Hmong Language Project in Partnership with UCSD


Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Marc Garellek, and I teach and do research at UC San Diego’s Linguistics Department. I am a linguist who specializes in phonetics: the study of sounds of the world’s languages. In particular, I research the sounds of Hmong.

What drives someone to become a linguist who focuses on the Hmong language? I grew up in Montreal, Canada. There I spoke both English and French, but had hardly ever heard of the Hmong people and language. After earning my Bachelor’s degree in linguistics in Montreal, I moved to Los Angeles for my doctorate (UCLA is famous for its phonetics). It was there that I was first exposed to the Hmong language: my advisor was taking Hmong lessons, and I joined in. That is when my fascination with the Hmong language began.

People often ask me why I find Hmong to be such an interesting language. When I first started learning about the language, I was taken aback by the sheer wealth of the sounds in Hmong. Depending on the exact dialect, English has somewhere between 37 and 41 sounds (or “phonemes,” as linguists call them). Languages average about 30 sounds, so English is slightly above average. Hmong, on the other hand, has between 74 and 80 sounds! (The number depends on the dialect; for example, Green Mong has fewer sounds than White Hmong). Not only does Hmong have an exceptionally large variety of sounds, it also has many rare ones. The sound written as nqh, as in nqhis (meaning ‘thirsty’ or ‘hungry’), represents what phoneticians call a “prenasalized voiceless aspirated uvular stop,” and Hmong might be the only language in the world to have this sound. My research on Hmong focuses on documenting the variety of sounds of the language, and determining how native speakers produce them. In my previous research I studied the tones of Hmong. For example, how do speakers distinguish the Hmong words pa (meaning ‘air’) and pam (meaning ‘blanket’)? This may seem like a very specific question, but for us linguists it is an important one.

We still know little about tones, and Hmong has already provided us with crucial information about how speakers produce tones and how listeners hear them. These types of linguistic questions are also of interest to the broader community: we need to know how sounds (including tones) are made and heard, in order to understand how best to teach them to language learners.

I know the value of language and the central importance it has for a community’s culture and sense of being. As I study Hmong, I haven’t just learned about the sounds in the language; I have also fostered a relationship with a community and learned about a culture and a history. Now that I live in San Diego, one of my goals is to work with the Hmong community and the Lao Hmong Family Association of San Diego to record speakers recounting stories, songs, and poems in Hmong (with English translations also provided). It would be wonderful to make these recordings widely available, so that everyone may benefit from the work we have done and learn more about the Hmong language and culture.

Marc Garellek, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Linguistics Department, UC San Diego