Lao language

Lao language

nativename=ພາສາລາວ, pʰaːsaː laːw
states=Laos, Thailand, U.S., France, Canada, China, Australia
speakers=5,225,552 (2006), roughly 20 million if Isan speakers are included.
fam5=Southwestern Tai

Lao or Laotian (BGN/PCGN: phasa lao, IPA: pʰaːsaː laːw) is a tonal language of the Tai-Kadai language family. It is the official language of Laos, and also spoken in the northeast of Thailand, where it is usually referred to as the Isan language. The primary language of the Lao people, Lao is also an important second language for the multitude of ethnic groups in Laos and in Isan. Lao, like all languages in Laos, is written in an abugida script. Although there is no official standard, the Vientiane dialect has become the de facto standard.


The Lao language is descended from Tai-Kadai languages spoken in what is now southern China and northern Vietnam (probably some of the various peoples referred to as Yue) in areas believed to be the homeland of the language family and where several related languages are spoken by scattered minority groups. Due to Han expansion, Mongol invasion pressures, and search for lands more suitable for wet-rice cultivation, the Tai peoples moved south towards India, down the Mekong River valley, and all the way south as the Malay Peninsula. Oral history of the Tai migrations is preserved in the legends of Khun Borom. The Tai peoples in what is now Laos pushed out or absorbed earlier groups of Mon-Khmer and Austronesian languages. Although torn between the power struggles of Siam and Vietnam, the Lao people were able to create a cohesive identity and integrate their dialects into a common language.


The Lao language has numerous dialects, but they are mutually intelligible. The Isan language can also be further sub-divided into various dialects, but they too remain mutually intelligible with the Lao dialects of Laos and are regarded as a cohesive identity. In addition to the following dialects, there are numerous small dialects spoken by tribes descended from forced Lao migrations to Central Thailand.

* Vientiane Lao
* Northern Lao (Luang Prabang)
* North-Eastern Lao (Xieng Khouang)
* Central Lao (Khammouan)
* Southern Lao (Champasak)
* Isan Lao (Isan) (sometimes considered a separate language for political reasons, but spoken by ethnic Lao)

In addition to the dialects of the Lao languages, 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 (ລາວລຸ່ມ) 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. However, due to the introduction of Buddhism, Pali has contributed numerous terms, especially those relating to religion and in conversation with members of the Sangha. Khmer, due to proximity and the cultural might of the Khmer Empire, which once controlled parts of Laos, has greatly influenced the high language of court and culture. Many of these words, in turn, were derived from Sanskrit via Indian traders. Other loanwords have entered from Chinese, Vietnamese, French from Laos' colonial past, and now English.

Formal writing has a larger amount of foreign loanwords, especially Pali/Sanskrit and Khmer terms, much like Latin and Greek influence on the European languages. To make oneself more polite, using pronouns (and more formal pronouns on top of that) is employed, as well as ending statements in ເດ (dè, deː) or ເດີ (deu, dɤ). Negative statements are made more polite by ending the statement in ດອກ (dok, dɔːk). The following are formal register examples.
* ຂອບໃຈຫຼາຍໆເດີ (khop chai lai lai deu, kɔːp tɕaj laj laj dɤ) "Thank you very much."
* ຂ້ານ້ອຍບໍ່ໄດ້ດອກເດ (khanoy bo dai dok deu, kʰaːnɔːj bɔː daj dɔːk dɤ) "I cannot."


Originally, Lao was written in the Thua Tham script, based on Mon scripts and still used in temples in Laos and Isan. The current Lao alphabet is derived from the Khmer alphabet. All these scripts are based on the Brahmic script from India. Although similar to the Thai alphabet, due to various royal decrees concerning orthographic reforms, the Lao alphabet is much simplified, having fewer letters, and words are spelt according to phonetical principle as opposed to etymological principle. 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, although in Thailand, the Thai system is used. The Lao alphabet has disappeared as a written language amongst the Isan people, but when it is written, the Thai alphabet is used.

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.


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 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.


Nouns are not marked for plurality, gender, or declension. A noun may be single or plural. Unlike English, nouns do not and are not marked with definite or indefinite articles. Measure words or classifiers (Lao: ລັກສະນະາມ, IPA: laksaʔnaʔnaːm) are often used to express plurals, as classifiers must be used to count objects. As in English, 'two chairs' compared to Lao, 'chair two [classifier] '.

Verbs of physical action are easily converted into nouns by employing ການ (kan, gaːn) in front of the verb. Abstract actions and adjectives use ຄງາມ (khwam, kʰwaːm) instead.
* ເດີນງາງ (deunthang, dɤntaːŋ) "to travel" (v.) nominalised into ການເດີນງາງ (kan deunthang, gaːn dɤntaːŋ) "travel" (n.)
* ຄິເ (khit, kʰit) "to think" (v.) nominalised into ຄງາມຄິເ (khwam khit, kʰwaːm kʰit) "thought" (n.)
* ດີ (di, diː) "good" (adj.) nominalised into ຄງາມດີ (khwam di, kʰwaːm diː) "goodness" (n.)

Pronouns are often dropped in informal contexts, and are often replaced with nicknames or kinship terms, depending on the relation of the speaker to the person to whom is being spoken. Pronouns can also change depending on the register of speech, from royal (now obsolete) usage to vulgar usage. The more formal the language, the more likely that pronouns will not be dropped and that formal pronouns would be used. Pronouns can be pluralised by adding ພງກ (pʰuak) in front of the pronoun, e.g., ພງກຂ້ອຍ (pʰuak khoy) is the same as ເຮົາ (hao) or ພງກເຮົາ (pʰuak hao). Age and status is important in determining usage. Younger boys and girls names are often prefixed with ບັກ (bak, bak) and ອີ (i, iː) respectively. Older males and females use ອ້າຍ (ai, aj) and ແອ້ວ (èw, ɛːw) respectively instead. People who are much older may be politely dressed as aunt, uncle, mother, father, or even grandmother or grandfather depending on their age.

Adjectives and Adverbs

There is no general distinction between adjectives and adverbs, and words of this category serve both functions and can even modify each other. Duplication is used to indicate greater intensity. Only one word can be duplicated per phrase. Adjectives always come after the noun they modify; adverbs may come before or after the verb depending on the word. There is usually no copula to link a noun to an adjective.
* ສາວງາມ (sao ngam, saːw ŋaːm) "A pretty lady."
* ສາວງາມໆ (sao ngam ngam, saːw ŋaːm ŋaːm) "A very pretty lady."
* ສາວງາມທີ່ໄວ (sao ngam thi wai, saːw ŋaːm tʰiː vaj) "A lady who becomes pretty quickly."
* ສາງງາມທີ່ໄວໆ (sao ngam thi wai wai, saːw ŋaːm tʰiː vaj vaj) "A lady who becomes pretty very quickly."

Comparatives take the form "A X ກງ່າ B" (kwa, gwaː), A is more X than B. The superlative is expressed as "A X ງາມี่ສຸດ (thisut, tʰiːsut), A is most X.
* ສາວງາມກວ່າດອກ (sao ngam kwa dok, saːw ŋaːm gwaː dɔːk) "The lady is prettier than a flower."
* ສາງງາມທີ່ສຸດ (sao ngam thisut, saːw ŋaːm tʰiːsut) "The lady is the prettiest."

Because adjectives or adverbs can be used as predicates, the particles that modify verbs are also used.
* ສາວສິງາມ (sao si ngam, saːw siː ŋaːm) "The lady will be pretty."
* ສາວງາມແລ້ວ (sao ngam lèw, saːw ŋaːm lɛːw) "The lady was pretty."


Verbs are not declined for voice, number, or tense. To indicate tenses, particles can be used, but it is also very common just to use words that indicate the time frame, such as ວັນນີ້ (wan ni, van niː) "today" or ມື້ວັນນີ້ (meu wan ni, mɯː van niː) "yesterday."

Negation: Negation is indicated by placing ບໍ່ (bo, bɔː) before the word being negated.
* ບ່າງກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວ (bao kin khao niaw, baːw gin kʰaːw nio) "The man eats sticky rice."
* ບ່າງບໍ່ກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວ (bao bo kin khao niaw, baːw gin bɔː kʰaːw nio) "The man does not eat sticky rice."

Future tense: Future tense is indicated by placing the particles ຈະ (cha, tɕaʔ) or ຊີ (si, siː) before the verb.
* ບ່າງຈະກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວ (bao cha kin khao niaw, baːw tɕaʔ gin kʰaːw nio) "The man will eat sticky rice."
* ບ່າງຊີກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວ (bao si kin khao niaw, baːw siː gin kʰaːw nio) "The man will eat sticky rice."

Past tense: Past tense is indicated by either placing ໄດ້ (dai, daj) before the verb or ແລ້ງ (lèw, lɛːw) after the verb or even using both in tandem for emphasis. ແລ້ງ is the more common one, and can be used to indicate completed actions or current actions of the immediate past. ໄດ້ is often used with negative statements and never for present action.
* ບ່າງໄດ້ບໍ່ກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວ (bao dai bo kin khao niaw, baːw daj bɔː gin kʰaːw nio) "The man did not eat sticky rice."
* ບ່າງກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວແລ້ງ (bao kin khao niaw lèw, baːw gin kʰaːw nio lɛːw) "The man (just) ate sticky rice."
* ບ່າງໄດ້ກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວແລ້ງ (bao dai kin khao niaw lèw, baːw daj gin kʰaːw nio lɛːw) "The man (definitely) ate sticky rice."

Present progressive: To indicate an on-going action, ກຳລັງ (kamlang, gamlaŋ) can be used before the verb or ຢູ່ (yu, juː) after the verb. These can also be combined for emphasis. In Isan, ພງມ (phuam, pʰuam) is often used instead of ກຳລັງ.
* ບ່າງກຳລັງກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວ (bao kamlang khin khao niaw, baːw gamlaŋ gin kʰaːw nio) "The man is eating sticky rice."
* ບ່າງກິນຢູ່ເຂົ້າໜຽວ (bao gin yu khao niaw, baːw gin juː kʰaːw nio) "The man is eating sticky rice."
* ບ່າງພງມກິນເຂົ້າໜຽວ (bao phuam kin khao niaw, baːw pʰuam gin kʰaːw nio) "The man is eating sticky rice."

The verb 'to be' can be expressed in many ways. In use as a copula, it is often dropped between nouns and adjectives. Compare English "She is pretty" and Lao ສາງງາມ (literally "lady pretty"). There are two copulas used in Lao, one for things relating to people (ເປົນ, pen, peːn) and one for objects and animals (ແມ່ນ, mèn, mɛːn).
* ນົກເປົນໝໍ່ (Nok pen mo, Nok peːn mɔː) "Nok is a doctor."
* ແມ້ງບໍ່ແມ່ນກົບ (mèw bo mèn gop, mɛːw bɔː mɛːn gop) "The cat is not a frog."

Questions and Answers

Unlike English, which indicates questiosn by a rising tone, or Spanish, which changes the order of the sentences to achieve the same result, Lao uses question tag words. The use of question words makes use of the question mark (?) redundant in Lao.

General yes/no questions end in ບໍ່ (same as ບໍ່, 'no, not').
* ສະບາຍດີບໍ່ (sabai di bo, saʔbaj diː bɔː) "Are you well?"

Other question words
* ຈັ່ງໄດ (changdai, tɕaŋdaj) or ຫຍັງ (gnang, ɲaŋ) ເຮົດຈັ່ງໄດ (het changdai, heːt tɕaŋdaj) "What are you doing?"
* ຫຳໍະລັຍ (thamalai, tʰamaʔlaj) "Why?" ບໍ່ແາຫຳໍະລັຍ (bo ma thamalai?, bɔː maː tʰamaʔlaj) "Why didn't she come?"
* ໃສ (sai, saj) "Where?" ເຂົາໄປໃສ (khao bai sai, kʰaw baj saj) "Where is he going?"
* ລັນໄດ (andai, andaj) "Which?" ເຈົ້າແັກລັນໄດ (chao mak andai, tɕaw mak andaj) "Which one do you like?"
* ຈັກ (chak, tɕak) "How many?" ລາຍຸຈັກໄປີ (ayu chak pi, aːju tɕak piː) "How old are you?"
* ເຫົ່າໄດ (thaodai, tʰawdaj) "How much?" ນີ້ເຫົ່າໄດ (ni thaodai, niː tʰawdaj) "How much does this cost?"
* ແມ່ນບໍ່ (mèn bo, mɛːn bɔː) "Right?, Is it?" ນົກເປົນໝໍ່ແມ່ນບໍ່ (Nok pen mo, Nok peːn mɔː mɛːn bɔː) "Nok is a doctor, right?"
* ແລ້ງບໍ່ (lèw bo, lɛːw bɔː) "Yet?, Already?" ເຂົາໄປແລ້ງບໍ່ (khao bai lèw bo, kʰaw baj lɛːw bɔː) "Did he go already?"
* ຫຼືບໍ່ (leu bo, lɤː bɔː) "Or not?" ດີໃຈຫຼືບໍ່ (di chai leu bo, diː tɕaj lɤː bɔː) "Are you happy or not?"
* ຫຼື (leu, lɤː) "Eh?" (informal) ເຈົ້າແັກຫຼື (chao mak leu, tɕaw mak lɤː) "Like it, eh?"

Answers to questions usually just involve repetition of the verb and any nouns for clarification.
* ສະບາຍດີບໍ່ (sabai di bo, saʔbaj diː bɔː) "Are you well?"
* Response: ສະບາຍດີ (sabai di, saʔbaj diː) "I am well" or ບໍ່ສະບາຍດີ (bo sabai, bɔː saʔbaj) "I am not well".

Words asked with a negative can be confusing and should be avoided. The response, even though withouht the negation, will still be negated due to the nature of the question.
* ບໍ່ສະບາຍດີບໍ່ (bo sabai di bo, bɔː saʔbaj diː bɔː) "Are you not well?"
* Response: ສະບາຍ (sabai, saʔbaj) "I am not well" or ບໍ່ສະບາຍດີ (bo sabai di, bɔː saʔbaj diː) "I am well."


Most dialects of Lao and Isan have six tones, those of Luang Prabang have five. Tones are determined as follows:

A silent ຫ (/h/) placed before certain consonants will produce place the other proceeding consonant in the high class. This can occur before the letters ງ /ŋ/, ຍ /ɲ/, ຢ /j/, ຣ /l/, and ງ /v/ and combined in special ligatures (considered separate letters) such as ຫຼ /l/, ໜ /n/, and ໝ /m/. In addition to ອ່ (low tone) and ອ້ (falling tone), there also exists the rare ອ໊ (high) ອ໋ (rising) tone marks.


Lao is not written with spaces between words. 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; ໆ, used to indicate repetition of the following word; ຯ, the Lao elipsis that is also used to indicate ommission of words; ฯ, a more or less obsolete symbol indicating shortened form of a phrase (such as royal names); and ฯລฯ, 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 elipsis (...) are also commonly found in modern writing.

ee also

*Romanization of Lao
*Isan language


*wikitravelphrasebook|Lao phrasebook
* [ Ethnologue report]
* [ Lao Language & Culture Site]
* [ Omniglot: Lao script]
* ANSI Z39.35-1979, System for the Romanization of Lao, Khmer, and Pali; ISBN 0-88738-968-6.
* Hoshino, Tatsuo and Marcus, Russel. (1989). Lao for Beginners: An Introduction to the Spoken and Written Language of Laos. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN: 0804816298.
* Enfield, N. J. (2007). A Grammar of Lao. Mouton de Gruyter Publishers. ISBN: 3110185881.
* Cummings, Joe. (2002). Lao Phrasebook: A Language Survival Kit. Lonely Planet. ISBN: 1740591682.
* Mollerup, Asger. Thai- Isan- Lao Phrasebook. White Lotus, Bangkok, 2001. ISBN: 9747534886.
* Kerr, Allen. (1994). Lao-English Dictionary. White Lotus. ISBN: 9748495698.

External links

* [ JUSK Lao, a javascript based Lao unicode keyboard]
* [ Online English-Lao and Lao-English Dictionary]
*wikitravelphrasebook|Lao phrasebook
* [ Lao Alphabet] (Omniglot)
* []

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