Yi : History and Description of the Yi Script

Description of the Yi Script


The Yi script is a syllabary, with each symbol representing a single syllable. As Yi is basically a monosyllabic language, this also means that each symbol represents a basic lexigraphic unit.

Unlike other scripts that developed within the Chinese milieu, such as those used by the Tangut, Khitan and Jurchen peoples, the Yi script exhibits no structural influence from the Chinese script. It is also unrelated to the alphabetic scripts of neighbouring peoples such as the Tibetans, Burmese and Tai peoples, and would thus appear to have developed independantly.

There is no single standardised Yi script, and the number and form of individual symbols used varies considerably from place to place. There was very limited literacy within traditional Yi society (in 1956 only 2.75% of the population of the Liangshan region of Sichuan had any competence in the traditional Yi script), and writing was almost exclusively the preserve of the priest class, known as pimu. Writing was used mainly for religious, magical or medical texts that were handed down from generation to generation by the priests of individual villages. As writing was not generally used as means of communication between diferent Yi communities, there was a tendency for each community to develop a local version of the script that was only intelligible to a members of the local priesthood. Furthermore, as the Yi people did not have a unified dynastic style form of government, there was no call for official or historiographic literature in the indigenous script, and Chinese was used for any contact with the outside world.

There are a vast number of manuscript texts dating back several hundred years, but there are very few examples of printed Yi texts dating to before the twentieth-century.

Standarised Liangshan Yi Script

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 the use of the traditional Yi script was frowned upon, and in 1956 a scheme for representing the Yi language of the Liangshan dialect using the Latin alphabet was proposed.

However, in 1974 a standardized version of the traditional Yi script of the Liangshan region was devised. It was used experimentally from 1975, and officially promulgated as the "Scheme for the Standardisation of the Yi Script" 彝文规范方案 in 1980.

The new standardized script comprises 1,165 glyphs. Of these 819 are distinct glyphs representing all possible syllabic combinations for the three basic tones (high level, mid level and low falling). The fourth tone (secondary high) is a mutation of the mid level tone and is represented in the new script by 345 glyphs which differ from the corresponding syllable in the mid level tone (or in three cases, where there is no mid level tone in the modern language, the low falling tone) by the addition of diacritic mark shaped like an inverted breve. In addition to the 1,164 glyphs that represent a specific syllable, there is a repeat glyph, ꀕ, which is used to represent a duplicated syllable, particularly when used to mark the interrogative. In this case the tone of the first syllable is often mutated, whilst the duplicated syllable remains unmutated. Thus, for example, the phrase ꋬꂺꀕ "Are you well ?" is equivalent to "ꋬꂺꂻ" (zzyr muox muo).

The 1,164 Syllables of the Standardized Liangshan Yi Script

History of the Yi Script

When and where the Yi script first came into existence is unknown. There are various traditions as to who invented the script and when; one of the most widespread, repeated in several Qing dynasty Chinese sources, is that a script comprising about 1,840 characters was devised during the Tang dynasty (618-907) by a certain Aki (阿畸 or 阿〇(⿰田可) in Chinese).

However, the earliest surviving dated material are monumental inscriptions dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, for example :

Although no extant material written in the Yi script can be dated to earlier than about five hundred years ago, it is extremely likely that the script has been in use for a much longer period of time, but that earlier material has been lost or destroyed with the passage of time. In fact there are tens of thousands of Yi manuscripts dating back several centuries still in existence, and as most of them are undated, it is quite possible that some of them do pre-date the earliest monumental inscriptions. There are also many undated Yi inscriptions on tombstones and road signs, as well as divination inscriptions on animal bones.

Inscription commemorating the construction of a bridge (1592)


Source : Han-Zang Yu Gailun page 567

600 Phrases in the Liangshan Yi Dialect | Yi People & Language | Unicode Encoding of the Yi Script | Yi Phonetic Alphabet | Dictionary of Liangshan Yi

BabelStone Home Page