Approximately half of all Maonan people are capable of speaking Maonan. In addition to this, many Maonan also speak Chinese or a Zhuang language. About 1/3 of all people who self-identify as Maonan are concentrated in the southern Guizhou province. They speak a mutually unintelligible dialect commonly called Yanghuang, which is more common known as the Then language in Western literature. The Maonan do not have a writing system.
Maonan is a tonal language with 8 tones (Lu 2008:90–91), featuring an SVO clause construction (Lu 2008:169). For example, man (he/she) shoot (drink) ka:u (wine) "He/She drinks wine", man (he/she) ba:i (go) hə (market) "He/She goes to the market", etc.
Maonan displays a head-first modification structure, i.e. the modifier occurring after the modifier (Lu 2008:170). For example, ka:u (wine) hulia:ng (broomcorn) "broomcorn wine", mu (pig) la:u (big) "big pig", nok (bird) vin (fly) "flying bird", among others. Occasionally, a head-final modification structure is also possible with the involvement of a possessive particle (P.P.) di, e.g. ya:n (house/family) nda:u (we/our) di (P.P.) bo (buffalo) "Our family's buffalo" (cf. the more common bo ya:n nda:u) (ibid. pp173–174).