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A Guide to Languages Spoken in Lao

Posted by Chloe G. on January 12, 2024.

Situated in Southeast Asia, Laos is a landlocked country sharing borders with Thailand, Myanmar, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. It stands as one of the few remaining communist states globally, with the majority of Laotians residing in rural areas, primarily engaged in rice cultivation, which constitutes approximately 80% of the agricultural work. The current ethnic makeup of Laos and the dispersion of its ethnic communities are outcomes of global migration and historical conflicts.

When it comes to languages spoken in Laos, there is a rich diversity of Lao languages across various ethnic groups. With over 80 recorded languages, all classified as dialects, Lao or Laotian takes precedence as the official and dominant language. As one of the Tai languages in Southeast Asia, Lao is the focal point of this linguistic landscape. This article aims to delve deeper into the intricacies of the languages spoken in Laos, providing comprehensive insights into the linguistic tapestry of the country.

History of Languages Spoken in Lao

Languages spoken in Lao 1

The Lao language has evolved from the Tai languages, a closely related family of languages, with the Thai language of Thailand being its most prominent member. The migration of the Tai peoples toward India, the Malay Peninsula, and down the Mekong River valley was influenced by factors such as the expansion of Han Chinese, Mongol invasions, and the quest for suitable lands for wet rice cultivation. These migratory patterns are preserved in oral history, notably in the legends of Khun Borom. During these movements, earlier groups speaking Austroasiatic and Austronesian languages either succumbed to absorption or were displaced by Tai speakers in what is now Laos.

Austroasiatic languages, also known as Mon-Khmer, form a large language family in Mainland Southeast Asia, as well as parts of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and southern China. While Vietnamese and Khmer hold official status as modern national languages, other languages within this family are spoken by minority groups without official recognition. The Mon language, with a long recorded history like Vietnamese and Khmer, is recognized as an indigenous language in Myanmar and Thailand. Presently, there are approximately 117 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages.

Austronesian languages, spoken by around 386 million people, constitute the 5th largest language family by the number of speakers. Major Austronesian languages include Malay (Indonesian and Malaysian), Javanese, and Tagalog (Filipino).

 

The Official Languages Spoken in Lao  Languages spoken in Lao 3

The Lao language, classified within the Tai languages, is a member of the Kra–Dai language family. Tai-Kadai languages, particularly prevalent in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Southern China, share close similarities with Thai. Consequently, a significant portion of Laotians comprehend spoken Thai, and those literate in Lao can read Thai. Additionally, the primary language of the Lao people is spoken in Northeast Thailand, referred to as the Isan language.

Major Lao dialects include Vientiane Lao (Vientiane, Vientiane Capital Prefecture, Bolikhamsai); Northern Lao (Luang Prabang, Sainyabuli, Oudomxay); Northeastern Lao/Tai Phuan (Xieng Khouang, Houaphanh); Central Lao (Savannakhet and Khammouane); and Southern Lao (Champasak, Salavan, Sekong, and Attapeu).

Although lacking an official standard, Vientiane Lao has become the de facto standard language, widely spoken throughout the country. More than half of the nation’s population (approximately 52%) speaks Lao, and around 3.3 million people worldwide are estimated to be proficient in Lao.

Most Lao dialects feature six tones, including low, mid, high, rising, high falling, and low falling. The nuanced differences in tone or pitch, often challenging for untrained ears, can alter the meaning of a word or syllable. The language incorporates native Lao words and includes borrowed words from Pali (the language of Buddhist scriptures, related to Sanskrit) and Cambodian.

Like many languages, Lao has its alphabet, consisting of 26 consonant symbols and 18 vowel symbols, yielding 28 vowel sounds. The Lao script evolved from the Khmer script, which, rooted in the Indian Brahmic script, was introduced by Theravada Buddhists in the 14th century during their mission to popularize Buddhism. Lao is read from left to right.

Moreover, Lao, as the official language of the country, serves as a crucial second language for ethnic groups in Laos and Isan. This facilitates communication with outsiders, especially given the diverse array of dialects and languages within these groups.

 

Languages Spoken in Lao: Minority languages  

Languages spoken in Lao 2

In addition to Lao or Laotian, which serves as the official national language spoken by 52% of the population in Laos, there exist over 80 languages used by various ethnicities within the country. Among these, the most prevalent are Khmu and Hmong. Other minority languages in Laos encompass Akha, Arem, Bana, Katu, Ksingmul, Maleng, Lamet, Phai, Tai Daeng, Phu Thai, Tai Dam, and more. In this discussion, we will delve into insights about the two most common minority languages in Laos.

Khmu

500,000 speakers residing in the five northern provinces: Bokeo, Luang Prabang, Luangnam Tha, Oudomxay, and Phongsaly. Their language belongs to the Austroasiatic language family, featuring closely related dialects such as Kniang, Puoc, and O’du, which collectively form the Khumuic organ.

Khmu languages showcase distinctions influenced by neighboring state dialects, variations in the number of consonants, and differences in lexical range. While generally comprehensible, these variations can pose challenges in communication between speakers from geographically distant areas.

Despite being predominantly used within the Khmu community, individuals within this group often display fluency in the dialect spoken by the dominant community in their region. Many are adept in three or four diverse languages, with Lao being utilized when interacting with government representatives, engaging with people in the lowlands of Laos, or participating in educational settings.

Hmong

The Hmong language is spoken by the Hmong community residing in the mountainous regions of Laos, Thailand, Burma, and China, with two primary subgroups: White Hmong (or Hmong Daw) and the Green/Blue Hmong (or Hmong Njua). Despite their proximity, Hmong Daw serves as the dominant language, and the Hmong writing system, comprising eight or twelve sounds, mirrors the pronunciation of the Hmong Daw dialect.

Key distinctions between these two languages lie in vocabulary, pronunciation, word structure, and grammar. However, ongoing modifications aim to enhance mutual intelligibility between the dialects. While maintaining linguistic independence, most Hmong individuals also speak Lao, contributing to a multilingual environment within the community.

 

Foreign languages in Laos

In addition to the official national language, foreign languages play crucial roles in Laos, particularly in the development of tourism. Immigration languages are spoken, including Khmer Chinese, consisting of refugees from Cambodia who sought refuge from the war and predominantly reside in the southwestern region of Laos near the Cambodian and Thai border. Another group is the Lao of Chinese descent, who migrated from various provinces of China, including Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Guangdong. 

Most of them communicate in Cantonese and Teochew, while a minority speak Southwestern Mandarin. Moreover, Vietnamese and Thai are widely understood, especially in proximity to the country’s borders. Among all foreign languages spoken in Laos, French and English are the most commonly used, particularly in major tourist centers.

 

Sum up

Languages spoken in Lao cta

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