos, their provenance covers a much wider area including parts of Yunnan Province in Southwestern China and Shan State in Northeastern Myanmar, from where the Tai Nuea inhabitants of Mueang Sing migrated, and there is a corresponding variety in the form of the scripts used. Many of the texts appear to be in an old form of the Lik tho ngok or ‘bean sprout’ script previously used by the Tai Mao. This differs somewhat from the old Tai Dehong script and from the reformed version of Tai Dehong script introduced in China in the mid 1950’s, which are better known examples of this type of script. **

The Cambodian or Khmer script is considered to have developed from South Indian sources, but independently from the Mon script. The Khom form of this script was used for writing Buddhist texts and other treatises in Central Thailand until the early 20th century, when it was gradually replaced by Thai script. The DLLM collection contains a number of manuscripts in Pali, Lao or Thai languages, written in Khom script, from Southern Laos. Like the Tham script, it contains the full inventory of consonants in concordance with the Pali language, and uses subscript consonant symbols, as well as ‘independent’ symbols for syllable-initial vowels. Additional consonant and vowel symbols are used for writing the Thai and Lao languages. The Khom script used in Thailand is very similar to the aksar khom and aksar mul forms of modern Cambodian script which are used for titles of publications, etc. While these differ from the aksar chriang and aksar chhor styles which are used for general text in modern Cambodian publications, an understanding of modern Cambodian orthography, such as found in Huffman (1970) is still useful. Aripong (2003) provides a thorough (Thai-language) description of Khom script as used in Thailand. **

French and English in Laos

French is spoken by a significant minority in Laos. Laos is the second largest Francophone nation in Asia, the others being Vietnam and Cambodia. French is used as a diplomatic and commercial language and is also studied by over a third of students in Laos. The French spoken in Laos is based on standard Parisian French but has some minor differences in vocabulary as in other French dialects of Asia. Mixtures of Lao are sometimes added into French, giving it a local flavor. Some Lao words have found their way into the French language used in Laos as well. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The French language was introduced to Laos in the 19th century when French explorers arrived in Laos trying to make inroads into China after colonizing Vietnam. The French did not pay much attention to the kingdom of Lan Xang but established a counsulate in present-day Luang Prabang. By the 1890s, border disputes with Siam and France led to the Franco-Siamese War and the borders of Laos and Siam were established in favor of France and Laos became a French protectorate. Unlike in Vietnam, the French did not pursue to fully exert their influence in Laos and it was not until the 1900s that French began to be introduced into schools in Laos, but it was mostly limited to Vientiane. However, French rule finally gained firmer ground and French soon became the primary language of government and education and the language spread into southern Laos following the founding of Pakse. The French language peaked between the 1910s and World War II and spread throughout the nation but, like Vietnam, was not widely spoken in most rural areas. French eventually became the language of government officials and the elite. When Japan invaded Laos in World War II, French remained in the educational system, unlike in Vietnam, where Vietnamese became the sole language of education, but the Lao language was briefly used in the government. French returned as the sole political language after France resumed its rule of Laos and was co-official with Lao when Laos was granted self-rule in 1949, but Lao became the sole official language after independence in 1953. +

The French language's decline was slower and occurred later than in Vietnam and Cambodia in Laos as the monarchy of Laos had close political relations with France. At the eve of the Vietnam War, the Secret War was beginning in Laos as political factions between communist Pathet Lao and the government occurred. Pathet Lao held areas used Lao as their sole language and following the end of the Vietnam War, French began its sharp decline in Laos. Additionally, many elite and French-educated Lao immigrated to nations such as the United States and France to escape government persecution. With the end of isolationism in the early 1990s however, the French language rebounded, thanks to the establishment of French, Swiss and Canadian relations and opening of French-language centers in central Laos. Today, French has a healthier status in Laos than the other Francophone nations of Asia and about 35 percent of all students in Laos receive their education in French, with the language a required course in many schools. French is also used in public works in central and southern Laos and Luang Prabang and is a language of diplomacy and of the elite classes, higher professions and elders. However, the English language has continued to threaten the French language in Laos as it is seen as the language of international commerce and some schools have also made English a mandatory subject. Laos is also a member of La Francophonie. +

There are some notable differences between Lao and standard French such: The word rue can be used to refer to any street, road, avenue and highway unlike standard French which also uses avenue or boulevard.

English is increasingly becoming the language of choice among young people.One 20-year-old monk wrote: “I study to learn English at Lao-Korean College and asI have money sent me for education I study at Laos National University to be teacher. [Khen has been sponsored by an Australian family with help he can pay to study English at College.] English is a very useful subject to learn as working in the emerging tourist industry is very good pay. English is not taught in Laos schools, and a tour guide can earn more money than a doctor or teacher.” [Source: helpinghands.millpointrotaryclub <<< ]

Lao Names

Surnames have only been adopted in the last several decades. Wives usually take their husband’s last name. Lao are given in Western order, where the family name goes after the first given name. On official documents, both first given name and surname are written, but it is customary to refer to people in formal situations by their first name, plus titles and honorifics, alone. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In daily life, outside of formal, international, or academic spheres, Lao people generally refer to themselves and others by nicknames, or seu lin—literally "playnames". Much like the nicknames of Thai people (with whom the Lao share a great deal of cultural similarity), the names are often unflattering, although some are based on onomatopoeia, nonsense syllables, or peculiar characteristics. This is largely based on old superstitions from times when health care was not available and there was high infant mortality, as many of these names were supposed to ward off evil spirits from claiming the child. +

The French Colonial government mandated the introduction of surnames in Laos in 1943, beginning first with the royalty and the élite before becoming a common practice among the other classes. To this day, among isolated ethnic groups and remote rural villages, it is still possible to find individuals who do not possess a surname. +

Both first and surname are a mixture of Pali or Sanskrit and Lao words. The wording comes from variety of influences, such as nature, animals, and royal titles. Lao names are generally made up of two or three words, but when translated into English span nearly 10–15 letters, for which both Lao and Thai names are known.

Common name components and their origin and meaning: 1) Vong(sa), Phong(sa); Sanskrit, "royal lineage" or "family", hence this component is a staple in many Lao surnames. 2) Singh or Syha; Sanskrit, "Leo" or "lion"; 3) Chan, Chanh, Chantha [càn]; Sanskrit, "moon", not to be confused with the tiane in Vientiane which means "sandalwood"; 4) Dao; , Lao, "star"; 5) Dara;Sanskrit, "Evening Star"; 6) Pha; Lao, usually imparts royal or religious significance to the following component; 7) Kham; Lao, "golden" or "precious"; 8) Racha, Rasa; Sanskrit, "king"; 9) Savane, Savan, Savanh; Sanskrit, "Svarga" or "heaven"; 10) Phou, Phu; Lao, "mountain"; 11) Sri, Si; Sanskrit, "sri" or "splendid"; 12) Keo, Kaew, Kèw; Lao, "glass", "precious", "gem"; 13) Vora, Worra; Sanskrit, "excellent", "superb"; 14) Chai, Sai, Xai, Xay; Sanskrit, "victory".

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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