March 31, 2013

Pasadena Linguist Compiles Iu-Mien Dictionary


Saving a language, and a culture
A Pasadena linguist earned the affection of Iu-Mien people by helping compile a dictionary of their dying language that goes way beyond merely defining words.
By Lee Romney
March 23, 2013

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.

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Visit the dictionary publisher’s website at

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