Being Laos a small and landlocked country with its unique language, attempting to decipher its language during a trip in South East Asia would make no sense, if it weren’t due to the fact it is similar to the Thai.
Laotian letters are rounder than the Thai ones and the language is actually identical to the Thai dialect spoken in Isaan – Thailand’s north-eastern lobe. Thus, after having learned some Thai, catching the basics of Lao is easy, especially since its spelling system is more phonetic than the Thai one due to the 1960’s spelling reform.
It is hard to speak about Lao as one language, or to count the exact number of its dialects. There are between three and five similar dialects in Laos and another one in Thailand’s Isaan; the one originating in Vientiane is nowadays recognized as the formal Lao for official matters.
However, all the dialects use the same letters and are mutually intelligible. In any case, the language shares its history with Thai; both belong to the Tai-Kadai family of languages and their alphabets are similar.
Since most Lao people watch Thai television, Thai is widely understood in Laos.
As Thai, Lao uses tones; in Vientiane they reach their epitome with six different tones. However, the definitions are fluid, mainly due to massive populations’ movements in the last decades.
In Vientiane islands of different dialects and a variety of tonal pronunciations can be found. Since the language lacks any formal regulating entity, it is impossible to use a well-defined description.
The tones used in Vientiane are: Low, Mid, High, Rising, High Rising and Low Falling. Luang Prabang and other northern locations in Laos use a five tones system featuring Mid Falling Rising, Low Rising, Mid, High Falling and Mid Rising tones, though further north in the country – around Muang Sing – a six tones system re-appears.
The Lao alphabet was created after the 14th century unification of the Lao principalities into the Lan Xang Kingdom. It was based on the Khmer alphabet and is similar to the Thai one; stripping out the upper and lower parts of Khmer letters results in symbols strikingly similar to the Lao and Thai alphabets.
Lao is an Abugida type of alphabet, meaning that vowels are implicit or added around the consonants – the main writing units; thus the main characters appearing in a text are basically syllables.
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 (see below).
Lao consonants are divided into three classes, which determine the tone of the subsequent vowel. Certain consonants’ sounds change when they are used at the end of a syllable. All consonants can be used at a syllable’s beginning but only a few can be used at the end.
After some redundant consonants were removed, nowadays the language features twenty-seven ones. Yet, even today, As in Thai, sometimes there is more than one letter depicting a certain consonant sound. That is the result of certain letters being used for words originating in Sanskrit, Pali, or to denote a different tone for the vowel being pronounced after it.
Spaces are not used between words, but only at a sentence’s end, though this is rapidly changing, especially on modern signs.
The vowels are added as diacritic signs around the preceding (in pronunciation) consonant. Modern Lao features twenty-nine vowels and diphthongs, many of them are similar in sound and used to denote the various tones.
Lao has its own system of numerals; however, on the money and all other official publications, the Hindu-Arabic numerals are used as well.
Laotian complicated past shows up in the different Romanization systems in use for Lao names. Having been a French colony, many names follow French phonetics; however the recent opening of the country to Western tourists is creating a new trend to use English phonetics. Both systems coexist and neither of them has a coherent and comprehensive solution for the transliteration of the complex Lao sounds. Tourists’ attractions named in the past follow a French transliteration, while new or restored attractions follow an English spelling.