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The classification of Na Meo, a Hmong-Mien language of Vietnam

Andrew Hsiu


Na Meo is a language spoken in a cluster of villages encompassing the northern Vietnam provinces of Lang Son, Cao Bang, and Bac Kan, as well as a single village in Tuyen Quang province (Nguyen 2007). Its existence as a divergent Hmong-Mien language has been noted by the Vietnamese government since 1975. However, Na Meo has remained very poorly documented, and is currently still listed as an unclassified language in Ethnologue (ISO 639-3 code [neo]) due to the lack of published data. The lengthiest published word list to date is that of Nguyen (2007), which has 67 Na Meo words in non-IPA orthography.

Within Tuyên Quang province, Na Meo is spoken only in the single village of Khuân Hẻ, Kim Quan commune, Yên Sơn district. In February 2014, I had personally collected nearly 400 lexical items from Na Meo of Khuân Hẻ. This Na Meo variety was previously undocumented, and the commune location is known only from Nguyen (2007). This variety is very similar to, and likely mutually intelligible with, the Na Meo data in Jerold Edmondson (n.d.). Edmondson (n.d.), a handwritten manuscript of about 500 lexical items of Na Meo, was the result of a field expedition in Cao Bang province during the late 1990’s, and the data in there has remained unpublished to date.

Following suggestions from Edmondson (p.c.) and Nguyen (2007) that Na Meo may likely be a Qiandong Miao (Central Miao) language belonging to the Hmongic branch of Hmong-Mien, I will support these claims by demonstrating lexical isoglosses and phonological features that are shared exclusively among Na Meo and Qiandong Miao languages, but not in other branches of Hmongic. Since Qiandong Miao includes diverse lects spoken mainly in Guizhou but also in neighboring Hunan and Guangxi provinces, I will then further compare Tuyen Quang and Cao Bang Na Meo with the Qiandong Miao dialects covered in Li (2000) and Chen (2013) to determine where in China the Na Meo speakers’ ancestors had most likely migrated from. Comparison shows that Na Meo is most similar to Southern Qiandong Miao dialects spoken in Guangxi province, a result of one of the many migrations that had brought various ethnic groups from southern China to northern Vietnam during the turbulent Qing Dynasty period.

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