Hmong language

Hmong language
lol Hmongb, ad Hmaob lul, Hmoob
Spoken in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, USA, and French Guiana.
Native speakers over 4 million  (2005)[1]
to 7.8 million (2006)[2]
Language family
  • Miao–Bunu (Hmongic)
    • Miao (Greater Hmong)
      • Western Hmongic (Hmong proper)
        • Hmong
Writing system Pahawh Hmong script, Latin
Language codes
ISO 639-3 variously:
mww – Hmong Daw (Laos, China)
hmq – Eastern Qiandong Miao
muq – Eastern Xiangxi Miao
hnj – Hmong Njua
hmz – Hmong Shua (Vietnam)
hmc – Hmong Central Huishui (China)
hmm – Hmong Central Mashan (China)
hmj – Hmong Chonganjiang (China)
hme – Hmong Eastern Huishui (China)
cqd – Chuanqiandian Cluster Miao
hrm – Horned Miao
sfm – Small Flowery Miao
hmd – Large Flowery Miao
hml – Luopohe Hmong
huj – Northern Guiyang Hmong
hmi – Northern Huishui Hmong
hmp – Northern Mashan Hmong
hea – Northern Qiandong Miao
hmy – Southern Guiyang Hmong
hma – Southern Mashan Hmong
hms – Southern Qiandong Miao
hmg – Southwestern Guiyang Hmong
hmh – Southwestern Huishui Hmong
hmw – Western Mashan Hmong
mmr – Western Xiangxi Miao
hmv – Hmong Do (Vietnam)
hmf – Hmong Don (Vietnam)

Hmong (RPA: Hmoob) or Mong (RPA: Moob) is the common name for a dialect continuum of the West Hmongic branch of the Hmong–Mien/Miao–Yao language family spoken by the Hmong people of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos.[3] The total number of speakers worldwide has been estimated to be more than 4 million, including over 200,000 Hmong Americans.[1] Some dialects are mutually intelligible while others are so distinct as to be considered separate languages.


Different concept

Outside China, the concept of "Hmong language" often refers to the first[clarification needed] subdialect of the Chuanqiandian dialect (cqd) of Miao (hmn). "Hmong Daw" and "Hmong Njua" are two standardizations of this first sub-dialect. Among all overseas Miao people, all (except for the hundreds of Mieu people in Vietnam) belong to this first sub-dialect. Nevertheless, those varieties of Hmong are not totally mutually intelligible and are considered to be different languages (in China these languages are considered different sub-sub-dialects of the first subdialect[clarification needed]). Since the 1950s, a standardized Miao based on Dananshan has unified the whole Chuanqiandian sub-dialect, and all sub-sub-sub-[clarification needed]dialects ("languages") in China are now mutually intelligible. Nevertheless, RPA[clarification needed] is still used in the United States.


The two dialects described here are known as Hmong Der/Daw (also called White Hmong) and Mong Leng (also called Blue Mong or Mong Njua).[4] These are the two major dialects spoken by Hmong Americans. While mutually intelligible, the dialects differ in both lexicon and certain aspects of phonology. For instance, Mong Leng lacks the aspirated /m/ of Hmong Der and has a third nasalized vowel, /ã/. In English, "Hmong" is often used to include both Hmong Der and Mong Leng, although some have suggested a compromise, such as: H'Mong, Mhong, or (H)Mong. Likewise, "Mong" alone can also be used to refer to both groups. A common misconception some people have is to use "Green Hmong" to refer to "Mong Leng." However, it is only a subgroup, just as "Striped Hmong" is a subgroup of Hmong Der.


The vowel systems of Hmong Der and Mong Leng are as shown in the following charts. Phonemes particular to each dialect are color coded respectively:

Front Central Back
oral nasal oral nasal oral nasal
Close i ɨ u
Mid e ɔ ɔ̃
Open a ã
Closing Centering
Close component is front ai
Close component is central  
Close component is back au


Hmong makes a number of phonemic contrasts unfamiliar to English speakers. All non-glottal stops and affricates distinguish aspirated and unaspirated forms, most also prenasalization independently of this. The consonant inventory of Hmong is shown in the chart below. (Consonants particular to Hmong Der and Mong Leng are color-coded respectively.)

Bilabial Labio-
Dental Retroflex Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plain Lateral* Plain Lateral*
Nasal Voiceless (m̥ˡ) ɲ̥
Voiced m () n ɲ
Plosive Voiceless p () (pˡʰ) t () (tˡʰ) ʈ ʈʰ c k q ʔ
Voiced d
Prenasalized** ᵐb ᵐbʱ (ᵐbˡ) (ᵐbˡʱ) ⁿd ⁿdʱ (ⁿdˡ) (ⁿdˡʱ) ᶯɖ ᶯɖʱ ᶮɟ ᶮɟʱ ᵑɡ ᵑɡʱ ᶰɢ ᶰɢʱ
Affricate Voiceless ts tsʰ tʂʰ
Prenasalized** ⁿdz ⁿdzʱ ᶯɖʐ ᶯɖʐʱ
Fricative Voiceless f s ɬ ʂ ç h
Voiced v ʐ ʝ
Approximant l

^* The status of the consonants described here as single phonemes with lateral release is controversial. A number of scholars instead analyze them as biphonemic clusters with /l/ as the second element. The difference in analysis (e.g. between /pˡ/ and /pl/) is noted based on any disagreement in the sound or pronunciation of the consonants in question, but on differing theoretical grounds. Those in favor of a unit-phoneme analysis generally argue for this based on distributional evidence (i.e. if clusters, these would be the only clusters in the language, although see below) and dialect evidence (the laterally released dentals in Green Mong, e.g. /tl/, correspond to the voiced dentals of White Hmong), while those in favor of a cluster analysis tend to argue on the basis of general phonetic principles (other examples of labial phonemes with lateral release appear extremely rare or nonexistent[5]).

^** Some linguists prefer to analyze the prenasalized consonants as clusters whose first element is /n/. However, this cluster analysis is not as common as the above one involving /l/.

Syllable structure

Hmong syllables have a very simple structure: onsets are obligatory (except in a few particles), nuclei may consist of a monophthong or diphthong, and coda consonants are prohibited, except that a weak coda [ŋ] may accompany nasal vowels and a weak coda [ʔ] may accompany the low-falling creaky tone.


Hmong is a tone language and makes use of seven distinct tones:

Tone Example[6] Orthographic Spelling
High /pɔ́/ 'ball' pob
Mid /pɔ/ 'spleen' po
Low /pɔ̀/ 'thorn' pos
High-falling /pɔ̂/ 'female' poj
Mid-rising /pɔ̌/ 'to throw' pov
Low-falling (creaky) tone /pɔ̰/ 'to see' pom
Mid-low (breathy) tone /pɔ̤/ 'grandmother' pog


Robert Cooper, an anthropologist, collected a Hmong folktale saying that the Hmong used to have a written language, and important information was written down in a treasured book. The folktale explains that cows and rats ate the book, so, in the words of Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, "no text was equal to the task of representing a culture as rich as that of the Hmong." Therefore, the folktale states that the Hmong language was exclusively oral from that point onwards.[7]

Since the end of the 19th century, linguists created over two dozen Hmong writing systems, including systems using Chinese, Lao, Russian, Thai, and Vietnamese characters and alphabets. In addition, in 1959 Shong Lue Yang, a Hmong spiritual leader from Laos, created an 81 symbol writing system called Pahawh. Yang was not previously literate in any language. Chao Fang, an anti-Laotian government Hmong group, uses this writing system.[7]

The Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA), the most widely used script by the Hmong people and linguists, was developed in Laos between 1951 and 1953 by three Western missionaries.[7] In the United States Hmong do not use RPA for spelling of proper nouns, because they want their names to be easily pronounced by people unfamiliar with RPA. For instance Hmong in the U.S. spell Hmoob as "Hmong," and Liab Lis is spelled as Lia Lee.[8]

Another Hmong writing system is the Flower Cloth script. The characters are based on Hmong textiles. It was believed that the Hmong women preserved and hid the writing systems in the Hmong textiles.[citation needed]


Hmong is an analytic SVO language in which adjectives and demonstratives follow the noun. Noun phrases can contain the following elements (parentheses indicate optional elements):[9]

(possessive) + (quantifier) + (classifier) + noun + (adjective) + (demonstrative)

The Hmong pronominal system distinguishes between three grammatical persons and three numbers - singular, dual, and plural. They are not marked for case, that is, the same word is used to translate both "I" and "me", "she" and "her", and so forth. These are the personal pronouns of White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb) and Mong Leng (Moob Leeg):

White Hmong Pronouns
Number: Singular Dual Plural
First kuv wb peb
Second koj neb nej
Third nws nkawd lawv
Mong Leng Pronouns
Number: Singular Dual Plural
First kuv ib peb
Second koj meb mej
Third nwg ob tug puab


Hmong is an isolating language in which most morphemes are monosyllables. As a result, verbs are not overtly inflected. Tense, aspect, mood, person, number, gender, and case are indicated lexically.[10]

Serial verb construction

Hmong verbs can be serialized. Two or more verbs can be combined in one clause. It is not uncommon for as many as five verbs to be strung together sharing the same subject.

Example (White Hmong)
Yam zoo tshaj plaws mas, nej yuav tsum mus nrhiav nug xyuas saib luag muaj kev pab hom dab tsi nyob ncig ib cheeb tsam ntawm nej.
thing good most top you must go look-for ask visit see others have way help kind what be-at around environs at you
'The best thing to do is for you to find people who live in your neighborhood who can help you with different things.'


Since the verb form in Hmong does not change to indicate tense, the simplest way to indicate the location in time of an event is to use temporal adverb phrases like "last year," "today," or "next week."

Example (White Hmong)
Nag hmo kuv mus tom khw.
yesterday I go loc. market
'I went to the market yesterday.'


Aspectual differences are indicated by a number of verbal modifiers. The most common of which are:

Progressive: (Mong Leng) taab tom + verb, (White Hmong) tab tom + verb = situation in progess

Example: (Mong Leng)
Puab taab tom haus dlej.
they prog. drink water.
They are drinking water.

Taab/tab tom + verb can also be used to indicate a situation that is about to start. This is most clear when taab/tab tom occurs in conjunction with the irrealis marker yuav. It should be noted that the taab tom construction is used only when it is not clear from the context that a situation is ongoing or about to begin.

Perfective: sentence/clause + lawm = completed situation

Example (Green and White Hmong)
Kuv noj mov lawm.
I eat rice perf.
'I am finished/I am done eating.'

Lawm at the end of a sentence can also indicate that an action is underway.

Example (White Hmong)
Tus tub tau rab hneev, nws thiaj mus ua si lawm.
clf. boy get clf. crossbow; he then go play perf.
'The boy got the crossbow and went off to play.'

Another common way to indicate the accomplishment of an action or attainment is by using tau. Tau, as a main verb, means 'to get/obtain.' It takes on different connotations when combined with other verbs. When it occurs before the main verb (i.e. tau + verb), it conveys the attainment or fulfillment of a situation. Whether the situation took place in the past, present, or future is indicated at the discourse level rather than the sentence level. If the situation has taken place in the past, tau + verb translates to the past tense in English.

Example (White Hmong)
Lawv tau noj nqaij nyug.
they attain eat meat beef
'They ate beef.'

Tau is optional if an explicit past time marker is present (e.g. nag hmo, last night). Tau can also mark the fulfillment of a situation in the future.

Example (White Hmong)
Thaum txog peb caug lawm sawv daws thiaj tau hnav khaub ncaws tshiab.
when arrive New Year perf. everybody then attain wear clothes new
'So when the New Year arrives, everybody gets to wear new clothes.'

When tau follows the main verb (i.e. verb + tau), it indicates the accomplishment of the purpose of an action.

Example (Mong Leng)
Kuv xaav xaav ib plag, kuv xaav tau tswv yim.
I think think awhile, I think get idea.
'I thought it over and got an idea.'

Tau is also common in serial verb constructions made up of a verb followed by an accomplishment verb as in: (White Hmong) nrhiav tau, to look for; caum tau, to chase; yug tau, to give birth.


Future: yuav + verb

Example (Mong Leng)
Kuv yuav moog.
I will be going.

Yuav + verb may also be seen as indicative of the irrealis mood: situations that are unfulfilled or unrealized. This includes hypothetical or non-occurring situations with past, present, or future time references.

Example (from a White Hmong folk tale)
Tus Tsov hais tias, "Kuv tshaib tshaib plab li kuv yuav noj koj.
clf. Tiger say, "I hungry hungry stomach int. I irrls. eat you
'The Tiger said, "I'm very hungry and I'm going to eat you."

Tus Qav tsis paub yuav ua li cas li.
clf. Frog neg. know irrls. do what int.
'The Frog didn't know what to do.'

See also

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  1. ^ a b Lemoine, Jacques (2005). "What is the actual number of the (H)mong in the World". Hmong Studies Journal. 
  2. ^ Ethnologue, 2009
  3. ^ Ratliff, Martha (1992). Meaningful Tone: A Study of Tonal Morphology in Compounds, Form Classes, and Expressive Phrases in White Hmong. Dekalb, Illinois: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University. 
  4. ^ White Hmong phonology: Golston, Chris; Phong Yang (2001). "Hmong loanword phonology". In in: C. Féry, A. D. Green, and R. van de Vijver (eds.),. Proceedings of HILP 5 (Linguistics in Potsdam 12 ed.). Potsdam: University of Potsdam. pp. 40–57. ISBN 3-935024-27-4.  [1] Mong Leng phonology: Smalley, William et al. Mother of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. p. 48-51. See also: Mortensen, David. “Preliminaries to Mong Leng (Mong Njua) Phonology” Unpublished, UC Berkeley. 2004.
  5. ^ Even the landmark book The Sounds of the World's Languages specifically describes lateral release as involving a homorganic consonant.
  6. ^ Examples taken from: Heimbach, Ernest H. White Hmong–English Dictionary [White Meo-English Dictionary]. 2003 ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 1969. Note that many of these words have multiple meanings.
  7. ^ a b c Fadiman, Anne. "Note on Hmong Orthography, Pronunciation, and Quotations." The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1997. 291.
  8. ^ Fadiman, Anne. "Note on Hmong Orthography, Pronunciation, and Quotations." The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1997. 292.
  9. ^ Ratliff, Martha (1997). "Hmong–Mien demonstratives and pattern persistence". Mon–Khmer Studies Journal 27: 317–328. Retrieved 2007-06-06. 
  10. ^ Strecker, David and Lopao Vang. White Hmong Grammar. 1986.


  • Cooper, Robert, Editor. The Hmong: A Guide to Traditional Lifestyles. Singapore: Times Editions. 1998. pp. 35–41.
  • Finck, John. "Clan Leadership in the Hmong Community of Providence, Rhode Island." In The Hmong in the West, Editors, Bruce T. Downing and Douglas P. Olney. Minneapolis, MN: Southeast Asian Refugee Studies Project, Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Minnesota, 1982, pp. 22–25.
  • Thao, Paoze, Mong Education at the Crossroads, New York: University Press of America, 1999, pp. 12–13.
  • Xiong Yuyou, Diana Cohen (2005). Student's Practical Miao–Chinese–English Handbook / Npout Ndeud Xof Geuf Lol Hmongb Lol Shuad Lol Yenb. Yunnan Nationalities Publishing House, 539 pp. ISBN 7536732872.

Further reading

  • Enwall, Joakim. Hmong Writing Systems in Vietnam: A Case Study of Vietnam's Minority Language Policy. Stockholm, Sweden: Center for Pacific Asian Studies, 1995.

External links

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