For years, travelers have been debating, and sometimes arguing, about how to say “Laos.”
But why the confusion about Lao pronunciation? After all, the word has only four letters. In this case, history, colonialism and linguistics have clashed to create a confusing situation.
After hearing mixed responses for years, including on my third visit to Laos, I decided to get to the bottom of the right path to pronounce the name of the mountainous and landlocked country in Southeast Asia.
How to pronounce Laos
- Laos (rhymes with blouse; final “s” sounds) – correct
- Lao (rhymes with cow; final ‘s’ is silent) – generalized but incorrect
- All other pronunciations, including “Lay-ose”, are incorrect.
I surveyed 10 Laotians (in Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha and Vientiane) on how they prefer to have the name of their country pronounced. All responded that they wanted the foreigners to say the final “s”, but then added that they were not offended when the word was omitted.
The correct way to say “Laos” is the same as “louse” (rhymes with blouse).
Although travelers who have not visited the country tend to pronounce the “s” at the end of Laos, many long-term travelers traveling to Southeast Asia tend to leave the “s” quietly and use the pronunciation that sounds like ” Lao »(rhymes with cow).
What really adds further confusion is that some Laotians I surveyed had become so used to hearing travelers pronounce their country as “Lao” that they admitted to using “Lao” instead of “Laos” to make sure Westerners understood them! best!
When to use “Lao”
There is a correct time not to pronounce the final ‘s’ in Laos: when it refers to the language or something related to Laos, even a person. Drop the final “s” in these cases:
- “Lao” can be used as an interchangeable word for “Laotian”, a person from Laos.
- The official language of Laos is known as Lao.
- The traditional folk music of Laos could be called Lao music.
- Laos silk, Lao art, Lao films come from Laos.
The official name of the country
Also adding further confusion is that the English version of Laos’ official name is the ‘Lao People’s Democratic Republic’, or Lao PDR for short.
In Lao, the official language, the official name of the country is Muang Lao or Pathet Lao; both are literally translated as “Country of Laos.”
In all these cases, the correct pronunciation is obviously not to sound the final “s”.
Why is the pronunciation of Laos questioned?
Laos was divided into three kingdoms, with residents referring to themselves as the “people of Laos” until the French united the three in 1893. The French added an “s” to make the country’s name plural and began to refer to to the collective as «Laos».
As with many plural French words, the final “s” was not pronounced, thus creating a source of confusion.
Laos became independent and became a constitutional monarchy in 1953. But despite the fact that the official language is Lao, only half of all Laotians speak it. The many ethnic minorities spread throughout the country speak their own dialects and languages. French is still widely spoken and taught in schools.
With so many arguments (the official name of the country, the name of the country in Laotian language and the French pronunciation), one would assume that the way to say Laos was ‘Laos’. But the people who live there obviously know better, and to honor their wishes, travelers to the country should say “Laos.”