Lao language

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ພາສາລາວ, Phasa Lao
Lao in Phetsarath OT.png
Pronunciationpʰáːsǎː láːw
Native toLaos, Isan
Native speakers
30 million[1]
Lao script in Laos
Thai script in Thailand
Thai and Lao Braille
Official status
Official language in
Association of Southeast Asian Nations ASEAN[2]
Recognised minority
language in
 Thailand (Isan)
(native to provinces of Steung Treng, Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri)
Language codes
ISO 639-1lo
ISO 639-2lao
ISO 639-3Either:
lao – Laotian Lao
tts – Isan (Thailand Lao)
Glottologlaoo1244  Lao
nort2741  Northeastern Thai
Idioma lao.png
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.
A Lao speaker.

Lao, sometimes referred to as Laotian (ລາວ, [láːw] 'Lao' or ພາສາລາວ, [pʰáːsǎːláːw] 'Lao language'), is a Kra–Dai language of the Lao people. It is spoken in Laos, where it is the official language, as well as northeast Thailand, where it is usually referred to as Isan. Lao serves as a lingua franca among the citizens of Laos, who also speak approximately 90 other languages, many of which are unrelated to Lao.[3]

It is a tonal and analytic language, similar to other Kra-Dai languages, along with Chinese and Vietnamese.[4] Spoken Lao is mutually intelligible with Thai and Isan, fellow Southwestern Tai languages, to such a degree that their speakers are able to effectively communicate with one another speaking their respective languages. These languages are written with slightly different scripts but are linguistically similar and effectively form a dialect continuum.[5]

Although there is no official standard, the Vientiane dialect became the de facto standard language in the second half of the 20th century.[6]


The Lao language is descended from Tai languages spoken in what is now southern China and northern Vietnam 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. The 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 Austroasiatic and Austronesian languages.


Lao dialects
Dialect Lao provinces Thai provinces
Vientiane Lao Vientiane, Vientiane Capital Prefecture, Bolikhamsai
Northern Lao Luang Prabang, Sainyabuli, Oudomxay. Loei and parts of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen.[7]
Northeastern Lao/Tai Phuan Xiangkhouang and Houaphanh. Parts of Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani.[8]
Central Lao Savannakhet and Khammouane. Nong Bua Lamphu, Chaiyaphum, and parts of Nong Khai, Yasothon, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Mukdahan and parts of Sakon Nakhon and Nong Khai.
Southern Lao Champasak, Salavan, Sekong, and Attapeu. Ubon Ratchathani, Amnat Charoen, and parts of Yasothon, Buriram, Sisaket, Surin and Nakhon Ratchasima[9]
Western Lao [10] Kalasin, Maha Sarakham, and Roi Et.

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


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 proximity, Lao has influenced the Khmer and Thai languages and vice versa.

Formal writing has a larger number of loanwords, especially Pali and Sanskrit, much as Latin and Greek have influenced European languages. For politeness, pronouns (and more formal pronouns) are used, plus ending statements with ແດ່ (dǣ [dɛː]) or ເດີ້ (dœ̄ [dɤ̂ː]). Negative statements are made more polite by ending with ດອກ (dǭk [dɔ᷆ːk]). The following are formal register examples.

  • ຂອບໃຈຫຼາຍໆເດີ້ (khǭp chai lāi lāi dœ̄, [kʰɔ᷆ːp t͡ɕàj lǎːj lǎːj dɤ̂ː]) Thank you very much.
  • ຂ້ານ້ອຍເຮັດບໍ່ໄດ້ດອກ (khānǭi het bǭ dai dǭk, [kʰa᷆ːnɔ̂ːj hēt bɔ̄ː dâj dɔ᷆ːk]) I cannot.
  • ໄຂປະຕູໃຫ້ແດ່ (khai pa tū hai dǣ, [kʰǎj pa.tùː ha᷆j dɛ̄ː ]) Open the door, please.



Many consonants in Lao make a phonemic contrast between labialized[dubious ] and plain versions. The complete inventory of Lao consonants is as shown in the table below:[11]

Initial consonants[edit]

Consonant phonemes
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
plain lab. plain lab. plain lab. plain lab.
Plosive voiced b d
voiceless p t tɕʷ k ʔ ʔʷ
aspirated tʷʰ kʷʰ
Fricative f s h
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ ŋʷ
Approximant l j w

Final consonants[edit]

All plosive sounds are unreleased in final position. Hence, final /p/, /t/, and /k/ sounds are pronounced as [p̚], [t̚], and [k̚] respectively.

Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Plosive p t k ʔ*
Approximant w j
  • The glottal stop appears at the end when no final follows a short vowel.


All vowels make a phonemic length distinction. Diphthongs are all centering diphthongs with falling sonority.[11] The monophthongs and diphthongs are as shown in the following table:[11]

Short vowel phonemes
Front Central Back
unr. rnd.
Diphthongs iə̯   ɯə̯ uə̯
Monophthongs Close i   ɯ u
Close-mid e   ɤ o
Open-mid ɛ     ɔ
Open   a    
Long vowel phonemes
Front Central Back
unr. rnd.
Diphthongs iːə̯   ɯːə̯ uːə̯
Monophthongs Close   ɯː
Close-mid   ɤː
Open-mid ɛː     ɔː


Lao has six lexical tones.[12]

Unchecked syllables[edit]

There are six phonemic tones in unchecked syllables, that is, in syllables ending in a vowel or other sonorant sound ([m], [n], [ŋ], [w], and [j]).

Name Diacritic on ⟨e⟩ Tone letter Example Gloss
Rising ě ˨˦ or ˨˩˦ /kʰǎː/
High level é ˦ /kʰáː/
High falling ê ˥˧ /kʰâː/
Mid level ē ˧ /kʰāː/
ຂ່າ, ຄ່າ
galangal, value resp.
Low level è ˩ /kàː/
Low falling e᷆
(also ȅ)
˧˩ /kʰa᷆ː/
kill, servant

Checked syllables[edit]

The number of contrastive tones is reduced to four in checked syllables, that is, in syllables ending in an obstruent sound ([p], [t], [k], or the glottal stop [ʔ]).

Tone Example Gloss
high /hák/
mid /hāk/
low-falling /ha᷆ːk/
if, inevitably
falling /hâːk/
vomit, root


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 /kʰw/. Any consonant may appear in the onset, but the labialized consonants do not occur before rounded vowels.[11]

One difference between Thai and Lao is that in Lao initial clusters are simplified. For example, the official name of Laos is Romanized as Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao, with the Thai analogue being Satharanarat Prachathipatai Prachachon Lao (สาธารณรัฐประชาธิปไตยประชาชนลาว), indicating the simplification of Thai pr to Lao p.

Only /p t k ʔ m n ŋ 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; /ʔ/ 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 ŋ w j/ take one of the six tones, syllables ending in /p t k/ take one of four tones, and syllables ending in /ʔ/ take one of only two tones.[11]


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.

Writing system[edit]

The Lao script, derived from the Khmer alphabet of the Khmer Empire in the 14th century,[13] is ultimately rooted in the Pallava script of South India, one of the Brahmi scripts.[14] Although the Lao script bears resemblance to Thai, the former contains fewer letters than Thai because by 1960 it was simplified to be fairly phonemic, whereas Thai maintains many etymological spellings that are pronounced the same.[15]

The script is traditionally classified as an abugida, but Lao consonant letters are conceived of as simply representing the consonant sound, rather than a syllable with an inherent vowel.[15] Vowels are written as diacritic marks and can be placed above, below, in front of, or behind consonants. The script also contains distinct symbols for numerals, although Arabic numerals are more commonly used.

The Lao liturgical script is written in the Tai Tham script[14] and is still used in temples in Laos and Isan.


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 preceding 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.

Indication of tones[edit]

Experts disagree on the number and nature of tones in the various dialects of Lao. According to some, most dialects of Lao and Isan have six tones, those of Luang Prabang have five. Tones are determined as follows:

Tones Long vowel, or vowel plus voiced consonant Long vowel plus unvoiced consonant Short vowel, or short vowel plus unvoiced consonant Mai ek (ອ່) Mai tho (ອ້)
High consonants rising low falling high mid low falling
Mid consonants low rising low falling high mid high falling
Low consonants high high falling mid mid high falling

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

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Lao (Laotien)". Inalco. 20 January 2017.
  2. ^ "Languages of ASEAN". Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  3. ^ "Lao". About World Languages. Retrieved 2016-05-25.
  4. ^ "Lao". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2020-12-19.
  5. ^ "Ausbau and Abstand languages". 1995-01-20. Retrieved 2012-07-08.
  6. ^ Hays, Jeffrey. "LAO LANGUAGE: DIALECTS, GRAMMAR, NAMES, WRITING, PROVERBS AND INSULTS | Facts and Details". Retrieved 2020-12-19.
  7. ^ Northern Lao is also spoken in large parts of Uttaradit Province and Phitsanulok, which are outside the Isan region.
  8. ^ Northeastern Lao is sometimes considered a separate language, as it is traditionally spoken by Phuan tribal members, a closely related but distinct Tai group. Also spoken in a few small and scattered Tai Phuan villages in Sukhothai, Uttaradit, and Phrae.
  9. ^ Southern Lao gives way to Northern Khmer in Sisaket, Surin, and Buriram, and to Khorat Thai and, to some extent, Northern Khmer in Nakhon Ratchasima.
  10. ^ The Western Lao dialect is not spoken in Laos.
    เรืองเดช ปันเขื่อนขัติย์. (2531)
  11. ^ a b c d e Blaine Erickson, 2001. "On the Origins of Labialized Consonants in Lao". Analysis based on L. N. Morev, A. A. Moskalyov and Y. Y. Plam, (1979). The Lao Language. Moscow: USSR Academy of Sciences, Institute of Oriental Studies. Accessed 2009-12-19.
  12. ^ Blaine Erickson, 2001. "On the Origins of Labialized Consonants in Lao". Analysis based on T. Hoshino and R. Marcus (1981). Lao for Beginners: An Introduction to the Spoken and Written Language of Laos. Rutland/Tokyo: Tuttle. Accessed 2009-12-19.
  13. ^ Benedict, Paul K. "Languages and literatures of Indochina." The Far Eastern Quarterly (1947): 379-389.
  14. ^ a b UCLA International Institute, (n.d.). "Lao" Archived 2010-12-30 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed 2010-07-27.
  15. ^ a b Unicode. (2019). Lao. In The Unicode Standard Version 12.0 (pp. 635-637). Mountain View, CA: Unicode Consortium.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]