Friday, 17 April 2009

Lesson 1: pronunciation

Looks complicated doesn't it? This is why you can't ever learn a language just by reading a book. Even if you only want to read ancient scriptures, you have to know how to say, or at least think, the words you are reading. That's why we learnt Tibetan pronunciation before anything else in our Classical Literary Tibetan course at SOAS. And that's why the first thing I asked Mr. Li to do was to go over Naxi pronunciation in our first lesson.

Although we spent most of the first class chatting about the 'Disnification' of the Lijiang Old Town and the diluting of dongba culture, I did get the chance to go through the Naxi pronunciation table at the beginning of Fang Guoyu's dictionary and make a recording of 李老师 as he did so.

Naxi pronunciation .wav file <1mb

(read vertically, top to bottom, left to right)

p, p', b, m
f, ⱱ
ts, ts', dz, s, z
t, t', d, n, l
tʂ, tʂ', dʐ, ʂ, ʐ
ɳ, tɕ, tɕ', dʑ, ɕ
k, k', g,
ŋ, h, ɤ

(and now the vowels read horizontally, top to bottom - 元音)

ʏ (next two on this line are not read out)
i, y, ɯ, u
e, ə
æ, ər
a, o

So, Naxi pronunciation has very little to do with modern Chinese putonghua (as is expected, as it's a Tibeto-Burman language). In fact 李老师 says that, like Cantonese, it has preserved some sounds from ancient Chinese. The Naxi word for sun, ɳi˧ me˧ (both mid tone), is very similar to the Tibetan ni ma (sun), and is, he tells me, the ancient Chinese pronunciation for 'sun'.

So, before next week I have to learn 72(!) dongba characters well enough to be able to write them when I hear them pronounced.
If I carry on at this pace, I'll have learnt all 1300 characters in about 5 months. If I carry on at this pace...


  1. Sounds like there is a little similarity to putonghua, especially in the vowels that are allowed to follow:

    tʂ, tʂ', dʐ, ʂ, ʐ


    ɳ, tɕ, tɕ', dʑ, ɕ

    Sounds little bit what's going on with the pinyin "i." After "zh" and "j" for example, the "i" is pronounced differently, and it sounds like what this guy did with those two rows.

    Here's a site you might like for IPA pronunciation:
    (wait for the flash stuff to load)

  2. Yeah, you know I think I just never really thought about it; but you're quite right.

    Thanks a lot for the site link, that's actually really useful.