"Lao language" written in Lao (Photo by Stephanie Kiang)
La Cañada High School

Lao: A Language Feature

Many languages will always have a special place in my heart, but there is one language in particular that introduced me to the language learning community and other languages that I really like today, including Khmer and Thai. This language that sparked my love of other languages is called Lao.

One day, I had nothing else to do, so I started scrolling through the list of languages that could be translated on Google Translate. I remember specifically looking for languages with characters, and Lao was the first to catch my eye. Lao became the first language I attempted to learn outside of school. Even though I didn’t become proficient, and I only know how to say a few words now, Lao has become a part of me.

Lao was the first language that caught my attention, and for good reasons. In my opinion, the characters are absolutely gorgeous, the tones are interesting, and it sounds beautiful when it’s spoken.

According to Ethnologue, a total of 4,424,200 people can speak Lao. Lao is spoken in Laos, a country that is on the border of countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. It is spoken in a few other countries, but speakers are not as common in those places.

Lao is a member of the Tai-Kadai language family, which has 76 languages. Thai and Lao are the most used languages in the family, while many of the other languages are endangered or close to dying out.

According to Omniglot, people who speak Lao are able to understand spoken Thai to some extent. Speakers of Thai, however, can find it challenging to understand spoken Lao, because Thai speakers don’t get as much exposure to Lao.

Lao’s alphabet was influenced by the Old Khmer alphabet, and the Thai alphabet also looks similar to Lao’s. With lots of curves and swirls, Lao is aesthetically pleasing. Lao is an abugida, which means that “consonants each have an inherent vowel which can be changed to another vowel or muted by means of diacritics or other modifications,” according to Omniglot. Diacritics are used to distinguish vowels from consonants, and they appear around, below or above the vowels.

Lao is written in horizontal lines from left to right, and it is also a tonal language. This means that the meaning of words is affected by the tone of your voice. According to Ancient Scripts, Lao uses six tones, which are low, low rising, low falling, mid, high and high falling. This means that a word in Lao can have up to six different meanings.

In Lao, there are only spaces between sentences, and it’s a good thing that punctuation marks are used to help make these distinctions. For someone that is learning Lao, this will take some getting used to if their native language does not have this characteristic because they will have to memorize every word and be able to read them all together. The consonants are also split up into three different groups because the consonants dictate which tone a syllable will have. What is also interesting is that there are a few letters for some consonants.

I am so grateful that Lao is a part of my life. Lao is one of my all time favorite languages, and nothing will ever change that.

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