Va, Vo, Awa
RegionChina, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand
Native speakers
900,000 (2000–2008)[1]
Latin script
Formerly: Chinese characters, Shan script
Language codes
ISO 639-3Variously:
prk – Parauk
wbm – Vo
vwa – Awa
Wa is classified as Severely Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger

Wa (Va) is an Austroasiatic language spoken by the Wa people of Myanmar 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]

Jackson Sun (2018a)[5] lists the Awa dialects and their alternate names as follows.

The Dai exonym for the Wa of Yongde, Zhenkang and Nanla 南腊 is la³¹. In Sipsongpanna, the Dai call them the va¹¹, va¹¹ dip⁵⁵ ("Raw Va" 生佤), va¹¹ ʔău⁵⁵ho⁵⁵ ("Head-carrying Wa" 拿头佤), va¹¹ sə⁵⁵să⁵⁵na⁵³ ("Religious Wa" 信教佤). In Ximeng and Menglian counties, the Wa autonym is xa³¹va⁵³, while in Cangyuan and Gengma counties it is xa³¹va⁵³lɒi⁵³ (Zhou, et al. 2004:2).

Yan and Zhou (2012:138)[7] list the following names for Wa in various counties.

A language known as Bujiao 补角 (autonym: Puga 仆嘎) in Mengla County was mentioned in Yunnan (1960)[8] The Bujiao were classified as ethnic Bulang and had a population of 212 in 1960.

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).[9] The Kela used to speak a variety of Wa, but now speak only Chinese. The Kela also refer to themselves as the Wama 佤妈.[8]


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, tone has developed in some of the dialects. There is correspondence between tones in tonal dialects and tenseness in non-tonal dialects.[10]

In Wa, there are 44 phonemes;[11] 35 consonants[12] and 9 vowels. All of these vowels can be tense or lax. Tenseness is a phonemic feature in syllables with unaspirated initials.[10]


Vowel phonemes
Front Back
unrounded rounded
Close i ɯ u
Close-mid e ɤ o
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.[10]


Consonant phonemes
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal plain m n ɲ ŋ
aspirated ɲʱ ŋʱ
Stop voiceless plain p t c k ʔ
prenasalized voiced ᵐb ⁿd ᶮɟ ᵑɡ
aspirated ᵐbʱ ⁿdʱ ᶮɟʱ ᵑɡʱ
Fricative plain v s
aspirated h
Approximant plain l j
Trill plain r


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,[13] 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.[14]

In 1956, a transcription adapted to the new pinyin romanization, known as new Wa orthography, "PRC orthography" or "Chinese orthography", was developed for the Wa people in China. 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.[15]

Recently, a revised Bible orthography adopting some features from the Chinese orthography has been adopted as Wa State Wa orthography or "official Wa spelling" by the central authorities of the Wa State 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.[16]

Wa Bible Orthography[11]
p [p] bh [ᵐbʱ] nh [nʰ] rh [rʰ] o [o] e [ei]
ph [pʰ] d [ⁿd] ny [ɲ] y [j] ie [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]

See also


  1. ^ Parauk at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
    Vo at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
    Awa at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Endangered Languages Project data for Phalok.
  3. ^ Zhou, Zhizhi 周植志; Yan, Qixiang 颜其香; Chen, Guoqing 陈国庆 (2004). Wǎyǔ fāngyán yánjiū 佤语方言硏究 [A Study of Wa Dialects] (in Chinese). Beijing: Minzu chubanshe.
  4. ^ "Láncāng Lāhùzú Zìzhìxiàn Dōnghuí Zhèn Dōnggǎng Cūn Xìyǔn" 澜沧拉祜族自治县东回镇东岗村细允 [Xiyun, Donggang Village, Donghui Town, Lancang Lahu Autonomous County]. ynszxc.gov.cn (in Chinese). Archived from the original on 2017-12-22.
  5. ^ a b Sun, Jackson T.-S. "New Contributions to Waic Phonological Studies: Va" – via Academia.edu.
  6. ^ Sun, Jackson T.-S. "New Contributions to Palaungic Phonological Studies: Lavïa" – via Academia.edu.
  7. ^ Yan, Qixiang 颜其香; Zhou, Zhizhi 周植志 (2012). Zhōngguó Mèng-Gāomián yǔzú yǔyán yǔ Nányǎ yǔxì 中国孟高棉语族语言与南亚语系 [Mon-Khmer Languages of China and the Austroasiatic Family] (in Chinese). Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chuban she.
  8. ^ a b Yunnan minzu shibie zonghe diaocha zubian 云南民族识别综合调查组编 (1960). Yúnnán mínzú shìbié zònghé diàochá bàogào 云南民族识别综合调查报告 [Comprehensive Investigation Report on Ethnic Identification in Yunnan] (Report) (in Chinese). Kunming: Yunnan minzu shibie zonghe diaochazu.
  9. ^ You, Weiqiong 尤伟琼 (2013). Yúnnán mínzú shìbié yánjiū 云南民族识别研究 [Classifying Ethnic Groups of Yunnan] (in Chinese). Beijing: Minzu chubanshe.
  10. ^ a b c Wang, Jingliu 王敬骝, ed. (1994). Wǎyǔ yánjiū 佤语研究 [Wa Language Research] (in Chinese). Kunming shi: Yunnan minzu chubanshe.
  11. ^ a b Ma Seng Mai (2012)
  12. ^ Parker, Steve, ed. (2012). The Sonority Controversy. De Gruyter Mouton. ISBN 9783110261523 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ "The Young Family's Work with the Wa People". humancomp.org.
  14. ^ "A Bibliography of Materials in or About Wa Language and Culture". humancomp.org.
  15. ^ "Writing of the Wa Language". Wa Dictionary Project.
  16. ^ Watkins, Justin (2013). Wa Dictionary, 2 vols. Introduction

Further reading

  • Bradley, David (1994). "East and Southeast Asia". In Moseley, Christopher; Asher, R. E. (eds.). Atlas of the World's Languages. London: Routledge.
  • Ma Seng Mai (2012). A Descriptive Grammar of Wa (PDF) (Master's thesis). Payap University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-05-17.
  • Schiller, Eric (1985). An (Initially) Surprising Wa language and Mon-Khmer Word Order. University of Chicago Working Papers in Linguistics (UCWIPL) 1.104–119.
  • Watkins, Justin (2013). "A Themed Selection of Wa Proverbs and Sayings". Journal of Burma Studies. 17 (1): 29–60. doi:10.1353/jbs.2013.0001. S2CID 162762127.
  • Watkins, Justin (2013). Dictionary of Wa (2 vols). Leiden: Brill.
  • Watkins, Justin (2013). "Grammatical Aesthetics in Wa". In Williams, Jeffrey P. (ed.). The Aesthetics of Grammar: Sound and Meaning in the Languages of Mainland Southeast Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 99–117.
  • Watkins, Justin (2010). Topicalisation, Focus-Clefts and Stranded Prepositions in Wa. 20th Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society, 10-11 June 2010, University of Zurich.
  • Watkins, Justin (2002). The Phonetics of Wa: Experimental Phonetics, Phonology, Orthography and Sociolinguistics. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. doi:10.15144/PL-531. hdl:1885/146152. ISBN 978-0-85883-486-6.