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What Is Hmong?

More than four million ethnic Hmong people speak the Hmong language.
Hmong is mostly spoken by people in Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and China.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2014
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Hmong is a language that is a part of the Hmong-Mien language family. It is spoken by more than four million ethnic Hmong who mostly live in northern Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), and parts of China.

The Hmong people are an ethnic group with origins in southern China. From the 18th century on the they made their way south, and settled in parts of Laos, northern Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma. Large numbers of Hmong refugees have made their way to the United States, Canada, and other western nations since the 1970s, after they were singled out by the communist government of Laos for their role in fighting the Pathet Lao.

The Hmong-Mien language family contains not just the various Hmong languages, but also the Yao languages of Iu Mien, Ba Pai, and Kim Mun. The term Mien is somewhat controversial when discussing the broader community, as it is considered a pejorative term by most non-Chinese Hmong peoples. The term Hmong is preferred as a general category, with various sub-groups called by their Hmong names.

As a language, it is really more of a dialect continuum, similar to some other Asian language groupings. Some of these dialects are mutually intelligible, but generally as one gets further and further away from a specific dialect’s region the chances that the new dialect will be understood decrease.

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There are two major Hmong dialects by emigrants who settled in the United States: Green Mong (also known as Mong Njua) and White Hmong (also known as Hmong Daw). The dialects are mutually intelligible, but have differences in pronunciation and vocabularies. Both Hmong Daw and Mong Njua are spoken primarily in China and Laos. Other important dialects include: Hmong Dong, Hmong Shua, and Hmong Do from Vietnam, and Hmong Eastern Huishui, Hmong Chonganjiang, Hmong Central Huishui, and Hmong Central Mashan from China.

Like English, Hmong follows a Subject-Verb-Object sentence structure. Unlike English, however, the order of words may be shifted without a change in case. It doesn't contain gender differences in personal pronouns like he/she, and the subjective and objective cases are the same, with no difference like me/I in English. Hmong also doesn’t include markers at the end of words to show tense, like the English -ed, instead relying on context and assistant words to show the sentence aspect. Agreement between parts of a sentence also isn't required in the way English requires, for example, a subject-object agreement in a sentence like She is tired.

Hmong is a fairly stable language, with a strong community structure both in homelands and in immigrant populations. Although many speakers who move to countries such as the United States learn English, its often spoken within the home, and language classes are taught in most urban centers with a large Hmong population. As a result, the language is in little to no danger of going extinct, and it is fact relatively easy for an outsider to learn the language, as a great number of resources exist to help with education.

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