Tag Archives: linguistics

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

Why do we shake our heads to mean ‘no’

Shaking one’s head left and right is understood as the sign for “no” in most human civilizations. There are a few exceptions where this is not the case (including some cultures in Southeastern Europe) but by and large, shaking one’s head means “no”.


If you spend time around babies, you might be able to intuit the answer.

Babies’ lives are pretty simple: almost everything they do revolves around eating, sleeping, and pooping. The second and third they can do at their own leisure, but eating requires communication to the caregiver about when to start and when to stop.

When the baby wants to refuse food, what does it do? The baby turns its head from side to side. It is this natural motion that has become near-universal for humans to show refusal or disagreement.

The More You Know

Image source: http://www.reflux.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Feed-refusing-pic.jpg

When does something become ‘ok’ to say?

If somebody recently invented a word, the world seems to agree that it’s ‘wrong.’ If everyone’s been using a word for a long time, everybody feels comfortable saying it’s ‘right.’ But where in that window does it gain acceptance? And what does it take for a new way of speaking to be deemed ok?

Language change is natural! If it weren’t, we’d all be speaking Old English. It might be easy to accept this conceptually, but it’s often hard for us to watch it happen in reality. Heck, I find myself trying to rebel against the forces of the inevitable. But linguistics is concerned more with a descriptive view of things than a prescriptive one; check out my article What is linguistics? for an understanding of each.

It’s not always easy to tell if a new way of speaking will become accepted broadly. There has to be some influential factor in there to push it into general use – perhaps a celebrity or other figure begins using the word or phrase in question. But if the reach doesn’t extend beyond a small circle of friends, it’s never going to be more than an inside joke.

Some changes are met with huge opposition: ain’t and y’all carry socioeconomic strings with them that get people very emotional. Acs/ax as a form of ask, shunned as it may be, has a recorded history of well over 500 years.

Others slip into our lexicons unnoticed. For example, the web created an intransitive usage of the verb to ship. Before internet shopping, nobody said, “your item will ship within 3 business days;” we only said things like, “we will ship your item within 3 business days.” And who can remember back when “access” was only a noun?

So what does the future of the English language look like? What changes will catch on? Without a crystal ball, it’s impossible to give a definitive answer. But there are some shifts happening today that may give us a hint. Some are more obvious: more and more people are using adjective forms in place of adverb forms (two examples come up in, “Can you come here real quick?”). But others are quiet and sneaky, and you probably don’t notice them.

In sum, there’s not a clear line of when a word or phrase becomes kosher. You could turn to so-called authorities: Oxford, Webster, official style guides… or you could just be satisfied with ambiguity. If something feels right to you, it’s right to you. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Why can’t that be good enough?

(Note: while writing this article, one of my relatives asked me, “why do young people think it’s ok to say, ‘I graduated college’ instead of, ‘I graduated from college’?” The very same day, a friend used the expression, ‘when I graduated college…’ How apropos!)

Image source: http://www.elfinspell.com/images/JudithPicC2.jpg

DC has its own dialect

As a DC resident and Georgetown alumnus, one thing I’ve fretted about the District is what I saw as a lack of a local dialect. Apparently this is a non-issue:

The [local] pronunciation occurs side-by-side with a handful of distinctively D.C. words, including “bama,” meaning somebody who’s unkempt; “cised,” meaning excited; and “jont,” which can refer to a place, a thing or even, these days, an attractive person. Together, they suggest something that many people thought the District didn’t have.

A local dialect.

Read the full article here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/is-there-a-dc-dialect-its-a-topic-locals-are-pretty-cised-to-discuss/2014/07/09/84a3771c-c418-11e3-bcec-b71ee10e9bc3_story.html