Lao script notes

I am compiling these notes as I explore the Lao script as used for the Lao language. They may be updated from time to time.

The page contains brief notes on general script features. See also the companion document, Lao Character Notes, which describes the characters used in Lao script one by one.

For more detailed information, especially about the history and phonology of the Lao script, follow the links in the text and at the bottom of the page. When you see red text (examples of Lao) you can click on it to reveal the component characters.

Brief script introduction

Lao has its own script, closely related to Thai, but exhibiting some significant differences.

The script was originally an abugida, but since the script reforms leading up to 1960 it has been alphabetic. The syllable is the unit for various aspects of the behaviour of the script. Lao is a tonal language, and the script is designed to reflect tonal information.

The alphabet is split into vowels and consonants. The consonants are grouped into classes that affect the default tonal behaviour of a syllable. There are no independent vowels. Where there is no consonant to support a vowel sign, the character is used as a support. Vowel signs are typically used in combinations to form the vowel sounds of a syllable.

Example of Lao:

ມະນຸດເກີດມາມີສິດເສລີພາບ ແລະ ສະເໝີໜ້າກັນໃນທາງກຽດຕິສັກ ແລະ ທາງສິດດ້ວຍມະນຸດມີສະຕິສຳປັດຊັນຍະ (ຮູ້ດີຮູ້ຊົ່ວ) ແລະມີມະໂນທຳຈື່ງຕ້ອງປະພຶດຕົນຕໍ່ກັນໃນທາງພີ່ນ້ອງ.

Lao script used for Lao

Tone values

The tone depends on the class of the initial consonant in a syllable, the structure of the syllable, and whether or not a tone mark is applied to override the default. Tone values vary depending on location in Laos. There is some disagreement whether there are 5 or 6 tones in Vientiane, and you will see in the tables below that different sources disagree on the tones produced.

The following tables present different descriptions of tone values in Lao for the Vientiane dialect. The first and third tables basically agree on the tone value, although the names of tones vary. The middle table shows some different tone values altogether. See a list of studies for Vientiane tones.

This diagram shows 5 tones with names corresponding to a mixture of the first two tables below.

Diagrams of tone vectors.

Tone marks are normally used only on open syllables, and modify the default tone value. Two of the four tone marks are only used with Class 1 consonants. Tone marks tend to be placed directly over the consonant (or superscript vowel), unlike Thai which tends to place them slightly to the right.

Open or live syllables are those that end with a long vowel or sonorant (eg. ງນມຍວ). Closed or dead syllables end with a stop consonant (eg. ກດບ) or short vowel.

  Open Closed
short vowel
Closed
long vowel
Tone
mai eːk
Tone
mai toː
Tone
mai tiː
Tone
mai cat-ta-waː
Class 1 low ˊ high ˆ low falling ˉ mid ˋ high falling ˋ high falling ˇ low rising
Class 2 ˇ low rising ˊ high ˆ low falling ˉ mid ˆ low falling - -
Class3 ˊ high ˉ mid ˋ high falling ˉ mid ˋ high falling - -

Refs: Daniels

  Live Dead
short vowel
Dead
long vowel
Tone
mai eːk
Tone
mai toː
Tone
mai tiː
Tone
mai cat-ta-waː
Class 1 ˋ low ˇ rising ˇ rising mid ˆ falling ˊ high ˇ rising
Class 2 ˇ rising ˇ rising ˋ low mid ˋ low - -
Class3 ˊ high mid ˆ falling mid ˆ falling - -

Refs: Simmala

  Live Dead
short vowel
Dead
long vowel
Tone
mai eːk
Tone
mai toː
Tone
mai tiː
Tone
mai cat-ta-waː
Class 1 low rising high rising low falling high-mid high falling    
Class 2 low rising high rising low falling high-mid low falling    
Class3 high rising high-mid high falling high-mid high falling    

Refs: SEAlang

The Simmala chart seems suspect to me, since they say in the text that the rising tone doesn't occur in dead syllables, and the book has examples of dead syllables with long vowels with a low tone.

Vowels

Vowels can be grouped into short and long alternatives, diphthongs, and 'complex vowels' that end in j, w or in one case m .

The number of vowel sounds is greater than the number of vowel signs. Many vowel sounds are represented by a combination of 2 to 4 symbols, often surrounding the initial consonant or consonant cluster on three sides. Some of these components are also used as consonants. These symbols are encoded separately, and only those symbols that appear over a consonant are encoded as combining characters. For example, ເກັຍະ or ເກົາ.

The basic vowel repertoire can be summarised as follows. For the corresponding script representation, see the Lao picker.

Short Long Complex
a aj aw aaj aaw am
e eew
ə əː əəj
ɛ ɛː ɛɛw
i iw
o ooj
ɔ ɔː ɔɔj
u uj
ɯ ɯː  
ia   iaw
ua   uaj
ɯa   ɯaj

Although the diphthongs at the end don't have long and short sounds, they do have long and short orthographic forms.

Some vowels are represented by different combinations of symbols when they appear in a closed syllable.

Conjuncts

The character can be added before the following characters to make their default tonal behaviour Class 2: ງນມລວຍຽ. This constitutes a syllable initial compound.

There are alternate forms for some of these compounds. Two can be represented as ligatures, for which there are separate characters in Unicode: and . Another can be represented by converting the second consonant to a subscript (ຫຼ), also available as a separate character in Unicode.

In a consonant cluster any tone marks or superscript vowels appear over the second consonant.

Refs: Daniels 462; Unicode 378

Punctuation and word separation

Words are not separated by spaces. Spaces are used between sentences, but Western punctuation is also used.

List of basic symbols

Lao

This is a list of main characters or character combinations needed for Lao. Clicking on these characters will open a page in another window. If the character is underlined, the new page will display additional information about that character.

 

Class 1 (middle) consonants
Class 2 (high) consonants
Class 3 (low) consonants
Other consonants   ຼ
Vowels   ິ   ີ   ຶ   ື   ຸ   ູ   ຳ   ັ   ົ   ໍ
Tone marks & cancellation mark   ່   ້   ໊   ໋   ໌
Numbers

Further reading

  1. [Simmala] Buasawan Simmala & Benjawan Poomsan Becker, Lao for Beginners , ISBN 1-887521-28-3
  2. [Daniels] Peter T. Daniels & William Bright, The World's Writing Systems, ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  3. [Unicode] The Unicode Standard v5.0, esp the South Asian scripts chapter.

Author: Richard Ishida.

Content first published 10 February, 2008. This version 2014-08-25 18:14 GMT