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
|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
|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 Austroasiatic 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 fact, some would use the term "Mekong Lao" to refer to the Lao majority
living along the banks of this mighty river in contrast to Lao groups, such as the Phuan,
who live away from this river. 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 (Green),
Central (Blue), Southwestern (Aqua). Typical
languages for the three branches would include: Northern - Saek,
Yay; Central - Tho, Nung and closely related languages in extreme
northeastern North Vietnam and adjacent parts of southern China; Southwest
- Siamese (Thai), Lao, Lue, Shan, Tai Dam, among others.
|Historically and linguistically, Laos
itself can be divided into four regions: North, Central, South, and Northwest.
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
The Proto-Tai Lao
|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]
|Low: A [proto-voiced]
|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
Central Lao Tonal
Southern Lao Tonal
|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.
|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.
2003 SEAsite Laos. Spoken Lao - A