Announcing the “Hmong Word of the Week”

Hmong Girls on Plain of Jars

One of the goals of this website is to promote the knowledge of Hmong culture through blog posts and fiction. It’s fitting, then, that I bring in a bit of Hmong language learning.

From 2004 to 2012, I taught a Hmong Culture class at BYU. It was designed to allow those students who had learned Hmong during their missionary service to get language credit toward graduation. I structured the class so that we covered Hmong History, Hmong folktales, and the Hmong funeral chant “Tell the Way,” or Qhuab Ke. I also threw in remedial vocabulary sessions to help the students learn Hmong words they didn’t know yet.

Why would you want to learn any Hmong? You could argue that it’s a dying language and culture, and that compared to other languages you could learn, there isn’t much benefit to knowing it. And you may be right.

On the other hand, the Hmong in America are nearly half a million strong now. They live in every state in the Union, with the main concentrations in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Outside America, the Hmong live in many countries, including Southern China, Northern Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Australia, France, and French Guyana. And, as more and more generations of Hmong in the Diaspora (the lands where a refugee population has settled) adopt the language and culture of their host countries, the need becomes greater to remember the language and the cultural connotations around that language, so that a part of Hmong identity may be preserved.

Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to know a few Hmong words when you happen to meet a Hmong?

To get you started, let’s first talk about the history of the Hmong alphabet. The alphabet used by the Hmong in America, and in most countries, is called the Romanized Popular Alphabet, or “RPA” for short. Together with Dr. Linwood Barney and Dr. William Smalley, two linguists who lived in Laos at the time, Father Yves Betrais, a French Catholic missionary and priest who lived with the Hmong in Laos for many years, designed and wrote down the Hmong RPA. Father Betrais, also known as Txiv Plig Nyiaj Pov, saw the need for a writing system for the Hmong language, and set out to provide for that starting in the 1950s.

Photo of Father Yves Betrais
Photo of Father Yves Betrais

Up to that time, the Hmong were an oral culture only, relying on memorization to pass down their songs, chants, and cultural rites. (There is a legend that the Hmong had a writing system a long time ago, but that when they crossed a river in China, the written texts were washed downstream and were never recovered. And it’s inferred from the folktale that the memory and knowledge of the script was washed away too.) Father Betrais had a vision that he could help preserve Hmong culture and tradition by writing it down in their language. And he did. He and his team of Hmong translators and cultural experts at the Hmong Cultural Heritage Association preserved folktales, the marriage rites and chants, the funeral rites and chants, and other cultural life events in book form. They also created the Hmong cultural magazine called Liaj Luv Chaw Tsaws, which I have also posted about on this site. In my study of Hmong, I benefited greatly from all their hard work. Father Betrais said:

Writing is necessary for the survival of a language. And a language is the most important element for guaranteeing the lasting originality of a culture. And we must hope that the Hmong culture lasts a long time; not in opposition to other cultures, but so that everyone on earth not end up dressing the same way, speaking the same language, listening to the same music and becoming unable to sing in his or her own language.

Father Betrais designed his alphabet so that a word is made up of a consonant, a vowel, and a tone indicator. There are 56 consonants, 13 vowels, and 8 tones. When you first see a Hmong text, it appears that someone just went crazy at the keyboard, but there is rhyme and reason to the letters.

Take the consonant and vowel pa, pronounced bah, with a short “a.” Depending on the tone indicator you put at the end, which is not pronounced but indicates the proper inflection of the voice, that construction can have up to eight different meanings:

  1. pam: blanket (short, guttural tone)
  2. pas: stick (low, even tone)
  3. pag: a puddle (of water) (low, breathy tone)
  4. pa: air or breath (mid-level, even tone)
  5. pav: to bind up (rising tone)
  6. paj: a flower (falling tone)
  7. pab: to help (high, even tone)
  8. pad: no meaning really. The “d” tone usually comes at the end of a sentence for emphasis. (rising tone extended)

There you have it. You have now learned seven Hmong words out of one consonant and vowel pair. Going forward, I will highlight a Hmong word a week. I plan to focus on Hmong words I can elaborate on rather than simply sharing basic words. There are several good websites for learning the fundamentals of Hmong already. My goal is to pick words that have a story.

What Hmong words do you want to learn? If you’re Hmong, what are you doing to preserve your culture?

Feature Photo by Oliver Spalt

Author: Michael Andrew Ellis

I write literary fiction at the confluence of Mormonism, Hmong culture, and the human condition. Here on my blog I write about Mormon arts and letters, Hmong history and culture, classic and contemporary literature, existentialism, and my journey as a writer.

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