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.

The Tone Controversy

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

mid tone - This is spoken with your normal voice. An asterisk over the vowel denotes a short vowel length.

 

high falling tone - Here you start saying the word at a level that's higher than your normal voice then fall to a mid tone while saying the word.

 

low falling tone - This is the tone in Lao that's really different from Thai tones. Here you start at around a mid level and fall to a lower sound. The tone marker used here has the falling line placed a little lower than the high- falling marker.

 

high tone - This tone is at a high to mid/high level. When the vowel length is long the sound rises at the end but when it's short the sound just remains at the same high level.

 

rising tone - Here you start at a level lower than your normal voice and come up to a mid level while saying the word.