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Number of Speakers: 3,500,000 – 4,000,000 in Laos; 15,000,000 – 20,000,000 in Thailand
Key Dialects: Vientiane (Central)
Geographical Center: Laos, South Eastern Asia
Lao is the language of the Lao people, spoken in Laos and the neighboring Thailand. According to different accounts, there are from 3,5 to 4 million speakers of Lao in Laos, and from 15 to 20 million speakers in Thailand. In Laos, Lao speakers accumulate along the western and the southwestern border, whereas in the rest of Laos other languages are more widely spoken. In Thailand, the people speaking Lao live mostly in the northeastern part of the country.
According to most scholars, Lao belongs the the Southwestern branch of the Tai language family (see Campbell 2000; Diller 1992; Morev 1998; Smyth 1994). Ethnologue database provides a more complex scheme: Tai-Kadai > Kam-Tai > Be-Tai > Tai-Sek > Tai > Southwestern > East Central > Lao-Phutai > Lao. The hypothesis of the Tai-Kadai (or Kam-Tai) macrofamily is now rejected by most of the scolars as being founded on insufficiently firm basis. One of the problems usually adduced is that the Kadai and Kam languages, which are to some extent related to Austronesian languages, have a very different structure from that of Tai languages. According to some older hypotheses, Tai languages (or Tai-Kadai languages) were considered to be genetically related to Sino-Tibetan languages, and even some languages of North America (Na-Dene), but most scholars reject the genetic relationship of these languages due to lack of proof.
Scholars do not agree whether the different varieties of Lao really have to be considered different dialects of Lao due to the fact that the differences are not significant, and mutual understanding is in general possible. Different scholars distinguish different groups of (sub-)dialects. According to Morev, there are three groups of sub-dialects (Ru. ‘govory’): Central, Northern and Southern (Morev 1998). Gething also assumes three groups: Vientiane, Luang Phrabang (also spelled Louang Phrabang and Louangphrabang) and Campasak (Gething 2001). In Ethnologue database five groups are distinguished: Vientiane, Luang Phrabang, Sawanakhet, Pakse, Lao-Kao, Lao-Khrang. The area of the Lao language can be pictured as a dialectal continuum that extends from Northeastern Thailand to Western-Southwestern Laos. According to some accounts (Ethnologue), the language of the Northeastern regions of Thailand is not considered Lao, but rather Northeastern Tai, which forms a dialectal continuum with Lao. Yet most scholars consider all those language varieties Lao (cf. Campbell 2000; Diller 1992; Morev 1998; Smyth 1994).
Lao uses a unique writing system, called tua-lao. It is closely related to Thai script, but it does not derive from Thai script. It consists of 64 symbols, representing consonants, vowels, diphthongs and tones. To denote the length, special diacritics are used, which sometimes can also be doubled. There exists another variety of Lao script, called lao-tham. A number of religious Buddhist texts are written in lao-tham (the word “tham” derives from Pali dhammo, related to Sanskrit dharma- ‘law, order, dharma’). Different opinions have been expressed about the origin of Lao script. There is common agreement that tua-lao and tua-tham ultimately go back to Brahmi, but scholars do not agree on the details of development. Morev assumes that tua-tham developed out of Mon script (Morev et al. 1979, Morev 1998), and considers the origin of tua-lao obscure (Morev et al. 1979). Smyth provides a slightly different scheme: according to him, Lao script developed along with Thai and Cambodian script from the eastern branches of the ancient Northern Brahmi script (Smyth 1994). In the Ontopia database (http://www.ontopia.net) Lao script is assumed to derive from Sukhotai script (Morev et al. disagree in Morev et al. 1979), which had developed from Brahmi via intermediate stages of Grantha, Pallava Grantha and Khmer scripts, leaving Gupta aside (unlike Smyth’s account as presented above). Haarmann considers Pallava Grantha to be an off-spring of the southern varieties of Brahmi, and the ancestor of various Southern Indian scripts: Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, etc. (Haarmann 1990). Haarmann does not provide a clear account on the development of Lao script, except that he compares it with Pali and Old Siamese (Old Thai or Sukhothai) scripts, deriving from northern Brahmi. Another point of view is expressed by Zograf: according to him, Brahmi split into three main groups of scripts: Northern (> Gupta, Devanagri, Tibetan, etc.), Southern (> Grantha, Malayalam, Telugu, etc.) and Southeastern (Zograf 1998). According to this theory, Lao script, along with Thai, Khmer, Sinhalese and Burmese scripts, developed out of the Southeastern script via the intermediate stage of Pali script.
Lao has 20 consonants, 1 affricate, 9 monophthongs and 3 diphthongs (Campbell 2000, Morev et al. 1979). The distinction of voice in stops seems to be disappearing, since only /b/ and /d/ are present in the modern system (both become devoiced in word-final position). Voiceless stops can be aspirated or non-aspirated, and aspiration is phonemic, cf. pa ‘fish’ – p’a ‘to lead’; kwan ‘deer’ – k’wan ‘to hinder’ (Morev et al. 1979). In addition to the 20 consonants mentioned above Morev et al. add 8 labialized consonants, that they consider independent phonemes, cf. la ‘to leave’ – lwa ‘ass’ (ibid.). Consonants are divided into three groups, depending on how they affect the tone on the syllable: high, middle, low. Lao vowels can be short or long. A slightly different point of view is expressed by Hospitalier: according to him, vowels can be very short, short and long (Hospitalier 1937). Hospitalier claims that there are 15 diphthongs, that can have the distinctive features of height (very high, high, low and very low) and length (very short, short and long). Vientiane dialect of Laotian has six tones: low, middle, high, high falling, low falling and rising. Other dialects have from 5 to 7 tones, depending on how well the historical consonant clusters have been preserved. As a rule, the fewer consonant clusters there are in a particular dialect, the greater number of tones it will have.
Lao is an isolating language, and does not have inflections. The syntactic function of words are in general determined by their position in the sentence. Laotian word formation is very productive, and words can be formed in many different ways. The most widespread means of word formation are compounding and reduplication (full or partial). In Lao, both native and borrowed words can be used to form compound words, e.g. im-un ‘happy’ (lit. “sufficient + warm”), maak-teek ‘bomb’ (lit. “fruitlike object + to burst”), cap-cay ‘to impress’ (lit. “to catch + heart”), kop-kip-dyyan ‘lunar eclipse’ (lit. “frog + to eat + moon”); siiva-vithajaa ‘biology’ (< Pali-Sanskrit root siiva- ‘life’ + id. vithajaa- “science”). Reduplication is used to form plural, e.g. khon ‘man’ > khon-khon ‘people; everybody’, or intensives, e.g. nyoong ‘to jump’ > nyoong-nyoong ‘to keep jumping’, etc. Partial reduplication is used for a number of purposes, cf. examples: pup-pap ‘in a hurry’, tua-nyua ‘to cheat’, etc. Nouns are divided into mediative and non-mediative (Morev et al. 1979). Mediative nouns take linking words (classifiers), when combined with numerals, e.g. saang saam tua ‘3 elephants’ (lit. “elephant-three-body”). Non-mediative nouns do not take linking words, cf. saam khang ‘3 times, thrice’. The Lao verb does not have any person or tense markers, and the more precise meaning of the verb is determined by the context (pronouns, temporal adverbs, etc.). Lao is an SVO language.
Lao has a great number of loanwords from Pali (mostly religious vocabulary), as well as other languages, e.g. Chinese, English and French.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
Lao is the official language of Laos. The standard language is based on Vientiane dialect. Prior to the independence declaration in 1954, the official language of Laos was French. Lao is relatively close to Thai, and a lot of educated people are able to speak or to read Thai. There are a number of Laotian newspapers, 4 TV channels and 6 radio stations in Laos. Literacy: 57%.
It is believed that the ancestors of modern Laos came to Mekong Valley along with other speakers of Tai languages from the areas where today Vietnam borders China (Smyth 1994). At that time these territories were probably inhabited predominantly by Mon-Khmer people. As early as in the 1st century A.D. numerous small kingdoms were created in Mekong Valley, which were unified in the 14th century by Prince Fa Ngum, and a great kingdom of Lan Xang was established. It survived for some 300 hundred years, until it was divided by the neighboring countries (Siam and Vietnam) at the end of the 17th century. From the late 18th century until the middle of the 20th century Laos was controlled by France. In 1953, Laos became an independent state (based on http://www.countryreports.org/history/laoshist.htm).
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