Click on each Lao alphabet to listen to the sound.
| Lao writing is a direct descendant of an Indian script adapted by the
Cambodians and later borrowed and modified by the Thai King Rama Khamheng in the 13th
century. The Lao alphabet is therefore essentially the same as the modern Thai
alphabet, the most obvious difference being in the shape or style of the letters. If
you can read Lao you can make out the meanings of many Thai words, although their actual
pronunciation, especially in regard to tone, will be different.
You will notice that Lao sometimes has two symbols for the same consonant sound. "kh" for example, can be written either ຂ or ຄ. The same holds true for the sounds which we transcribe as "s", "th", "ph", "f", and "h". Each has two Lao alphabet symbols to represent it. The significance of this arrangement becomes evident when we remember that Lao is a tonal language and that there must be some way for the writing system to indicate the tone of a syllable.
One way in which the alphabet does this is by grouping its consonants into three "classes". The sound written ຂ "kh" belongs to what the Lao call the "su4uN [High] class" of consonants. This class also includes ສ "s", ຖ "th", ຜ "ph", ຝ "f", and ຫ "h". On the other hand, ຄ "kh" belongs to "ta#m [Low] class" of consonants. Others in this class are ຊ "s", ທ "th", ພ "ph", ຟ "f", ຮ "h". Included also are ງ "N", ຍ "±", ນ "n", ມ "m", ຣ "r", ລ "l", ວ "v", but there is no corresponding su4uN class symbol for these. There is a third group of consonants, called the "kaaN [Middle] class", which includes ກ "k", ຈ "c", ດ "d", ຕ "t", ບ "b", ປ "p", ຢ "y", ອ "?" [glottal stop].
Below is a chart for easy reference with the letters arranged according to the consonant class to which they belong. (This is not meant to show the order of the consonants as they would appear in a dictionary.) When a consonant letter stands alone, it is pronounced with the vowel "OO".
| If you
would like to hear the consonants' sound, please go to the Consonants Poster
Now let us see how this system works in the actual spelling of words. An example will help make this clear. Suppose you wanted to write so4N (rising tone on the vowel) and so2N (high tone). Both words begin and end with the same consonant sounds and have the same short vowel, but each has a different tone. The first would be written ສົງ using the su4uN [High Class] "s" symbol ( ົ is the short vowel "o" and ງ is the sonorant consonant "N"), since a su4uN class initial consonant followed by a short or long vowel plus a sonorant final consonant is pronounced with a rising tone. The second so2N (the "o" of so2N is pronounced like English "oh"), however, is written ຊົງ using the ta#m [Low Class] "s" since a ta#m class initial consonant followed by a short or long vowel plus a sonorant final is pronounced with a high tone.
By studying and learning the Lao Writing System, you will master the Lao alphabet symbols and the various rules which apply to each class of consonants as they relate to the tone of the syllable. For a summary of this relationship in chart form go to Lao Tones.
2002 SEAsite Laos. Introduction