The Thai and Lao
languages both belong to the Tai language family and are closely related.
Different aspects of the languages are compared here.
Possibly 70 percent of the words in Thai and Lao are the same (there
hasn't been a count), but many common words are different including
pronouns, negatives, wh- question words, and vocabulary like "walk",
"little", "run", "look", "book",
and "bottle". Some words may be the same but are used in different
ways in the two languages. For example, heuan, the general
word for "house" in Lao also means "house" in Thai
but is only used formally. High level words are usually the same in
the two languages because they were taken from Sanskrit and Pali.
Structure: The grammar of the two languages is almost identical
so structures like comparatives, tenses, and the use of conjunctions
are the same. There are some small differences, especially in the formation
of several types of questions: "Have you...yet?" is formed
with reu yang? in Thai but with laeo baw? in Lao.
Negative questions like "You're not going?" are Mai pai
reuh? in Thai but Baw pai baw? in Lao. (Baw in
Lao is the equivalent of mai in Thai.)
Pronunciation: Lao has one sound - ny - which
isn't present in Thai. "Not yet" is nyang in Lao
but yang in Thai, and "woman" is phoo nying
in Lao and phoo ying in Thai. Tones on words vary throughout
the region but follow the same system.
unintelligible: Despite being so similar, it's not possible
to understand Lao if you speak only Thai and vice versa. You will hear
many words you know and may understand some complete sentences, but
there are enough differences, especially in basic vocabulary, to make
the two languages mutually unintelligible. Because high level words
are mostly the same it's easier for a Thai speaker to understand high-level
Lao than informal Lao (and vice versa).
Speaking styles: Laotians speak in a straightforward
way without adding the polite words (ka/krup) common in Thai
and without the elaborate word play that some Thais like to use. Lao
may sound more formal than Thai because Laotians tend to speak in complete
sentences and include the pronouns "I" and "you".
This is in contrast to Thai where informal conversation is abbreviated
in a cute, fun way, and pronouns are usually omitted. (In both Thai
and Lao words can be omitted from sentences, and the more complete a
sentence is the more formal it sounds.)
Writing: Lao and Thai have similar alphabets and most
of the letters are the same. Sentences are written in the same way:
from left to right and with no spaces between words. Thai writing remains
closer to Sanskrit/Pali and has many more consonants than Lao (for example,
four letters with an "s" sound). Lao was revised to be written
phonetically by law so that it could be read more easily by non-Lao
ethnic groups, and many of the extra consonants were eliminated and
the spelling rules simplified (there are only two letters with an "s"
sound). A person who can read Thai can learn to read Lao in a few hours,
but a Lao reader needs to learn 20-odd new consonants, plus some complicated
spelling rules, to be able to read Thai.
of Thai and Lao
Languages: Thai and Lao are just two of the many Tai languages
in the four-country region of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.
All of the Tai languages have similar vocabulary, grammar, and tone
structure. Thai and Lao have been studied the most of all the Tai languages.
There are few books or academic papers on Shan, Thai Dam, Phuan, and
other Tai languages.
Thai and Lao became the dominant languages in their respective countries
for the same reason that any language becomes dominant: the ethnic group
that speaks it becomes politically dominant and their language is held
up as the standard. Other languages continue to be spoken but are considered
regional or outlying languages, and may also be regarded as inferior
by the dominant group. As a saying goes: "A language is a dialect
with an army".
The histories of
Thai and Lao follow this pattern. Central Thais (or Siamese) became
the dominant ethnic group along the Chao Phra Ya River basin in the
south while ethnic Laotians dominated the Mekong River basin in the
north. The languages of other groups, both Tai and non-Tai, became minor
languages or "regional dialects" as they're called in Thailand.
A Short History of Isan: The native people of Northeastern
Thailand are ethnic Laotians and the language they speak is Lao, officially
called "Isan" or "Thai-Isan". The name change from
"Lao" to "Isan" came in the 70's when the Lao PDR
was becoming Communist. A war raged along the Mekong River border in
the 70's with some villagers on the Thai side fighting with the Communists,
and the Thai army fighting battles to keep the area part of Thailand.
Not wanting Northeasterners to identify with or become sympathetic to
Communist Laos because of their shared ethnicity, the Thai government
began a campaign to change the self-identity of Northeastern people
from "Lao" to "Isan". The campaign worked so well
that at the present time some Northeasterners don't know their language
is the same as that spoken in the Lao PDR (although some Isan people
still call themselves and their language "Lao").
Lao/Isan Spoken?- In Thailand, most Isan people are bilingual
in Lao/Isan and Thai. They use Thai in school, government offices, in
commercial areas of Isan towns, and when living in other parts of Thailand,
but use Lao or Lao mixed with Thai at home. Not everyone in NE Thailand
can speak Lao, though. The language or languages a person speaks depends
on his or her family background: people born in traditional Lao/Isan
families usually speak the language fluently while Thai families who
have moved to Isan from Central Thailand speak Thai and know how to
speak Lao/Isan only if they have close contact with Isan people and
a need or desire to learn the language.
Some Central Thais
living outside of Isan are able to speak Lao/Isan, or at least know
some words and phrases. These people have usually lived in Isan or Laos,
are married to a Lao or Isan person, or have worked or gone to school
with people from Isan and developed an interest in the language.
Who speaks Thai in Laos? - In the Lao PDR, most Laotians living
near the border can understand Thai, although they may not speak it
well because their understanding comes from listening to Thai TV and
radio. In areas of Laos further away from the border the number of people
who understand Thai decreases because a satellite dish is needed to
pick up Thai TV. Ethnic Laotian enjoy Thai TV and music because the
two cultures are so similar. Laotians who speak Thai may have studied
or worked in Thailand, be married to a Thai, come from a Thai-Lao family,
or travel to Thailand for commercial trading.
Attitudes: Before the economic and educational boom that began
in the 80's, Isan people were considered rustic by Central Thais, but
the increase in contact within Thailand and the general development
of the country has caused many Thais to have a more pluralistic approach
to ethnic relations. At present it's rarer to see Central Thais looking
down on Isan people, although this was very overt behavior in the past.
Respect for Lao/Isan language culture (and also Northern and
Southern Thai language and culture) has increased partly by the active
promotion of non-Central Thai cultures by the Thai government and universities.
The Future of Lao: When Laos opened to the non-communist
world in 1990 there was a lot of fear that the Lao language would disappear
as Thailand took over Laos economically and culturally. This hasn't
happened, in fact, China has more economic influence in Laos than Thailand.
At this time it looks like the Lao language will remain strong in the
Lao PDR for these reasons:
1. The Lao government
doesn't allow Thai to be used in the media and in schools.
2. Newspapers, books, and TV and radio programs in Lao language are
distributed throughout the country.
3 .Laotian people consider themselves different from Thais. They identify
strongly with their culture and language, are proud of it and want to
In practice, the two languages are so close that Laotians pick up Thai
vocabulary easily, especially slang, pop words, and coined words dealing
with modern concepts. The time is a long way off, though, when the majority
of Laotians are using mai instead of baw.
It isn't so certain
if Isan can maintain its language. It's possible that Isan people will
be assimilated with Central Thais as people move around and intermarry
more. The time may come when Isan is urbanized with mechanized sticky
rice farming; when there are no more pakamas and village temple fairs
and the memory of the culture is maintained in old songs and broadcasts
from the Lao PDR. On the plus side Isan universities are active in promoting
Isan language and cultural studies. There are cultural exchanges with
the Lao PDR and many Thai tourists travel to Laos. In the future the
Lao PDR may have a strong role in keeping Lao culture alive in Isan.
(The above are personal
views based on my experiences living in both Thailand and Laos. Please
send comments to the email address on the HOME page - J. Higbie.)