SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A California missionary and linguist has compiled a comprehensive dictionary for the Mien language, a fast-fading idiom spoken by thousands of refugees from Laos who have resettled in cities throughout the U.S.
Herbert Purnell spent 26 years compiling the Mien-English dictionary, and once lost all his notes to a fire only to realize that two of his Mien consultants had preserved drafts.
The Mien community turned out to a south Sacramento event over the weekend to buy the dictionary and have Purnell, 78, sign it, the Sacramento Bee reported.
Several Mien scholars praised the dictionary as an important step toward preserving a language and culture they say are rapidly disappearing in this country as their children adopt English and Western ways.
“Thank you for devoting your life to the Mien people,” translator Koy Saephan said. “Identity is not stable in the face of assimilation. I don’t think our culture will last beyond this generation.”
Thousands of Mien settled in California after fleeing Laos following their participation in a CIA-backed battle against communists during the Vietnam War. About 12,000 Mien settled in the Sacramento area, which functions as the Mien capital of the United States, said Chiem-Seng Yaangh, one of the first Mien to earn a doctorate.
The Mien, who often refer to themselves as lu-Mienh in their own language, passed on their traditions orally as they migrated to Southeast Asia from their original home in central-eastern China.
“To survive, the Mien people crossed the sea in seven boats, and during our exodus, we were so hungry we tore up the Mien books to eat, and that’s how we lost our written language,” Yaangh said. “It’s a story we’ve told for centuries.”
Purnell included words in the dictionary that refer to the community’s animist beliefs.
The 855-page tome contains more than 5,600 words, 28,000 phrases and 2,100 cultural notes. The dictionary sold 150 copies at Purnell’s appearance.
“It’s not only a dictionary, it’s a history of who we are. I hope to keep this book forever and pass it on to my kids someday,” said Fay Saechao, a University of California, Davis, graduate who co-chairs the Iu Mien Student Conference.