I know, I know, another dying-language story, but Lee Romney’s Los Angeles Times piece about Herbert Purnell and his Iu Mien dictionary is well worth reading. It’s full of drama (“For [Purnell], there was the murder of a daughter, a house fire that consumed his nearly finished work and the gentle assistance of collaborators on three continents who helped him pick up the pieces”) and tragic history (“the Mien, like the Hmong, began to be recruited to assist in covert military operations in the Indochinese wars — first for the French and later the CIA”), and the dictionary (“which includes 5,600 entries, 28,000 subentries, 5,000 example sentences, 4,500 notes on usage, register and idiom, and about 2,000 cultural notes”) sounds like a fascinating work:

Purnell included riddles, folk tales and accounts of cultural practices tied to a way of life largely erased by war.
“Use this to talk to your children,” Purnell — lanky and wearing a red necktie adorned with elephants — implored the older Mien gathered at the Sacramento event. “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.”

Thanks, Stan and Eric!


  1. According to Wikipedia, ‘an Iu Mien Unified Script was created in 1984 using the Latin script’.
    The article says:
    ‘In 1982, Chao and Purnell convened the first conference of U.S. Mien and hammered out a new Romanized writing system. Two years later, they were among a small group who approached representatives of the Mien in China to try to come to agreement on a uniform written language.
    ‘”We gave up stuff and they gave up stuff,” Purnell said. “It meant the Mien in China, in the U.S., in France, in Canada could all use the same orthography.”‘
    It’s nice to have the background.

  2. Herb Purnell says

    It’s not another dying language story. The title of the piece was Ms Romney’s or her editor’s, not mine. Iu-Mien is not a dying language. It is alive and quite well in China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. For the Iu-Mien in the US, the process of acculturation is taking place as it does for relatively small immigrant/refugee groups: by the fourth or fifth generation, the heritage language is no longer spoken, unless the community takes steps to at least retard the speed of loss and promote retention (or relearning) of the heritage language. This process of switching to the majority language is probably also the case for the 1,000 or so Iu-Mien refugees in France. The piece did not make it clear that the context was only Iu-Mien in North America. The language is under some pressure in China and Thailand as national language education is extended to the minority areas, or minority students go off to study in towns and cities, so some weakening there can be expected. But the language per se is not dying. Re the orthography, the Wikipedia article is not fully accurate, nor is the student paper on Iu-Mien phonology/orthography that is online.

  3. Thanks for the background, Herb. Sorry about lazily grabbing the “dying language” angle!

  4. Trond Engen says

    Once again the author is dropping in. It’s happening in one thread after another, to give background, or chat about the work, or just chat, and it’s awesome. In a just world this sort of interaction wouldn’t be available to a smalltown engineer from the end of the world. Thank you, Hat, and thank you, all!

  5. Yes, that was what startled me most about blogging: I’d mention people, and they’d drop by to say something. What a world!

  6. On the contrary, Trond: in a just world such interactions would be available, for there would be no barriers to communication save lack of interest on one or both sides. I wrote a couple of comments over at Vunex about how happy it makes me when other people want to hear what I have to say, and how little use I have for any sort of elitism.

  7. Trond Engen says

    Well done too, it seems. I probably lack important context, but the spirit of that thread was … strange. I am thankful for everyone who wants to engage with anyone. Then I have too, since I’m usually anyone. But I can also see how this translates into thankfulness for being among the few who are able to interact. It’s easy to think that the key ingredient is ‘few’ rather than ‘interact’. Or just to come across as thinking it.

    As it happens, I just come from a late night discussion with my wife, my kids, my brother and my in-laws about theoretical physics and the state of the universe, and about the marvel of scientists using blogs to clarify their own thoughts and how they’re making it possible for anyone interested to follow their ideas as they evolve from conception to dustbin or new theory, even their speculations and wild hypotheses, and get an understanding of the state of art, not only as state but as art. And now I’m thinking about how the communicating scientists are opening the windows and doors of the ivory tower, sharing the thrills of real science rather than the pseudo-stuff that’s touted on every street-corner, and showing kids that cutting edge science doesn’t need to be far removed from what can be dream’d in any family holiday philosophy, and that means it’s achievable for anyone who’s interested.

    Closer to this blog, the fact that real linguists seem to enjoy discussing real linguistics with someone like me may well end up making a real linguist out of my now ninth-grade son. Which goes to show that he has no concept of money.

  8. I taught introductory linguistics for 20 years and loved it. Some profs don’t like this sort of course, preferring advanced ones, but I did: the students had no previous experience in the subject, which was not required, so they were taking the course out of personal interest. Even if they were not all brilliant, they all seemed to enjoy themselves, and they learned at least the basics, which was my goal. I don’t understand scholars who only want to communicate with other scholars in the same specialty, or with graduate students. They forget that they too were beginning students once, and that there are many, many specialties beside their own. There are many things I am interested in, although not to the point of having pursued them professionally. I want to be able to express my interest in those things, and perhaps ask questions, without being dismissed as unworthy of consideration because of not having been trained in other people’s specialized disciplines. I hope I extend the same courtesy to others: there is a place for professional interaction, but I don’t want to interact only with other linguists (especially in the present state of the profession!) It is a joy to interact with people who are not only interested but often very knowledgeable in languages and linguistics, as well as in other subjects I know little or nothing about and therefore can learn. This blog is such a great place because people with varied backgrounds, starting with our host, are able not only to draw on their professional knowledge if needed but to express their own interests and knowledge of outside topics.

  9. Trond: I probably lack important context, but the spirit of that thread was … strange.

    No, I think Conrad is rather strange. The idea of a scholar who hates reading, the process, is very alien to me.

    m-l: I taught introductory linguistics for 20 years and loved it.

    My father taught advanced classes in the philosophy of law in the various law schools where he worked (he had a Ph.D. in philosophy as well as both professional and academic law degrees), but he also taught introductory torts. He told me that in law school the practice of having the most senior professors teach the elementary courses was still preserved after the other faculties had abandoned it; “any grad student can teach other grad students”, he would say.

    Hat: I’d mention people, and they’d drop by to say something.

    Of course, it might be that some of those people were just Crown after all.

  10. Trond: a good example of making big science understandable (mostly) via blogs is which is a collection of blogs dealing with particle physics and particularly developments at the Large Hadron Collider and FermiLab. Recommended.

  11. Of course, it might be that some of those people were just Crown after all.

    Now that you mention it, it’s possible you’re all just Crown. Although “just” doesn’t do justice to his infinite variety.

  12. I admire Crown’s naming virtuosity and his ability to maintain it over many years, but I think he would be bored having only one person to talk to.

  13. That’s just what you would say, Crown.

  14. I received an email today from the son of one of my father’s colleagues asking for more information about him; I have supplied some.

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