Flower Hmong women in traditional dress

Hmong language: strange spellings central

The Hmong (pronounced roughly like ‘mung‘) language is spoken by the approximately 2.7 million Hmong people. They are native to southern China and Southeast Asia, but have a sizable diaspora population, particularly in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Their language has about 8 tones, just as Mandarin Chinese has 4 and Thai has 5.

What’s particularly interesting to me is how the Hmong write their language: they use an adapted version of the Roman alphabet, but in a peculiar way. To mark each syllable with a tone, they add a letter at the end. This letter tag is not pronounced out, but rather just indicates the tone for the whole syllable.

Let’s look at these tone tags in a variety called Hmong Daw. Each of these examples is pronounced identically, except for the tone contour:

Tone Pronunciation 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 checked (creaky) tone ˩
(phrase final: long low rising ˨)
/pɔ̰̀/ ‘to see’ pom
Mid-falling breathy tone ˧˩ /pɔ̤̂/ ‘grandmother’ pog

A poignant example is the name of the language itself. It is spelled “Hmong” in English, and pronounced accordingly, but the native spelling is “Hmoob”.

Sample sentence from the White Hmong variety:

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.

(Translation: The best thing to do is for you to find people who live in your neighborhood who can help you with different things.)

For comparison: in romanized Chinese you can either put accent marks on top (e.g. rén mín bì) or put tone numbers after the syllable (e.g. ren2 min2 bi4).

Information source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hmong_language
Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5d/Flower_Hmong_women_-_Flickr_-_exfordy_(3).jpg

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