In 1982, 80 Mien leaders met in Portland, Ore., to create a new romanized, nonsectarian Mien script to help the Mien become more literate, said Purnell.
There are more than 1 million Mien in China, so one of the Portland leaders wrote a letter to Mien in China, Purnell said. He didn't know where to send the letter, but as luck would have it, he bumped into a woman at the post office who was headed to China and agreed to take it.
The woman went to Beijing's minorities university, stopped a Hmong woman and showed her the picture.
"The Hmong lady shook her head 'no' but pointed to a nearby apartment where the woman found professor Bienh, the foremost Mien scholar in China," Purnell said. "He invited four Mien from the U.S. to work on it, and they brought me as their linguist."
For 26 years, Purnell worked on the dictionary. At one point, he lost everything in a fire, but two of his Mien consultants still had drafts.
The dictionary contains terms such as ling daan ndie a magic herb the Mien thought could restore a corpse to life and baac-baac, an adverb that means deliberately.
The Mien alphabet is based on English letters, but isn't pronounced the same, so the dictionary has a pronunciation key. The next step is to create an English-Mien dictionary.
The existing dictionary was published by the Center for Lao Studies in San Francisco, which sold 150 copies at Purnell's appearance. A dozen were purchased by Randy Saechao and his wife, Nai, of the Mien First Baptist Church of Oroville. Tzeng Saechao, who works for the Merced City School District, bought eight copies.
The Iu-Mien Community Services agency purchased copies for its free Iu Mien classes on Monday and Tuesday nights.
Fay Saechao, a UC Davis graduate who co-chairs the Iu Mien Student Conference, said: "It's not only a dictionary, it's a history of who we are. I hope to keep this book forever and pass it on to my kids someday."
For information on the free Mien language classes, call (916) 383-3083.