Hmong words are mostly single syllables, beginning with a consonant and ending with a vowel. Some words are compounds built of monsyllabic words. Hmong language in the United States is generally written using the Romanized Phonetic Alphabet (RPA) in a system developed by G. F. Barney and W. A. Smalley in the 1950s (see Heimbach 1979: xi-xvi for its history). In the Barney/ Smalley system, doubled vowels represent nasal sounds. Final consonant letters indicate the tone of the word, and are not pronounced.
The Hmong dialect groups represented in the United States are the White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb), who are more numerous, and the Blue- Green Hmong (Moob Ntsuab). Ntsuab literally means green, or blue-green, but the Moob Ntsuab of Seattle prefer the term Blue, which they link with the indigo-dyed clothes that differentiated them in Laos from the White Hmong, who wore white festival skirts. Blue Hmong dialect has fewer initial aspirations (thus Moob instead of Hmoob) and more nasals (thus Vang instead of Va). Many vowels follow shifts in pronunciation, so that, for instance -ia in White Hmong is pronounced -a in Blue Hmong (thus kuv has tas instead of kuv hais tias). Most of my subjects were Blue Hmong, but a few were White Hmong, and most writing about the Hmong, including the best dictionary available, refers to White Hmong dialect.
In this book, I did not want to convert Blue Hmong into White Hmong, but I wanted to avoid different spellings for the same word from different speakers. Spoken Hmong of either dialect is not easily converted to written form. The seven tones, or pitches, are especially tricky, as a word in a sentence can change its tone depending on the neighboring words. There were many occasions when my best informants stumbled over the spelling of Hmong words. For these reasons, I decided to give Hmong spellings in this book only occasionally (for instance, the nonsense verses in chapter 6). I have usually written the Hmong words as an English speaker would pronounce them, often omitting the Hmong version. It is not necessary here to take a stand between the names Tsuj and Tsus; I called him Chue.