Yi script

Syllabary in modern form; Logographic in archaic variations
Languages various Yi languages
Time period
Since at least 15th century (earliest attestation) to present, syllabic version established in 1974
Direction Left-to-right
ISO 15924 Yiii, 460
Unicode alias
U+A000U+A48F Yi Syllables,
U+A490U+A4CF Yi Radicals

The Yi script (Yi: ꆈꌠꁱꂷ nuosu bburma [nɔ̄sū bū̠mā]; Chinese: 彝文; pinyin: Yí wén) is an umbrella term for two scripts used to write the Yi language; Classical Yi (an ideogram script), and the later Yi Syllabary. The script is also historically known in Chinese as Cuan Wen (Chinese: 爨文; pinyin: Cuàn wén) or Wei Shu (simplified Chinese: 韪书; traditional Chinese: 韙書; pinyin: Wéi shū) and various other names (夷字、倮語、倮倮文、毕摩文), among them "tadpole writing" (蝌蚪文).[1]

This is to be distinguished from romanized Yi (彝文罗马拼音 Yíwén Luómǎ pīnyīn) which was a system (or systems) invented by missionaries and intermittently used afterwards by some government institutions.[2][3] There was also a Yi abugida or alphasyllabary devised by Sam Pollard, the Pollard script for the Miao language, which he adapted into "Nasu" as well.[4][5] Present day traditional Yi writing can be sub-divided into five main varieties (Huáng Jiànmíng 1993); Nuosu (the prestige form of the Yi language centred on the Liangshan area), Nasu (including the Wusa), Nisu (Southern Yi), Sani (撒尼) and Azhe (阿哲).[6][7]

Classical Yi

A classical Yi manuscript.

Classical Yi is a syllabic logographic system that was reputedly devised during the Tang dynasty (618–907) by someone called Aki (Chinese: 阿畸; pinyin: Āqí).[8] However, the earliest surviving examples of the Yi script only date back to the late 15th century and early 16th century, the earliest dated example being an inscription on a bronze bell dated to 1485.[9] There are tens of thousands of manuscripts in the Yi script, dating back several centuries, although most are undated. In recent years a number of Yi manuscript texts written in traditional Yi script have been published.

The original script is said to have comprised 1,840 characters, but over the centuries widely divergent glyph forms have developed in different Yi-speaking areas, an extreme example being the character for "stomach" which exists in some forty glyph variants. Due to this regional variation as many as 90,000 different Yi glyphs are known from manuscripts and inscriptions. Although similar to Chinese in function, the glyphs are independent in form, with little to suggest that they are directly related. However, there are some borrowings from Chinese, such as the characters for numbers used in some Yi script traditions.

Languages written with the classical script included Nuosu, Nisu, Wusa Nasu, and Mantsi.

Modern Yi

The Modern Yi script (ꆈꌠꁱꂷ nuosu bburma [nɔ̄sū bū̠mā] 'Nosu script') is a standardized syllabary derived from the classic script in 1974 by the local Chinese government. In 1980 it was made the official script of the Liangshan (Cool Mountain) dialect of the Nuosu Yi language of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture, and consequently is known as Liangshan Standard Yi Script (凉山规范彝文 Liángshān guīfàn Yíwén). Other dialects of Yi do not yet have a standardized script. There are 756 basic glyphs based on the Liangshan dialect, plus 63 for syllables only used for words borrowed from Chinese.

The native syllabary represents vowel and consonant-vowel syllables, formed of 43 consonants and 8 vowels that can occur with any of three tones, plus two "buzzing" vowels that can only occur as mid tone. Not all combinations are possible.

Although the Liangshan dialect has four tones (and others have more), only three tones (high, mid, low) have separate glyphs. The fourth tone (rising) may sometimes occur as a grammatical inflection of the mid tone, so it is written with the mid-tone glyph plus a diacritic mark (a superscript arc). Counting syllables with this diacritic, the script represents 1,164 syllables. In addition there is a syllable iteration mark, ꀕ (represented as w in Yi pinyin) that is used to reduplicate a preceding syllable.


The syllabary of standard modern Yi is illustrated in the table below (view table as an image):[10]

  - b p bb nb hm m f v d t dd nd hn n hl l g k gg mg hx ng h w z c zz nz s ss zh ch rr nr sh r j q jj nj ny x y
  [p] [pʰ] [b] [m͡b] [m̥] [m] [f] [v] [t] [tʰ] [d] [n͡d] [n̥] [n] [ɬ] [ɬ] [k] [kʰ] [ɡ] [ŋ͡ɡ] [h] [ŋ] [x] [ɣ] [t͡s] [t͡sʰ] [d͡z] [nd͡z] [s] [z] [t͡ʂ] [t͡ʂʰ] [d͡ʐ] [nd͡ʐ] [ʂ] [ʐ] [t͡ɕ] [t͡ɕʰ] [d͡ʑ] [nd͡ʑ] [nʲ] [ɕ] [ʑ]
it [i̋] ꀀ                  
ix [ǐ]                    
i [ī]                    
ip [î]                      
iet [ɛ̋]                                                      
iex [ɛ̌]                
ie [ɛ̄]                
iep [ɛ̂]                      
at [a̋]                  
ax [ǎ]              
a [ā]              
ap [â]                
uot [ɔ̋]                                                                
uox [ɔ̌]              
uo [ɔ̄]              
uop [ɔ̂]                            
ot [ő]            
ox [ǒ]
o [ō]    
op [ô]
et [ɯ̋]                                                                        
ex [ɯ̌]                      
e [ɯ̄]                        
ep [ɯ̂]                            
ut [ű]                    
ux [ǔ]              
u [k]              
up [û]              
urx [ǔ̠]                  
ur [ū̠]                  
yt [ɿ̋]                                  
yx [ɿ̌]                                
y [ɿ̄]                                
yp [ɿ̂]                                
yrx [ɿ̠̌]                                        
yr [ɿ̠̄]                                        

Yi in pinyin

The expanded pinyin letters used to write Yi are:


The consonant series are tenuis stop, aspirate, voiced, prenasalized, voiceless nasal, voiced nasal, voiceless fricative, voiced fricative, respectively. In addition, hl, l are laterals, and hx is [h]. V, w, ss, r, y are the voiced fricatives. With stops and affricates, voicing is shown by doubling the letter.

Plosive series

Labial: b [p], p [pʰ], bb [b], nb [m͡b], hm [m̥], m [m], f [f], v [v]
Alveolar: d [t], t [tʰ], dd [d], nd [n͡d], hn [n̥], n [n], hl [ɬ], l [ɬ]
Velar: g [k], k [kʰ], gg [ɡ], mg [ŋ͡ɡ], hx [h], ng [ŋ], h [x], w [ɣ]

Affricate series

Alveolar: z [t͡s], c [t͡sʰ], zz [d͡z], nz [nd͡z], s [s], ss [z]
Retroflex: zh [t͡ʂ], ch [t͡ʂʰ], rr [d͡ʐ], nr [nd͡ʐ], sh [ʂ], r [ʐ]
Palatal: j [t͡ɕ], q [t͡ɕʰ], jj [d͡ʑ], nj [nd͡ʑ], ny [nʲ], x [ɕ], y [ʑ]


Transliteration i ie a uo o e u ur y yr
IPA transcription i ɛ a ɔ o o u ɿ ɿ̱̠


An unmarked syllable has mid level tone (33), e.g. ā (or alternatively ). Other tones are shown by a final consonant:

t : high level tone (55), e.g. (or alternatively )
x : high rising tone (34), e.g. ǎ (or alternatively a˧˦)
p : low falling tone (21), e.g. â (or alternatively a˨˩)


The Unicode block for Modern Yi is Yi syllables (U+A000 to U+A48C), and comprises 1,164 syllables (syllables with a diacritic mark are encoded separately, and are not decomposable into syllable plus combining diacritical mark) and one syllable iteration mark (U+A015, incorrectly named YI SYLLABLE WU). In addition, a set of 55 radicals for use in dictionary classification are encoded at U+A490 to U+A4C6 (Yi Radicals).[11] Yi syllables and Yi radicals were added as new blocks to Unicode Standard Version 3.0.[12]

Classical Yi - which is an ideographic script like the Chinese characters - has not yet been encoded in Unicode, but a proposal to encode 88,613 Classical Yi characters was made in 2007.[13]

See also


  1. 中国少数民族文化遗产集粹 2006- Page 9 "... 汉文史料中分别称彝文为"夷字"、"爨文"、"韪书"、"蝌蚪文"、"倮倮文"、"毕摩文"等,中华人民共和国成立后随族称的规范,统称为彝族文字,简称为彝文。"
  2. 秦和平 基督宗教在西南民族地区的传播史 2003 - Page 49 "另外,基督教之所以能够传播于民族地区,民族文字的创制及使用起到关键作用。据调查,传教士创制的文字有苗文、摆夷(傣)文、傈僳文、怒文、景颇文、佤文、彝文、拉祜文等等。它们利用罗马拼音字母系统对该民族语言或文字加以注音所产生,..."
  3. Benoît Vermander L'enclos à moutons: un village nuosu au sud-ouest de la Chine 2007 Page 8 "Si les Nuosu vivent sur le territoire chinois, s'ils sont citoyens chinois et gouvernés de fait par le Parti-État chinois, l'univers culturel dans lequel ... Par ailleurs, un système de transcription formé sur l'alphabet latin a été également mis au point ..."
  4. Miao abiguda table
  5. -Annual report of the American Bible Society American Bible Society 1949- Volume 133 - Page 248 "In the Nasu New Testament the so-called "Pollard" Script is used. Its alphabet was invented by the late Mr. Pollard, a British missionary, who worked in Yunnan and Kweichow Provinces. Since the publication of the first edition of 5,000, more ..."
  6. Halina Wasilewska in ed. Nathan Hill Medieval Tibeto-Burman Languages IV 2012 Page 449 "... the writing as the basis and which corresponds to the classification of the Yi languages, present day traditional Yi writing can be sub-divided into five main varieties (Huáng Jiànmíng 1993), i.e. the Nuosu, Nasu, Nisu, Sani and Azhe varieties."
  7. 黄建明 Huáng Jiànmíng 彝族古籍文献概要 1993 Yizu guji wenxian gaiyao [Outline of classical literature of Yi nationality]. By Huang Jianming. Yunnan minzu chubanshe, 1993.
  8. Wu Zili 武自立, Chuantong Yiwen 传统彝文 (Traditional Yi Script); in Zhongguo Shaoshu Minzu Wenzi (Beijing, 1991)
  9. Ma Xueliang 马学良, Han Zang Yu Gailun 汉藏语概论 (A General Introduction to Sino-Tibetan Languages) (Beijing, 1991) page 568
  10. Liangshan Yiyu Yuyan Gailun 凉山彝语语言概论 (Chengdu, 1983)
  11. Unicode Demystified: A Practical Programmer's Guide 2003 Page 402 "The Yi language is related to Tibetan and Burmese and is written with its own script, called, not surprisingly, the Yi script, but sometimes known as Cuan or Wei.23 Classical Yi is an ideographic script, like the Chinese characters. 23. My sources for this section are the Unicode standard and Dingxu Shi, "The Yi Script," in The World's Writing Systems, pp. 239-243."
  12. Andy Deitsch, David Czarnecki Java Internationalization 2001 Page 352 "Table 12-1. Additional Blocks Added to the Unicode Standard Version 3.0 Block Name Description ... Yi syllables - The Yi syllabary used to write the Yi language spoken in Western China. Yi radicals - The radicals that make up the Yi syllabary."
  13. Preliminary Proposal to encode Classical Yi Characters (134 MB)
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