Lao or Laotian is the official language of Laos. It is the primary language of the Lao people, and is also spoken in the northeast of Thailand, where it is referred to as Isan language.
As most ethnic groups in Laos have their own dialects, Lao is an important second language for them as a central language to communicate with outsiders. There are variations in vocabulary, pronunciation and accent throughout the country.
Lao belongs to Tai-Kadai language family. Its written form was derived from Tham script which evolved from Pali language that initiated in India. The script was brought to the region by Theravada Buddhists at the time that Buddhism was growing in popularity around two thousand years ago.
The Buddhist monks used the Tham script to write the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teaching). It was only taught to novices and monks in temples and that is why in the past only men (ex-monks) knew how to read and write. Today the Tham still exists in Laos and northeastern Thailand.
Through the years, adjustments were made to the script and it was used for Lao writing. And through various orthographic reforms, Lao script has gradually been developed into what it is today.
Lao is tonal language with six tones in the Vientiane dialect: low, mid, high, rising, high falling, and low falling. It consists primarily of native Lao words. However, due to the introduction of Buddhism, Pali contributed numerous terms especially those relating to religion. Many Pali borrowed words are seen in Lao language until today.
Lao has influenced Khmer language and Thai language and vice versa. The majority of Lao understand spoken Thai and Lao literate people can read Thai, because Lao and Thai languages have close similarities. However, we are not able to comprehend Khmer as the language is different from Lao.
The Lao alphabet is phonetic. Words are spelt according to phonetic principles as opposed to etymological principles. In addition to consonants having tone classes, tone marks facilitate marking tones where they are needed.