Identification. The Lao are a lowland people who speak the Lao language and live in Laos and parts of northeast Thailand. They are predominantly Buddhist, but also respect animist spirits. The traditional Lao name for their country is "Pathet Lao," meaning "the country of the Lao," but this name was also applied to the insurgent Communists during the Second Indochina War. The present name for the country is the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Location. Laos extends 1,400 kilometers in a northwest-southeast direction between 14° and 23° N and 100° and 108° E. The Lao live primarily in the valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries, at elevations below 1,000 meters. Northeast Thailand on the right bank of the Mekong is also home to many more Lao than presently live in Laos; they are called Lao (or Thai) Isan after the Thai name for that region. The north and east of Laos is characterized by rugged mountains and narrow valleys, while the terrain close to the Mekong and south of the capital, Vientiane, is more level and more heavily populated. Numerous non-Lao minority groups inhabit the upland areas of Laos throughout the country. The tropical monsoonal climate has three seasons: a warm rainy season lasting from June to November, a cool dry season from December to February, and a hot dry season from March to May.
Demography. The present population of Laos is about 4.2 million, of which about 2 million are Lao. The population density in Laos averages 17 persons per square kilometer. Separate demographic data are not available for the Lao, but national population growth is about 2.9 percent per year, and the crude birth rate is about 47 per thousand. Life expectancy at birth in Laos is about 50 years.
Linguistic Affiliation. Lao is included in the Tai Family of languages. Numerous dialects, for the most part mutually comprehensible, are spoken by different subgroups across the country and in northeast Thailand. Lao is a monosyllabic, tonal language, with numerous borrowings from Pali and Sanskrit. Orthography was simplified following the accession of the present government in 1975, and was made completely phonetic. The writing system uses twenty-six consonants and eighteen vowel symbols that can be combined to represent twenty-eight vowel sounds. There are two tone markers.