As noted by Li and Zhou (1999), 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. Jerold A. Edmondson's 2008 estimate is 7,900 speakers. 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.
A divergent variety of Gelao known as Shuicheng Gelao 水城仡佬语 (also known as Datie Gelao 打铁仡佬语; autonym: pu55qau24) is spoken in Dongkou 洞口村, Houchang Township 猴场乡 and Datiezhai 打铁寨, Miluo Township 米箩乡, both located in Shuicheng County, Guizhou Province, China (Li & Yang 2016: 71). The Gelao of Datiezhai reported that they had migrated from Dongkou 4 generations ago. Li & Yang (2016) report that there are only 3 speakers of Shuicheng Gelao left.
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, and in Longli village 龙里寨 they call themselves qa24ɣo53. The Mulao speak a variety of Gelao, not the Mulam language of Guangxi, which is also called Mulao. Luo (1997) describes the two Mulao varieties of qa24o53 (qa24ɣo53) in Majiang County and lei35wo33 in Kaili City. 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. Mulao data from Majiang and Kaili are also given in Guizhou (1985).
Hsiu (2017) reports a Wai Gelao (Chinese: 歪仡佬语, "Crooked Gelao") language variety from Dingjiapo 丁家坡, Mugang Village 木杠村, Muyang Town 木央镇, Funing County, Yunnan. One 83-year-old woman remembered a few kinship terms.
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.
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 va35ntɯ31, 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 (autonym: u33wei55) 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 who no longer speak any Gelao, and speak Hmong, Tay, or Vietnamese instead. Hoang (2013:12) 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. 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). Edmondson also proposes that Red Gelao of the China-Vietnam border may in fact constitute a separate primary branch of Gelao.
Dagouchang subdialect 平坝县大狗场土语: spoken in Wanzi 弯子 and Heizhai 黑寨 of Anshun City 安顺县; and Dagouchang 大狗场 and Wangzhai 王寨 of Pingba County 平坝县 (autonyms: klɑu55 in Anshun; lɑu55 or pɯ55lɑu55 in Pingba).
Xinzhai subdialect 普定县新寨土语: spoken in Xinzhai 新寨, Wozi 窝子, Changchong 长冲, and Weiqi 未七 villages in Baiyan District 白岩区, Puding District 普定县 (autonym: qɑu13).
Xiongzhai subdialect 织金熊寨土语: spoken in Qiaoshang Village 桥上村, Xiongjiazhai Township 熊家寨乡, Longchang District 龙场区, Zhijin County 织金县.
North-Central 黔中北方言 (14,000 speakers)
Subdialect 1: spoken in Yatang 亚塘, Maoba District 茅坝区, Renhuai City 仁怀县; and Shanbeihou Village 山背后村, Liangshui Township 凉水, Qinglong County; and Sanchong 三冲, Longlin County 隆林县, Guangxi (autonym: hɑ53ke53). Also spoken by the Green Gelao 青仡佬 of Yangliu Village 杨柳村, Renhuai City 仁怀县 (autonym: pu55hɑ55kei53).
Subdialect 2: spoken by the Red Gelao 红仡佬 of Banliwan 板栗湾, Maoba District 茅坝区, Renhuai City 仁怀县; and some villages of Pingzheng Township 平正乡, Zunyi County 遵义县 (autonym: pu55mu33hen55, where mu33hen55 means 'people'), including in Tianba 田坝, Heijiaoyan 黑脚岩, Pingzheng Township.
Niupo subdialect 六枝牛破土语: spoken in Duoque 堕脚, Houzitian 猴子田, and Langjiaba 郎家坝 of Liuzhi Special District 六枝特区; Shangguan 上关 and Xiaguan 下关 in Yingpan Town 营盘镇, Machang District 马场区, Puding County 普定县 (elderly rememberers only); some villages in Agong District 阿弓区, Zhijin County 织金县.
Moji subdialect 隆林么基土语: spoken in Dashuijing 大水井, Longlin County 隆林县, Guangxi and other nearby villages. 400 speakers.
Laozhai subdialect 麻栗坡县老寨土语: spoken in Laozhai 老寨 and Yueliangwan 月亮湾 in Tiechang District 铁厂区, Malipo County 麻栗坡县
Datiezhai subdialect 水城大铁寨土语: spoken in Gaoshi Township 高石乡, Yangmei District 杨梅区 and Ega Township 俄嘎乡, Miluo District 米箩区, Shuicheng County 水城特区 (elderly rememberers only).
Jianshan subdialect 遵义尖山土语: spoken in Jianshan 尖山, Pingzheng Township 平正乡, Zunyi County 遵义县. Under 500 speakers.
Pudi subdialect 大方县普底土语: spoken in Hongfeng Village 红丰村, Pudi Township 普底乡, Dafang County (autonym: pu55ɣɯ55); Lannigou 滥泥沟, Shajing Township 沙井乡, Qianxi County; a few villages in Daguan District 大观区, Qianxi County; Dazhai 大寨 and Gaokanzhai 高坎寨 in Fenghuang Village 凤凰村, Xinfa Township 新发乡, Qingzhen City; Maixiang 麦巷 and Houzhai 后寨 townships, Qingzhen City
Bigong subdialect 镇宁比贡土语: spoken in Bigong Village 比贡村 and Maocao 茅草 in Mafang Township 新房乡, Anxi District 安西区, Zhenning County 镇宁县 (autonym: zəɯ35)
Bradley (2007), He (1983)
The Encyclopedia of the World's Endangered Languages (2007), based on information from He (1983), groups Gelao into five subdivisions.
Hakhi (哈给 Hagei, ha53kei33, Green Gelao): west-central Guizhou, western Guangxi, southeastern Yunnan, northern Vietnam - including Yangliu (杨柳) variety in Renhuai County; southwestern Gelao of Sanchong (三冲) and Qinglong (青龙). Hagei varieties are also spoken in Ma'ao (麻凹村), Guanling County (关岭县), Pomao (坡帽) in Zhenfeng County (贞丰县), and Pingzheng Gelao Village (平正仡佬族乡), Zunyi (遵义). Estimated by Jiashan He (1983) at 1,700 speakers. He (1983) also lists Anliang 安良 and Taiyang 太阳 of Renhuai 仁怀县, Huajiangzhen 花江镇 and Ma'ao 麻垇 of Zhenning 镇宁县, Dingying 顶营 of Guanling 关岭县, Maixiang 麦巷 near Qingzhen 清镇, and Liangshuiying 凉水营 of Qinglong 晴隆县 as Hagei-speaking places.
Tolo (多罗 Duoluo, to31ʔlo5, White Gelao): west-central Guizhou, western Guangxi, southeastern Yunnan, northern Vietnam; all other southwestern Gelao varieties. The Niupo variety is also spoken in Machang village (马场镇), Puding County (普定县), Anshun, as well as Agong village (阿弓镇), Zhijin County (织金县), Bijie. The Datiezhai variety is spoken in Gaoshi (高石) of Shuicheng (水城) and Miluo (米箩) of Shuicheng (水城). Estimated by Jiashan He (1983) at 1,200 speakers.
A-uo (阿欧 A'ou/Ao, Red Gelao): west-central Guizhou, western Guangxi, southeastern Yunnan, northern Vietnam - including Banli (板栗湾) variety in Renhuai County; all northern Gelao varieties, as well as southwestern Gelao of Puding County (普定县) and Maocaozhai (茅草寨), Zhijin County (织金县). Estimated by Jiashan He (1983) at 1,500 speakers. He (1983) also lists Shawo 沙窝, Xinkaitian 新开田, Lannigou 滥泥沟 (all in Qianxi 黔西县) as A'ou-speaking places.
Aqao (稿 Gao): west-central Guizhou; all central Gelao varieties. Estimated by Jiashan He (1983) at 2,000 speakers. He (1983) also listed Dongkou 洞口 of Shuicheng 水城县 and Niudong 牛洞 of Zhijin 织金县 as Gao-speaking places.
Qaw: Gulin County (古蔺县), Sichuan; mostly unattested. This dialect is spoken by the Yi (羿人), who are the least-known Gelao subgroup.
The most extensively studied varieties are the Wanzi and Zhenfeng dialects, while the most endangered one is Red Gelao.
Zhou (2004) lists four dialects of Gelao.
Hagei (哈给): Autonyms include pu42ha35kei42 (布哈给) and pu55mu33hen55 (布目亨). Primarily spoken in Renhuai, Zhenning, Guanling, Qinglong, Zhenfeng, and Longlin Counties.
Pomao 坡帽村, Zhenfeng 贞丰县
Duoluo (多罗): Autonyms include to31ʔlo35 and tə31ʔlɯ33. Primarily spoken in Liuzhi District, Puding, Longlin, and Malipo Counties.
Qingkou 箐口彝族仡佬族布依族乡, Liuzhi 六枝特区
Machang 马场寨, Puding (extinct)
Mengzhou 猛舟村, Puding (extinct)
Gao (稿): Autonyms include pəɯ55klɑu55, pəu35qɑu35 (in Dongkou 垌口村, Houchang Township 猴场乡), and pəu35lɑu31. Primarily spoken in Pingba, Anshun, Puding, and Shuicheng Counties. Its 4 dialects are Dagouchang 大狗场 of Pingba, Xinzhai 新寨 of Puding, Dongkou 洞口 of Shuicheng, and Xiongzhai 熊寨 of Zhijin (extinct).
Dongkou 垌口村, Houchang 猴场乡, Shuicheng 水城县
Shuangkeng 双坑村, Puding
A'ou (阿欧): Autonyms include a33ɣeu33 (阿欧), pu42ɣeu33 (补欧, 补尔), and zəu31le31 (柔勒). Small pockets of speakers left in Zhenning, Dafang, and Qianxi Counties. Its three dialects are Bigong, Hongfeng, and Jianshan.
Wei (2008: 39) considers Houzitian 猴子田 Red Gelao to be most closely related to the Gelao variety of Longjiazhai 龙家寨, northern Zhijin County. There are only about 10 ethnic Gelao households in Houzitian. The Gelao speakers of "Donie" do31ȵe31 village, Aga Township 阿嘎乡, Shuicheng County 水城县 originally migrated from Houzitian several decades ago; there are only a few elderly rememberers of that variety left.
Hsiu (2013, 2019)
Hsiu (2019) classifies the Gelao language dialects as follows.
Many Gelao varieties, such as Telue and Vandu, have many uvular and prenasalized consonants. 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,andkl, 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.
Gelao varieties are tonal. Tones can include level tones (3 and 5), rising tones (13 and 35), and falling tones (31 and 53).
Sound correspondences between the Liuzhi (六枝) and Zhenfeng (贞丰) varieties include:
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. 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 Kra–Dai languages. Zhang (1993:300) notes that the Moji (磨基) Longlin dialect of White Gelao makes especially extensive use of prefixing syllables before nouns, verbs, and adjectives. 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 Kra–Dai languages. There are also pronouns referring to one's household in particular.
In Guizhou, there are several manuscripts that have word lists of Gelao varieties written using Chinese characters.
In 2009, a book allegedly written in a native Gelao script was found in Guizhou, China, but scholarship reveals it is certainly fake.
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Samarina, Irina Vladimirovna [Самарина, Ирина Владимировна]. 2011. The Gelao language: materials for a Kadai comparative dictionary [Языки гэлао: материалы к сопоставительному словарю кадайских языко]. Moscow: Academia. ISBN9785874443917
Luo Changmu [骆长木]. 2009. Pingzheng Gelao language [平正仡佬语]. Pingzheng, Guizhou: Pingzheng Township Government. (Hagei Gelao dialect spoken in Tianba village 田坝村, Pingzheng Township 平正仡佬族乡. Gelao transcribed in pinyin.)
Chen Xing [陈兴]. 2013. Gelaoyu hanzi jinyin shidu daquan [仡佬语汉字近音识读大全]. Beijing: Chinese History Press [中国文史出版社]. ISBN9787503439148