Category Archives: Hmong

Primitive People Are Smarter Than You Think

We have a very primitive but wise group of Asians living amongst us around here called Hmong. This is a Chinese minority group that has moved down into Laos in the last 300 years. They did not even have a written language until the 1950’s and they have always lived quite a primitive life in the jungles.

Nevertheless, they are quite wise. I read an ethnography on them one time. It said that the Hmong believe that women who get pregnant before 19-20 are more likely to have problems in childbirth. The people who figured this out had no knowledge of modern medicine. But we now know that females continue to develop until age ~18-19. Pregnancies before this age are more problematic because the female’s hips are not wide enough to carry a baby yet. The final widening of the hips sufficient to carry a baby does not occur until age ~19.

You will notice this if you see 16-18 year old girls with killer curves and skinny bodies. They look incredibly hot but their bodies are not natural. It’s not normal to be skinny and curvy. You want curves, you got a bigger woman. You want thin, you get a stick. These girls look this way because the body in a formal sense is fully developed by age 16 in the sense of sex drive, full breast and pubic hair development, menarche and the full curvy body shape with narrow stomach, wider hips and a projecting butt is present by age 16.

Except for one thing. The hips have not yet widened to full adult proportions. So the 16-18 year old girl look is not natural or normal. It is a phase of incomplete development and makes little sense biologically. Since it is not biologically correct, there are increased pregnancy issues at this age range.

When I learned that the Hmong have a traditional belief that females should not get pregnant until 19-20, I was stunned. These humans had learned this via trial and error over the centuries. They didn’t need modern medicine to tell them the facts. They figured them out on their own.

Similarly, the Hmong have a traditional belief that one cannot learn a new language after age 40. This has been a problem in my area because non-English speaking Hmong in this age group simply refuse to enroll in English classes and so never learn to speak English much at all. The men often pick up a bit of English anyway because they are often working, but the women tend to stay at home, so older Hmong women are often Hmong monolinguals.

I told my mother of this Hmong belief and she said, “Aha! See? They figured that out on their own. And they are probably right. By age 40, it will be awfully hard to pick up a new language.” And studies in formal linguistics are showing this to be true.


Filed under Anthropology, Applied, Asians, Biology, Cultural, Girls, Health, Hmong, Hmong, Hmong-Mien, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Medicine, Race/Ethnicity, SE Asians

A Look at the Hmong Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Hmong language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.


Hmong is widely spoken in this part of California, but it’s not easy to learn. There are eight tones, and they are not easy to figure out. It’s not obviously related to any other major language except the obscure Mien.

It has very strange consonants called voiceless nasals. We have them in English as allophones – the m in small is voiceless – but in Hmong, they they are full phonemes and they put them at the front of words – the m in the word Hmong is voiceless. These can be very hard to pronounce.

The romanization is widely criticized for being a lousy one, but the Hmong use it anyway.

Hmong gets a 5 rating, extremely hard to learn.


Filed under Applied, Hmong, Hmong-Mien, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics

My Language Has More Words Than Yours!

In the comments section, James Schipper comments on the notion that English has more words than, say, Swedish:

Measuring the number of words in a language isn’t very scientific. What is a word? Is it anything that is separated by empty space? If so, then the more words are written as one, the more words there are in a language. Bookkeeper and steamship would be separate words but book publisher and passenger ship would not be.

I’m currently reading a book by your Swedish colleague Mikael Parkvall about language myths. One myth that he discusses is Engelska har fler ord än svenska = English has more words than Swedish.

He says that no evidence is ever provided for the claim, except to say that English has borrowed a lot. He mocks an English chauvinist who states that English has over 1 million words and French about 100,000 and who then says that English borrowed a lot from other languages, especially from French. In other words, English is rich and French poor because English borrowed a lot from French. As Parkvall sarcastically notes, the English must have borrowed a lot of words from the French without ever paying them back.

He says that if all the works of Shakespeare are run through a computer program designed to count words, the result is 29,066. However, if all the works of August Strindberg are run through the same program, the result is 119,288 words! I can easily see why the Swedish count is so high. In Swedish, all nominal compounds are written as one word and the definite article is a suffix. On top of that, the genitive is used more than in English.

We have for instance bil = car, bilen = the car, bilar = cars, bilarna, the cars, bils = of a car, bilens = of the car, bilars = of cars, bilarnas = of the cars, bilolycka = car accident, bilägare = car owner, bilmekaniker = car mechanic, bilparkering = car parking, bilbälte = seat belt, etc. How can a computer or anybody else decide how many of these are separate words or not?

When the French language had a lot of prestige, people were saying that it was exceptionally clear. Now that English is very prestigious, we keep hearing that it is exceptionally rich.
In any case, languages that have borrowed a lot are not uncommon. Moreover, the more a language borrows, the greater the probability that the borrowed words simply displace native words, in which case no enrichment takes place.

I read somewhere that someone said that Dutch has 4 million words!

On my other site, we do a lot of translations of posts to other languages. So far, we have done Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Serbo-Croatian, German, French, Bulgarian, Romanian, Polish and Korean.

So far, I have had few complaints from translators along the lines of “we don’t have a word or  phrase in our language for that English word or phrase.” Cases of having to use an English word or phrase because no translation was available are few. However, Korean did some to stick out. I am told by Korean speakers that Korean has few to no synonyms. I knew a young Korean-American woman who was stunned by the number of synonyms in English. The Koreans think the plethora of US synonyms is somewhere  between ridiculous and idiotic. Why do you need more than one word with the same meaning?

Norwegian, a very small language in terms of speakers, struck me as being particularly word-rich for some reason.

An interesting question is how many words a typical primitive language had or has. A study was recently done on one of the Araucanian languages of South America, Yaghan. A recent dictionary of Yaghan listed around 30,000 words! The author made the supposition that your typical primitive language pre-contact had around 30,000 words. No one knows for sure.

I worked for 1½ years on a California Indian language called Chukchansi. It’s true that they lacked words for a lot of modern concepts, many more obscure body parts, and many fine gradations of meaning. The speakers were all elderly and spoke English well. The last near-monolingual speaker died around 1965. She spoke English, but it was broken English. These speakers are helpful for a language. I heard from people who knew this woman that she had coined many Chukchansi borrowings and calques for many words having to do with modern living.

When the last of the monolingual or near monolingual speakers die, your small language may get in bad shape. Calques and proper borrowings wedded to the phonology of the receptive language will simply disappear.

We have many speakers of a SE Asian language called Hmong around here. It has millions of native speakers, but I understand that it lacks many words for modern concepts, even though there large number of monolinguals to near monolinguals around here – older people, especially women. I don’t understand why they don’t borrow English words or engage is calques or word-formations.

The Hmong have an interesting cultural concept – if you are over 40, they say that you are too old to learn a foreign language. Hence, a lot of the older Hmong, especially the women, simply do not even try to learn English here in the US.


Filed under Altaic, Applied, English language, French, Germanic, Hmong, Hmong-Mien, Indo-European, Italic, Italo-Celtic, Italo-Celtic-Tocharian, Korean language, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Norwegian, Romance, Sociolinguistics, Swedish