The Hmong and Their Language
Who are the Hmong?
Archaeologists believe Hmong descended from Siberians who moved to China thousands of years ago. They lived in peace with the Chinese for a time. But peace did not last. They were at war for centuries. Many times, Hmong moved further south. In 2200 BC, the Chinese destroyed the Hmong kingdom. It has never been reunited. Many left China and moved to Vietnam, Laos, Burma or Thailand.
Where are the Hmong now?
Most Hmong still live in China or Southeast Asia. In the 1960s, the CIA recruited Hmong to help the U.S. in the Vietnam War. After the Vietnam War, these Hmong were not treated well. Many went into hiding or fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Refugees began coming to the U.S. in 1975. Most settled in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. Now the U.S. has the largest Hmong population outside Asia.
Until recently, Hmong language was oral only. Hmong used storytelling, memory and hand-stitched story cloths (called paj ntaub). The elders had the most knowledge and skills. Many linguists tried to develop a written Hmong language but they were unsuccessful.
In the 1950s French American missionary linguists in Laos used the RPA (Romanized Popular Alphabet) to write a Hmong version of the Bible. Within 10 years, this new written Hmong became very popular. Hmong are now using the Internet to spread their new written language and keep in touch with other Hmong around the world.
White or Blue?
The two main dialects are White (Hmong Daw) and Blue (or Green) (Mong Leng). The names refer to traditional clan clothing colors. White and Blue Hmong speakers can usually understand each other, like speakers of American and British English.
Usually White Hmong is the best choice for translations. It reaches the largest number of people. Blue Hmong speakers usually are able to read White Hmong. But White Hmong speakers cannot easily read Blue Hmong.
Challenges of a New Language
Because written Hmong is a very young language, there is no guarantee that everyone will be able to understand it. There are very few dictionaries and glossaries available to Hmong linguists. And there are disagreements about the choice and spelling of Hmong words.
It is a good idea to include some English in Hmong translations. Less than half of the Hmong in the United States are literate in Hmong. Many older people may not read Hmong at all.