Hmong people have their unique language, which might have been related to languages in China and Laos, yet it is also different from Chinese, Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian. When the French began to create colonies in the southeastern part of Asia, French explorers spread out throughout the region in search of whatever of value they could find. One of them, Father F.M. Savina, a Catholic priest, was not seeking treasure but conversions; he was looking for people who might wish to become Catholic. He settled in with the Hmong in their highland villages, and there he studied the Hmong language in great detail, learning it well. Finally, he published a book in 1921 about the Hmong in which he declared that, after much thought, the Hmong language was related to other languages from places far away, such as Mongolia, the southeastern part of Europe, and even Turkey. The Hmong language is a “tonal” language, similar to those of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. This means the definition of a word will change depending on the tone with which it is spoken. In the Hmong language, a word spoken in one tone will have an entirely different meaning from the same word spoken in a different tone. There are seven tones in the Hmong language, and some people even say eight, since two of the tones are so similar that people disagree whether they are different or not. Some of these Hmong tones are referred to with such terms as “high tone,” “high falling tone,” “low tone,” “low falling tone,” and even “breathy mid-low tone.” At all events, the final letter of the printed form of a Hmong word will indicate which tone it is when that word is to be spoken.
Hmong words are usually quite short; most are not more than one syllable. Thus, many words in Hmong sound the same to someone not used to listening for the difference. In the Hmong language, for example, one word such as “cee” can have several meanings depending on whether it is spoken with a high tone, a low tone, or some other tone.
Some commonly used Hmong words are: Hello (Nyob zoo); How are you? (Koj nyob li cas), a literal translation of this phrase would be, “How do you stay?”; I’m fine (Kuv nyob zoo), literally meaning “I stay well”; My name is John (Kuv lub npe hu ua John); You are my friend (Koj yog kuv tus phooj ywg); Good-bye (Sib ntsib dua), meaning “See you next time”.
Although the Hmong language may seem complicated, one should not conclude from this that the Hmong language is difficult for young Hmong children to learn. In fact, many young Hmong children learn to speak Hmong at home. Still, English has been the main language for the second and third generation of Hmong Americans, especially among themselves. They also often serve as translators for their parents who might have limited English fluency.
The Hmong language is a rich, full, and very effective means by which to express and preserve the hopes, history, and values of a people with a cultural heritage developed over thousands of years. While it is certainly, in many ways, very different from English, and may therefore seem complex, the Hmong language deserves effort to be preserved, maintained, and continued, and effort to do so is a common theme and goal for many “heritage” language learners in a multicultural America today.
Cha, Dia, Mai Zong Vue, and Steve Carmen. Field Guide to Hmong Culture. Madison, WI: Madison Children Museum, 2004.