The Riveting History Of Lao Language: Your #1 Guide

history of Lao language

Being a meditation enthusiast, I was in for a surprise when I came across familiar Buddhist prayer words in the Lao language. Yes, these words from Buddhist scriptures written in the Pali language were loanwords in Lao! This piqued my interest in digging deeper into the history of Lao language.

So, in this article, we’re going to take a deep dive into the history, origin, and evolution of Lao, the official language of Laos. From its roots in ancient Tai languages to its modern-day usage in Laos and Northeastern Thailand, we’ll explore the evolution and cultural significance of this fascinating language.

The Lao Language: Classification & Origin

The Lao language is a member of the Tai-Kadai language family, which includes languages spoken in Southeast Asia, southern China, and parts of northeastern India. Within the Tai-Kadai family, the Lao language is classified as a branch of the Southwestern Tai group, along with other languages such as Thai, Shan, and Lü. In a broader category, it belongs to the family tree of the Austronesian languages.

The origins of the Lao language can be traced back to the ancient Tai-speaking tribes that inhabited the regions of modern-day southern China and northern Vietnam. These tribes migrated southward over time, eventually settling in what is now Laos and northeastern Thailand. The Lao language evolved as a distinct dialect of the Tai language family through the influence of local languages and cultures.

The earliest written records of the Lao language date back to the 13th century, during the reign of King Fa Ngum, the founder of the Lan Xang Kingdom. The Lan Xang Kingdom was a powerful and influential state that ruled over much of present-day Laos and northeastern Thailand from the 14th to the 18th century. During this period, the Lao language developed its own unique script, known as Lao script or Akson Lao, which is based on the ancient Khmer script.

Today, the Lao language is spoken by approximately 20 million people in Laos, Northwest Thailand, Vietnam, and other parts of the world. In Thailand, it is known as the Isan language. This Tai Kadai language is characterized by its tonal system, which distinguishes words with different pitches, and its use of classifiers, which categorize nouns based on their shape and size. The Lao language also features a unique vocabulary that reflects the country’s rich history and cultural heritage.

history of Lao language

Evolution Of The Lao Language

The Lao language has a long and complex history, with influences from a variety of sources. The language evolved over time as Tai-speaking tribes migrated southward and settled in what is now Laos and northeastern Thailand. The earliest written records of the Lao language date back to the 13th century, during the reign of King Fa Ngum, the founder of the Lan Xang Kingdom.

During the Lan Xang period, the Lao language developed its own unique script, known as Lao script or Akson Lao, which is based on the ancient Khmer script. The Lao language continued to evolve and absorb influences from neighboring languages and cultures, including Vietnamese, Chinese, and French. The Lao vocabulary is also influenced by Indic languages like Pali and Sanskrit, thanks to the Buddhist scripture that traveled all the way from India to Laos in the previous centuries.

With the establishment of the Kingdom of Laos in 1953, the Lao language was recognized as the official language of the country and underwent a standardization process to ensure consistency in its usage.

The 5 Dialects Of The Lao Language

The Lao language consists primarily of 5 regional Lao dialects, each with its own unique characteristics.

The Vientiane Lao is considered the standard dialect of the Lao language and is spoken in the capital city of Vientiane and surrounding areas. It is characterized by a softer tone and a slower pace of speech compared to other dialects. Although there is no official standard, the Vientiane dialect or the Vientiane Lao has become the de facto standard language.

The Luang Prabang dialect or Northern Lao is spoken in the ancient city of Luang Prabang and its surrounding areas. It features a distinct nasal tone and is known for its use of the word nyang, which means yes.

The Xieng Khouang dialect is spoken in the northeastern part of Laos and is known for its use of the word qo to indicate the past tense. It is also characterized by its use of the word mau to indicate ‘not.’

The Khammouane dialect, or Central Lao, is spoken in the central part of Laos and is characterized by its use of the word mai to indicate ‘not’ and pha to indicate ‘hill.’

The Pakse/Champassak dialect, or Southern Lao, is spoken in the southern part of Laos and is known for its use of the word pen to indicate ‘is’ and bo to indicate ‘not.’

While each regional dialect has its own unique characteristics, they are all mutually intelligible and are considered to be part of the larger Lao language family.

lao people

Minority Languages Of Laos

Laos is also home to a number of minority languages spoken by various ethnic groups throughout the country. These languages belong to a variety of language families and are often endangered due to the dominance of the Lao language and the pressure to assimilate into Lao culture.

Some of the minority languages spoken in Laos include Hmong-Mien, Mon-Khmer, and Tibeto-Burman languages, among others. Efforts have been made in recent years to document and preserve these languages through education and language revitalization programs, but more needs to be done to ensure their survival for future generations.

Similarities Between Thai And Lao

Thai and Lao are both members of the Tai-Kadai language family and have many things in common. Here are some of the main similarities between the two languages:

  1. Vocabulary: Thai and Lao share many cognates or identical words that have a similar origin and meaning. For example, the Thai word for rice is khao, while one of the native Lao words for rice is khao as well.
  2. Tone system: Lao is a tonal language, quite similar to the Thai language. This means that the meaning of a word can change depending on the tone used to pronounce it. Thai has five tones, while Lao has six tones, but both languages use similar pitch patterns to distinguish between different meanings.
  3. Grammar: The grammar of Thai and Lao is quite similar, with both languages using subject-verb-object (SVO) word order and similar sentence structures. For example, both languages use classifiers to specify the quantity or shape of a noun.
  4. Script: Thai and Lao both use scripts derived from the ancient Khmer script. While the scripts have some differences in terms of the characters used, they share many similarities and are mutually intelligible.
  5. Cultural influences: Thai and Lao share a long history of cultural exchange, with both countries having been part of the Lan Xang Kingdom at various times. This has resulted in a shared cultural heritage and similar customs and traditions, which are reflected in the languages.

These similarities make it relatively easy for speakers of one language to learn the other, and many Thai and Lao speakers can understand each other to some extent.

French Influence On Lao

From the late 19th century until the mid-20th century, Laos was a part of French Indochina, and the French language and culture had a strong presence in the country. French was the language of administration, education, and business, and many Lao people learned French as a second language.

As a result of French influence, Lao adopted many loanwords from French, particularly in the areas of politics, education, and technology. For example, the Lao words for ‘university’ and ‘democracy’ are both borrowed from French. The language also had an impact on pronunciation, with some Lao people adopting a French accent or pronouncing French loanwords with the French pronunciation.

While the French colonial period had a lasting impact on the Lao language, Lao has since undergone a process of ‘de-Frenchification’ with many French loanwords being replaced by Lao equivalents or other loanwords from languages such as English or Thai.

Learn Lao The Ling Way!

Now that you know the history of the Lao language, why not head to the Ling platform to read more articles about Laotian culture, people, geography, society, travel, and much more? This could be a good, immersive experience for you to get a better grasp of this language without spending a dime from your pocket!

And then, you can also download the free Ling app on your phone to practice the four language skills, namely reading, writing, speaking, and listening in Lao. The app comes with interactive games, challenging quizzes, and a dedicated chatbot so that you can master whatever language you want to focus on. So, without wasting time, head over to Google Play Store or Apple App Store to download the Ling app now!

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