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by Dr. John Hartmann 


 In describing Lao as it is spoken in Laos, we are presented with a unique challenge.

Language descriptions, especially attempts to standardize a language, cannot be separated from politics, and the Lao language is no exception. In fact, the issue of language has been a topic of continuing debate between traditionalists, on the one hand, and modernists, on the other. In an essay on "Lao as a National Language," N.J. Enfield (1999, p. 258) sums up the situation as follows:


The fact that the Lao language does not have a well-applied and codified standard is therefore telling. As a nation, Laos has experienced long years of difficulty along the road to unification. Many of the political divisions that can be traced across the history of the nation are also reflected in the current inconsistencies of the language as it is used, and in the decades-old arguments about the Lao language and its proper form. The pressures on Lao as a language are many of the same pressures as those on Laos as a nation. There is a tension between the older, ornate traditions associated with Buddhism and aristocracy on the one hand, and the more recent austere rationalist tradition associated with socialism and the culture of modern technology on the other. In addition, the Lao are keenly aware of the need to maintain and delineate their nationhood in the face of pressure from outside, most notably those from Thailand.


Because Laos has no established standardized form of a national language, we will use a regional approach, taking into account dialectal variations.  If you listen to a radio broadcast in Laos, you will hear a healthy variety of spoken Lao dialects.

Lao and the Tai Language Family

Lao is one of the many Tai languages of the Southwestern Branch of the three branches of the Tai language family. The origins of the Tai language can be traced back to somewhere in the Guangxi-Guizhou-Hunan region  in southern China and bordering areas of northern Vietnam about 2000 years ago. Around the twelfth century, there was a sudden expansion of Tai groups into previously Mon-Khmer areas of Southeast Asia. The Middle Mekong, where most Lao now live, was earlier dominated by non-Thai peoples, primarily those of the Austro-Asiatic family - the Mon-Khmer in particular. Like most Tai peoples, the Lao live along waterways at low elevations. As a result, the lines of communication were facilitated by water routes, chiefly the Mekong. In the intervening 700 years of Lao settlement in the region, Lao dialects have not changed radically. It is safe to say that the dialects of Lao are mutually intelligible from north to south.


Map 1.  Rough Geographic Distribution of the Three Branches of the Tai Languages: Northern, Central, Southwestern

Four Dialect Regions

Historically and linguistically, Laos itself can be divided into four regions: North, Central, South, and Northwest.  Luang Prabang, was the capital of the north - the earliest Lao mandala (or center of political power); Vientiane (Vieng Chan), the central capital; and Champasak, the capital of the south.  Xiang Khuang, a fourth division of the original kingdom of Lan Chang, is located in the northeastern highlands and has a history of its own. Because of this historical north to south movement of the Lao into the middle Mekong region, it makes sense to approach a description of the Lao language in terms of a parent proto-language and subsequent division into daughter languages, especially when it comes to the tonal system.

The Proto-Tai Lao Tonal System

It is theorized that Proto-Tai, the parent of all Tai languages, had only 3 tones, shown in 3 colors below as A, B, and C. The original 3 tones first underwent a two-way split or bifurcation conditioned by the phonetic contrast in the voiceless ("High")  vs. voiced ("Low") quality of the initial consonants in the proto-language, resulting in 6 tones. This had the effect of drawing a line between the "High" the "Mid" initial consonants as shown in the figure below. This simple bifurcation can be seen in the A column of the Northern Lao (Luang Prabang) dialects.

High: A [proto-voiceless] B C
Low: A [proto-voiced] B C

Three-way splitting of the tones further divided the tonal array into a Mid and Low series.  This three-way split can be seen in the A column of Southern Lao (Pakse-Champaska) dialects.  Central Lao appears to be transitional between the historical two-way tonal split of the North and the three-way split of the South.

Northern Lao Tonal Splits (Bifurcation):

  A B C







Central Lao Tonal Splits (Transitional):

  A B C







Southern Lao Tonal Splits (Trifurcation):

  A B C







This tonal pattern underlies the tones of all of the Lao dialects as well.  It is useful to keep these three underlying patterns in mind in trying to understand and appreciate the historical changes in the Lao language in Laos proper when learning the language. From the 9 cells in the chart above, it can be seen that it is possible to have as many as 9 tones in this particular chart lay-out.  In Lao, the maximum appears to be 6.

Column A. Looking at the A column, one can find 3 different tones in the South (Pakse, for example) but only 2 in the Central Region (around Vientiane where A-1&2 are merged) and  the North (around Louang Prabang where A-2&3 are merged).

Column B.  The B column is remarkable in that in all Lao dialects, the 3 cells have the same tone.

Column C.  In the C column, C-2&3 in Central and Southern dialects have identical tones in contrast to C-1, whereas Northern Lao merges C-1&2.

Modern Lao Tonal Systems

Tones separate one dialect from another in a very fundamental way.   Today's Luang Prabang dialect, representing the dialects of the North, has 5 tones depending on the exact geographic point and ethnicity and life history of the speaker.  (North of Luang Prabang, in Muang Sing, for example, 6 tones will be found because many of the residents there are Tai Lue speakers.) The speech of the South, represented by the dialects of Savannakhet and Pakse, have 6 tones, but their pitch levels and contours are different from the northern and central regions. The speech of Vientiane is more problematic. As the modern capital of Laos, the city has been the center of many population movements and shifts in and out of the city, especially in very recent times. Different parts of Vientiane and its environs are enclaves of rather distinct groups who have migrated in from distant points. The Tai Dam, originally from the Dienbienphu region of northwestern Vietnam, came as refugees as early as 1954 and brought their dialect and customs with them. Enfield (1999 p.262) reports that many of the original inhabitants of Vientiane fled the city and have been replaced by speakers of the southern dialect of Savannakhet and Champasak, which means that their speech could well become the dominant one in the capital city. In the final analysis, it is difficult to say with any definiteness what the standard tones of Vientiane are until more field research has been conducted.

We have compiled the descriptions that various scholars have given over the past several decades for Vientiane tones and the tone systems of the South (Pakse) and North (Luang Prabang) in the form of tone charts.

Click here to see Tones of 3 Regional Dialects



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