TONES IN LAO
The tones on Lao words vary from region to region. The
way the language is pronounced is different in Khon Kaen, Udon, Ubon/Pakse,
Nong Khai, Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang. Here the Vientiane
pronunciation is described. If you're in Northeastern Thailand or in
areas of Laos outside of Vientiane some words will have different tones.
In materials published on Lao there is a debate on how many tones the Vientiane
variety of the language has. The debate is divided into two schools:
6 tones - This may be called the Dong Dok group, represented
by people teaching and learning Lao by the Dong Dok University curriculum
and other books such as Tuttle. This group says that one category of
words has what they call a "low" tone that nevertheless rises
slightly (and more inside the throat) when pronounced.
5 tones - This group is represented by several people
holding PhD's in Lao language in Australia and America and people who
have learned Lao independently in Vientiane. They say that the tone
in the category called "low" by the Dong Dok group actually
is the same tone as in the true rising category on the Lao tone chart.
To understand this debate you need to understand the Lao tone chart.
The author of this website and of the Lao phrasebooks presented here
decided to use the five-tone system after listening to speakers in Vientiane and discussing the controversy with Art Chrisfield, a linguist who has studied the Lao language for many years.
I saw that the "low" tone was actually rising when people
said it, although some people gave it a fainter rising sound on some
words. Other people, though, gave it a strong rising sound that sounded
the same as a "real" rising tone. Some further study by the
Dong Dok group is needed to see if their "low" tone really
exists (in any case it sounds very different from what is called a low
tone in Thai).
So, at least on this website Lao has five tones and you can learn to
pronounce words like a Vientiane resident.
Vowel length - Like Thai, Lao has two vowel lengths.
All Lao words have either a long vowel length, with the pronunciation
drawn out, or a short vowel length with the word pronounced quickly.
Short vowel-length words are marked here with an asterisk.
The Five Tones