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About Lao Language

Lao or Laotian (BGN/PCGN: phasa lao, IPA: [pʰáːsǎːláːw]) is a tonal language of the Kradai 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. Being 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 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 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.

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.


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 more concise, 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.


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; ໆ, used to indicate repetition of the following word; ຯ, the Lao ellipsis that is also used to indicate omission 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 ellipsis (...) are also commonly found in modern writing.


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