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Number of Speakers: 3 million
Key Dialects: Hmong Daw (White Hmong) and Hmong Njua (Green/Blue Hmong)
Geographical Center: China (provinces of central and western Guizhou, southern Sichuan, and Yunnan)
Hmong is a minority language of China spoken by approximately two million people. It has no official status in the countries in which it is spoken. The language consists of a number of dialects, many of which are unintelligible and thus considered separate languages. The two major varieties of Hmong, White Hmong [Hmong Daw] and Green/Blue Hmong [Hmong Njua] (named according to the traditional colors worn in costume by women of the different groups), are spoken primarily in southwestern China, Northern Vietnam, and Laos. Outside this area, Hmong is spoken by relatively substantial groups in Burma, northern Thailand, France, and the United States. The collective population of native Hmong speakers outside China is approximately one million.
Hmong is a Hmongic language belonging to the Hmong-Mien language family, a group consisting predominantly of minority languages spoken in Southern China and Southeast Asia. Hmong is most closely related to Mien. Other related languages include Hmu, Qo Xiong, Bunu, Pa-heng, She, Mun, and Biao Min. Outside of this cluster of related languages, the linguistic family affiliations of Hmong are uncertain and debatable.
The standard dialect of Hmong is Western Hmong, a group of dialects spoken in southwestern China, Northern Vietnam, Northern Thailand, and Laos. The dialects that comprise this group are White Hmong (Hmong Daw) and Green/Blue Hmong (Hmong Njua). Of the two, White Hmong is perhaps the more dominant dialect. This is reflected in the fact that the Hmong orthography most closely reflects the pronunciation of the White Hmong dialect. In addition, the number of published White Hmong dictionaries considerably surpasses that of the Green/Blue Hmong dialect. Nonetheless, both White and Green/Blue Hmong dialects are mutually intelligible, the predominant differences between the two being in the pronunciation/phonology and lexicon (i.e. whether the bulk of the dialects loans come from Tai or Chinese). Although White and Green/Blue Hmong are mutually intelligible, there is a fair amount of variation between these and other dialects of Western Hmong and the over twenty other dialects of the language. In these cases, the variation observed is limited not just to the phonology, but to aspects of the syntax and morphology as well. As such, the degree of intelligibility across these dialects is considerably lower.
In current practice, at least four writing systems are used to write Hmong. The principal and most widely used Hmong orthography is the Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA), which was devised in the 1950s by a group of missionaries. The RPA exclusively employs the symbols of the Roman alphabet and makes use of a small inventory of notational innovations. The consonant characters employed are largely influenced by the Vietnamese writing system. In addition, vowels followed by the [ng] sound appear doubled (e.g. aang). With the exception of the Mid tone, which is unmarked in the orthography, the six remaining surface tones in Hmong are represented by means of distinct letters written at the end of each syllable. For example, High tones are indicated by placing the letter b at the end of the syllable (e.g. [í] is written ib); Low tones are represented by placing the letter s in a syllable-final position (e.g [ì] is written is); High-Falling tones are marked by means of the letter j (e.g. [í`] is written ij), etc.
The remaining three Hmong orthographies are Phahawh, the Pollard Script, and Chinese Romanized Hmong. Phahawh was developed by a non-literate peasant and is completely unrelated to the other writing systems. The Pollard Script was devised at the turn of the twentieth century by Samuel Pollard to write A-Hmao, a Western Hmong dialect closely related to White/Green Hmong. Although the script is widely known, it is mainly used by Christian-speaking Hmong populations who speak A-Hmao. The Chinese Romanized alphabet was devised following the Communist revolution. It is based on the Pinyin system used to write Mandarin Chinese. However, unlike Pinyin, tones are represented by means of syllable-final letters as in the RPA.
Phonologically, Hmong is characterized by an extraordinarily elaborate sound system. The language’s sound inventory consists of eight vowels, fifty-seven consonants, and seven lexical tones.
Regarding the vowel inventory, Hmong makes use of two front vowels (high and mid variants), two central vowels (high and low), and two back vowels (high and mid). The front and back mid vowels also exist in nasalized forms as separate phonemes, however, they are the only two vowels that may surface in this way. In addition to these six vowel phonemes, five diphthongs are attested.
The most salient properties of the Hmong consonant system include the following: seven stop consonant articulations are employed (compare with English, which makes use of four); nasal consonants come in both voiced and voiceless versions (the latter of which is a cross-linguistically marked articulation); and phonemic contrasts are made by means of a variety of articulatory gestures uncharacteristically employed in the same language (for example, aspiration, prenasalization, and lateral release).
With regard to its tonal inventory, Hmong makes use of seven distinct tones: High, Mid, Low, High Falling, Mid Rising, Low Falling, and Mid-Low. Every Hmong vowel bears one of these seven tones. By way of contrast, Vietnamese employs five lexical tones, while Laotian makes use of six.
The syllable structure of the language is relatively simple. Onsets (i.e. pre-vocalic material) are for the most part obligatory. Both monophthongs and diphthongs may function as syllable nuclei. Codas (i.e. post-vocalic material) are for the most part prohibited. (In certain limited cases, codas are possible. For instance, when the nucleus of a syllable is either a nasal vowel or else bears a Low Falling tone, a so-called “weak coda” may appear.) As such, the syllable structure of the language may be described as CV. Similar to languages like Chinese and Vietnamese, Hmong is a predominantly monosyllabic language. That is, most Hmong words consist of only one syllable. For this reason, Hmong words are typically (but not always) monomorphemic.
The basic word order of Hmong is SVO, although changes in this word order pattern are possible in cases of passivization, topic-comment structures, and other related constructions. Tense/aspect markers precede the verb phrase, however, in certain cases it is not grammatically necessary to include them. Within the verb phrase, verbs precede all objects, adverbs may precede or follow verbs (depending on the particular adverb), permission and possibility modal auxiliaries (e.g. ‘may’) follow the verb, but auxiliaries of necessity (such as those used in the imperative – e.g. ‘must’) precede the verb, and lastly, negative particles precede the rightmost verb in the linear order (e.g. in cases of post-verbal modal auxiliaries of necessity, the negative marker precedes the auxiliary verb). Within the noun phrase, possessors precede possessed nouns, and adjectives and relative clauses follow the nouns they modify. Hmong makes use of prepositions. Postpositions are unattested in the language. As in Chinese, question formation does not involve word order change. For yes-no questions, a special yes-no question particle occurs pre-verbally. For wh- questions, the position of the wh- word in the linear order corresponds to the position occupied by non-wh- noun phrases in simple declaratives (e.g. the English sentence ‘What are you doing?’ would be rendered ‘you do what’ in Hmong). In other words, the wh- word does not occupy a sentence-initial position in Hmong as in many other languages.
Hmong shares a number of morphosyntactic properties in common with several other languages of Southeast Asia, including: a general lack of inflectional morphology (affixation), the presence of morphologically independent (i.e. non-affixed) noun classifiers (i.e. pre-nominal morphemes that define the number properties and class membership of the noun), and the existence of “serial verb constructions” (i.e. multiple verb constructions in which two or more verbs share a common noun phrase argument and occur without marking of coordination or subordination. Other morphological processes productively attested in Hmong include compounding and reduplication.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
Although Hmong is recognized as an official nationality in China, no Hmong dialect enjoys official status in China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, or Burma. As such, Hmong is considered a minority language of Southeast Asia.
Large numbers of Hmong have settled in various parts of the world, however, the largest Hmong diaspora is found in the United States. The Hmong migration to the United States came in several waves. In the first period of resettlement (1975-1985), roughly 12,000 Hmong settled primarily in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The second wave of immigration was characterized primarily by settlement in California. At present, the greatest concentration of Hmong outside of east Asia is found in California. In total, approximately 300,000 Hmong live in the United States at present. Within the US, at least, Hmong is used in certain avenues of mass communication. In addition to newspaper publications, a number of cities have dedicated Hmong radio stations. These include Hmong Colorado Radio in Broomsfield Colorado (KGNU – 88.5 FM); Hmong Wisconsin Radio; and Hmong Radio in Fresno California (KQEQ – 1210 AM). In addition, a number of Hmong internet radio stations exist, such as HTY Radio (http://www.htyradio.com) and Hmong Internet Radio (http://www.hmonginternetradio.com).
The origins of the Hmong people and their language are highly debated topics. Most information on this subject comes from legend/folklore. Within China, the Hmong are thought to have originated in the central plains region. For political and economic reasons, they migrated south to the mountains where they remained for hundreds of years. In the sixth century, at a time when China had divided into warring factions, the Hmong banned together to form a kingdom in the central provinces of Hunan, Henan, and Hubei. This kingdom lasted for several hundred years, but was ultimately destroyed by the Chinese government. Within the past 150-300 years, the Hmong have spread into Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, and other parts of China, giving rise to a number of distinct and emerging Hmong dialects. The earliest written records of the Hmong date back to the third century B.C and take the form of Chinese annals describing the Hmong’s many uprisings against the Chinese state.
Fuller, Judith Wheaton Fuller. 1988. Topic and Comment in Hmong. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.
Heimbach, Ernest R. 1979. White Hmong-English Dictionary. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Linguistic Series.
Lyman, Thomas Amis. 1974. Dictionary of Mong Njua. The Hague: Mouton.
Lyman, Thomas Amis. 1979. Grammar of Mong Njua (Green Miao). Published by the author.
Mortensen, David. 2006. Hmong Language FAQ. Manuscript, University of California, Berkeley. Available at: http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~dmort/hmong_lang_faq.html
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