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I've just learned that Lao has two words for "to be", that are mostly interchangeable:

  • ເປັນ (pen)
  • ແມ່ນ (maen)

They both begin with a labial, have an "e-like" vowel, and end "n".

I think it's pretty established that the "b", "m", and "p" sounds can be variants of each other in variants of the same word or in closely related words.

The vowel in ເປັນ is an /e/ but as fpr the vowel in ແມ່ນ I'm not sure if it's more like /æ/ or /ɛ/, but I also believe that both of these can have close relationships with an /e/ sound in a language.

The Isan language, generally considered a dialect of Lao spoken in Thailand with a different set of recent influences and now written in the Thai script, also has the two copulae:

There are two copulas used in Isan, as in Lao, one for things relating to people, เป็น (pen, /pen/), and one for objects and animals, แม่น (maen, /mɛːn/).

I'm wondering if these two words that are similar in sound and similar in function are etymologically variants. I don't think Thai has two words and Zhuang seems to have an unrelated word as its copula: dwg.

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    Let me say about Thai, maybe it gives you some hint. Vowels are different: ເ- is close-mid, ແ- is open-mid. There are several words "to be", they are not related and they have different meaning: คือ is for definitions (as in "this is an apple"), ใช่ is used for approval/confirmation, เป็น rather means "happens to be" (as in "I'm not an American"). Most likely, Lao retains similar difference.
    – bytebuster
    Sep 21 '13 at 12:04
  • @bytebuster according to Wikipedia these two are more-or-less interchangeable. There are other words which might mean like "exist" or "be in a place" but these two are the general copulae that relate two nouns. Apparently one is more used with people and one more used with objects. But I'm no expert and information is limited so far. Sep 21 '13 at 12:14
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    Hmm... Right now I'm having beer with a Thai person who speaks a fair Lao as well. He says ແມ່ນ is a confirmation, like in "sure". Obviously, it's not a credible answer, just a general idea. He also says ເປັນ is much like Thai เป็น.
    – bytebuster
    Sep 21 '13 at 16:55
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    Yes ເປັນ and เป็น are obviously cognate, but ແມ່ນ is intriguing in its sound and meaning similarities and nonexistence in Thai. I know you give an affirmative answer to a question by repeating the verb so I expect these copulae are like verbs in that respect. Sep 21 '13 at 17:05
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    I have discovered that Isan also has both words. I wonder if Zhuang does. Sep 22 '13 at 15:24

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