Learning Lao

Melody Kemp
Jan 6th, 2014

For several reasons, one involving a past Australian Prime Minister, I am very deaf. I organise my life around the ear that can hear, directing seating at the table as Fellini did his actors. Unless I can see a sound, it’s hard for me to learn it, much less replicate it.

So I have not learned Lao. The inflection, tones and sounds are so intricate that I am terrified of saying, ‘Hello, my name is penis’ … or ‘I have very dense pubic hair’ … which is what one can say inadvertently when responding to the comment: ‘You look tired.’

While the Indonesian language can also get you into scatological trouble, it’s the subtlety of the Lao language that makes it, like its post-war territory, beset with linguistic explosives. If you don’t get the pronunciation absolutely right, the name of Vientiane’s second most sacred temple becomes an invitation to go fuck yourself.

If you think I am being potty-mouthed, I advise you to see The Rocket, a film banned in Lao not for its language, but for its portrayal of upland resettlement and the hydro-dams, both topics branded as sensitive in Lao. The film, one that makes you want to stand on your chair and cheer, portrays the earthy nature of a people inevitably described in travel mags as ‘happy and smiling’ rather than raunchy.

But there are historical factors at play. The pre-revolutionary language of the French colonials and their client Royal families was redolent with esoteric Buddhist references and class-based idioms.

It is said the Royal families would send envoys to Europe to bring back the literature and fashion of the continent from which to glean their own inspiration. The courts were full of learned scholars and well-dressed courtiers in pressed, pleated trousers and beautifully tailored jackets. The women had swept-up hair and twinsets.

The rural masses, on the whole, were illiterate.

On ascension to power, the nominally Communist Pathet Lao set to simplifying the language rather than educating the masses.

Like an Australian Customs Service officer chasing down a case, foreign words were tracked as they hid under chairs, then weeded out. Colonial words like Kha, which meant slave and was used to describe the uplands people, along with Meo which literally meant barbarian, were given the red pen. Abstract language was made concrete. Polarities reflected the tendency in Lao education to be either right or wrong.  Lao stories are full of these polarities. ‘Big and small trees’ is the one I see most often. So in Lao stories there are no saplings, no elderly giants, no ‘struggling towards the canopy’, unless a felang editor has got there and injected his or her own words in desperation. The Lao language is a pared down series of hyphens where words used to be. As if expanded, words were laden with tones to change or add to their meaning.

The Pre-Revolutionary dictionary looks its age. It lies there on the table with all the symptoms of being retired, its pages jaundiced and dry, its cover ratty and torn. Sure, next to a Webster’s it looks like a puny pretender, but next to the shiny modern version it is a giant. My Lao colleagues estimate that the modern lexicon contains just 4000 words. 

The renovation in language has raised some interesting issues. Over a million Lao, largely those with some degree of education, fled the incoming Revolutionary government whose leaders stepped out of army fatigues and into badly fitting suits, tucking their medals into the top pockets.

The Diaspora took with them the old language. Now many are helping translate books from English to Lao to fill the literary vacuum that has since existed.  They have been urged to use the ‘new language’: not only can young Lao not read the old stuff, but it is likely that it would result in the books they worked on being branded as revisionist and banned.

The Lao have a reputation for not being readers. That, as many have told me, is because there is nothing to read. The press struggles with Party controls; censorship is endless and unpredictable. Elderly upland villagers read books meant for their grandchildren, having no books for adults and because they had no books when young. Children’s books fill a void in their own lives.

Over time my helpers have built a community library from Thai books I pick up on the way through, the languages being similar.

When I asked the people what they wanted to read, feeling a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t haunted the Lao book shops for Party-approved folk tales, I was told, ‘Nothing in Lao ... and, er, preferably politics.’


Melody Kemp
Last blog date: Oct 10th, 2015


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