The Language of the Yi

I hate to say what is and what isn’t a characteristic of a group of people. I sat down to write a short bio for the Silk Road blog on THE YI (all caps) because of the featured poems by Aku Wuwu in Vol. 5.1, but I’m having a hard time—and I have been making attempts since the middle of September.

The hardest part is that the Yi are a diverse people. Although China identities the Yi as the seventh biggest ethnic group in the country, the Yi are actually a collection of different peoples that the Chinese government has grouped together. What the groups of Yi share is that they tend to be farmers, sheep herders, goat herders, and nomadic hunters. They live in the mountainous regions of southwestern China, and stretch as far south as Vietnam and Thailand.

Because of their diversity, I can’t tell you who the Yi are. I can’t pin them down. However, with Aku Wuwu’s poems as a starting place, I will say something about the Yi language (which not all Yi speak). It belongs to the Tibetian-Myanmese group of the Sino-Tibetian language family and is composed of six dialects. One might expect with the amount of variation amongst the Yi people, and with how far their territory ranges, that dialects would also vary. The Northern dialect, with 1.6 million speakers, is the largest of all the dialects, and is what Aku Wuwu speaks and writes his poetry in.

As a grammar nerd, I was pleased to learn that although these dialects are wide-ranging, they all follow the sentence pattern of “Subject + Object + Predicate.” Or, for the extreme grammar nerds:

“[M]odifying nouns and some pronouns precede the headwords; modifying numerals and adjectives are put after the headwords; the words expressing negative senses are put before the monosyllabic headwords or after the disyllabic headwords; overlapping a monosyllabic verb or adjective indicates asking questions.”

—Zhu, Yuan-fu (Clark). “Drinking and Its Culture among the Yi People in Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture.” 2006. (accessed 10/30/10).

The Yi script developed as a syllabic script (the old Yi language), which formed in the 13th century. The old script contains approximately 10,000 words with about 1,000 as words of everyday use. This old Yi script was reformed in 1974 after the liberation for use in books and newspapers since the old script was not consistent in word form or pronunciation.

I’d be curious to know in what tradition Aku Wuwu writes—if he follows the old way or the reformed way. I’d also like to know if Aku Wuwu sees the reformation as a loss of the old ways, too, since the new language as been remade from the traditional to fit a modern mold.