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date: 24 April 2018

Hmong-Mien Languages

Summary and Keywords

Hmong-Mien (also known as Miao-Yao) is a bipartite family of minority languages spoken primarily in China and mainland Southeast Asia. The two branches, called Hmongic and Mienic by most Western linguists and Miao and Yao by Chinese linguists, are both compact groups (phylogenetically if not geographically). Although they are uncontroversially distinct from one another, they bear a strong mutual affinity. But while their internal relationships are reasonably well established, there is no unanimity regarding their wider genetic affiliations, with many Chinese scholars insisting on Hmong-Mien membership in the Sino-Tibetan superfamily, some Western scholars suggesting a relationship to Austronesian and/or Tai-Kradai, and still others suggesting a relationship to Mon-Khmer. A plurality view appears to be that Hmong-Mien bears no special relationship to any surviving language family.

Hmong-Mien languages are typical—in many respects—of the non-Sino-Tibetan languages of Southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. However, they possess a number of properties that make them stand out. Many neighboring languages are tonal, but Hmong-Mien languages are, on average, more so (in terms of the number of tones). While some other languages in the area have small-to-medium consonant inventories, Hmong-Mien languages (and especially Hmongic languages) often have very large consonant inventories with rare classes of sounds like uvulars and voiceless sonorants. Furthermore, while many of their neighbors are morphologically isolating, few language groups display as little affixation as Hmong-Mien languages. They are largely head-initial, but they deviate from this generalization in their genitive-noun constructions and their relative clauses (which vary in position and structure, sometimes even within the same language).

Keywords: Hmongic, Mienic, Hmong, A-Hmao, Hmu, Xong, Iu Mien, Mun, Southeast Asia, China

1. Geographic Distribution

Hmong-Mien languages—in particular Hmong Daw, Mong Leng, and Mien—are, as of the early 21st century, distributed across four continents, but until the 18th century, Hmong-Mien speakers were largely confined to the contemporary borders of China. Geopolitical conflicts and resource scarcity have pushed Hmong and Mien speakers first from Southern China to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Burma and from there to the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, French Guiana, and Argentina.

Hmong-Mien speakers are widely distributed in pockets throughout much of Southern China. Hmongic speakers are generally located farther to the west—especially in Hunan, Guizhou, and Yunnan, but also in Hubei and Sichuan. The center of gravity for Mienic speakers in China lies farther to the east. Mienic speakers are found in Guangdong and Guangxi, as well as Yunnan and Hainan Island. Not only are the great majority of Hmong-Mien speakers located within Chinese borders, the linguistic diversity of both families is far greater within China than without.

To escape from conflict and find arable land, Hmong-Mien speakers migrated from Southern China into Northern Vietnam in the 18th and 19th centuries. From there, they expanded into Northern Laos, Thailand, and even (from the 20th century) Burma. Currently, they are distributed through Northern Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand in pockets associated with relatively high elevations (where the least valuable land, most likely to have been uncultivated when Hmong-Mien speakers arrived, is located).

Geopolitical developments involving Laos, where, by the middle of the 20th century, many speakers of Hmong Daw, Mong Leng, and Iu Mien lived, led to a diaspora of Hmong-Mien speakers to North and South America, as well as Australia and Europe. The conflict between the communist Pathet Lao and the American-backed Royal Lao government divided Hmong and Iu Mien people within Laos. The eventual triumph of the Pathet Lao led to the out-migration of a large number of Hmong and Iu Mien speakers who were affiliated with the Royal Lao government and the American military and intelligence presence in Laos. Many of these were eventually accepted as refugees by the United States, Canada, France (including French Guiana), Germany, Argentina, and Australia. In these expatriate communities, use of Hmong-Mien languages is in gradual decline, but—particularly in the United States, where the populations are larger—significant efforts toward language maintenance have been and are being made (for both Hmong and Iu Mien).

2. Historical Relationships and Development

2.1 Internal Relationships

Some details remain to be resolved regarding the phylogenetic relationships among Hmong-Mien languages. However, a number of propositions regarding this family and its internal relationships have been established in the literature:

  1. 1. The family has two top-level branches. Earlier suggestions that the Ho Ne (or She) language forms a third branch have been effectively refuted (Ratliff, 1998).

  2. 2. The Mienic branch is smaller and more phylogenetically compact. The Hmongic branch includes far more languages with far more genetic distance between them than the Mienic (Ratliff, 2010; Strecker, 1987).

  3. 3. A number of languages in the family that were considered close to Mien for cultural reasons are actually part of Hmongic. These include Bunu, which is a sister to Western Hmongic and Pa-Hng, which appears to have split from Hmongic at a very early point (Mao & Li, 1997; Meng, 2001; Ratliff, 2010; Strecker, 1987).

  4. 4. Ho Ne (She) and Jiongnai form a subgroup within Hmongic (Mao & Li, 2002; Meng, 2001). The more recently discovered Pana language seems also to belong to this group (Taguchi, 2012).

The exact internal structure of Mienic is not entirely resolved, but significant work has been done on this problem (Aumann & Sidwell, 2004). The internal structure of Hmongic is harder to sort out, but there is evidence that Pa-Hng, a few other small languages, and Northern Hmongic diverged from the rest of Hmongic earlier than Central Hmongic and Western Hmongic, which together form the largest group both in terms of number of languages and number of speakers (Ratliff, 2010; Taguchi, 2012). A provisional phylogeny—based on Mao and Li (1997), Aumann and Sidwell (2004), Ratliff (2010), Taguchi (2012), and Mortensen (2013)—is given below:

Hmong-Mien Languages

2.2 External Relationships

The external genetic relationships of Hmong-Mien are disputed. There are four major classes of proposals regarding these relationships:

  1. 1. An early generation of Chinese linguists placed Hmong-Mien in a Sino-Tibetan superfamily that included not just Sinitic (Chinese) and Tibeto-Burman, but also Tai-Kradai and Hmong-Mien (Wang & Mao, 1995).

  2. 2. A variety of scholars have proposed a relationship between Hmong-Mien and Mon-Khmer, often as part of an expanded Austric hypothesis (Peiros, 1998).

  3. 3. Other scholars have perceived a relationship between Hmong-Mien and Tai-Kradai, either in a family including Austronesian (Benedict, 1975) or excluding it (Ryuichi, 2002).

  4. 4. Finally, many scholars hold that there is not yet compelling evidence for a special relationship between Hmong-Mien and any other language family (Strecker, 1987).

The fourth option, the null hypothesis, appears to represent the opinion of the plurality of Hmong-Mien scholars at the present time.

2.3 Historical Developments

The history of Hmong-Mien languages has perhaps been subject to more rigorous scholarship than any other aspect of this family. The historical phonology of Hmong-Mien, however, remains far better studied than its historical morphosyntax.

The Chinese-American scholar Kun Chang initiated a long and rigorous investigation into the development of the Hmong-Mien tone systems starting in the 1940s and continuing into the 1970s (Chang, 1947, 1953, 1972). He discovered that proto-Hmong-Mien, like Middle Chinese, had four tones (three “smooth” tones—ending in a vowel, glide, or nasal stop, and one “checked” tone—ending in a plosive). He showed that Chinese borrowings in Hmong-Mien (or cognates, depending on one’s view of the relationship between Sino-Tibetan and Hmong-Mien) showed regular tonal correspondences to Middle Chinese. He also demonstrated convincingly that Hmongic languages, though they lost final plosives, retained the four proto-tones. Chang sometimes used the Chinese tone labels—ping, shang, qu, and ru—for the equivalent Hmong-Mien tones. These are sometimes labeled A, B, C, and D by Western Hmong-Mienists. Chang further demonstrated that there had been subsequent tonal splits in both branches of the family that were conditioned by the laryngeal properties of onsets. An upper register developed from syllables beginning with voiceless obstruents, voiceless sonorants, and preglottalized sonorants. A lower register developed from syllables beginning with other onsets (plain voiced obstruents and sonorants). This kind of split (which occurred multiple times, in parallel) accounts for the eight tonal categories found in many branches of the Hmong-Mien family (sometimes called A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, D1, and D2 by Western scholars, or by numbers 1–8 by both Western and Chinese scholars). Subsequent research has uncovered virtually the whole tonal history of Hmong-Mien, making it the single best-understood historical and structural aspect of this language family.

Chang (1976) also undertook some work on the reconstruction of the onsets of proto-Hmong-Mien, but this work has proven to be less enduring than his work on tones. There have been three major phonological reconstructions of the family: Purnell (1970), Wang and Mao (1995), and Ratliff (2010). Each of these made significant contributions. Purnell (1970) produced a plausible and well-reasoned reconstruction of proto-Hmong-Mien based on the limited data that was available to him. Wang and Mao (1995) contributed masses of data grouped into rigorously defined cognate sets. However, many subsequent scholars, including Ratliff (2010), have criticized this work for its typologically unusual reconstructions. Indeed, the onset and rime inventories implied by the reconstruction would be surprising in any language family or area. Ratliff (2010) builds on both of these earlier works of reconstruction, especially Wang and Mao (1995), who serve as the source of much of her data and many of her cognate sets. Her reconstruction leaves proto-Hmong-Mien with a much smaller set of onsets and rimes than posited by Wang and Mao (1995), but nevertheless with a richer phonological inventory than any attested Hmong-Mien language. She proposes the following template (table 1) for the maximal proto-Hmong-Mien syllable (Ratliff, 2010, p. 10):

Table 1. Proto-Hmong-Mien syllable template.

Hmong-Mien Languages

The historical morphosyntax of Hmong-Mien languages is relatively less well understood, in part because the grammars of individual Hmong-Mien languages have not been as well studied as their phonologies. The relative lack of affixal morphology also complicates the investigation of diachronic morphosyntax, as does the almost complete lack of historical texts older than the 20th century.

3. Typological and Grammatical Characteristics

An oversimplified description of the typology of the Hmong-Mien language family might state that Hmong-Mien languages are like typical mainland Southeast Asian languages, only more so. Indeed, they do share structural characteristics with nearby languages to a degree that can hardly be attributed to chance and sometimes display these characteristics to an unusual degree.

3.1 Phonetics and Phonology

Hmong-Mien languages have restricted phonotactics, but (often) large phonological inventories. Among them are included some of the richest inventories of tonal contrasts anywhere in the world. Hmongic languages often have rich onset inventories and many consonant phonemes though modest rime inventories; Mienic languages often have modest onset inventories and rich rime inventories. While they have fewer morphophonological alternations than many languages with more complicated morphologies, they do display a range of alternations, including tone sandhi, vowel harmony, and some types of assimilation.

One of the most obvious cleavages between Hmongic and Mienic involves syllable structure and phonotactics. Most Mienic languages allow syllable codas, both oral and nasal stops, while Hmongic languages never allow oral stop codas in native vocabulary and have—in some cases—lost nasal stop codas as well. In some languages, as in Hmong, deleted nasal codas have left residual nasalization that is sometimes realized with an oral closure but which may be best interpreted as a vowel feature rather than an independent segment (Niederer, 1998).

A similar question—whether to treat sounds with phonetic literalism when describing phonotactics—plagues Hmong-Mien onsets. In Mong Leng, there are onsets that are phonetically [pl], [pʰl], [mpl], and [mpʰl]. There are also onsets that are phonetically [tl], [tʰl], [ntl], and [ntʰl]. The last two in each of these series could be interpreted as a sequence of three consonants (nasal-plosive-lateral). They could also be interpreted as unitary segments with secondary articulations (prenasalized, lateral-release plosives). Both of these positions are attested (Golston & Yang, 2001; Mortensen, 2004).

Not all Hmong-Mien languages are tonally rich—some allow as few as three contrasting tones—but most have many tones and a few rival the most tonally rich languages in the world (with 12 tonal contrasts in Zongdi Mang, a variety of Mashan Hmongic). Hmong-Mien languages may have as many as five contrasting level tones. As in Vietnamese, tones in Hmong-Mien languages often involve differences in phonation type. For example, the falling tone written as <g> in the RPA orthography in Mong Leng (historical tone yangshang/yangqu or B2/C2) is characteristically breathy. This breathiness is important to the recognition of the tone so that, if an identical contour is resynthesized with modal voice quality, it will not be recognized as the <g> tone by Mong Leng speakers (Andruski & Ratliff, 2000).

Hmongic languages, in particular, are known for their large inventories of consonants, though Mienic languages often have larger-than-average consonant inventories as well (Niederer, 1998), particularly if palatalization and labialization are treated as secondary articulations rather than independent /j/ and /w/ segments. Vowel inventories in Hmong-Mien languages are more modest, but still tend to be larger than average. They sometimes include front-rounded vowels and back-unrounded vowels, as well as a range of diphthongs, both common and uncommon (Niederer, 1998). The Hmong-Mien champion, in terms of segment inventory size, may well be Weining A-Hmao: 75 consonant onsets, 7 monophthongal vowels, and 5 diphthongal vowels (not counting diphthongs and triphthongs that occur only in loanwords) (Niederer, 1998, pp. 116–118).

The best-known phonological alternations in Hmong-Mien languages are their tone sandhi patterns (Niederer, 1998; Ratliff, 1992). Tone sandhi refers to the alternation of one tone with another based on the tonal context in which it occurs. These patterns differ in their characteristics across the family. In Mienic, tone sandhi tends to be regressive and relatively simple. In Western Hmongic, there is a progressive pattern with deep historical roots. The development of this pattern in individual languages has sometimes produced unusual patterns. For example, in Weining A-Hmao (Eastern A-Hmao), this pattern has developed into a complex of alternations including a tone-sandhi circle (Wang & Wang, 1986). Tone sandhi circles are patterns where a directed graph of the tone sandhi alternations in a language contains a cycle, as in the famous Southern Min (e.g., Taiwanese) pattern or the less well-known pattern in Jingpho. Like these other cases, the A-Hmao tone sandhi circle is theoretically interesting (Moreton, 2004).

A few Hmongic languages have phonological patterns in which the rhyme of a prefix assimilates to the following rhyme. In some varieties, this is straightforwardly vowel harmony (with complete assimilation). In other varieties, this assimilation has a reduplicative aspect: The whole rhyme of the prefix becomes identical to the rhyme of the following syllable (Chen, 1993; Niederer, 1998, p. 123; Ratliff, 1992, pp. 40–42; Wang, 1994, p. 43).

Beyond this, there are numerous minor patterns (of assimilation especially), some productive and some frozen. For example, in Chinese words borrowed into a particular stratum of the Mong Leng lexicon, a plosive or affricate becomes prenasalized when preceded by a nasalized vowel; thus, /tʰɔ-cua/ Thoj Cuab陶家‎ ‘house of Tao’ but /vã-ⁿcua/ Vaaj Ncuab 王家‎ ‘house of Wang.’

3.2 Morphology

Few language groups display as consistent a 1:1:1 correspondence among syllables, morphemes, and words as Hmong-Mien languages. This does not mean that they entirely lack morphology: Some Hmong-Mien languages have a small number of derivational affixes (usually prefixes), and all of them employ compounding to expand their lexicons. This also does not mean that they entirely lack polysyllabic words, especially in borrowed vocabulary. It does mean that the terms isolating and monosyllabic apply more straightforwardly to Hmong-Mien languages than better-known exemplars of these categories like Mandarin or Cantonese.

Hmong-Mien languages are notable for their almost complete lack of inflectional affixes (but see Gerner & Bisang, 2008, 2010a, 2010b). A number of Hmong-Mien languages have a few derivational affixes. These are sometimes difficult to distinguish from the particles that perform many inflectional and derivational functions in Hmong-Mien languages. One example of a probable affix is the reciprocal morpheme found in many Western Hmongic languages, which has the form sib /ʃì/ in Hmong Daw (White Hmong). There are at least three arguments for treating this morpheme as a prefix:

  1. 1. The domain for tone sandhi seems to be the prosodic word; the tone of this morpheme triggers tone sandhi on the following syllable. Note, however, that numerals trigger tone sandhi in classifiers, requiring that numerals and classifiers must be analyzed as occurring within the same prosodic word as well.

  2. 2. In Western Hmongic languages with vowel harmony, vowel harmony is bounded by the word; according to Chen (1993), the vowels of the cognates of this prefix may harmonize with the following vowels (vowels of the following root).

  3. 3. Other morphemes cannot intervene between sib and the verb the valency of which it modifies.

See also Ratliff (2010, p. 199). Despite occasional exceptions like the reciprocal prefix, the great majority of affix-like morphemes are unquestionably independent words. Ratliff (2010, pp. 199–213) surveys the prefixes of Hmong-Mien, most of which appear to be archaic and fossilized. These include classificatory noun prefixes and valency-changing verb prefixes that are realized as prenasalization. However, there is recent and productive morphology in Hmong-Mien languages as well.

There are a number of cases of non-concatenative morphology in Hmongic languages. The most studied of these is probably the inflection of noun classifiers in Weining A-Hmao, a paradigm that also includes concatenative elements. Weining A-Hmao (Eastern A-Hmao), due to a historical reanalysis, has developed a paradigm 12 cells for each noun classifier. For example, the paradigm for the classifier for animate nouns is given in table 2 below (Gerner & Bisang, 2010a, p. 585).

Table 2. Paradigm for the animate classifier in Weining A-Hmao.























The paradigm is too complex to be wholly explicated here. However, it involves both the prefixation of a plural marker (in the plural forms) and internal changes to the first syllable in the medial and diminutive forms, as well as the plural forms. Each of the approximately 50 classifiers in Weining A-Hmao has a similar paradigm. It is not yet known how widespread morphological patterns like this are in Hmong-Mien.

3.3 Compounding

Like many languages with isolating morphologies, Hmong-Mien languages often have rich systems of compounding constructions. That is to say that there are many syntactic and semantic relationships that can exist between the constituents of a compound or between these constituents and the compound as a whole. This can be illustrated with a (non-exhaustive) set of nominal compound types from Iu Mien (Court, 1985, p. 117ff):


Hmong-Mien Languages

Iu Mien allows both left-headed and right-headed compounds, even for N-N composition (Court, 1985, pp. 127ff).

3.4 Syntax

Although significant work has been done on the syntax of Hmong and Mien, the syntax of most Hmong-Mien languages has been approached only superficially (if at all). It is true that word order has been adequately described in a great number of the Hmong-Mien languages of China, but deeper explanations of syntactic phenomena are largely limited to Hmong-Mien languages that have been more accessible to linguists in the West. One exception is Sposato’s (2012, 2015) analysis of the relative clauses of Xong.

The dominant main-clause word order in pragmatically unmarked contexts of all Hmong-Mien languages is SVO. It should be emphasized, however, that many Hmong-Mien languages (such as Iu Mien) make heavy use of topic-comment sentence patterns leading to non-SVO patterns in pragmatically marked contexts (Arisawa, 2016). In PP-like phrases, the head (which is often a verb; see Adpositional Phrases below) always occurs before its complement. This is what one would expect given the grammaticalization of these phrases from VO verb phrases. It is harder to generalize about the order of adjective-like words (many of which are described in the literature as “stative verbs” or “verbal adjectives”) relative to nouns; in a single language, both possible orders may be attested. For example, in Mong Leng, both laug tuabneeg ‘old person’ and tuabneeg laug ‘person old’ are attested to describe a person who is old, though there is a semantic difference between the two and the second is more frequent. N-Adj. word order is dominant (Mao, Meng, & Zheng, 1982; Wang, 1985). Possessors in Hmong-Mien languages typically come before the nouns they possess (in contrast to the typically head-initial word order of these languages) (Mao, Meng, & Zheng, 1982; Wang, 1985). Hmong-Mien languages vary in where the polar question particle occurs, with a preverbal order being common in Hmongic and a sentence-final order dominating in Mienic (Mao, Meng, & Zheng, 1982; Wang, 1985). Negative particles typically appear before the verbs they negate (Mao, Meng, & Zheng, 1982; Wang, 1985).

3.4.1 Adpositional Phrases

Adpositional phrases in Hmong-Mien languages are interesting not because of their word order—the equivalents to adpositional phrases are always head-initial—but because the class “adposition” is problematic in many members of this family. In the Mienic language Iu Mien and the divergent Pahngic language Younuo, it has been claimed that there are no adpositions whatsoever—all the preposition-like words are actually verbs (Mao & Li, 2007; Mao, Zheng, & Meng, 1982). In Hmong Daw (and Mong Leng), there are three different types of preposition-like words, some of which are verbs and can be negated (2), some of which are nouns and can be used as demonstratives (3), and some of which were verbs historically but now appear to be true prepositions and cannot be negated in their adpositional function (4).


Hmong-Mien Languages


Hmong-Mien Languages


Hmong-Mien Languages

3.4.2 Relative Clauses

Relative clauses in Hmong-Mien vary considerably. Many Hmong-Mien languages (and, indeed, most Southeast Asian languages that are not Sino-Tibetan) have post-head relative clauses (Dryer, 2013). This is true of Hmong, one of the few Hmong-Mien languages whose relative clauses have been subject to in-depth inquiry. The Hmong relative marker (uas in Hmong Daw, kws in Mong Leng) occurs at the beginning of the clause (Riddle, 1993, 1994) as is most common for post-head relative clauses cross-linguistically. Consider the following example from Hmong Daw:


Hmong-Mien Languages

All Hmong Daw relative clauses have roughly this structure (although the relative marker may be omitted). But in some Hmong-Mien languages, the situation regarding relative clauses is considerably more complicated. In the Northern Hmongic variety called Xong (a close relative of Qo Xiong), there are multiple relative clause types, some of them typologically unusual given the main-clause word order of this language variety (SVO). A summary of these types from Sposato (2012, p. 52) are presented in (6):


Hmong-Mien Languages

In addition to these three patterns, Xong allows two types of relative clauses without the relative marker max—one (pre-head) type with the associative marker and one type with no overt (phonological) marking of relativization at all. Sposato (2012, p. 64) speculates that the emergence of the genetically unexpected relative clause types (e.g., pre-head relative clauses) in Xong may have been due to very long-term contact with Sinitic languages.

3.4.3 Anaphora

Many Hmong-Mien languages have entirely unexceptional patterns of anaphora. A few, however, display what might be called “copy anaphora,” where the bound anaphor may or must be identical to the antecedent. Consider the following examples from Mong Leng:


Hmong-Mien Languages

At first examination, these appear to be violations of conditions B and C from traditional Binding Theory (Chomsky, 1981). It is not known how widespread in Hmong-Mien this type of pattern is. However, there is a similar pattern in Zhuang (a Daic language) and, much farther afield, in varieties of Zapotec (Bodomo, 2011; Lee, 2003). Data from these languages has been used to argue for a copy theory of anaphora (Boeckx, Hornstein, & Nunes, 2009).

3.4.4. Serial Verb Constructions (SVCs)

Hmong-Mien languages tend to employ a single strategy—so-called serial verb constructions (SVCs)—to perform a very large number of grammatical functions. Serial verb phenomena are best viewed as instances of a strategy, rather than a single construction, for reasons detailed by Aikhenvald (2006). It has already been mentioned that some Mienic languages are said to lack adpositions altogether. They can function without adpositions (and without morphological case marking) because verbs perform the functions that adpositions or case marking perform in other languages. Such constructions are grammaticalized from normal serial verb constructions where additional participants are added to a clause by adding a verb. In addition to adding participants per se, SVCs are used to perform other valency-changing operations (or their equivalents from a communicative point of view), to encode paths of motion through literal and metaphorical spaces, and to encode temporal and aspectual meanings, among other functions.

The structure and function of serial verb constructions in Hmong-Mien languages can be illustrated briefly with a few examples from Mong Leng. In Mong Leng, as in other varieties of Hmong, additional participants are added to a clause through the addition of verbs that take those participants as arguments. For examples, instruments are often introduced as objects of the verb siv ‘to use,’ as in example (8) below:


Hmong-Mien Languages

Both adversative passives and causatives are also formed in Mong Leng with SVCs:


Hmong-Mien Languages


Hmong-Mien Languages

SVCs can serve to encode concrete meanings such as direction of motion. They can also indicate more metaphorical meanings like “movement” through time. Finally, they have been recruited to perform relatively abstract grammatical functions like tense-aspect-modality marking. As shown in examples (11a–b), serialized verbs of motion (like moog ‘go’ and lug ‘come’) can be used to encode an added element of literal motion as part of an event:


Hmong-Mien Languages

In (11a), moog ‘go’ specifies that the direction of the “leading” event (encoded by the verb coj) is away from the point of reference. In (11b), tawm ‘exit’ could by itself refer to action in any direction, but the addition of the serial verb lug ‘come’ specifies that it must be in the direction of the speaker. By metaphorical extension, the same general category of serializable verbs can convey more abstract meanings, as illustrated in (12a–b):


Hmong-Mien Languages

In example (12a), the serial verb moog ‘go’ does not encode literal motion away from the point of reference; it indicates “movement” away from the point of reference in time. Likewise, as shown in (12b), verbs other than verbs of motion, like taag ‘finish,’ can take on more abstract meanings (here the completive aspect). The directional verb lug ‘come’, like moog ‘go’ in example (12a), is used based on a metaphorical understanding of movement through time. Some of the other verbs that have been recruited to perform grammatical functions are listed in table 3.

Table 3. Some grammaticalized serial verbs in Mong Leng.

Main verb meaning

Grammaticalized serial verb meanings



‘direction away from speaker; on into future’


‘come; come back’

‘direction toward argument’s abode; perfect



‘direction toward speaker’









potential mood; “achieved” aspect’






desiderative, obligatory, and epistemic modality. future?


‘be complete’




comparative degree; repetitive aspect’



comparative degree; superlative degree’

These markers vary in their degree of grammaticalization. The occurrences of tau ‘obtain’ in its various functions are highly conventionalized, as in a number of other mainland Southeast Asian languages (Enfield, 2003). Lug ‘come back,’ on the other hand, is still in the process of emerging as a perfect marker, and it competes with other constructions marking the same category.

3.5 Semantics, Pragmatics, and Discourse

3.5.1 Noun Classifiers and Definiteness

Like many languages of China and Southeast Asia, Hmong-Mien languages all have a class of noun classifiers that occur obligatorily when a noun is quantified with a numeral or quantifier. Hmong-Mien languages differ considerably in the semantics encoded by constructions where a noun classifier may occur without numeral or quantifier. These often, but not always, receive a definite interpretation. In Weining A-Hmao (Far Western Hmongic), the definite-indefinite distinction is encoded by inflection on the classifier (Gerner & Bisang, 2008, 2010a). In the variety of Qa Nao spoken in Kaili (Eastern Hmongic), as well as in Hmong (Far Western Hmongic), nouns with classifiers (but no numeral) typically receive a definite interpretation.

3.5.2 Final Particles

Like many other languages of mainland Southeast Asia, Hmong-Mien languages have numerous final sentential particles. These perform two main functions. They may indicate what speech act an utterance represents. They may also indicate the speakers’ attitude toward the utterance (force, politeness, self-assurance, doubt, disbelief, and so on). This is illustrated with a list of final particles from Mong Leng (13):


Hmong-Mien Languages

3.6 Lexicon

All Hmong-Mien languages have borrowed extensively from Chinese. See, for example, (Downer, 1973; Mortensen, 2000; Ratliff, 2010, p. 227). Following their divergence from proto-Hmong-Mien, daughter languages show varying degrees of lexical borrowing from Sinitic languages depending on the intensity of their contact relationship with Chinese.

There are lexical affinities between Hmong-Mien and other phylogenetic groups, but it has not yet been established conclusively whether these are the result of contact or shared genetic inheritance. They make up only a small part of the Hmong-Mien lexicon, however. A sound treatment is presented by Ratliff (2010, pp. 234–238).

One significant subset of the Hmong-Mien lexicon consists of the so-called expressives, known by various names including phono-aesthetic vocabulary and post-verbal intensifiers (Heimbach, 1979). Expressives occur in many languages of Asia (and beyond). These words convey impressions of motion, sound, coloration, smell, flavor, and so forth and are notoriously difficult to translate, conveying as they do fine nuances of sensory experience. They have been best studied in Hmong, particularly in Ratliff (1992). In Hmong, they are typically specific to a single verb (or, at most, a small number of verbs). They may be one syllable or two. When they are two syllables, they often rhyme or alliterate (though this is not obligatory). Ratliff (1992) has shown that the sound-meaning relationship in these words is not arbitrary and, given the forms of these words, it is often possible to predict their meanings.

4. Sociolinguistic Characteristics

4.1 Multilingualism

Virtually all Hmong-Mien languages have existed as minority languages in societies dominated by Chinese, Tibeto-Burman, Vietnamese, or Daic speakers from the earliest recorded times up to the 21st century. Hmong-Mien speakers, especially men, have tended to be multilingual (a fact that has influenced the structure and lexicon of Hmong-Mien languages). For example, Hmong Daw and Mong Leng speakers in Laos and Thailand, in addition to their variety of Hmong, often develop proficiency in the local Daic language. In the past, they also maintain proficiency in a variety of Southwest Mandarin that was used for trade (including the opium trade). Hmong ritual language is heavily derived from a variety of Chinese, though it is usually embedded in Hmong syntax. Iu Mien speakers who are Taoist priests speak and are literate in a distinct variety of Chinese, in addition to the dominant languages in the societies in which they happen to live.

4.2 Language and Ethnicity

“Miao” and “Yao” are the official names of two nationalities (or ethnicities) in the Peoples Republic of China. Often, these are identified with Hmongic and Mienic, respectively. However, the widespread assumption that Hmongic languages are spoken by members of the Miao ethnicity and Mienic languages are spoken by members of the Yao ethnicity turns out to be a simplifying assumption at best. In the first place, it is not clear to what degree these ethnic labels reflect identities of peoples who speak Hmong-Mien languages and to what extent they are simple constructs of the cultures in which Hmong-Mien-speaking people have lived (especially Chinese culture). Second, it is clear that these labels—whether they have been traditionally defined or redefined by anthropologically minded scholars in post-revolutionary China—do not align neatly with the findings of contemporary linguists regarding the phylogenetic structure of the Hmong-Mien family. For example:

  1. 1. The Mun people of Hainan Island have been traditionally (and officially) viewed as Miao, but they clearly speak a Mienic language (and identify with other Mienic-speaking groups).

  2. 2. The Bunu group has been classified as Yao by mid-20th-century Chinese scholars, but most members of this group fall, from a linguistic standpoint, in or adjacent to the Western Hmongic group.

  3. 3. The Pa-Hng and other minor groups that speak marginal Hmongic languages have been claimed to be ethnically Yao.

  4. 4. The She (Ho Ne) constitute a distinct ethnic group and their language has been thought to constitute a distinct branch of Hmong-Mien, but their language is now agreed to be Hmongic (Ratliff, 1998), probably allied with Jiongnai and Pana.

It is clear, on the other hand, that Hmong-Mien speakers view their language as part of their ethnic and cultural inheritance. It is seldom the case that more than one ethnic group, among the speakers of the language, speaks the same language variety. Furthermore, small linguistic differences are often aligned with small cultural differences. For example, Hmong Daw and Mong Leng speakers (as well as other Far Western Hmongic groups) show modest but recognizable linguistic differences in their speech, but also wear different traditional clothing, differ somewhat in ritual practices, have slightly different literary conventions, and regard themselves as ethnically distinct.

5. Orthography

Hmong-Mien speakers remained largely preliterate into the 20th century. There were, however, significant exceptions. Many religious practitioners in Mienic-speaking communities wrote a variety of Chinese using Hanzi; it is possible that Chinese characters were also used to write Mien, and other Hmong-Mien languages, in the way they were used to write various languages of the Chinese cultural area (Sposato, 2015).

5.1 Pollard Script(s)

However, there is limited evidence for Hmong-Mien speakers using writing to represent their own languages until the first decade of the 20th century when Methodist missionary Samuel Pollard developed a script for the Western Hmongic language A-Hmao (Enwall, 1995, 1997). This script was inspired by “Cree syllabics,” which were used to write certain North American languages by Methodist missionaries. The script became extremely popular with A-Hmao speakers, and derivative scripts were developed for the Tibeto-Burman languages Lipo and Nasu, as well for a variety of Hmong (Far Western Hmongic). The A-Hmao version proved most successful and continues to get some use up until the present (despite occasional discouragement from official quarters and competition with an official orthography). It reached a stable form in 1936 and was revised again in 1988 (Enwall, 1997).

The script is probably best seen as an abugida with some alphabetic properties. Consonants are written with large letters. Vowels are written with small letters that appear at one of the four corners of the consonants. Originally, the position of the vowels was used to represent the tone. In a 1988 version, this was revised (Enwall, 1997).

5.2 Roman Scripts

In China during the 1950s, large-scale language surveys were carried out with the aim of identifying what “languages” and “dialects” should be chosen for development and used in education. This was part of the implementation of the Chinese nationalities policy. Scripts were developed for a number of Hmong-Mien languages and dialects. These include Hmong, A-Hmao, Hmu (East Hmongic), and Qo Xiong (North Hmongic). These scripts were constructed according to a common template. The representation of consonant and vowel sounds shows influence from Hanyu Pinyin. The tones were represented by letters at the ends of syllables, eliminating any need for diacritics (one problematic aspect of Pinyin) (Wang, 1985).

Undoubtedly the most successful script developed for a Hmongic language was a missionary orthography developed for Hmong. It was a joint project of three principle instigators—Yves Betrais, a French Catholic missionary; Linwood Barney, an American Protestant missionary; and William Smalley, an American Protestant missionary/linguist—plus an army of native-speaking assistants. Like the Chinese orthographies for minority languages that were developed in the same decade, this writing system (called the Romanized Popular Alphabet or RPA) used “consonant” symbols at the ends of syllables to indicate the seven or eight (depending on phonological analysis) tones of Hmong Daw and Mong Leng. By design, it uses only the 26 letters of the English alphabet with no diacritics of any kind. This makes it very easy to type using almost any keyboard intended for a Latin orthography (Smalley, 1976).

This writing system has become very popular among Hmong with historical ties to Laos, not only among Christian Hmong but also among animists. It is in widespread use in the Hmong diaspora and is used to some degree in Thailand, Vietnam, and even China (Pan, 1993). It is the main writing system used for international communication among Hmong. It is particularly common on the internet, but significant numbers of books have also been published using this writing system.

A philosophically similar missionary writing system was developed for Iu Mien sometime in the 1960s and was used for religious literature, as well as a Iu Mien-English dictionary (Lombard & Purnell, 1968). However, it never achieved the popularity that the RPA did, perhaps because it competed with the Chinese characters used by Iu Mien religious practitioners and perhaps because Christianity did not make such inroads into the Iu Mien society of Southeast Asia as it did in the Hmong community. However, in recent decades, efforts have been made to develop a successor to this orthography, constructed on similar principles and standardized with Mien scholars in China. A dictionary and other materials have been published using this script (Purnell, 2012; Arisawa, 2016).

5.3 Pahawh Hmong

One of the most notable cases of the development of a writing system for a Hmong-Mien language (or, indeed, any Southeast Asian language) was the Pahawh Hmong writing system (Smalley, Vang, & Yang, 1990). Pahawh Hmong was developed by a non-literate peasant (of both Hmong and Khmu parentage) named Shong Lue Yang (Soob Lwj Yaj). There appears to have been an existing belief among some Hmong people that they had previously had the gift of writing, but that it had been revoked by God in retribution for disobedience (a recurring theme in Southeast Asian mythologies). Yang claimed to have had religious experiences in which a new writing system for Hmong Daw, Mong Leng, and Khmu was revealed by God. He also claimed that these revelations had named him as a son of God and the leader of a messianic movement that would redeem the Hmong and the Khmu from their benighted state. The writing system developed in a series of revisions, starting as a simple, semi-syllabic system and developing (in some sense) in the direction of an abugida, but one that was centered on vowels rather than on consonants. The script is written from left to right. One constant throughout the revisions was the fact that onsets and rimes were written by one symbol each (sometimes with diacritics); unusually, the rime of each syllable is written before the onset (the reverse of the spoken order). Originally, the relationship between sound and symbol was roughly arbitrary. Though there were many combinations of bases and diacritics, there was no way to predict the sound represented by symbols from the base-diacritic combination. As subsequent revisions were made, the system became more systematic until the relationship between vowels and tones was factored out completely into bases and diacritics. The version chosen for dissemination by Yang’s followers (and which is in most widespread use today), however, was a pre-final version that was not fully systematized.

5.4 Another “Messianic” Hmong Script

As evidence, perhaps, of the degree to which national liberation narratives among Hmongic speaking peoples were intertwined with traditions of “literacy lost,” another messianic script is attested in Laos (in the area near Sayaboury). It was discovered by scholars when Hmong who were literate in the script fled to a refugee camp in Thailand (Smalley & Wimuttikosol, 1998). While it is known that this writing system is associated with messianic expectations, it is not as well documented or understood as Pahawh Hmong.

Further Reading

Arisawa, T. D. (2016). A grammar of Iu Mien: A tool for language documentation and revitalization. PhD dissertation, La Trobe University.Find this resource:

Court, C. A. F. (1985). Fundamentals of Iu Mien (Yao) grammar. PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.Find this resource:

Downer, G. B. (1967). Tone-change and tone-shift in White Miao. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 30(3), 589–599.Find this resource:

Gerner, M., & Bisang, W. (2008). Inflectional speaker-role classifiers in Weining Ahmao. Journal of Pragmatics, 40(4), 719–732. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2007.11.004Find this resource:

Harriehausen, B. (1990). Hmong Njua: Syntaktische analyse einer gesprochenen sprache mithilfe datenverarbeitungstechnischer mittel und sprachvergleichende beschreibung des südostasiatischen sprachraumes. Tübingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer.Find this resource:

Jarkey, N. (2006). Complement clause types and complementation strategy in White Hmong. In R. M. W. Dixon & A. Y. Aikhenvald (Eds.), Complementation: A cross-linguistic typology (pp. 115–136). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Jarkey, N. (2015). Serial verbs in White Hmong. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.Find this resource:

Li, C. N. (1991). The aspectual system of Hmong. Studies in Language, 15(1), 25–58. doi:10.1075/sl.15.1.12chaFind this resource:

Lyman, T. A. (1974). Dictionary of Mong Njua: A Miao (Meo) language of Southeast Asia. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter.Find this resource:

Mao, Z., & Li, Y. (1997). Baheng yu yan jiu. Shanghai, China: Shanghai yuan dong chu ban she.Find this resource:

Mao, Z., & Li, Y. (2002). Jiongnai yu yan jiu. Beijing Shi, China: Zhong yang min zu da xue chu ban she.Find this resource:

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Ratliff, M. S. (2010). Hmong-Mien language history. Canberra, Australia: Pacific Linguistics.Find this resource:

Smalley, W. A., Vang, C. K., & Yang, G. Y. (1990). Mother of writing: The origin and development of a Hmong messianic script. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

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