consonantsvowels • tone chart • reading sentences

Tones of Lao words are determined by the tone chart on this page. All languages in the Tai family follow the tone system explained here, with tones integrated into other aspects of pronunciation: beginning consonants, final consonant sounds, and vowel length. Tones vary in different regions of Laos and Isan and in other Tai languages within specific squares on the chart. For example, the tone for words with the pronunciation characteristics (and beginning consonant) in one square may be high for one region or variety but low in another. Outside the Vientiane area you’ll find that some words may have the same tone given on the chart while others may be different.

To find the tone of a word, first check the consonant it begins with. Consonants are divided into three classes (high, mid, and low) shown in the left column. Then check the other attributes of pronunciation along the row to the right until you find the category the word is in.

There are two common tone markers in Lao, the first is mai ayk and the second is mai tho. They look like the numbers 1 and 2 but come from Sanskrit, not a Western source. If words have the second tone marker they're automatically in the far right column and have either a high falling or mid falling tone in Vientiane pronunciation, depending on the class of the consonant. If they have the first tone marker they're in the second from the right column and always have a mid tone in Vientiane.

The first three categories on the chart, for words without tone markers, are more complicated. Here, after checking the consonant class, you first take into account the final sound of the word, whether it's unstopped (first column) or stopped (second and third columns). Words with stopped sounds are further divided into those with short vowel lengths (second column) and those with long vowel lengths (third column).

For practice see the examples included below the chart.



TONE CHART
(Lao as spoken in Vientiane)


NOTES:
-Final vowels are long and unstopped (first column) or short and stopped with a glottal stop (second column) according to their spelling. Check the vowel page to see which vowel spellings are long or short for each sound (aw, ah, eu, oo, ee, etc). An exception is ai (as in gai, lai, Thai) which is unstopped when both long and short.

-Final consonant sounds that are unstopped nasals (first column) are m, n, and ng. Final consonant sounds that are stopped are k (spelled with gaw gai), t (spelled with daw dek), and p (spelled with baw bae).

-From the chart you can see that low class consonants sounds can all be high class either by putting haw han before them or because there are two separate letters for the sound, one low and one high. (These are "f", "ph", "th", "s", "k", and "h".)

 

Example

Explanation of Tone


Chicken
- The first consonant is gaw gai which is a mid consonant so it's in the second row. (The first symbol in the word is the vowel ai which is always placed before the consonant.) The word is spelled with the first tone marker so it is in the fourth column and has a mid tone. (In Vientiane pronunciation any word with the first tone marker has a mid tone.)


Water buffalo
- The first consonant is kaw kwai which is a low consonant so it's in the third row. The word has no tone marker so it is in one of the first three columns. Check if the ending is unstopped or stopped - the ai vowel sound (number 5 on the list of vowels) is unstopped so it's in the first column and has a high tone. (Don't worry about the vowel length if the final sound is unstopped.)

Still/Yet -
This word begins with nyaw-nyoong which is a low consonant.The word has no tone marker. The final sound is an unstopped nasal ng so it's in the first column and has a high tone.


Drinking glass
- The first consonant is jaw jawk which is a mid consonant. The word has no tone marker. The final sound of the word is stopped (gaw gai pronounced as a stopped k) so it's in either the second or third column, depending on the vowel length. Check the vowel length, whether it's long or short. In this word the vowel is aw (aw o used as a vowel - number 35 on the vowel page) which is long so it's in the third column and has a low falling tone.


Tiger
- The first consonant is saw seua which is a high consonant so it's in the first row. There is no tone marker so it's in one of the first three columns. Check the final sound - in this word it's an unstopped vowel sound so it's in the first column and has a rising tone.


Elephant
- The first consonant is saw sang which is a low consonant. The word has the second tone marker so it's in the last column and has a high falling tone.


Child/Children
- The first consonant is daw dek which is a mid consonant. (The symbols before and over daw dek together make the short vowel sound eh - number 20 on the list of vowels.) The word has no tone marker. Check the final sound which is a stopped gaw gai so it's stopped so it's in the second or third column. Check the vowel length, which is short, so it's in the second column and has a high tone.


Eye
- The first consonant is taw ta which is a mid tone. There is no tone marker and the final sound is an unstopped sa-la ah (number 3 on the vowel page) so it's in the first column and has a rising tone (although some Lao teachers in Vientiane call it a low tone and differentiate it from the other rising tone on high consonants).


Bird
- The initial consonant is naw nok which is a high consonant. There's no tone marker and the word has a stopped final sound and a short vowel length (from sa-la oh above the n - number 28 on the vowel page)) so it's in the second column and has a mid tone.


Goat
- The first consonant is baw bae which is a mid consonant. The two marks before baw bae are the vowel sa-la ae - number 25 on the vowel page. The word has the second tone marker so it's in the fifth column and
has a high falling tone.


Bee
- The first consonant is phaw pheuhng which is a low consonant. (The symbols before and over phaw pheuhng make the long vowel sound euh - number 40 on the vowel page .) The word has the second tone marker so it has a low falling tone.


Monk's quarters
- This word has two syllables which are considered separately, although in this case both syllables are mid class and end with short vowels stopped with glottal stops (the first is sa-la oo, number 15 on the vowel page, and the second is sa-la ee, number 7). Therefore both are in the second column and have high tones.


Fire
- The first consonant (second letter) is faw fai which is a low consonant. The word has no tone marker so check the final sound. Here it's the vowel ai (the first letter of the word, number 54 on the vowel page). This vowel is unstopped when both long and short so the word is in the first column and has a high tone.


Again/More
- This word is included to illustrate the use of aw o as a consonant which "holds" the vowel (the symbol for ee above aw o - number 10 on the vowel chart). Aw o is a mid consonant. The word has no tone marker so it's in one of the first three columns. The final sound is stopped so it's in either the second or third column. Sa-la ee here is long so the word is in the third column and has a low falling tone.

Goose
- The first consonant is haw han which is a high consonant. The word has the first tone marker so it has a mid tone.


Pig/Pork
- This is included to show haw han as the first consonant, with the word following the high consonant rules even though the beginning consonant is maw ma. The word doesn't follow the tones of maw ma but of haw han. It has no tone marker and an unstopped final sound (oo from sa-la oo, number 18 on the vowel page) so it has a rising tone. Note that there are two ways to write/type the combination of haw han and maw ma.


Market -
This word has two syllables. In the first taw ta is a mid consonant and the sa-la ah vowel is short and stopped (number 1 on the vowel page) Compare this syllable with "eye" above where the vowel length is long and unstopped. This syllable is in the second column for stopped sounds and has a high tone.
The second syllable starts with haw han so it follows the high consonant rules. It has a stopped final sound and a long vowel length (sa-la ah, number 4 on the vowel page) so it's in the third column and has a low falling tone.
There are two ways to write/type the combination of haw han and law leeng.


the Lao alphabet: consonants
the Lao alphabet: vowels
• tone chart
reading sentences