Hmong–Mien languages

The Hmong–Mien languages (also known as Miao–Yao and rarely as Yangtzean)[1] are a highly tonal language family of southern China and northern Southeast Asia. They are spoken in mountainous areas of southern China, including Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, and Hubei provinces; the speakers of these languages are predominantly "hill people", in contrast to the neighboring Han Chinese, who have settled the more fertile river valleys.

China, Southeast Asia
Linguistic classificationOne of the world's primary language families
ISO 639-5hmx
Distribution of Hmong-Mien languages


  Hmongic / Miao (in red)
  Mienic / Yao (in green)

Hmong (Miao) and Mien (Yao) are closely related, but clearly distinct. For internal classifications, see Hmongic languages and Mienic languages. The largest differences are due to divergent developments in their phonological systems. The Hmongic languages appear to have kept the large set of initial consonants featured in the protolanguage but greatly reduced the distinctions in the syllable finals, in particular losing all glides and stop codas. The Mienic languages, on the other hand, have largely preserved syllable finals but reduced the number of initial consonants.

Early linguistic classifications placed the Hmong–Mien in the Sino-Tibetan family, where they remain in many Chinese classifications. The current consensus among Western linguists is that they constitute a family of their own, the lexical and typological similarities among Hmong–Mien and Sinitic languages being attributed to contact-induced influence.[2]

Paul K. Benedict, an American scholar, extended the Austric theory to include the Hmong–Mien languages. The hypothesis never received much acceptance for Hmong–Mien, however.[3] Kosaka (2002) argued specifically for a Miao–Dai family.[4]


The most likely homeland of the Hmong–Mien languages is in Southern China between the Yangtze and Mekong rivers, but speakers of these languages might have migrated from Central China either as part of the Han Chinese expansion or as a result of exile from an original homeland by Han Chinese.[5] Migration of people speaking these languages from South China to Southeast Asia took place during the 17th century (1600–1700). Ancient DNA evidence suggests that the ancestors of the speakers of the Hmong–Mien languages were a population genetically distinct from that of the Tai–Kadai and Austronesian language source populations at a location on the Yangtze River.[6] Recent Y-DNA phylogeny evidence supports the proposition that people who speak the Hmong–Mien languages are descended from a population that is distantly related to those who now speak the Mon-Khmer languages.[7]

The time of Proto-Hmong-Mien has been estimated to be about 2500 BP (500 BC) by Sagart, Blench, and Sanchez-Mazas using traditional methods employing many lines of evidence, and about 4243 BP (2250 BC) by the Automated Similarity Judgment Program (ASJP), an experimental algorithm for automatic generation of phonologically based phylogenies.[8]


The Mandarin names for these languages are Miáo and Yáo.

In Vietnamese, the name for Hmong is H'Mông, and the name for Mien is Dao (i.e., Yao), although Miền is also used.

Meo, Hmu, Mong, Hmao, and Hmong are local names for Miao, but since most Laotian refugees in the United States call themselves Hmong/Mong, this name has become better known in English than the others in recent decades. However, except for some scholars who prefer the word, the term 'Hmong/Mong' is only used within certain Hmong/Miao language speaking communities in China, where the majority of the Miao speakers live. In Mandarin, despite the fact that it was once a derogatory term, the word Miao (Chinese: 苗; the tone varies according to the Sinitic dialect) is now commonly used by members of all nationalities to refer to the language and the ethnolinguistic group.[9]

The Mandarin name Yao, on the other hand, is for the Yao nationality, which is a multicultural rather than ethnolinguistic group. It includes peoples speaking Mien, Kra–Dai, Yi, and Miao languages, the latter called Bùnǔ rather than Miáo when spoken by Yao. For this reason, the ethnonym Mien may be preferred as less ambiguous.


Like many languages in southern China, the Hmong–Mien languages tend to be monosyllabic and syntactically analytic. They are some of the most highly tonal languages in the world: Longmo and Zongdi Hmong have as many as twelve distinct tones.[10] They are notable phonologically for the occurrence of voiceless sonorants and uvular consonants; otherwise their phonology is quite typical of the region.

They are SVO in word order but are not as rigidly right-branching as the Tai–Kadai languages or most Mon–Khmer languages, since they have genitives and numerals before the noun like Chinese. They are extremely poor in adpositions: serial verb constructions replace most functions of adpositions in languages like English. For example, a construction translating as "be near" would be used where in English prepositions like "in" or "at" would be used.[11]

Besides their tonality and lack of adpositions, another striking feature is the abundance of numeral classifiers and their use where other languages use definite articles or demonstratives to modify nouns.

Mixed languages

Various unclassified Sinitic languages are spoken by ethnic Miao and Yao. These languages have variously been proposed as having Hmong-Mien substrata or as mixed languages, including languages such as Shehua, Laba, Lingling, Maojia, Badong Yao, various Lowland Yao languages including Yeheni, Shaozhou Tuhua, and various Pinghua dialects. Sanqiao and possibly also Baishi Miao, both spoken in Guizhou, are mixed languages of Hmongic and Kam-Sui origins.

See also


  1. van Driem, George. 2018. "The East Asian linguistic phylum: A reconstruction based on language and genes Archived 2021-01-10 at the Wayback Machine", Journal of the Asiatic Society, LX (4): 1-38.
  2. Handel, Zev (2008). "What is Sino-Tibetan? Snapshot of a Field and a Language Family in Flux: Sino-Tibetan: a Snapshot". Language and Linguistics Compass. 2 (3): 422–441. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2008.00061.x.
  3. "On the Thai evidence for Austro-Tai" (PDF), in Selected Papers on Comparative Tai Studies, ed. R.J. Bickner et al., pp. 117–164. Center for South and Southeast Asian studies, the University of Michigan.
  4. Kosaka, Ryuichi. 2002. "On the affiliation of Miao-Yao and Kadai: Can we posit the Miao-Dai family." Mon-Khmer Studies 32:71-100.
  5. Blench, Roger. 2004. Stratification in the peopling of China: how far does the linguistic evidence match genetics and archaeology? Paper for the Symposium "Human migrations in continental East Asia and Taiwan: genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence". Geneva June 10–13, 2004. Université de Genève.
  6. Li, Hui; Huang, Ying; Mustavich, Laura F.; Zhang, Fan; Tan, Jing-Ze; Wang, Ling-E; Qian, Ji; Gao, Meng-He; Jin, Li (2007). "Y chromosomes of prehistoric people along the Yangtze River". Human Genetics. 122 (3–4): 383–8. doi:10.1007/s00439-007-0407-2. PMID 17657509. S2CID 2533393.
  7. Cai, X; Qin, Z; Wen, B; Xu, S; Wang, Y; Lu, Y; Wei, L; Wang, C; Li, S; Huang, X; Jin, L; Li, H; Genographic, Consortium (2011). "Human Migration through Bottlenecks from Southeast Asia into East Asia during Last Glacial Maximum Revealed by Y Chromosomes". PLOS ONE. 6 (8): e24282. Bibcode:2011PLoSO...624282C. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024282. PMC 3164178. PMID 21904623.
  8. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-11-27. Retrieved 2013-12-30.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. Tapp, Nicholas. The Hmong of China: Context, Agency, and imaginary. Leiden: Brill, 2001.
  10. Goddard, Cliff; The Languages of East and Southeast Asia: An Introduction; p. 36. ISBN 0-19-924860-5
  11. Goddard, The Languages of East and Southeast Asia; p. 121

Further reading

  • Chen Qiguang [陈其光] (2013). Miao and Yao language [苗瑶语文]. Beijing: Ethnic Publishing House [民族出版社]. ISBN 9787566003263 (CLDF Dataset on Zenodo doi:10.5281/zenodo.3537712)
  • Paul K. Benedict (1942). "Thai, Kadai and Indonesian: a new alignment in south east Asia." American Anthropologist 44.576-601.
  • Paul K. Benedict (1975). Austro-Thai language and culture, with a glossary of roots. New Haven: HRAF Press. ISBN 0-87536-323-7.
  • Enwall, J. (1995). Hmong writing systems in Vietnam: a case study of Vietnam's minority language policy. Stockholm, Sweden: Center for Pacific Asian Studies.
  • Enwall, J. (1994). A myth become reality: history and development of the Miao written language. Stockholm East Asian monographs, no. 5-6. [Stockholm?]: Institute of Oriental Languages, Stockholm University. ISBN 91-7153-269-2
  • Lombard, S. J., & Purnell, H. C. (1968). Yao-English dictionary.
  • Lyman, T. A. (1979). Grammar of Mong Njua (Green Miao): a descriptive linguistic study. [S.l.]: The author.
  • Lyman, T. A. (1974). Dictionary of Mong Njua: a Miao (Meo) language of Southeast Asia. Janua linguarum, 123. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Lyman, T. A. (1970). English/Meo pocket dictionary. Bangkok, Thailand: German Cultural Institute, Goethe-Institute.
  • Purnell, H. C. (1965). Phonology of a Yao dialect spoken in the province of Chiengrai, Thailand. Hartford studies in linguistics, no. 15.
  • Ratliff, Martha (2010). Hmong-Mien language history. Canberra, Australia: Pacific Linguistics. hdl:1885/146760. ISBN 978-0-85883-615-0.
  • 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. ISBN 0-226-76286-6
  • Smith, P. (1995). Mien–English everyday language dictionary = Mienh in-wuonh dimv nzangc sou. Visalia, CA: [s.n.].
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