Almost all Nuosu people speak the Nuosu language, or Nuosuhxo, with their families and in other aspects of daily life. The great majority also speak Chinese, either standard Mandarin (Putonghua) or a local Sichuanese variety, or both. The Nuosu language and the Chinese languages are not closely related–about as closely as, say, English and Bengali, or maybe German and Pashto. Both Nuosu and Chinese belong to the Sino-Tibetan family, just as English, German, Pashto, and Bengali all belong to the Indo-European Family. There are some similar words, but that’s about it.
Nuosu language is phonetically unusual. It has forty-two initial consonants, eleven vowels, and no final consonants. In other words, every syllable consists of an initial consonant and a vowel, such as ba, li, mo, ke, or for that matter, nuo and su. The forty-two consonants are difficult for outsiders to distinguish; the vowels are much easier. Nuosu, like Mandarin, has four tones, but not the same four found in Putonghua.
The grammar of Nuosu is based on what linguists call the “subject-object-verb” or SOV word order; about a third of the world’s languages use this word order, including Japanese and the Turkic languages. When Nuosu people are teaching Chinese speakers a little of their language, they often use the example, “in Chinese you say 我们吃饭, we eat rice, while in Nuosu we say ꉪꋚꋠ, we rice eat.” Nuosu adjectives follow the noun, as in French or Spanish, instead of preceding it, as in English or Chinese.
Nuosu also has its own script, not related to either Chinese or any other script besides the closely related Yi languages such as Nasu, Sani, or Nisu. It’s a syllabic script, like the Japanese kana–each sign represent particular syllable with a particular tone, and that makes it complex. Japanese has two sets of 50 kana, while the modern standard Nuosu script has 819 signs. ꋌꈨꆹꆈꌠꁱꂷꉬ…cy gge li nuo su bbur ma nge…this few [subject] nuo su write signs are. Here is a full chart of the Nuosu syllabary script.
The script used to be the almost exclusive possession of the bimo priesthood, but since 1978 a standardized form has been used in schools, and many people can use it. But because of the need to be literate in Chinese in today’s globalized society, the policy of bilingual teaching has often been honored in the breach. Our trilingual program–Nuosu, Chinese, English–in Xide and Puge counties is an effort to help preserve and develop the use of Nuosu written language alongside the national and international Chinese and English languages.
If you’d like to learn more about Yi Nuosu linguistic heritage, we encourage you to check out the work of Mark Bender and Aku Wuwu on Yi poetry.