Saturday, 2 May 2009

On language and forested mountains

I've been formally learning the Dongba script for about a month now; and it's been well worth the effort. It is, like Chinese, a very different language to anything I was previously familiar with, and it's full of unique words and expressions.

While it's probably useless economically, and in a corporate environment (why does the very word corporate send shivers down my spine?), it's useful in that it provides a perspective on the development of Chinese, and it has value as a tool for comparative research into oracle bone script.
One of the things that Li laoshi has been stressing is an understanding of Xu Shen's 六书 (the six categories of Chinese character classification) when analysing Dongba characters, so I can thank Dr Fuerher for having prepared me with the basics back on my MA course.

Language is very much informed by local geography. like the common cliched half-truth that Eskimos have loads of words for 'snow', the Dongba script and Naxi has lots of words for mountains. One of these words is a particular favourite: a mountain covered in trees.

The pronunciation is: sər˧ dzi˧˩ dʑy˧˩ ʂər˥ (repeated)

I love this character because it encapsulates why I dislike hiking in certain parts of China - especially Zhejiang (I'm only singling out Zhejiang because I used to live there). This is because the mountains are covered in trees, so much so that no sane person would ever think that a ramble to the top would be a fun or interesting thing to do. What are you going to do when you reach the summit? Admire the trees? And what exactly are you going to do about those nasty snake and insect bites that you collected scrambling through all that foliage? No, densely forested mountains do not a happy rambler make.

Photo: a mountain in Anji, Zhejiang.


  1. snake bites? yikes!

    do the mountains near Lijiang have snowy peaks? that's what the word suggests (or am I reading too much into it!). it's interesting how language can tell you about the environment. even in the uk (e.g. 'smog').

  2. Some mountains do - most notably the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (, although the locals say that years ago there was a lot more snow than there is now.

    The script has another word for 'snow mountain', which is slightly different - I think the two lines here just serve to differentiate the character from a triangle!