Borderlands

Can You Get There from Here?

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.

Borderlands

Nine Million People You Might Never Have Heard Of

Stevan Harrell introduces the Yi of southwest China

There are more Yi people than there are Norwegians, Swiss, Libyans or Tibetans – around nine million. They have one of the world’s only independent writing systems, derived from neither Phoenician nor Chinese. They are the only people who make soup bowls out of water buffalo hide (they also used to use it to make armor and helmets), and they do some of the world’s most unique and exquisite needlework. They are enshrined in Chinese Communist Party history for having helped Mao on the Long March in 1936, only to rebel against land reforms in 1956-57. They helped Theodore Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt shoot the first giant panda to be brought to the US for a taxidermy exhibit. They sacrifice animals on just about all special occasions, but they don’t eat the meat of horses, bears, dogs, monkeys or frogs, because they are all animals with claws (horses have dewclaws) and thus related closely to humans. Some 19th and early 20th century European missionaries thought they might be the Lost Tribes of Israel.  

Why might you never have heard of them?