Can You Get There from Here?10 min read

Yi languages and scripts – Stevan Harrell


When I was planning to begin field research among minority groups in Southwest China, I looked for a group that was not much written about in English, but whose language was fairly convenient to study. I chose the Nuosu, a group that is part of the larger ethnic classification of Yi, mostly because I was able to get hold of a textbook and some conversation tapes. When people outside China hear that I can speak the Nuosu language, their first two questions are almost always: “How close is it to Mandarin (or to Chinese)?” and “does it have tones?”

Both Yi and Chinese are families of closely related languages (sometimes referred to as varieties), and both in turn are branches of the larger Sino-Tibetan family, which includes over 400 languages spoken in China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. To put it another way, Yi and Chinese are as closely related as any two distant Indo-European languages, like English and Bengali, or German and Dari. In other words, not much.  

As far as the second question, yes, Yi has tones. Nuosu, the most widely spoken variety, has four tones, but not the same four familiar to speakers of Mandarin. The high level tone is something like the first tone in Mandarin, the mid-rising is something like the second, but instead of a low dipping tone, there is a mid-level tone, which sounds just like what you would expect. Finally, the low falling tone is what an English speaker would use when ending a sentence in a very matter-of-fact way.   

Just as Mandarin, Cantonese and other Chinese varieties are largely mutually unintelligible, so are the various Yi languages; Nuosu speakers can understand quite a bit of Nasu and vice-versa, but neither can understand Sani or Nisu or Laluo or Lipo. In fact, Lipo people have an easier time understanding Lisu, who fall under a different state-defined ethnic category (called a minzu), than they do understanding Nuosu.  

So what are the Yi languages like? You can hear Nuosu spoken in a brief recording here. Nuosu has a lot of sounds – 42 initial consonants and 11 vowels, but it doesn’t have any final consonants. Compare that to English, with 24 consonants and 12 vowels, or Japanese, with 15 consonants and five vowels. So every syllable consists of an initial consonant followed by a vowel, and has a distinctive tone.

Sometimes vowels or tones change according to the syllables with which they are combined. For example, buckwheat, the most important Nuosu staple grain, is called mge (pronounced, roughly like nng-guh), and common buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum, is called mgequ, or literally “white buckwheat” – the adjective comes after the noun in Yi as it does in Spanish or French. But Tartary buckwheat or Fagopyrum tartaricum is called mganuo, or “black buckwheat.” The vowel e in mgequ changes to a in mganuo.  But mga by itself doesn’t mean buckwheat. It means “cross over” or “go through” as in a question one often asks on treks through mountain villages, Ti dda mga hxie hxie? “Can you get there from here?”

Since Nuosu and other Yi languages also have so many sounds that are not found in Chinese, it can be hard for Chinese speakers to pronounce them correctly. For example, Yi languages all have an initial v– sound, something found only in the Wu varieties of Chinese. Most Chinese speakers want to pronounce this sound as a w-. And Nuosu also has some extreme-high vowels, usually transcribed with a –y, which when pronounced after a b– or p– sound like a bee buzzing.  

Word order is one of the main ways linguists classify languages. To many Chinese people, word order is the strangest thing about Yi. Yi word order is backwards from Chinese or English, but similar to Japanese or Turkish – whereas in English or Chinese the normal order is subject-verb-object, in Yi the normal order is subject-object-verb. When Yi people tell Han people about their language, one of the first things they often mention is that, whereas in Mandarin you say “eat rice” (chī fàn), we Yi say “rice eat.”

For native English speakers, the biggest shock is often that Yi languages, like Chinese, lack inflection – no verb conjugation, noun declensions, singular or plural forms, masculine or feminine pronouns. But they do have a lot of aspect markers (like le in Mandarin) that come after a verb to indicate the particular way a verb is working. Consider these variations on one Nuosu sentence:

Cy zza zze. – “S/he/ eats.”

Cy zza zze mie. – “S/he is about to eat.”

Cy zza zze o. – “S/he has eaten” or “s/he is now eating (when s/he wasn’t eating before).”  

Cy zza zze ddi. – “I hear that s/he is eating.”

Cy zza zze sso. “S/he should eat.”

Cy zza zze njuo. – “S/he is in the act of eating.”

Cy zza zze ma. – “Watch out for her/him eating.”

Cy zza a zze sy. – “S/he hasn’t eaten yet.”

And this list isn’t even complete!

Yi languages also have their own writing systems, completely unrelated to the Chinese system or, as far as we know, to any other writing system, including the alphabets of other Sino-Tibetan languages like Burmese or Tibetan. Like Latin, Greek, and Arabic, these scripts actually descended from Phoenician scripts used in the Eastern Mediterranean during the second millennium BCE.

An excerpt from a Sani handwritten text, read vertically right-to-left

An excerpt from a Nasu handwritten text, read vertically right-to-left

An excerpt from a Nuosu ritual text, read horizontally right-to-left

Yi writing is syllabic, like Japanese kana – each graph represents a syllable, in contrast to the phonetic graphs of alphabets. There are four different syllabic Yi scripts in use today, which (like the Yi languages) are related but not mutually intelligible. A good way to think of the relationships among the various Yi scripts is to think of Latin, Greek and Cyrillic (Russian) writing, where many letters are the same, but not all of them. From the pictures, you can see that reading one script would not automatically make you able to understand another, though you might be able to guess.  

There is also no uniform direction for writing Yi. Traditionally, Nuosu was read horizontally, right to left, like Arabic or Hebrew. Nasu and Sani were read vertically, starting from the right-hand column, like the traditional arrangement of Chinese. Nisu was also read vertically, but starting from the left.  

There are also some Yi groups, like the Lipo of north-central Yunnan Province and the Laluo and their relatives in western Yunnan, who have no writing system; as far as we know, as long as they have written, they have used Chinese characters.  

In Liangshan, the homeland of the Nuosu, until the 20th century writing was the province of a specialist group of male priests or ritual specialists called bimo who used ritual books written on locally-made brown paper with ink made from a mixture of pot soot and pig’s blood. It is rumored, however, that the most powerful texts, those that could kill by magic, were written in human blood and kept in secret caves where no one could come upon them and accidentally wreak havoc by reading one out loud. There were also a few non-ritual books that contained less esoteric versions of stories performed orally by both bimo and lay people.

Bimo reading at a funeral

Since bimo books are not dated, but copied out and ritually burnt when they get old and frayed, we don’t know how old they are, which means we don’t really know how old Yi writing is. The oldest writing that we can date is ancestral to modern Nasu is found on steles in Guizhou Province which date from about 800 years ago. But it’s quite likely older than that – one hypothesis is that since many Yi groups trace their genealogies to the same legendary ancestors who lived forty or so generations (about 2,000 years) ago, this is when a unified script emerged. This is very plausible, but we have no proof. What is certainly wishful thinking among certain Yi scholars is that Yi writing is much, much older, perhaps the earliest writing in East Asia, or even the origin of all the world’s scripts. This idea almost certainly stems from a desire to be respected for having an ancient, literate tradition, even if in recent years most Yi have been poor farmers in isolated mountain regions.  

When the People’s Republic incorporated Yi regions into its administrative system in the 1950s, they made a few attempts to teach Yi writing in the schools; in Liangshan they used the Romanization system also employed in this article. But with the leftward turn in Chinese politics that started with the Great Leap Forward and continued through the Cultural Revolution, bilingual education in Yi and Chinese stopped, not to be revived again in the late 1970s. In Guizhou, authorities used unmodified traditional Nasu writing, while in Yunnan, where there are many different Yi groups, they attempted to create a kind of synthetic Yi script that represented no particular language and thus fell into disuse.  

In Liangshan, efforts to reintroduce and broaden the use of Yi writing were much more successful. A committee of linguists and local scholars created Standard Yi Writing (Nuosu bburma in Nuosu or Guifan yiwen in Chinese), based on the bimo script but eliminating redundant and little-used graphs. This script has 819 syllables, one for every combination of initial consonant, final vowel and tone, and has been flipped to read horizontally, left-to-right.

Modern Nuosu syllabary

In the early 1980s, local governments began to popularize the script, creating school textbooks, newspapers, magazines, adult literacy manuals and other written documents, and requiring that important government documents be translated into Nuosu, which resulted in the creation of massive Chinese-Yi dictionaries, so that official translators could find words for things like “dialectical materialism,” “nuclear reactor,” and even “whale” (a term which obviously did not exist in the traditional vocabulary of a mountain people living several hundred kilometers from the nearest saltwater).  

There was great success with bilingual education in Nuosu and Standard Mandarin in the 1980s and early 1990s, but problems have arisen in recent decades because of the pervasiveness of mass communication. There are Nuosu-language TV programs, but not very many, and Nuosu-language websites (like this one) are quite rare. Job opportunities afforded by Nuosu-language education are few and far between, and of course the Nuosu language is useless when you go make shoes in Dongguan or build skyscrapers in Shanghai, except to talk to your friends who are fellow-migrants.

Preface to a modern Sani-Chinese dictionary, with the text rotated to read horizontally, left-to-right

Other Yi written languages have had less success with adaptation, but they have been used in specialized contexts. For example, a recently published Sani dictionary has a preface written in the Sani script, with the writing rotated to read horizontally, from left to right.  

While only the smallest Yi languages are really endangered, we can’t say for sure how long even spoken Nuosu, let alone the writing system, will endure as anything but a language to be studied by scholars. Still, many Yi are working to use their language in everyday life and to teach it to the next generation. Bimo still have their books and do their rituals, and although their numbers are declining, they are still training apprentices. And it’s not unknown for young people to work their smartphones entirely in Nuosu.

The spoken language is still what the overwhelming majority of Nuosu people speak every day and prevails to varying extents among other, smaller Yi groups. For now, though some Yi varieties are endangered, others are still flourishing. ∎


Images courtesy Stevan Harrell, Zhang Chunde, and Margaret B. Swain. The author thanks David Bradley and Margaret Swain for their expert help with Yi texts.