February 27, 2004

Do you wish to use Hmoob?

On Wells Fargo Bank ATMs around where I live, the first question up on the screen is about which language you would like to transact business in, and I noticed recently after an upgrade that one of the choices now says "Hmoob". Now that's a language name that doesn't appear in the reference books. But Bill Poser, Language Log's resident Asian languages expert-in-chief, was able to tell me what is going on.

It turns out that this is a spelling of what is more usually written as Hmong. The language of the Hmong people, whose traditional home is in the mountains of Laos and adjacent parts of Vietnam and China, has about a dozen writing systems, so Bill tells me. Of the ones that use roman letters (as Vietnamese does), the most widely used is one that follows somewhat similar principles to the ones used in the romanization of Chinese that was once worked out by Yuen-Ren Chao.

The reason that there is no ng or other indication of the velar nasal "-ng" sound is that this particular alphabet treats that nasal consonant as a feature of the vowel -- not a separate nasal consonant, but a vowel produced with nasalization. The writing system doesn't separate the quality of the vowel from its nasalization. So when you see oo, that means the "ong" vowel sound. So that leaves the question of what the b is doing on the end there.

Well, Hmong is a tone language. Every syllable has an associated tone or pitch -- high, low, medium, falling, rising, or whatever. But the language doesn't have a lot of syllables that crucially have to be written ending in a consonant letter. That means (or so thought the people like William Smalley who analyzed the language) that some consonant letters are surplus to requirements: there is no need for any syllable-final uses of the letters b, d, g, j, s, or v. So occurrences of those letters at the ends of words can be used instead to indicate tones, avoiding the need for having accents. That's just what Chao proposed for Chinese (not that it caught on very widely). The tone that occurs on the word Hmong is the one written with a final b.

It's a neat trick to have a way to spell words containing both nasalization and crucially important tone without any accents or funny letters. But it comes at the cost of having Hmong look like Hmoob, which to me, I must admit, looks completely wroob. "We travel aloob, singing a soob..."? "Ding doob the witch is dead"? "Can't we all just get aloob?"? To whom does this thoob beloob? It's no use; if I tried all day loob I don't think I could get used to it. My orthographic habits are too stroob to break. But I have no doubt that it's a great comfort to see the word there on the ATM screen if (like tens of thousands of my fellow Californians) you're a Hmoob.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 27, 2004 05:29 PM