Tone Change: A Case Study of the Lao Language*

Phinnarat Akharawatthanakun, Ph.D.

Chulalongkorn University, Thailand





This research studies the tones of several varieties of Lao with the idea of proposing three Lao subgroups: Pure Lao, Deviant Lao, and Adopted Lao. The difference in tones between Pure Lao and Deviant Lao is investigated in order to reconstruct the Lao proto-tonal system. Hypotheses on tone change as well as the factors motivating such changes will then be set forth. Tone data for Lao dialects spoken as majority and minority dialects around Thailand and the Thailand-Lao PDR border have been collected. Other sources of possible interference are sought in the tones of the other languages spoken in the same areas. Twenty-seven villages around Thailand were selected as study locations. The data were collected from 239 informants: 162 Lao native speakers and 77 speakers of other languages, including Kaloeng, Yooy, Suai/Suai Lao/Suai Isan, Phuan, Muang/Kham Muang/Yuan/Tai Yuan, Lue/Tai Lue, and Central Thai. 

Two word lists were used to study the tones of the Lao dialects. The first word list consists of 80 test words from a modification of Gedney’s word list. The second word list consists of 20 monosyllabic words from the analogous set; /khaa24/ ‘ขา’, /paa33/ ‘ปา’ , /baan33/ ‘บาน’, /khaa33/ ‘คา’, /khaa21/ ‘ข่า’, /paa21/ ‘ป่า’, /baa21/ ‘บ่า’, /khaa42/ ‘ค่า’, /khaaw42/ ‘ข้าว’, /paa42/ ‘ป้า’, /baa42/ ‘บ้า’, /khaa453/ ‘ค้า’, /khaat21/ ‘ขาด’, /paat21/ ‘ปาด’, /baat21/ ‘บาด’, /khaat42/ ‘คาด’, /khat21/ ‘ขัด’, /pat21/ ‘ปัด’, /bat21/ ‘บัตร’, /khat453/ ‘คัด’. The words from the analogous set include five tokens of each test word arranged in random order so that there are 100 test words altogether (20 words X 5 repetitions = 100 test words). Thus, the tone data in this study are 180 test words from each informant. The words were elicited from the informants and recorded onto tape. The tone data in this study were analyzed in two ways: The tonal mergers and splits were determined by ear, and the tonal characteristics were analyzed with the SIL CECIL program.

The findings here reveal that the ethnic names or language names as well as the history of migration and the development of tones can be used as the criteria to subgroup the Lao language into four subgroups; Pure Lao 1, Pure Lao 2, Deviant Lao, and Adopted Lao. The distinctive patterns of tonal mergers and splits of Pure Lao 1 are B1234, C1=DL123/C234=DL4 (“Lao ladder”), and BΉDL. The tones in Pure Lao 2 are found to be similar to the ones in Pure Lao 1 but there are variations. In Deviant Lao there are many tone variations and changes, and some tonal patterns are similar to the ones in the surrounding languages. Pure Lao 1, Pure Lao 2, and Deviant Lao are considered to be in the Lao group, while Adopted Lao is not. Confusion between ethnic names and tonal systems is found in Adopted Lao.

            The patterns of tonal mergers and splits in Proto-Lao are *A1-23-4, *B1234, *C1-234, and *D123-4. There are no mergers between tone C and D in Proto-Lao (C1ΉD123/C234ΉD4). Eight tones are hypothesized to be in the Proto-Lao tonal system, i.e., T.1 (*A1) rising1 [R1], T.2 (*A23) rising 2 [R2], T.3 (*A4) rising 3 [R3], T.4 (*B1234) level [L Ϋ], T.5 (*C1) falling with laryngealization  1 [F1?], T.6 (*C234) falling with laryngealization 2 [F2?], T.7 (*D123) falling 3 [F3], and T.8 (*D4) falling 4 [F4]. Tonal variations and changes in both majority and minority Lao induced by both internal and external factors. Tonal interference, pronunciation borrowing or accentual borrowing are found as the important factors leading to variation and change. The variations and changes induced by an internal factor are suspected to have been caused by simplification from more marked tones to less marked tones. It can be concluded that variation and change can occur not only in dialects of the minority, but also of the majority. It is not necessarily so that in dialects in contact situations, the dialects of the minority are influenced to a higher degree than the dialects of the majority. In addition, it is hypothesized that various patterns of tonal mergers and splits may be found in Lao dialects in the future, especially C1ΉDL123, C234ΉDL4, or B=DL. Thus, the mergers and splits, B1234, C1=DL123/C234=DL4, and BΉDL may not be the distinctive patterns of the Lao language any more.





* This abstract is a part of my Ph.D. dissertation: Phinnarat Akharawatthanakun. 2004. Tone Change: A Case Study of the Lao Language. Doctoral dissertation, Department of Linguistics, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, supervised by Professor Theraphan L. Thongkum and Professor Pranee Kullavanijaya.