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Yaoan County Culture

Yi Language

The Yi speak a Tibetan-Burman language, divided into six major dialects, and have a very old, a syllabic script, developed in the 13th century or earlier. Many villages have a shaman or chief that keeps a scroll of pictograms that tell the story of where the Yi came from but otherwise few Yi know this written form The Chinese government helped them standardize their written language into Chinese characters."

The Yi language belongs to the Yi language branch of the Tibetan-Burmese family in the Sino-Tibetan Family. It is divided into six dialects: 1) the eastern dialect, 2) the western dialect, 3) the southern dialect, 4) the northern dialect, 5) the middle dialect and 6) the southeastern dialect. There is big difference among these dialects. To some there is no such thing as a Yi language. They are the six different dialects mentioned above are different languages. Their writing is similar, but not identical.


Many Yis in Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi know the Han (standard Chinese or Mandarin) language. The Yis used to have a syllabic script called the old Yi language, which was formed in the 13th century. It is estimated that the extant old Yi script has about 10,000 words, of which 1,000 are words of everyday use. A number of works of history, literature and medicine as well as genealogies of the ruling families written in the old Yi script are still seen in most Yi areas. Many stone tablets and steles carved in the old Yi script remain intact. Since the old Yi language is not consistent in word form and pronunciation, it was reformed after liberation for use in books and newspapers.

The Yi writing is a kind of syllabic writing called "Cuan writing", "Wei writing", "Luo writing", and "Luoluo writing" in Chinese historical records. More than 2000 words are in common use. It is usually written from the left to the right. "The Southwestern Yi Records" is a famous book written in Yi characters. The earliest form of Chinese pinyin was used for the Yi written language with about 1,000 widely used characters. In 1957, a standard Yi language diagram, with 819 standard characters, was promoted. 

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