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Saving a Language and a Culture

April 1, 2013
Plain English Version

Dr. Herbert C. Purnell, on the left.

The Mien people migrated from China to Laos, Thailand and other parts of Asia in the 1800s. They spoke Mien (me-Yen), a language that had no written form. They adopted the language of the countries they lived in.

In the 1970’s, they worked with the U.S. military intercepting weapons flowing into Vietnam. When the war ended, many migrated to the U.S.

Sengo Chao, a Mien living in Portland, Oregon wanted to save the language. He learned of Dr. Herbert C. Purnell, a professor of linguistics who had lived as a missionary among the Mien in Thailand.

They went to work with other Mien to create a new Romanized writing system. Romanizing means using the Latin alphabet as a basis for a written language.

They started working with Mien people in China to create a uniform written language. This was difficult, and the groups in different countries had to compromise on many matters. However, the goal was to have the Mien able to write one another wherever they lived.

In 1985 they started working on a dictionary. Eight years later the first draft was done. Creating written words for things with no English words, such as certain tools and plants, was a great challenge.

People all over the world got involved. The result is a dictionary with 5,600 entries, 28,000 sub-entries, 5,000 example sentences, 4,500 notes on usage, sound and idiom and 2,000 cultural notes. It was completed in 2012.

The dictionary includes riddles, folk tales and cultural ways… all tied to a way of life almost erased by wars and migration.

Professor Purnell said, “Use this to talk to your children, use it to tell them: this is how we made the baby hats. This is how we dyed the cloth. This is how we made paper.” The hope is “to give status to the Mien language and the Mien culture.”

A young Mien woman said, “The dictionary was really like a history book. Even if I cannot pronounce the words, I can learn and ask my grandparents…it will reopen the door to conversations about our culture.”

Currently, about 35,000 Mien live in the U.S., 75,000 in Thailand and Laos, and hundreds of thousands in Southern China.

Source: The Los Angeles Times

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