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The Gelao languages: Preliminary classification and state of the art

Andrew Hsiu


The Gelao languages constitute the most diverse group of the Kra branch, in the Kra-Dai (or Tai-Kadai) language family (Edmondson n.d.). No more than 6,000 Gelao speakers are scattered across the southwestern Chinese provinces of Guizhou, Guangxi, and Yunnan, as well as Hà Giang province, northern Vietnam, despite there being approximately half a million ethnic Gelao living mostly in Guizhou. New data of various Gelao varieties from the past several years has now made it possible to classify the Gelao languages much more precisely, owing mostly to recent fieldwork carried out by Li Jinfang 李锦芳 and his graduate students. Lexical evidence from my comparative database of about 100 vocabulary items of 15 Gelao varieties suggests that there are three main branches of Gelao, namely (1) Red Gelao (including A’ou, Mulao, and Vandu), (2) White Gelao (Telue), and (3) Central Gelao (Hakei and Qau).

Red Gelao has the most internal diversity, while White Gelao displays the least internal variation. Central Gelao consists of the two closely related varieties Hakei (Green Gelao) and Qau (Sinicized Gelao), as suggested by Yumay Shen (2003). Historical and linguistic evidence strongly indicate a Gelao homeland in western Guizhou, where ethnic Gelao lived alongside speakers of the divergent Austroasiatic languages Bolyu and Bugan, as well as the little-known Caijia and Longjia languages.

However, further fieldwork remains highly urgent for all Gelao languages, especially Red Gelao, for which some varieties are now at the very brink of extinction. In August 2012, I discovered only one living speaker of Houzitian 猴子田 Red Gelao, namely Guo Yunxiu 郭云秀 (88) of Langdai Township 郎岱镇, Liuzhi Special District, Guizhou. Houzitian, of which I had seen data of only several words prior to my field trip, is distinct enough to be mutually unintelligible with all other Gelao varieties, and is most closely related to Hongfeng Red Gelao and Mulao. I was also only able to locate one speaker of Red Gelao each in the townships of Shajing 沙井乡, Qianxi County 黔西县, Guizhou, and Tiechang 铁厂乡, Malipo County, Yunnan.

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