Lao is a living language, rich in history

It's changing and so are we

By Ginny Stein

May 22, 2024

The seven million people who live in Laos come from at least 49 ethnic groups and speak scores of languages and dialects. But whether it is their mother tongue or one they have learned later in life, for many Lao is the language that binds together this landlocked nation.

The earliest written records of the Lao language date back to the 13th century.

Since then, both the written and spoken Lao language has evolved, absorbing influences from other languages and cultures, predominantly Pali and Sanskrit but also English, Chinese and French, among others.

Generation by generation, pronunciations have evolved, words have been borrowed or invented, scripts have changed and meanings have drifted.

At the end of French colonial rule in 1953, the Lao language was recognized as the official language of the country, and a standardization process was undertaken to ensure consistency in its usage.

More radical changes came in 1975. Phonetical spelling and the removal of silent letters changed the written form – changes that traditionalists opposed. Nevertheless, it’s this form of the language that prevails today.

As Radio Free Asia strives to reach all audiences, we are embracing the modern form of the Lao language. But exploring and reporting on the linguistic traditions of Laos remains important to RFA.

As this series of articles makes clear, the history of the Lao language cannot be denied: it is written down for the ages.

Ginny Stein is RFA’s managing editor for South East Asia.

An RFA editor illustrates the distinction between the standardized Lao script (bottom) and the traditional script (top) using the sentence "We Lao people love our country, religion, tradition and culture." The modern Lao script now employs a phonetic system that spells out all vowels explicitly, eliminating implied vowels. (H. Léo Kim / RFA)

How do we speak to each other?

By Ounkeo Souksavanh

It’s spring in Washington D.C. and Lily and her mother Vichai are enjoying the warm weather from their deck.

Thirty-two years ago, Vichai, a young single woman, embarked on a journey to the United States. Her homeland offered no promising future, with its people struggling to find food on their plates.

Life was tough at first, but she met her husband, and they moved to Virginia to begin raising a family.

Lily, their only daughter, is now 31. She learned to speak Lao before she spoke English.

“When she was 4 or 5 years old she could communicate with us in Lao and sometimes in English,” Vichai said, adding that she felt it was a crucial part of their culture.

“If my daughter does not speak Lao, she will not be able to speak to her relatives, and they will complain and criticize me for not teaching her.”

Vichai speaks English, but not fluently. When mother and daughter are home together they speak Lao. It's the language that connects them.

Lily said her written Lao is not perfect; she mixes old and new. She enjoyed learning Lao she told RFA. “I feel it connects me to my culture,” she said.

Her experience mirrors that of many children born to Lao immigrant parents.

“In my experience, people learn Lao either through private lessons or a private tutor. Or some through a type of community program.”

For more than fifty years, children who attend school in Laos have been taught modern Lao.

Lily speaks modern Lao, while her mother grew up learning traditional or Royal Lao. There is not much difference in speech. The changes are most pronounced in written Lao.

“I have no particular feeling between the new and old Lao. Indifferent for the most part,’ she said.

She adds, “I am happy that there is some compromising being done between the two sides to better facilitate communication.”

Thidavone Vongkaysone and her mother, Vichai, are at their home in Woodbridge, VA, on March 22, 2024. (H. Léo Kim / RFA)

How do I write this?

By Xaya

When it comes to the written word, there is endless debate over the Lao language. At its core such debate involves an attempt at asserting consistency without losing meaning — or the language’s history.

That is never truer than today, as the written Lao language undergoes rapid change with the advent of social media.

In 2010, only 7 percent of people in Lao had access to the internet. Today, social media penetration has reached nearly 50 percent, or more than 3 million users. While some sections of government are worried about the impact of social media in sowing dissent, language purists are worried about Lao being lost.

“We face tensions from the impact of our neighboring countries’ languages. This situation causes a blending of the Thai language with Lao,” explained a language expert who asked not to be named for security reasons.

Outside of social media, there is little written in the Lao language. Its digital presence and record remain small. Officially, modern Lao is the language of government.

But while the Lao government has rules on what dictionaries state media must use, the language of social media is a fast moving, ever-evolving machine.

Standardized spelling and fonts face the prospect of being swamped in the daily social media deluge from Thailand.

“Currently we use Thai media extensively. Some words we may not realize are from the Lao language while others borrowed from Thai are used and disseminated,” said a retired Lao media worker who also did not wish to be named.

As the internet continues to proliferate across Laos, the debate will continue to rage for a nation trying to hold onto its own language and identity. The challenge for the Lao language will be to hold on.

Vichai Vongkaysone writes an example of modern Lao script. The photo was taken at her Woodbridge, VA, residence on March 22, 2024 (H. Léo Kim / RFA)

Bamboo book

For centuries, bamboo books have been used by Theravada Buddhist monks in Laos to write down Buddhism thought and instruction.

These books are believed to be more than two hundred years old and were written by Buddhist monks in Savannakhet province.


The texts within these books are a testament to the linguistic diversity of the region, incorporating influences from Pali, Sanskrit, and Khmer languages and alphabets.


In Laos, the books are now used only on important ceremonial occasions according to the Theravada calendar, such as Vessantara Jataka.


Even today, the words inscribed in these ancient books are not forgotten. They are read aloud on special occasions, ensuring that the profound thoughts and messages they contain remain alive and vibrant.

Inscribed on bamboo, these books are more than 200 years old and written in an ancient form of the Lao language. Photo: Sounantharam temple

A royal letter

By Ginny Stein and Phouvong

The Lan Xang Hom Khao Dynasty, or the Lao Royal family, ruled the Kingdom of Laos from 1904 until 1975.

In 1975, the Pathet Lao, led by another royal, Souphanouvong, violently overthrew the Royal Government and arrested many members of the Royal family. The King, the Queen, the Crown Prince and the King’s brothers were taken to a remote re-education camp, where it is believed they died, although there’s never been official confirmation.

Since the communist takeover, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has worked to erase royal memories from the national consciousness. The Royal language, or old Lao, was abolished and a newer written form took its place.

This document, written in Royal Lao by former King Sisavang Vatthana, the last reigning monarch, is a license to construct a monastery or Buddhist temple.

“I, Sisavang Vatthana, King of the Royal Kingdom of Laos, agree to grant approval based on the request dated June 4th, 1968, to build a new Theravada Buddhist temple in Sounantha village, Sounantha commune, Savannakhet district, Savannakhet province.

“The temple will be named Sounantharam Temple. This approval is made on this day, September 2nd, 1968, with the signature of the King of the Royal Kingdom of Laos, Sisavang Vatthana.”

An example of an earlier form of the Lao language, often referred to as Royal Lao, as used by King Sisavang Vatthana in 1968 when he granted permission to build a new temple in Savannakhet province. Photo: Sounantharam temple

Prakiane Viravong, 84, is a Lao language researcher and activist who has campaigned for freedom and a return to democracy in Laos. His father, the late Sila Viravong, is regarded as the father of traditional or Royal Lao language and history.

Prakiane Viravong edited the Lao National Daily newspaper for many years before the country’s Communist takeover.

To this day, he continues to fight for the traditional form of the Lao language.

“The Lao language has its roots and meaning in the Pali, Sanskrit, and Khmer languages. Importantly, the Lao language connects with Theravada Buddhism, and it will disappear if we do not or rarely use it,” he told RFA from Sydney, Australia, where he now lives in exile with his family.

“While it is not perfect, the original written form of the Lao language serves best to keep its meaning and etymology. Using the Lao language correctly in writing, speaking, and typing is necessary to preserve its originality and meaning.”

Viravong argues that the newer written form of the Lao language introduced in 1975 weakens the Lao language. He has implored Lao organisations in the country and overseas to find ways to teach Lao and instil pride in their language.

Prakiane Viravong was giving a speech during a community gathering in Australia in 1980s. Photo: Prakiane Viravong

Mastercraft fit for royalty

By Phouvong

Twenty-six-year-old Neramith Bandavong-Rattanakone’s craft is steeped in the past. He is a fifth-generation silversmith from the ancient city of Luang Prabang.

For hundreds of years the northern city was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Lao. It was also the country’s center of Buddhism.

Since the late 1900s alone, Laos saw French colonization, Japanese occupation, independence and a lengthy civil war that ended in 1975, when the Pathet Lao took over the country. Today, the Lao People's Democratic Republic is one of the world’s last remaining Communist states.

Throughout all the political upheaval, Neramith’s family has operated from the same small shop tucked in between riverside guest houses, with the Mekong River in front and a Buddhist temple behind.

The family's fame as silversmiths stems from the day his great-great-grandfather was commissioned to make an alms bowl, which was presented to the then Royal family of Lao.


Fast forward several generations and Neramith was called in for a similar honor. In 2022, the Lao ambassador to Thailand asked him to make a silver alms bowl which was presented to Thailand’s Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Neramith engraved her name in old Lao, which dates back to the 1960’s. Neramith works hard to ensure that old Lao and the depths of meaning it carries are preserved.

Neramith Bandavong-Rattanakone, 26, a fifth generation silversmith from the heritage town of Luang Prabang province, Laos. Photo: Neramith Bandavong-Rattanakone


“The original written form of Lao language has its own meaning, importance, and charm,” he told Radio Free Asia.

“It is very important to keep the original written form of Lao language and teach the young generation the root of their Lao language,” he said.

A silver alms bowl made in 2022 in keeping with the style of the former Royal Kingdom. They were gifted to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorne of Thailand. Photo: Neramith Bandavong-Rattanakone

For Neramith, keeping traditional Lao alive is a matter of pride and something he hopes to instill in others.

Neramith is doing his bit to promote the older written language. On each creation, he engraves the names of his customers and the year in old Lao.

“By doing this, I can keep the true meaning of the Lao language.”

Video banner by Lauren Kim, Amanda Weisbrod
Photo editing by Gemunu Amarasinghe
Edited by Max Avary, Bounchanh Mouangkham, Mat Pennington, Abby Seiff, Kayasith Soulisak, Ginny Stein
Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
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