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Lao Language

The Lao have their own alphabet and numbers. Words are read syllable by syllable with a circular eye movement rather than left to right as in English. The vowel may appear before, after, above, or below the consonant it goes with or in various combinations thereof. Tone marks appear above the consonant as well. No spaces are left between words, only between phrases and sentences, so one must know where one word ends and a new word begins.

Most Lao words are monosyllabic, but there are many polysyllabic borrowings from Sanskrit and Pali for terms dealing with religion, royalty, and government. The language has been reformed and simplified to make it phonetic, and seldom used Sanskrit letters and letters representing sounds no longer used have been dropped.

The grammar is simple. "I go." "He go." "They go." "We go yesterday." "We go many year already." "You will go." There are no articles and no verb to be with adjectives: "He need pencil." "I happy." "He tall." Plurals are indicated by a number word and usually a noun classifier: "I have book ten volume." "Have [there are] student twenty person in class."

There are no consonant clusters at the end of words in Lao and certain sounds like "s" do not appear at the end of syllables. Consequently Lao speakers find it difficult to pronounce plurals ending in s. It is also hard for them to distinguish English words that end with different consonant clusters, such as deck and desk. Conversely, Americans have trouble pronouncing the common Lao letter "ng" at the beginning of words, such as "ngu" (snake) but have no trouble pronouncing it at the end of a word, like "sing."

The hard part of Lao for Westerners is the tone system. There are six tones (more in some dialects), and words that sound much the same to a Western ear are totally different to a Lao depending on the tone: low, mid, high, rising, high falling, low falling. For example, the words "come" (ma, mid tone), "horse" (ma, high tone), and "dog" (ma, rising tone) may sound almost indistinguishable to an American and be hard to pronounce so that a Lao understands which word you are using unless the context clearly indicates a particular meaning. Tone is affected by complicated rules involving the initial consonant, the final consonant, and vowel length. The same tone mark may indicate different tones depending on the initial consonant. Spelling is difficult as there are a number of letters that have the same sounds except that they fall in different initial consonant groups and follow different tone rules.

Some minor alphabetic reforms were made by the Marxist government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic after it took power in 1975. As a political matter, these reforms have not been well accepted by the Lao refugee community abroad. More importantly the new government tried topurge royal language and pronouns of superiority and inferiority to produce a more egalitarian language. They also did away with much of the body language of bows that showed relative social position.