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|Languages||Lao, Thai and others|
|The Brahmic script and its descendants|
The Lao alphabet, Akson Lao (Lao: ອັກສອນລາວ [ʔáksɔ̌ːn láːw]), is the primary script used to write the Lao language and other minority languages in Laos. Ultimately of Indic origin, the alphabet includes twenty-seven consonants (ພະຍັນຊະນະ [pʰāɲánsānā]), seven consonantal ligatures (ພະຍັນຊະນະປະສົມ [pʰāɲánsānā pá sǒm]), thirty-three vowels (ສະຫລະ [sálā]) (some based on combinations of symbols), and four tone marks (ວັນນະຍຸດ [ván nā ɲūt]). According to Article 89 of the Amended Constitution of 2003 of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, the Lao alphabet, though originally used purely for transcribing the Lao language, is also used to write several minority languages. Some minority languages use separate writing systems; however, while the Hmong have adopted the Roman Alphabet. An older version of the script was also used by the ethnic Lao of Thailand's Isan region before Isan was incorporated into Siam. Its use was banned and supplemented with the very similar Thai alphabet in 1871; however, the region remained culturally and politically distant until further government campaigns and integration into the Thai state (Thaification) were imposed in the 20th century. The Lao alphabet is very similar to the Thai alphabet, which has the same roots. Lao, however, has fewer characters and is written in a more curvilinear fashion than Thai.
Lao, like most Indic scripts, is traditionally written from left to right. Lao is considered an abugida, in which certain 'implied' vowels are unwritten. However, recent spelling reforms make this definition somewhat problematic, as all vowel sounds today are marked with diacritics when written according to the Lao PDR's propagated and promoted spelling standard. However, most Lao outside of Laos, and many inside Laos, continue to write according to former spelling standards; so vernacular Lao functions as a pure abugida. For example, the old spelling of ສເລີມ 'to hold a ceremony, celebrate, fete' contrasts with the new ສະເຫລີມ. Vowels can be written above, below, in front of, or behind consonants, with some vowel combinations written before, over and after. Spaces for separating words and punctuation were traditionally not used, but a space is used and functions in place of a comma or period. The letters have no majuscule or minuscule (upper- and lowercase) differentiation.
The Lao script was slowly standardized in the Mekong River valley after the various Tai principalities of the region were merged under the rule of the Kingdom of Lan Xang in the 14th century. This script, sometimes known as Tai Noi, has changed little since its inception and continued in use in the Lao-speaking regions of modern-day Laos and Isan, while the Thai alphabet continued to evolve, but similarity of the scripts is still evident. This script was derived locally from the Khmer script of Angkor with additional influence from Mon, both of which ultimately derived from the Brahmic writing systems of India.
Traditionally, only secular literature was written with the Lao alphabet. Religious literature was often written in Tua Tham, a Mon-based script that is still used for the Tai Khün, Tai Lue, and formerly for Kham Mueang. Mystical, magical, and some religious literature was written in a modified version of the Khmer alphabet.
The twenty-seven consonants of the Lao alphabet are divided into three tone classes—high (ສູງ [sǔːŋ]), middle (ກາງ [kaːŋ]), and low (ຕ່ຳ tām)—which determine the tonal pronunciation of the word in conjunction with the four tone marks and distinctions between short and long vowels, but aside from tone, there are twenty-one distinct consonant sounds that occur in the Lao language. Each letter has an acrophonical name that either begins with or features the word prominently, and is used to teach the letter and serves to distinguish them from other, homophonous consonants. The letter ອ is a special null consonant used as a mandatory anchor for vowels, which cannot stand alone, and also to serve as a vowel in its own right.
The table below shows the Lao consonant, its name, its pronunciation according to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), as well as various romanisation schemes, such as the French-based systems in use by both the US Board of Geographic Names and the British Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (BGN/PCGN), the English-based system in use by the US Library of Congress (LC), Royal Thai General System of Transcription (RTGS) used in Thailand, and finally its Unicode name. A slash indicates the pronunciation at the beginning juxtaposed with its pronunciation at the end of a syllable.
|Letter||Name||Initial position||Final position||Unicode||Tone Class|
|ກ||ກ ໄກ່||kāi, chicken||/k/||k||/k/||k||KO||Middle|
|ຂ||ຂ ໄຂ່||kʰāi, egg||/kʰ/||kh||/k/||k||KHO SUNG||High|
|ຄ||ຄ ຄວາຍ||kʷʰáːj, water buffalo||/kʰ/||kh||/k/||k||KHO TAM||Low|
|ງ||ງ ງົວ or ງູ||ŋúə, ox or ŋúː, snake||/ŋ/||ng||/ŋ/||ng||NGO||Low|
|ຈ||ຈ ຈອກ||tɕɔ̏ːk, glass||/tɕ/||ch||/t/||t||CO||Middle|
|ສ||ສ ເສືອ||sɯ̌ːə, tiger||/s/||s||/t/||t||SO SUNG||High|
|ຊ||ຊ ຊ້າງ||sâːŋ, elephant||/s/||x||s||/t/||t||SO TAM||Low|
|ຍ||ຍ ຍຸງ||ɲúŋ, mosquito||/ɲ/||gn||ny||y||–||–||NYO||Low|
|ດ||ດ ເດັກ||dék, child||/d/||d||/t/||t||DO||Middle|
|ຕ||ຕ ຕາ||tàː, eye||/t/||t||/t/||t||TO||Middle|
|ຖ||ຖ ຖົງ||tʰǒŋ, stocking||/tʰ/||th||/t/||t||THO SUNG||High|
|ທ||ທ ທຸງ||tʰúŋ, flag||/tʰ/||th||/t/||t||THO TAM||Low|
|ນ||ນ ນົກ||nōk, bird||/n/||n||/n/||ne||n||NO||Low|
|ບ||ບ ແບ້||bɛ̑ː, goat||/b/||b||/p/||p||BO||Middle|
|ປ||ປ ປາ||paː, fish||/p/||p||/p/||p||PO||Middle|
|ຜ||ຜ ເຜິ້ງ||pʰɤ̏ŋ, bee||/pʰ/||ph||–||–||PHO SUNG||High|
|ຝ||ຝ ຝົນ||fǒn, rain||/f/||f||/p/||p||FO TAM||High|
|ພ||ພ ພູ||pʰúː, mountain||/pʰ/||ph||/p/||p||PHO TAM||Low|
|ຟ||ຟ ໄຟ||fáj, fire||/f/||f||/p/||p||FO SUNG||Low|
|ມ||ມ ແມວ||mɛ́ːw, cat||/m/||m||/m/||m||MO||Low|
|ຢ||ຢ ຢາ||jaː, medicine||/j/||y||–||–||YO||Middle|
|ຣ||ຣ ຣົຖ or ຣະຄັງ||rōt, car or rākʰáŋ, bell||/r/,/l/||r||/n/||ne||n||LO LING||Low|
|ລ||ລ ລີງ||líːŋ, monkey||/l/||l||/n/||ne||n||LO LOOT||Low|
|ວ||ວ ວີ||víː, fan||/ʋ/,/w/||v||v,w||–||–||WO||Low|
|ຫ||ຫ ຫ່ານ||hāːn, goose||/h/||h||–||–||HO SUNG||High|
|ອ||ອ ໂອ||ʔòː, bowl||/ʔ/||–||–||–||O||Middle|
|ຮ||ຮ ເຮືອນ||hɯ́ːən, house||/h/||h||–||–||HO TAM||Low|
Note that the Unicode names for the characters ຝ (FO TAM) and ຟ (FO SUNG) are reversed. The same is true for ຣ (LO LING) and ລ (LO LOOT). This error was introduced into the Unicode standard and cannot be fixed, as character names are immutable.
Lao also uses digraphs based on combinations of silent ຫ ຫ່ານ with certain other consonants, some of which also have special ligature forms that are optionally used. Because of the first silent component is of the 'high' tone class, all the digraphs and ligatures are also of the high tone class. The older versions of the script also included special forms for combinations of ພ (pʰ) + ຍ (ɲ), ສ (s) + ນ (n), and ມ (m) + ລ (l). In addition, consonant clusters that had the second component of ຣ (r) or ລ (l) were written with a special form ຼ underneath the consonant. Since these were not pronounced in Lao, they were removed during various spelling reforms, and this symbol only appears in the ligature ຫຼ.
|Letter||Initial position||Unicode||Tone Class|
|ໜ or ຫນ||/n/||n||n||High|
|ໝ or ຫມ||/m/||m||m||High|
|ຫຼ or ຫຣ||/r/,/l/||r||r||High|
|ຫຼ or ຫລ||/l/||l||l||High|
Lao characters in initial position (several letters appearing in the same box have identical pronunciation).
Lao characters in final position. In the old documents, the letter ຽ could be found in place of ຍ or ຢ.
ນ, ຣ, ລ
ບ, ປ, ພ, ຝ, ຟ
ຈ, ສ, ຊ, ດ, ຕ, ຖ, ທ
ກ, ຂ, ຄ
There are only a handful of basic symbols, but they can be combined with other vowel forms and semi-vowels to represent the full repertoire of diphthongs and triphthongs used in the language. Vowels cannot stand alone or begin a syllable, so the null consonant, ອ, which can function as a vowel in its own right, is used as a base. The names of the vowels are just as easy as saying sala (ສະຫລະ, [sáʔlāʔ]) before the vowel sign. Some vowels have unique names, and these are ໃ- (ໄມ້ມ້ວນ, mâj muân, rolled stem), ໄ- (ໄມ້ມາຽ, mâj máːj, unwound stem), -ົ (ໄມ້ກົງ, mâj kòŋ, straight stem), -ັ (ໄມ້ກັນ, mâj kàn, ear stem), -ຽ (ວິຣາມ, vī ráːm), and -ໍ (ນິກຄະຫິດ, nīk kʰā hǐt).
|Short vowels||Long vowels|
|ເ-າະ, -ັອ-||/ɔ/||o||ǫ||o||-ໍ, -ອ-||/ɔː/||o||ǭ||o|
|ເ-ັຍ, -ັຽ-||/iə/||ia||ເ-ຍ, -ຽ-||/iːə/||ia||īa||ia|
|-ົວະ, -ັວ-||/uə/||oua||ua||ua||-ົວ, -ວ-||/uːə/||oua||ūa||ua|
|ໄ-, ໃ-*, -ັຍ||/aj/||ai||ai or ay||-າຍ||/aːj/||ay||āi||ai|
|Hindu–Arabic numeral system|
|Positional systems by base|
|Non-standard positional numeral systems|
|List of numeral systems|
Note that Sao, twenty, is not a standard Thai word and is only used here to show the RTGS transcription of the Lao Xao (ຊາວ). The standard Thai word for twenty is instead Yi-Sip (ยี่สิบ).
In December 2011, the Lao Ministry of Science and Technology in cooperation with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications officially authorized the use of Phetsarath OT as the standard national font.
The Phetsarath OT font was already adopted by the government in 2009; however, Lao users were unable to use it, as international software manufactures did not embed the font into their software systems. Mobile devices were not able to use or show Lao language; instead, mobile phone users had to rely on Thai or English as language.
The Laos Ministry of Post and Telecommunications asked local technicians to develop a software system of international standard that would enable the Phetsarath OT font to be like other font systems that local users could access.
The Unicode block for the Lao script is U+0E80–U+0EFF, added in Unicode version 1.0. The first ten characters of the row U+0EDx are the Lao numerals 0 through 9. Throughout the chart grey (unassigned) code points are shown; because, the assigned Lao characters intentionally match the relative positions of the corresponding Thai characters. This has created the anomaly that the Lao letter ສ is not in alphabetical order, since it occupies the same code-point as the Thai letter ส.
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)