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The Yi language and the “Red Fish Girl” August 8, 2012

Posted by mikeopper in China, Individual Fellowship.
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Early during my stay at Yunnan University, my colleague Prof. Liquan Yang gave me over sixty yuyan jianzhi or “Basic Outlines of Languages”. As I noted in an earlier post, I have been browsing these texts for theory-enhancing linguistic phenomena. After several days of browsing, I finally stumbled upon relevant data from the Loloish languages. The Loloish languages spoken in China include Yi, Hani, Jinuo, Lisu, and Lahu. Yi is the most commonly spoken of these languages with roughly six million speakers. Since Kunming city has over 400,000 Yi speakers, I set off to find a Yi speaker and begin collecting data.

Cover of “The Red Fish Girl”

A dean of Yunnan University helped me arrange meetings with two Yi speakers, both of which are scholars of the Yi language. The first scholar I met is Dr. Xuewang Pu. In addition to being an advisor to Master’s degree students, Dr. Pu is a member of the committee for Yunnan Minority groups. He has published a Chinese translation of a Yi folk poem called Ngo ne zi nye jye or “The Red Fish Girl” into a popular novel which he has given me as a gift. The second scholar I met with is Prof. Decai Zhou. Prof. Zhou teaches Yi language and culture at Yunnan University of Nationalities. Both Dr. Pu and Prof. Zhou are from Xinping County which is three hours south of Kunming city by bus. The Yi language spoken in Xinping is a dialect of Southern Yi.

The Yi ethnicity speaks at least six mutually-unintelligible languages. Many words across these languages are clearly related, but for the most part, the spoken varieties differ so much that they cannot be the same language. Consider the sound systems of two varieties, for instance. Northern Yi (spoken in Sichuan) has four tones while Southern Yi (spoken in Yunnan) has only three. Examples of words in all three tones of Southern Yi are provided in the table below.



1 – High Level mō ‘bamboo’
2 – Mid Level mo ‘horse’
3 – Low Level mò ‘mother’

Through these meetings my language consultants have taught me a few words and phrases of their language. Additionally, since both of my consultants are scholars of Yi, they have provided me with some fascinating information about the history of the Yi written language. Yi is one of the oldest written minority languages in Yunnan province. The oldest recoverable texts were written in the late fifteenth century with a script containing roughly two thousand characters. Texts in this script can be recovered all over Southwest China where the Yi peoples live. Modern Yi is written with a different script which utilizes 756 symbols, each of which represents a single syllable.

Dr. Pu opens an ancient Yi book.

A passage from the original Red Fish Girl Poem

I will conclude this blog post with a note about establishing academic connections with Chinese universities. For my entire stay at Yunnan University, scholars at the local universities have been happy to meet with me. If I show interest in their work, they may even invite me out for coffee or lunch for discussion. However, there are two obstacles impeding establishing my affiliation for long-term dissertation research. First, the internet culture is not the same at Chinese universities as it is at American universities such as U of M. Faculty members seldom check their e-mail and typically lack useful webpages with contact information. Everything needs to be done in person, either by paying a visit to a faculty member’s office or having another contact (usually another faculty member) arrange a meeting for you. Second, there is a good deal of legal paperwork necessary to establish these connections. To get a formal invitation letter, one needs to submit a research proposal (entirely written in Chinese, I should add), get it approved by a faculty member, and then formally stamped by a university authority. In China, it seems formal paperwork with red stamps indicating approval by some authority is necessary for just about everything. In my experiences over the years, I’ve needed formal stamps of approval to be a camp counselor, enroll in Chinese language classes, register with the police for subletting an apartment, and even to purchase a subway card.


Dr. Alexis Michaud and the Naish Languages July 14, 2012

Posted by mikeopper in China, Individual Fellowship.
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Mike Opper

I recently had the pleasure of visiting a French linguist, Dr. Alexis Michaud at his temporary home in Lijiang, Yunnan where he is currently conducting long-term fieldwork. Dr. Michaud has done extensive documentation work on three related languages in the Lijiang area: Naxi, Laze, and Yongning Na. The data collected by Dr. Michaud is hosted at the Pangloss Collection. He was trained as a phonetician in the Labo de Phonétique et Phonologie at Université Paris 3 under Dr. Jacqueline Vaissière.



Dr. Michaud eliciting data in his homemade soundproof recording studio.
Photo @Qin Qing (秦晴), 2012

In China, the Han ethnicity comprises 91% of the population and the remaining 9% of the population belong to one of the fifty-five official designated ethnic groups. The three languages which Dr. Michaud works on constitute the Naish sub-branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. These languages are each minority languages in the People’s Republic of China; their speakers are officially classified across three ethnic groups: Naxi, Mosuo, and Mongolian. Click here to see where these languages are spoken and for a language family tree of Sino-Tibetan.


Dr. Michaud taking a break with his family and a consultant after eliciting data.
Photo @Qin Qing (秦晴), 2012

Language policy in China promotes usage of Standard Chinese (commonly referred to as Mandarin Chinese in the US) over all other languages and as a result many Chinese dialects and minority languages are not being learned by younger generations. As a result many of these languages are on the brink of extinction. Naxi, with roughly 300,000 speakers, will probably persist for a few generations, but Na with roughly 40,000 speakers and Laze with less than 1,000 speakers are truly endangered.

Like Standard Chinese, the Naish languages are tone languages. This means that syllables with the same phonemic structure pronounced in a different tone result in different words. English is not a tone language. In English, a different tone on a given word does not change the meaning of that word. For instance, if I say “book” with different intonations there may be a feeling of puzzlement or anger, but the meaning of “book” does not change. The table below demonstrates that Naxi has four tones (the pronunciation is indicated in IPA – International Phonetic Alphabet)


I will end this entry on a comment about Lijiang. With roughly 200,000 residents in the urban center, Lijiang is a small city by Chinese standards. In ancient times, Lijiang was an important stop on the ancient tea route between India and China. In recent years, the tourism industry has taken off in Yunnan province with Lijiang being a major epicenter of tourist activity. The Old Town of Lijiang became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. What was once a quaint city has become a major site for selling clothes, music, and tea to tourists from all over the world.

Like most college students who study abroad in China, I went to study Chinese in a large city on the east coast. My first China experience was in 2007 at Nanjing University. At that time, to check e-mail and use the internet one would need to use internet cafes–even in large cities. Wireless internet is now available all over China; in the household, on college campuses, and even by USB drive in the most desolate places. Much to my surprise, this visit to Yunnan has shown me that just within these past five years household technology, which was once a true luxury, is becoming commonplace throughout all of China (even in the so-called “backwater” places).