How to say ‘I can’ in Hmong

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Hmong has several ways to say you ‘can’ do something, each with it’s own unique shade of meaning.

The basic ‘I can’ with ‘tau.’

The word ‘tau’ in Hmong has a basic meaning of to ‘get’ or ‘achieve.’ It is used somewhat more complexly than that, however. Generally speaking, when ‘tau’ appears after a verb it means it is a possible action. Let’s look at some examples to help get the concept.

Kuv ua tau

Lit: I do can

I can do it.

In the above example ‘Kuv’ means I. ‘Ua’ is the verb or action that means ‘to do.’ Again, when we put ‘tau’ after the action it makes it a possible action. Let’s look at some more examples.

Koj noj tau

Lit: You eat can

You can eat

Another example:

Nws kho tau cov neeg muaj mob

Lit: He fix can the people have sick

He can cure the people who are sick.

Here is just a small extra detail to keep in mind. When ‘can’ or ‘cannot’ refers to something internal it changes the tone of the word ‘tau’ to an ‘S’ tone. So for example:

Nws thev tsis taus

Lit: He endure not can

He can’t endure.

Or another example:

Nws saib tsis taus nws tus pojniam.

Lit: He look not can his the wife. (This is an idiomatic expression that means to respect / disrespect. Thus:)

He cannot look at his wife // He does not respect his wife.

Capable of with ‘txawj.’

Another word that covers another section of the word ‘can’ is ‘txawj’ which means literally ‘to be capable of.’ So you can say,

Nws txawj tuag

Lit: He capable dead.

He can die. // He is capable of dying.

Normally the word ‘txawj’ has an implied connotation of ‘to be good at.’ Obviously the above example does not imply that someone is good at dying. But in the example below you can see how it would imply ‘to be good at.’

Nws txawj ncaws pob

Lit: He good-at kick ball

He is good at foot ball // He is good at sports.

Keep in mind that in Hmong culture (and many others) bragging is considered and unpleasant quality and thus you should be careful how you use the word ‘txawj’ in regards to yourself.

Know how to with ‘paub.’

A nice alternative to ‘txawj’ when referring to something you can do is ‘paub’ which means to know. True, it does not directly mean ‘can.’ But it can express the same idea. How so? Let’s look at some examples.

Kuv paub hais lus Hmoob.

Lit: I know speak word Hmong.

I know how to speak Hmong.

Again, this does not directly mean ‘can,’ but it can serve as a nice alternative.

Koj puas paub ntawv Hmoob?

Lit: You ? know letters Hmong?

Do you know how to read Hmong?

This is much nicer than asking, ‘Koj puas txawj ntawv Hmoob?” which is much like asking, “Are you any good at reading Hmong?”

So let’s try to put what we have learned to work. How would you define the following phrases?

Koj puas paub kho kuv lub tsheb?


Tus dev txawj txawj khav.


Tus menyuam zaum taus.


Kuv muab puas tau koj li phau ntawv?


How would you say the following phrases in Hmong?

The cat can climb the tree.


He knows how to fix cars.


Can she be brave?


I hope you enjoyed the lesson. Please let me know of any questions or comments in the comments section below.

2 Comments on “How to say ‘I can’ in Hmong”

  1. Dear Travis,
    I really like the way you break down the words and their meanings!!!
    I have had a really hard time with understanding the meaning behind the words!!!
    Thank yo so much for helping clear away some of the fog I seem to be in!!!

    1. Thank you, Cathi. There is a lot of information available on these subjects, but they don’t explain it in human terms. I’m trying explain it simply and accessibly.

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