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Lao is said to now be a language with phonetic spelling since the reform/standardization of the 1970s.

During this process some consonants were made obsolete (they're still not in Unicode) because they were only used for etymological spelling and more common letters represented the same sounds.

Yet it seems Lao retained two vowel letters that have the same sound: "ໄ" and "ໃ" both represent the sound /ai/.

Do we know why a duplicate vowel was retained while duplicate consonants were discarded? Or are they distinguished phonetically somehow after all, possibly only in some dialects? Or are they one remaining vestige still used for etymological spelling of Pali and Sanskrit words? Could it be due to a merger ancient or modern?

In fact there's even a third way to spell /ai/: "-ັຍ" and there seem to be other vowel sounds with multiple spellings as well.

  • Korean has a similar case with the vowels "ㅔ" and "ㅐ". Technically these are supposed to be /e/ and /ɛ/ respectively but in younger speakers pronounce both as /e/. Similarly, the diphthongs "ㅙ", "ㅞ", and "ㅚ" are all /we/. I can't speak for "ㅚ", but the others are due to a phonological merger. I don't know enough about the Lao phonology to say if that is the case here as well. – acattle Oct 10 '13 at 11:23
  • Actually I asked a question about this in Korean and I found informants that corrected me when I pronounced the wrong one and others that insisted they were identical. It depended on where they were from and how old they are but the distinction seemed to be most completely lost in the younger generation in Seoul. As Thai and Lao both have both letters and the Lao reform was only 40 years ago I doubt it's due to any recent merger. (Also Korean phrasebooks distinguish the two but Lao phrasebooks don't.) – hippietrail Oct 10 '13 at 11:26
  • Given that, as you've noted, the Korean merge took place over a single generation, it's entirely possible a similar one happened in Lao. Again, I'm only speculating. Hopefully someone with more knowledge can give a detailed explanation. – acattle Oct 10 '13 at 11:32
  • The thing is that in such a case a parallel merger must've taken place in Thai also, which seems very unlikely. I think the merger is possibly ancient and there's some arcane reason for not reforming this pair of letters while reforming everything else. Or they have not been a merger but the two are to show show two vowels in etymological spellings of Pali/Sanskrit words. – hippietrail Oct 10 '13 at 11:37
  • I've found a thread on thai-language.com that talks about this in Thai, Lao, Isan, and other related languages. But it seems to have devolved between the participants without resolution. – hippietrail Oct 10 '13 at 11:38
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My Lao friend says that in Luang Prabang they pronounce ໃ as /əə/, e.g. ໃຈ /cəə/ (he wrote it ເຈີ). Historically in both Thai and Lao, this grapheme was /aɯ/. So yes, they are still distinguished in the Luang Prabang dialect.

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