Saving a language, and a culture

SACRAMENTO — At 855 pages, it has been lauded by linguists and anthropologists as the only dictionary of its kind: a comprehensive translation of Iu-Mien into English that doubles as a guide to the dying practices of a people who, beginning in 1975, fled the hills of Laos after aiding the CIA’s secret war.

Over the quarter-century it took to produce, much came to pass.


For the Pasadena professor whose name graces the book’s charcoal cover, 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.

For the Mien people, most of whom began arriving on the West Coast from Thai refugee camps in the 1970s, there was a painful loss of culture and a newfound commitment to remembrance.

So when Herbert C. Purnell, now 78, stood before an audience in Sacramento last month to present his “gift” in fluent Mien (pronounced me-YEN), he was met with deep gratitude.

“I recognize that identity is not stable in the face of assimilation,” Koy Saephan, an audience member who runs a Mien translation business, told Purnell in a voice cracking with emotion. “This is a wonderful piece of history.... Thank you for loving the Mien people enough to give this to us.”

The story of the book is one of diaspora and myriad acts of friendship.

The Mien originated in China and in the 1800s immigrated to Laos, Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. At that time, their spoken vernacular — tonal and monosyllabic — had no written form.

Legend has it that drought prompted a long journey across the sea and “we got so hungry that we tore up the Mien books to eat,” said Chiem-Seng Yaangh, board president of Sacramento’s United Iu-Mien Community Inc.

Until the mid-20th century, Mien kept household burial registries in Chinese script, if they kept them at all. For most of those communicating across distance, the cassette tape became king. The first Romanized writing system was introduced to the Mien by Christian missionaries in 1953. It looked awkward: Capital letters were assigned distinct sounds and appeared mid sentence or mid word.

About that time 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, working to intercept the weapons supply trail into Vietnam. After the Vietnam War ended, they flocked to the U.S. as refugees, and literacy developed new urgency.

Sengfo Chao, who arrived in Portland, Ore., sought ways to soften the assimilation of fellow Mien. He wanted a unified script that didn’t look so strange.

A mutual acquaintance told Chao about Purnell, a self-described introvert who as a student in the 1960s had lived with his wife and young children in a Mien village in Thailand. Purnell, who also had been a Christian missionary in Thailand, later earned a PhD in linguistics at Cornell University.

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.”

The dictionary project was born three years later at the urging of V. Ann Burgess, a Canadian nurse doing mission work in Thailand. She brought Gueix-Fonge Zanh, a Mien farmer who was helping her translate the Bible, in as well.

Purnell was deep into the arduous task when, in 1988, his 26-year-old daughter was abducted from a Pasadena shopping mall parking lot, robbed, raped and murdered. The professor and his wife, Elsie, spent much of the next four years in court. Two men eventually were convicted in their daughter’s death.

In between the darkest periods, Purnell pressed on with the dictionary project, sending a dozen copies of a completed draft out for comment to friends and experts.

Ten were returned with detailed suggestions. But in the fall of 1993, 12 days after the Purnells moved in, their home burned in the Altadena firestorm. “We got out with only the clothes on our back,” said Purnell, who at the time chaired the linguistics department of Pasadena’s William Carey International University.

Gone were the returned copies of the dictionary and the computer that held the original work. Gone were the photos of the family’s time in Thailand, the little Mien clothes their children had worn there, both daughters’ wedding dresses.

But missionary Sylvia Lombard, who had assisted Purnell in an earlier project, had not yet returned her copy. Neither had Jiem-Seng Yangh, a friend in Sacramento who had transcribed dozens of Mien folk tales for Purnell.

The project was salvaged. Burgess and Zanh kept sending material from Thailand. Initially they communicated with Purnell by mail, then by a computer powered by a car battery. There were implements and vegetation they knew no English names for. They sent photos. Once, Burgess mailed Purnell a nut.

Greg Aumann, an Australian expert in linguistic software, got involved, customizing a program for the massive undertaking — 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.

Now a professor emeritus at Biola University in La Mirada, Purnell picked up the pace once he retired, “fitting it in the seams of life” as he accompanied Elsie to chemotherapy sessions in the year before her death in 2005.

“You’d better finish,” she’d tell him, “or everyone will be 99 and there will be no need for it.”

The work Purnell completed in 2012, said Tzeng Saechao, a Mien friend and instructor in the Merced school district who helped proofread entries, “is a giant leap forward, not just to maintain language, but to maintain culture.”

Indeed, the book is more than a dictionary. 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.”

Purnell said his project targets Mien who speak the dialect common to northern Thailand and Laos — about 70,000 who remain there and 35,000 who live in the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of Mien in Southern China can use it too, although there are differences Purnell described as comparable to those between American and British English.

In addition to providing a practical tool, Purnell said his hope was “to give status to the Mien language, the Mien culture” by creating a volume that researchers would seek out for generations to come.

As she waited in line for Purnell to sign her copy of the dictionary, 24-year-old Fay Saechao (Mien last names all stem from the original 12 clans) — who co-chairs an annual Mien youth leadership conference — described it as “really like a history book.”

“Even if I can’t pronounce the words, I can learn and ask my grandparents.... It will reopen the door to conversations about our culture.”