So as I explain that I'm flying back from a bomb hunting expedition in the highlands of Southern Laos, an american woman corrects my pronunciation.
"It's pronounced "Lao" she says, knowingly. She had been there recently on vacation.
I had said "Laos", and pronounced the "s". And she had a valid point, because the Lao people do not add an "s" when saying the name of their country. At least when they are speaking Lao. They refer to it as "Pathet Lao", or "Lao County".
In fact the letter s was put there by the French hundreds of years ago during their transliteration of the Lao script, and even they didn't pronounce it. So why do I?
My explanation is that in modern English we still say Laos, just like we say Germany and Italy. And for the most part other English speakers know what country we're talking about, even tho that's not how it's pronounced by its nationals.
I'm glad she didn't persist on correcting me in the rest of the conversation, because its equally true that "Its pronounced "Deutschland"". And "Frawnce",
Because the implication would be that in order to discuss geography or world politics, everybody in the conversation would need to know how the name of every country in the world was pronounced by its own citizens in their own language. And that's assuming there is only one language or cultural group in the country. China has 13 written languages , and "it's pronounced "China" in none of them.
Dont get me wrong, I dont want to be like some old gezzer that cant change with the times, either. Like when President Kennedy was announcing the plan to bomb the heck out of the country, he called it "LAY-os" he sounded really old fashioned, like from 50 years ago. And we all got used to 'Myanmar' fairly easily.
But there are a lot of countries that the average person still wouldn't know if offered the real name. Do all of you know where "Soumi" is on the map?
And I'm not taking a stand on my choice of pronunciations either. You can pronounce it how you like too, and hopefully I have the good sense not to correct you, because in correcting somebodies pronunciation of a word in a foreign language that neither of us speak, one is letting them know that you understood exactly what they were talking about, and just wanted to point out that they are wrong.
So that's why I keep calling it Laos. And refrained from telling her about my trip to "Mehico".
(Update Aug 2017: So far this post has become the most visited on my blog, with a lot of interesting comments. But if you want to know what Lao people think of the subject, scroll down to Mattie Do's comment below for an authoritative voice on the subject.)