Allow me to introduce you to one of the most intractable problems of nomenclature I’ve run across.
You have probably seen references to the Hmong people; many of them fled Southeast Asia after working with the American military and finding themselves on the wrong side of the Communist takeover, and a sizable community has settled in the U.S. They have established themselves enough to have begun to find a voice; the NY Times yesterday published a long article by Felicia R. Lee about the birth of a literature out of an oral tradition, in particular the literary journal Paj Ntaub Voice, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an anthology, Bamboo Among the Oaks. A quote from the article:
As for the Hmong, they are gradually coming into their own in America. They have elected their first state senator, from Minnesota, and the St. Paul police have learned to speak Hmong. The anthology is being bought particularly by educators and those interested in Asian culture, said John van Vliet, a spokesman for the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Since October, about 3,200 of the 4,500 books in print have been sold, said Kevin Morrissey, a marketing manager for the press.
Note that in none of those links does the word “Miao” occur.
Now let us turn our attention to the minority languages of China. One of the most prominent (spoken by 5,000,000 people, behind only Zhuang, Uighur, and Yi) is Miao, part of the Miao-Yao group. A striking feature of Miao is that it has a large number of consonants (49 in one representative dialect) but few vowels, and syllables can end only in a vowel or in the consonant -ng (in some dialects, this becomes nasalization of the preceding vowel). The usual romanization system takes advantage of the fact that no syllable ends in a consonant: the tone (except for the mid tone) is indicated by a consonant letter written at the end of each syllable. Thus pob ‘ball’ has high tone, poj ‘female’ has high falling tone, and so on, with po ‘spleen’ representing the mid tone. This is a clever and economical system, with the disadvantage that foreigners not used to the conventions find it virtually impossible not to “hear” the final consonant they see written. Thus the name of the journal I cited above, Paj Ntaub, is pronounced something like “pa ndau” (with tones as in my examples). Note that in neither the above paragraph nor in the links does the word “Hmong” appear.
The attentive reader will already have anticipated the surprise ending: Miao and Hmong are one and the same. It took me some time to figure this out, and once I did I was quite annoyed. There are many languages that are known by more than one name (Gypsy/Romanes, Galla/Oromo, Araucanian/Mapuche, Votyak/Udmurt, etc., the latter of each pair being the “correct” name), but when these are referred to acknowledgment is usually made of the duality. Only in the case of Hmong (written Hmoob in the standard romanization) and Miao do the two terms lead such separate lives. The explanation is simple enough. The group that migrated from southern China to Laos and Vietnam within the last couple of centuries (many of whom have now emigrated to the U.S.) call themselves Hmong and quite naturally passed the term on, first to the soldiers they worked with and now to Americans at large; meanwhile, the much larger group that remained in China has always been known to the Chinese as Miao, and since there is no common self-designation (only a minority using “Hmong”), Miao has quite naturally been used by linguists and others who deal with the minorities of China. So what are we who want to refer to the whole population to do? Joakim Enwall has written a short article on the subject, and I am willing to accept his conclusion:
I propose that the term Hmong be used only for designating the Miao groups speaking the Hmong dialect in China and for the Miao outside China. This usage is by now well established in Western literature. However, I think that it is best to use Miao as a general term, especially as this is in accord with tradition and is also practical for making the situation clear to persons not specialising in Miaology. Many persons have already been confused by the present terminological state and see no connection between the Hmong and the Miao. There is perhaps not much that can be done about this now, but I hope that some people will understand the relation between the words Miao and Hmong better, if they are used in a more logical way.