Lao Culture

Naming

Most Lao follow Lao naming conventions. However, there may be variation between different ethnic groups, such as the Hmong people (see below).

 

Lao Naming Conventions

  • Lao naming conventions arrange names as follows: [given name(s)] [FAMILY NAME]. For example, Thongkhanh THAMMAVONG (male) and Dara NOLIN (female).
  • The given name (or ‘personal name’) is chosen at birth as the individual’s personal identifier. It is generally considered the most important aspect of a person’s name.
  • Some people may have more than one given name.
  • The ‘family name’ (or ‘surname’) is inherited from one’s parents and shared with other members of the individual’s immediate family.
  • Lao names are traditionally patrilineal, whereby children inherit their father’s family name at birth.
  • Most women will take their husband’s surname upon marriage. For example, if Dara NOLIN married Thongkhanh THAMMAVONG, she may be known as Dara THAMMAVONG.
  • However, some women may retain their own surname if their family heritage is a large well-known family (e.g. surname associated with leaders or politicians).
  • Some individuals from particularly isolated ethnic groups or remote villages may not have a surname.

 

Nicknames

  • Children are not always named immediately after birth in Lao culture. Indeed, a baby may remain officially nameless for up to a year.
  • However, it is common for children to be given a nickname during this time, well before their official name is decided. This nickname (known as a ‘sue lin’ – literally ‘playnames’) may follow a person throughout their life and be the way an individual refers to themselves on a daily basis.
  • Nicknames are typically based on the child’s appearance or behaviour, e.g. ‘noy/noi’ (small little).
  • Many babies may be given unflattering nicknames (e.g. Thooey meaning ‘Fatty’ or Dham meaning ‘Dark’) to ward off spirits that might get jealous of a beautiful name.1
  • It is also common to use a nickname based on an abbreviation to the last syllable of a person’s given name. For example, Thongkhanh THAMMAVONG may be known as “Khanh”. This is a common way of nicknaming someone when meeting for the first time (if you don’t already know their nickname) or they do not have one from childhood.

 

Names

  • Children are often officially named by an older relative, usually grandparents, rather than the parents.
  • A local astrologer or medicine person may also assist in the naming.
  • Most Lao names are a mixture of two-three Pali or Sanskrit and Lao words. They are commonly made up of a common prefix (e.g. Bou-, Kham-, Thong-) followed by multiple suffixes.2
  • Names may be inspired by animals, royal titles or nature, e.g. Buppha (flowers), Dara (star).
  • Many given names are non-gender specific, e.g. Buavan, Kamphiu, Bunson, Khamla.
  • Sometimes a “lucky” letter or syllable is used at the beginning of all siblings’ names within a family.
  • Lao surnames typically have three to four syllables, e.g. BOUPHASIRI, KAIGNAVONGSA, SAESAVANNAH.3,4

 

Addressing Others

  • Lao people generally address others by titles and honorifics in formal/professional settings or when meeting someone for the first time.
  • Titles are used with given names rather than with family names.
  • People use the titles ‘Thao’ or ‘Nai’ for men (Mr.) and ‘Nang’ or ‘Sao’ for women (Mrs./Miss.) followed by the given name. For example, Thao Thongkhanh (Mr. Thongkhanh).
  • Terms of address may also vary depending social orders and whether one is interacting in a village, monastery or urban area
  • In daily life, outside of formal settings, Lao people tend to refer to themselves and those around them by their ‘sue lin’ or nickname (see above).
  • It is also common to refer to a parent by the given name of their first child. For example, if Thongkhanh THAMMAVONG and Dara NOLIN has a child named Champee, they may be referred to as ‘Phor Champee’ (“father” Champee) and ‘Mae Champee’ (“mother” Champee).

 

Hmong Naming Conventions

  • Hmong naming conventions traditionally arrange names as follows: [CLAN NAME] [given name(s)]. However, some Hmong may reverse the order of their clan name and given name if they prefer to do so.5
  • The clan name is inherited from one’s parents and shared with other members of the individual’s immediate family. It generally serves as a family name or surname as is understood in English-Western practices.
  • It is traditional for Hmong women to acquire an entirely new name when they marry. However, some living overseas may choose to keep their clan name to maintain attachment to family. Keeping one’s original given name may present as if the woman is trying to appear young and unmarried.6
  • Traditionally, Hmong men are given a new honorary name by their in-laws after the birth of their first child. This is often known as a ‘maturity name’.7 For example, Lauj Pov Vaj may be given the maturity name Tooj Pov Vaj by his wife’s parents after their first child.

 

Names

  • Children are usually named by an older relative, usually grandparents, rather than the parents.8
  • A child’s name may be changed if it is thought to be spiritually incompatible with their personality, as this is thought to cause fussiness or illness. For example, if a girl named ‘Ziag’ (sickle) cries a lot, it may be determined that her name is too strong and should be changed to something softer, such as ‘Paj’ (flower).9 This may be decided by a shaman.
  • People’s names may also be changed to protect them from spirits.
  • Hmong names may signify wealth, nature, power or good fortune. However, there is also a tradition of naming children after household artefacts (e.g. baskets, bells, etc.).10
  • People may be given nicknames based on relationship, e.g. ‘Me Ntxhais’ (little daughter), ‘Ntxawm’ (youngest daughter) or ‘Tub’ (son) – the last two also function as given names.
  • Nicknames may also reflect one’s personality or appearance, e.g. ‘Suav’ (owl) for someone with wide eyes, or ‘Xov Phiam’ (government official) for a boy whose facial expression is serious.

 

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1 Theek, 2013
2 Cooke, 1997
3 Fong & Chuang, 2004
4 Cooke, 1997
5 Cooke, 1997
6 Burt, 2009
7 Burt, 2009
8 Burt, 2009
9 Burt, 2009
10 Burt, 2009
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