The Lao language is a Tai-Kadai language, of the Lao-Phutai branch. Tai languages were spoken in the regions that are now Southern China and North Viet Nam, and this is what the Lao language directly descends from. The Tai people were pushed to the south towards India, due to Chinese expansion and Mongol invaders. They then absorbed the other languages that were present in the region, such as Mon-Khmer and Austronesian languages, which is when the language grew here into the separate Lao language.
Even though the Lao language consists primarily of Lao words, there have still been several influences to the Lao language over the years. With the introduction of Buddhism to Laos, the religious language of Pali has contributed several words to the Lao language, particularly those that are related to religion. The countries of Cambodia, Thailand and Viet Nam have all swapped several words with the Lao language, and in return, the Lao language has had a similar influence on the languages for these countries as well.
There are around 20 million speakers of the Lao language, who live all around the world. Not only is the Lao language the official language of Laos, but it is spoken in Thailand, France, Canada, the U.S., China, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.
There are six main dialects within the Lao language; Vientiane Lao, Northern Lao, Northeastern Lao, Central Lao, Southern Lao and Western Lao. As you can see, they correspond to areas in the country. Vientiane Lao is considered to be the standard version of the Lao language, and is the dialect that is most used in the media and broadcasting.
The Lao language is a tonal language. This means that the way the word is pronounced, in terms of pitch, affects the total meaning of the word. Lao syllables all come in the form of consonant – vowel – consonant. There is a very strict form to the language, and words do not deviate from this form. It is also a majoritively monosyllabic language, as well as an analytic language.
This language looks very similar to the Thai language, and in fact because the countries are next to each other, the languages themselves are also very similar. The Lao language and the Thai language share many words, and most of the basic vocabulary is the same. The words themselves are traditionally written with no spaces in between them, which can look a little daunting to anyone beginning to study this language.
Punctuation is also very different to most languages, with no full stops/periods or question marks being used at all in speech. When one wishes to ask a question, there will be the insertion of a question word into the sentence. In modern writing, sometimes French punctuation is used, which is essentially the same as English.
Why Learn The Lao Language?
The country of Lao became an independent country in 1954, when it was granted independence from French rule. Since this time, Laos has become a communist country, and tourism has grown into a thriving industry. Laos is a beautiful country with much Buddhist architecture and many natural attractions, and enjoys around a million visiting tourists each year. While this number is rising all the time, with around 10% of Laotian people working in the tourism sector, there are still many areas of the country that barely see any visitors.
This makes Laos one of the more exciting countries to visit in the world, as you know you are going somewhere that not many people have travelled to. Learning the Lao language is a wonderful sign of respect, and the remarkably friendly local people will appreciate your effort.