Gelao language

Region Western Guizhou, Wenshan Prefecture in Yunnan, Longlin County in Guangxi, China; Hà Giang Province in Vietnam
Native speakers
7,900 (2008)[1]
  • Kra

    • Ge–Chi
      • Gelao
  • A'ou, Mulao
  • Hakhi (Hagei)
  • Tolo
  • Aqao (Gao)
  • Qau
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
giq  Hagei (Green Gelao)
gir  Vandu (Red Gelao)
giw  Telue (White Gelao, Duoluo)
aou  A'ou
giu  Mulao
gqu  Qau
Glottolog gela1265[2]

Gelao (autonym: Kláo, Chinese: 仡佬 Gēlǎo, Vietnamese: Cờ Lao) is a dialect cluster of Kra languages in the Tai–Kadai language family. It is spoken by the Gelao people in southern China and northern Vietnam. Despite an ethnic population of 580,000 (2000 census), only a few thousand still speak Gelao. Estimates run from 3,000 in China by Li in 1999, of which 500 are monolinguals, to 7,900 by Edmondson in 2008. Edmondson (2002) estimates that the three Gelao varieties of Vietnam have only about 350 speakers altogether.

In 2009, a book allegedly written in a native Gelao script was found in Guizhou, China,[3] but scholarship reveals it is certainly fake.[4][5]

External relationships

Like Buyang, another Kra language, Gelao contains many words which are likely to be Austronesian cognates. (See Austro-Tai.)

As noted by Li and Zhou,[6] Gelao shares much vocabulary with the Hlai and Ong Be languages, suggesting contact with Pre-Hlai speakers before their migration to Hainan.



Zhang Jimin estimated a total of over 10,000 Gelao speakers in the early 1990s, while Li Jinfang places this number at 3,000 in 1999.[7] Jerold A. Edmondson's 2008 estimate is 7,900 speakers.[8] This number is rapidly declining, as the Gelao are intermarrying with the neighboring Han, Bouyei, and Miao. Many Gelao speakers can also speak Bouyei, Zhuang, or Miao, and nearly all can speak local varieties of Chinese. Among Gelao-speaking families, most middle-age Gelao have very limited speaking abilities for Gelao, while much of the younger generation cannot even understand the most simple words and phrases.

The Mulao number 28,000 people, and are distributed in Majiang, Kaili, Huangping, Duyun, Weng'an, Fuquan, and other counties of southeastern Guizhou. The Mulao of Xuanwei and Jidong villages refer to themselves as the Mu, in Longli village 龙里寨 they call themselves qa˨˦ɣo˥˧. The Mulao speak a variety of Gelao, and not the Mulam language of Guangxi, which is also called Mulao. Luo (1997) describes the two Mulao varieties of qa˨˦o˥˧ (qa˨˦ɣo˥˧) in Majiang County and lei˧˥wo˧ in Kaili City.[9] One dialect is represented by the datapoints of Bamaozhai 巴茅寨 and Madizhai 马碲寨 of Xuanwei District 宣威区, Majiang County (Luo 1997:105, 115), and the other by Bailazhai 白腊寨, Lushan Town 炉山镇, Kaili City (Luo 1997:189); the latter is also spoken in Dafengdong 大风洞, Pingliang 平良, and Chong'anjiang 重安江.

In Qingzhen City, Gelao is spoken in the following villages (Qingzhen 2004:25-30).[10]

Zhou (2004) reports that there are no more than 6,000 Gelao speakers, making up only 1.2% of the total number of ethnic Gelao people. The following table, based on Zhou (2004:150–151), shows the number of Gelao speakers in each county as of the 1990s. All counties are in Guizhou province unless specified otherwise.

Demographics of Gelao speakers
County Ethnic Gelao population Number of Gelao speakers Locations of ethnic Gelao
Renhuai City 4,347 Very few elderly speakers remaining Townships of Maoba 茅坝 (including Yatang 哑塘), Changgang 长岗, Yun'an 云安, Zhongshu 中枢, Luban 鲁班, Wuma 五马
Zunyi County 2,922 Few speakers in Pingzheng Township 平正乡 Mostly in Pingzheng 平正乡, a few in Panshui 泮水乡
Jinsha County 1,584 Few elderly speakers in Hongzi Township 红梓乡
Dafang County 4,000+ 50+ speakers in Pudi Township 普底乡
Qianxi County 7,000+ 50+ speakers in Shajing Township 沙井乡 Also in Huashi 化石 and Yang'er 羊耳
Zhijin County 6,250 Only a few elderly speakers
Puding County 3,770[11] 300 Townships of Maodong 猫洞, Machang 马场, Mengzhou 猛舟: 10+ villages
Anshun City 2,559 300 Villages of Dagelao 大仡佬, Heizhai 黑寨, Wanzi 湾子寨, Heqiao 河桥, Amian 阿棉寨, etc.
Pingba County 2,311 500
Qingzhen City 3,679 Only a few elderly speakers
Guanling Buyei and Miao Autonomous County 6,405 500 20+ villages in 10+ townships: Hagei speakers in Ma'ao 麻垇 (in Xinpu Township 新铺乡), Huoshitian 火石田, Longtan 龙潭, Shaxin 沙心, etc.
Zhenning Buyei and Miao Autonomous County 1,555 300 Townships of Dingqi 丁旗, Liuma 六马, etc.
Qinglong County 501 300
Zhenfeng County 1,024 300
Shuicheng County 1,862 Only a few elderly speakers Townships of Yingpan 营盘, Houchang 猴场, Miluo 米箩, Panlong 蟠龙, etc.
Liuzhi Special District 8,218 1,000+ Mostly in the township of Qingkou 箐口
Longlin Various Nationalities Autonomous County, Guangxi - 200+
Malipo County, Yunnan - 100+ Also in Funing (in Dingjiapo 丁家坡),[12][13] Guangnan, and Maguan Counties.

The Gelao people in the following counties do not speak any form of the Gelao language whatsoever, and have shifted entirely to Southwestern Mandarin.

Ethnic Gelao without knowledge of the Gelao language
County Ethnic Gelao population
Wuchuan Gelao and Miao Autonomous County 145,989
Daozhen Gelao and Miao Autonomous County 112,025
Zheng'an County 31,706
Fenggang County 5,982
Yuqing County 4,347
Zunyi City 2,158
Shiqian County 97,500
Songtao County -
Sinan County -
Funing County, Yunnan 60


The most endangered variety, Red Gelao of Vietnam, is spoken by only about 50 people. Many speakers have shifted to Southwestern Mandarin or Hmong. The Red Gelao people, who call themselves the va˧˥ntɯ˧˩, send brides back and forth among the villages of Na Khê and Bạch Đích (or Bìch Đich) in Yên Minh District, Hà Giang Province, Vietnam and another village in Fanpo, Malipo County, Yunnan, China[14] (autonym: u˧wei˥) in order to ensure the continual survival of their ethnic group. Edmondson (1998) reports that there are also Red Gelao people in Cán Tí, Quản Bạ District and Túng Sán, Hoàng Su Phì District[15] who no longer speak any Gelao, and speak Hmong, Tay, or Vietnamese instead.[16] Hoang (2013:12)[17] reports that there also some Red Gelao in Vĩnh Hảo commune, Bắc Quang District who had moved from Túng Sán commune. However, the White Gelao of Phố La Village and Sính Lủng Village of Dồng Văn District still speak the White Gelao language.


Gelao is not well documented, having only been studied by a few scholars such as Li Jinfang, Jerold A. Edmondson, Weera Ostapirat, and Zhang Jimin. The three varieties in Vietnam are not mutually intelligible, and three varieties in China may be distinct languages as well. Ethnologue classifies Gelao as four languages, perhaps as closely related to the two Lachi languages as they are to each other.

Ostapirat (2000), Edmondson (2008)

Ostapirat (2000) proposed three major subdivisions for Gelao, with a total of 17 varieties.[18] The Central and Southwestern branches shares various phonological innovations, suggesting an initial split with the Northern branch. Some varieties cited are also from Jerold A. Edmondson (2008).[19] Edmondson also proposes that Red Gelao of the China-Vietnam border may in fact constitute a separate primary branch of Gelao.

Central (Gao)

Northern (Red Gelao)

Southwestern (White and Green Gelao)

Zhang (1993)

Zhang Jimin (1993) recognizes the following subdivisions of Gelao.

Bradley (2007), He (1983)

The Encyclopedia of the World's Endangered Languages groups Gelao into five subdivisions.[27]

The most extensively studied varieties are the Wanzi and Zhenfeng dialects, while the most endangered one is Red Gelao.

Zhou (2004)

Zhou (2004) lists four dialects of Gelao.

Wei (2008)

Wei Mingying (2008:45)[28] classifies the Gelao dialects as follows.


Gelao has many uvular and prenasalized consonants.[29] Many varieties also preserve consonant clusters that have been lost in most other related languages. These consonant clusters, such as pl, bl, pʰl, ml, mpl, vl, and kl, correspond regularly with consonants in Lachi, Mulao, Qabiao (Pubiao), Buyang, and various Kam–Tai languages. Gelao also shares many phonological features with Bouyei and other neighboring non-Kra languages.

Many Gelao varieties have a total of six tones, including two level tones (˧ and ˥), two rising tones (˩˧ and ˧˥), and two falling tones (˧˩ and ˥˧).

Sound correspondences between the Liuzhi (六枝) and Zhenfeng (贞丰) varieties include:[6]

[Liuzhi : Zhenfeng]


Like all of its surrounding languages, Gelao is a head-first, SVO language. Like Buyang, one unusual feature of Gelao is that negatives usually come at the end of a sentence. Reduplication is very common and is used for diminutive or repetitive purposes.[29] Other common features include the use of serial verb constructions and compound nouns. Although numerals and classifiers precede nouns, adjectives (including demonstratives) always follow the noun. Function words, such as prepositions and auxiliary words, are often derived from verbs.

Like Buyang and Dong, Gelao retains many prefixes that have been lost in most other Tai–Kadai languages. Zhang (1993:300) notes that the Moji (磨基) Longlin variant makes especially extensive use of prefixing syllables before nouns, verbs, and adjectives.[30] These prefixes are especially important for reconstruction purposes.

Many words in Gelao are derived from vernacular Southwest Mandarin Chinese. These loanwords are often used interchangeably with native Gelao words. There is also a highly rich system of classifiers.

Gelao also has a rich set of pronouns not attested in other Tai–Kadai languages.[29] There are also pronouns referring to one's household in particular. The following are pronouns from Pingba Gelao.[30]

Pingba Gelao numerals are given below. Note the similarities with the Austronesian numeral system.

  1. si˧
  2. su˧
  3. ta˧
  4. pu˧
  5. mpu˧
  6. naŋ˧
  7. ɕi˩˧
  8. zua˥
  9. sə˩˧
  10. pan˩˧


  1. Edmondson (2008)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Gelaoic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ""Heaven Book" Reveals the Mystery of Gelao Minority's History - Culture China". 2009-02-03. Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  4. Victor Mair, Fake Gelao manuscript, Language Log, 29 November 2013.
  5. Adam D. Smith, Fake Gelao 仡佬 writing system and manuscript, LingQiBaSui 零七八碎, 29 November 2013.
  6. 1 2 李锦芳/Li, Jinfang and 周国炎/Guoyan Zhou. 仡央语言探索/Geyang yu yan tan suo. Beijing, China: 中央民族大学出版社/Zhong yang min zu da xue chu ban she, 1999.
  7. Archived September 18, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. Diller, Anthony, Jerry Edmondson, Yongxian Luo. (2008). The Tai–Kadai Languages. London [etc.]: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7007-1457-5.
  9. Luo Shiqing [罗世庆]. 1997. The ethnic Mulao of Guizhou [贵州仫佬族]. Guiyang: Guizhou People's Press [贵州民族出版社].
  10. Qingzhen Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau [清镇市民族宗教事务局]. 2004. The Gelao people of Qingzhen City [清镇仡佬族]. Guiyang: Guizhou People's Press [贵州民族出版社]. ISBN 7541212148
  11. Includes Daya Gelao 打牙仡佬 and Red Gelao 红仡佬.
  12. "¸»ÄþÏØľÑëÕòľ¸Ü´åί»á¶¡¼ÒÆ´åС×é". Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  13. "¸»ÄþÏØľÑëÕòľ¸Ü´åί»á¶¡¼ÒÆ´åС×é". Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  14. "麻栗坡县杨万乡杨万村委会翻坡自然村". Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  15. "Nét đẹp trong đám cưới của người Cờ Lao". Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  16. Jerold A. Edmondson. "The language corridor : New evidence from Vietnam" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  17. Hoàng Thị Cáp. 2013. Văn hóa dân gian của người Cơ Lao Dỏ. Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản văn hóa thông tin. ISBN 978-604-50-0400-5
  18. Ostapirat, Weera (2000). "Proto-Kra". Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 23 (1): 1-251
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 Edmondson, Jerold A. "Red Gelao, the most endangered form of the Gelao language" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  20. Guizhou Ethnic Gazetteer (2002)
  21. The Mulao of these locations variously classified as ethnic Miao, Buyi, and Mulao by the Chinese government.
  22. "ÂéÀõÆÂÏØÌú³§ÏçÆÕÁú´åί»áÉÏÔÂÁÁÍå×ÔÈ»´å". Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  23. "ÂéÀõÆÂÏØÌú³§ÏçÆÕÁú´åί»áÏÂÔÂÁÁÍå×ÔÈ»´å". Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  24. Hagei dialect according to Zhou (2004:63)
  25. Red Gelao according to Zhou (2004:63)
  26. Shen Yumay. 2003. Phonology of Sanchong Gelao. M.A. Thesis, University of Texas at Arlington.
  27. Bradley, David. 2007. "East and Southeast Asia." In Moseley, Christopher (ed). Encyclopedia of the World's Endangered Languages. New York: Routledge.
  28. Wei Mingying [韦名应]. 2008. A reclassification of Gelao dialects [仡佬语方言土语再划分]. M.A. dissertation. Beijing: Minzu University.
  29. 1 2 3 Edmondson, Jerold A. "Kra or Kadai languages" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-15. Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  30. 1 2 张済民/Zhang, Jimin. 仡佬语研究/Gelao yu yan jiu (A Study of Gelao). 贵阳市/Guiyang, China: 贵州民族出版社/Guizhou min zu chu ban she, 1993.

Further reading

Word lists

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