Wa language

Va, Vo, Awa
Region Burma, China, Thailand
Ethnicity Wa
Native speakers
900,000 (2000–2008)[1]
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
prk  Parauk
wbm  Vo
vwa  Awa
Glottolog waaa1245[2]

Wa (Va) is the language of the Wa people of Burma and China. There are three distinct varieties, sometimes considered separate languages; their names in Ethnologue are Parauk, the majority and standard form; Vo (Zhenkang Wa, 40,000 speakers), and Awa (100,000 speakers), though all may be called Wa, Awa, Va, Vo. David Bradley (1994) estimates there are total of 820,000 Wa speakers.

Distribution and variants

Gerard Diffloth refers to the Wa geographic region as the "Wa corridor", which lies between the Salween and Mekong Rivers. According to Diffloth, variants include South Wa, "Bible Wa", and Kawa (Chinese Wa).

Christian Wa are more likely to support the use of Standard Wa, since their Bible is based on a standard version of Wa, which is in turn based on the variant spoken in Bang Wai, 150 miles north of Kengtung (Watkins 2002). Bang Wai is located in northern Shan State, Burma, close to the Chinese border where Cangyuan County is located.

Certain dialects of Wa preserve a final -/s/. They include the variants spoken in Meung Yang and Ximeng County (such as a variety spoken in Zhongke 中课, Masan 马散, Ximeng County that was documented by Zhou & Yan (1984)) (Watkins 2002:8).


David Bradley (1994) estimates that there is a total of about 500,000 Wa speakers in Burma.

A small number of Wa speakers also reside in Taunggyi, Mandalay, and Yangon.


The PRC writing system for Wa is based on the Wa variant in Aishuai, Cangyuan County, Yunnan.

David Bradley (1994) estimates that there are 322,000 Wa speakers in China. In China, the Wa people live in (Watkins 2002):

A small number of Wa speakers also reside in Kunming and throughout various parts of Yunnan.

The three dialects of Wa (and their respective subdialects) according to Zhou, et al. (2004) are:[3]

The Dai exonym for the Wa of Yongde, Zhenkang, and Nanla 南腊 is la˧˩. In Sipsongpanna, the Dai call them the va˩, va˩ dip˥ ("Raw Va" 生佤), va˩ ʔău˥ ho˥ ("Head-carrying Wa" 拿头佤), va˩ sə˥ să˥ na˥˧ ("Religious Wa" 信教佤). In Ximeng and Menglian counties, the Wa autonym is xa˧˩ va˥˧, while in Cangyuan and Gengma counties it is xa˧˩ va˥˧ lɒi˥˧ (Zhou, et al. 2004:2).

Yan & Zhou (2012:138)[4] list the following names for Wa in various counties.

The Kela 克拉 (Dai exonym: Kala 卡拉; population: 393 people) live in District 3 三区 of Tengchong County 腾冲县, Yunnan (You 2013:359).[5] The Kela used to speak a variety of Wa, but now speak only Chinese.


Wa have also migrated to Thailand in the past several decades, mainly from Burma. There are about 10,000 Wa speakers in Thailand. Wa villages can be found in (Watkins 2002:6):


Standard Wa is a non-tonal language. However, there are dialects that are tonal. There is correspondence between tones in tonal dialects and tenseness in non-tonal dialects.[6]

In Wa, there are 44 phonemes;[7] 35 consonants[8] and 9 vowels. All of these vowels can be tense or lax. Tenseness is a phonemic feature in syllables with unaspirated initials.[6]


Vowel phonemes
Front Back
unrounded rounded
Close i ɯ u
Close-mid e ɤ ɯ
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a

There are 15 diphthongs: iu, ɯi, ui, ia, ɤi, ua, ei, ou, oi~ɔi, ai, aɯ, au and 2 triphthongs: iau, uai. The general syllabic structure of Wa is C(C)(V)V(V)(C). Only a few words have zero-initials.[6]


Consonant phonemes
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲɲʰ ŋŋʰ

Fricative v s h
Approximant l j
Trill ɲɲʰ


Wa writing and cultural symbols on a T-shirt

The Wa language formerly had no script and some of the few Wa that were literate used Chinese characters, while others used the Shan language and its script. Christian missionary work among the Wa began at the beginning of the 20th century first in the Burmese and later in the Chinese areas of the Wa territory. It was led by William Marcus Young, from Nebraska. The first transcription of the Wa language was devised by Young and Sara Yaw Shu Chin (Joshua) in 1931 with the purpose of translating the Bible. This first Wa alphabet was based on the Latin script and the very first publication was a compilation of Wa hymns in 1933,[9] the Wa New Testament being completed in 1938. This transcription, known as "Bible orthography" is known as lǎowǎwén 老佤文 "old Wa orthography" in Chinese, and is now used mainly in the Burmese Wa areas and among the Wa in Thailand through the materials published by the Wa Welfare Society (Cub Yuh Bwan Ka son Vax, Cub Pa Yuh Phuk Lai Vax, Phuk Lai Hak Tiex Vax) in Chiang Mai.[10]

A revised Bible orthography has been adopted as "official Wa spelling" by the central authorities of the Wa Special Region 2 in Pangkham which have published a series of primers in order to improve the literacy of the United Wa State Army troops. Also, after 2000 Wa people in social networks such as Facebook, as well as Wa songwriters in karaoke lyrics of Wa songs, use this Myanmar (revised Bible) orthography in its main variations.[11]

Wa Bible Orthography[7]
p [p] bh [ᵐbʱ] nh [nʰ] r [rʰ] o [o] e [ei]
p [pʰ] d [ⁿd] ny [ɲ] y [j] i.e. [ɛ] o [ou]
t [t] dh [ⁿdʱ] nyh [ɲʰ] yh [jʰ] aw [ɔ] oi, oe, we [oi~ɔi]
th [tʰ] j [ᶮɟ] ng [ŋ] l [l] a [a] ai [ai]
c [c] jh [ᶮɟʱ] ngh [ŋʰ] lh [lʰ] iu [iu] au [aɯ]
ch [cʰ] g [ᵑg] s [s] i [i] eei, ui [ɯi] au, ao [au]
k [k] gh [ᵑgʱ] h [h] ee [ɯ] ui, wi [ui] iao [iau]
kh [kʰ] m [m] v [v] u [u] ia [ia] oe [uai]
x [ʔ] mh [mʰ] vh, f [vʱ] e [e] eue [ɤi]
b [ᵐb] n [n] r [r] eu [ɤ] ua, wa [ua]

In China, a transcription adapted to the new pinyin romanization, known as "PRC orthography" or "Chinese orthography", was developed for the Wa people in 1956. However, its publications, mainly propagated through the Yunnan administration, are yet to reach a wider public beyond academics. This transcription, which originally included even a couple of letters of the Cyrillic script, has also since been revised. Despite the revisions, both the Chinese and the Bible orthography are still marred by inconsistencies.[12]

See also


  1. Parauk at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Vo at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Awa at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Wa". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Zhou Zhizhi [周植志], Yan Qixiang [颜其香], Chen Guoqing [陈国庆]. 2004. A study of Wa dialects [佤语方言硏究]. Beijing: Ethnic Publishing House.
  4. Yan Qixiang [颜其香] & Zhou Zhizhi [周植志] (2012). Mon-Khmer languages of China and the Austroasiatic family [中国孟高棉语族语言与南亚语系]. Beijing: Social Sciences Academy Press [社会科学文献出版社].
  5. You Weiqiong [尤伟琼]. 2013. Classifying ethnic groups of Yunnan [云南民族识别研究]. Beijing: Ethnic Publishing House [民族出版社].
  6. 1 2 3 "佤语研究", edited by 王敬骝.
  7. 1 2 Ma Seng Mai, A Descriptive Grammar of Wa
  8. Steve Parker, ed. The Sonority Controversy. p. 154
  9. The Young Family’s Work with the Wa People
  10. A Bibliography of materials in or about Wa language and culture
  11. Justin Watkins, Wa Dictionary, 2 vols. Introduction
  12. SOAS - Writing of the Wa Language

Further reading

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