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Laos once considered the letter 'R' a Western interloper; the internet helped bring it back

Jan 21. 2020
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By Special To The Washington Post · Saqib Rahim 

SAVANNAKHET, Laos - Listen closely in Laos and you can hear a linguistic renaissance. It sounds a lot like the letter "R."

Forty-five years ago, Laos's communist government officially dropped the "R" sound from the Lao alphabet, calling it a symbol of foreign influence.

But the widening reach of the internet in one of Southeast Asia's most insular nations has helped the once-scorned R filter back in small - but growing - ways.

It's on the Lao-language sign for the new Crowne Plaza hotel in the Laotian capital, Vientiane. And at the KindyRoo day care in an upscale part of town. It's reappeared in some Lao-language grammar books to pronounce words such as "radar," where the "R" sound in Lao is rendered as "raw" or "roh" with a slight roll.

And it's how 32-year-old Ladda Bella can pronounce the "R" in "Harry Potter" with ease.

Bella streamed movies on HBO for hour after hour in 2003. All her friends had moved away to school while Bella stayed behind to run the family photo shop - learning English from movies between customers.

"I still remember, my first movie was 'Harry Potter.' I kept watching the same movie every day, sometimes like two times a day," said Bella, who has since opened her own shop selling beauty products and fresh-pressed juice in Savannakhet, a former French colonial outpost 220 miles southeast of Vientiane.

"I kept doing like that for two years," she added, "and suddenly I realized, 'Whoa! I can speak English!' "

That includes the ability to knock out a well-crafted R.

For her parents generation, that was a nearly forgotten sound.

Communist revolutionaries known at the Pathet Lao took power in 1975, vowing to expunge foreign influences and reassert Lao identity, right down to its national language.

No one is more associated with the latter effort than Phoumi Vongvichit, Laos' former president and one of its revolutionary forefathers. He was educated in the French-language curriculum established by colonial France. 

But in 1967, he came up with a simplified Lao grammar with two goals: improving literacy among the rural poor; and reclaiming the Lao language.

"Laos has gone back and forth as a colonized state of various foreign nations for many centuries," he wrote, according to a translation. "Whichever country has colonized us, that country has brought its language to be used here and mixed with Lao, causing Lao to lose its original former content, bit by bit."

Phoumi had a special hostility for the Lao "R." The letter dated back centuries, arriving via Buddhist monks from South Asia. But, as Phoumi observed, everyday Lao people didn't say it. They substituted another sound or dropped it entirely. That made "R" out of step with the communists' populist sensibilities. It was cut from the alphabet in 1975.

Nick Enfield, a linguistics professor at the University of Sydney, paraphrased the rationale behind Phoumi's linguistic purge: "We don't want to burden people with learning fancy etymological spellings. We want to make it a direct reflection of the language that everyday people speak."

For decades it vanished from practically all writing and speech, except in Buddhist monasteries and among intellectuals. To this day, the words "France" and "America" are officially pronounced "Falang" and "Amaylika."

But now - among Laos's web surfers and its small middle class - the sound means an outward look and a touch of sophistication.

Sandwiched between powerful neighbors in China, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has long held a reputation as somewhat reclusive. While its neighbors have welcomed foreign capital, Laos has been more reluctant. While those nations are mobbed with tourists, Laos isn't. The government estimates internet penetration surged last decade - to about 40 percent.

Laos also has burst forth as one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia. Gross domestic product growth averaged 7.7 percent in the last decade, according to the World Bank. Foreign investment, especially hydropower and mining, has surged as China, Japan, South Korea and others jockey for influence. 

With foreign capital has come a greater taste for foreign cultures and goods. Children get a taste of English via YouTube. Among Laos's youth-heavy population - 60 percent are under 35 - the more affluent consume South Korean pop music, Japanese fashion and American video games.

The airwaves are buffeted with Thai-language TV, which uses the "R" sound.

For some "R" has even taken on an air of cultivation, a nod to the Lao language's pre-communist linguistic roots and the glamorous world beyond, as in "Prada" and "Rolex." 

In response, some Phoumi loyalists fear that Laos is, once again, at risk of letting foreign languages corrupt its own.

"Lao is developing a middle class now and they wish to reconnect to the past as they develop into the future," Garry Davis, a linguistics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said by email. "There is a certain snob appeal that goes with using 'R' these days."

As Douangdeuane Bounyavong, a prominent writer and publisher in Vientiane, put it: "Language never dies."

 

 

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