Akha grandmother

Akha is a language in the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. It consists of primarily one-syllable words of the form CVT where C is an optional consonant, V is an obligatory vowel and T is an obligatory tone. There are no final consonants in Akha words.

Akha has 26 possible initial consonants, including a “zero” consonant (a glottal stop before a word beginning with a vowel sound), 13 vowels and five tones. All vowels in pure Akha are simple, but depending on geographical location, Akhas will add one to three extra dipthongs to their speech to account for sounds of borrowed words from the majority languages. The five tones are as follows:
1. High tone—said at the relative top of one’s voice register
2. Middle tone—said in a normal speaking voice
3. Low tone—said at the relative bottom of one’s voice register
4. Laryngealized middle tone—vowel is said in a “creaky” way
5. Laryngealized Low tone—vowel is said “creaky” and low.

The tone of a word is abosulutely necessary to the meaning. Many consonant-vowel combinations exist as five distinct words, depending on the tone with which the word (vowel) is said.

While Akha has a number of regional dialects, each with borrowed words from the respective majority culture, the base phonology of Akha is very consistent. The vast majority of Akha speakers can understand the Jeu G’oe (“Jer Way”) dialect spoken in southern China, Thailand and Myanmar. Jeu G’oe is considered to be Standard Akha. (Jeu G’oe himself appears in the Akha genealogy, 28 generations below Sm Mi O.) Some basic and systematic variations in regional dialects of Akha are discussed by Paul Lewis in his Akha-English-Thai Dictionary.

Very few dialects of Akha do not share mutual intelligibility. Jeu G’oe-speaking Akhas recognize Akheu Akha as a dialect of their language, but they report that it is not mutially intelligible. Whereas, Hani (the standard Do Nya dialect) shares a majority of its words with Jeu G’oe Akha, but differs so dramatically in its clitics and sentence-ending particles that the two languages are often not mutually intelligible when spoken naturally.

Most amazingly consistent are the ritual texts recited by the pima of each village. These extremely long poems that prescribe all facets of Akha life are memorized from generation to generation. Comparison of ritual texts as recited by pimas in Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos show almost no variation. That is, over hundreds of years, these poems have been passed on exactly, even while regional dialects have emerged. Because Akha language has evolved while the ritual poems have remained static, the ritual poems are not necessarily intelligible to a native speaker of Akha.