Naxi Language
December 28, 2005 10:25 PM   Subscribe

The script of the Naxi (or Nakhi) people of China's Yunnan province is the only extant pictographic language. The Naxi script, known as Dongba, has traditionally been the domain of spiritual leaders, and despite preservation efforts, is in danger of extinction.
posted by feathermeat (12 comments total)
Oh, yeah...thanks to languagehat's blog for the "Dongba" link.
posted by feathermeat at 10:27 PM on December 28, 2005

I hate Illinois Naxis.
posted by orthogonality at 10:55 PM on December 28, 2005

Very pretty script. Why don't we make a pictographic version of English?
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:42 AM on December 29, 2005

Really quite beautiful script. We should develop a pictographic version of english.
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:56 AM on December 29, 2005

Insanely beautiful script! We must develop a pictographic version of English!

Sorry, couldn't resist.

I came to the Nakhi via Ezra Pound, who builds some of the later Cantos around them. This Bruce Chatwin article for the NY Times quotes a bit of Pound in the course of describing the Nakhi people and the man who brought them to the attention of the wider world, Joseph F. Rock:
Rock was the son of an Austrian manservant who ended up as major-domo to a Polish nobleman, Count Potocki. His mother died when he was 6. At 13, already under the spell of an imaginary Cathay, he taught himself Chinese characters. ...

... Yet, though he introduced hundreds of new or rare plants to Western gardens and sent off thousands and thousands of herbarium specimens, he never wrote a paper on the botany of China.

Instead, he gave his life to recording the customs, ceremonies and the unique pictographic script of his Nakhi friends. Lijiang was the only home he ever knew; and after he was booted out, he could still write, in a letter, "I want to die among those beautiful mountains rather than in a bleak hospital bed all alone."

His book "The Ancient Na-Khi Kingdom of South-West China," with its eye-aching genealogies and dazzling asides, must be one of the most eccentric publications ever produced by the Harvard University Press.

Here is a stretch of his embattled prose:
"A short distance beyond, at a tiny temple, the trail ascends the red hills covered with oaks, pines, Pinus Armandi, P. yunnanensis, Alnus, Castanopsis Delavayi, rhododendrons, roses, Berberis, etc., up over limestone mountains, through oak forest, to a pass with a few houses called Ch'ou-shui-ching (Stinking water well). At this place many hold-ups and murders were committed by the bandit hordes of Chang Chieh-pa. He strung up his victims by the thumbs to the branches of high trees, and tied rocks to their feet; lighting a fire beneath he left them to their fate. It was always a dreaded pass for caravans. At the summit there are large groves of oaks (Quercus Delavayi) . . ."

No wonder Ezra Pound adored it!
The whole thing is well worth reading.
posted by languagehat at 5:36 AM on December 29, 2005

Many of the ethnic minorities in China are pretty darn interesting. Thanks for spotlotting one of the many.
posted by Atreides at 7:35 AM on December 29, 2005

I like the pictograph that looks like a smoking chicken head. :3

Oh... wait, don't we already have a pictograph version of english (see emoticon above)?
posted by danny the boy at 7:47 AM on December 29, 2005

I was briefly in LiJiang during the summer and found the pictograph language to be very whimsical and fun looking. Also easy to buy into as far as the meaning of each.

Another very interesting thing about the Naxi is the matriarchal society that really made it stand apart from many of the other Chinese minorities.

Great post, thanks.
posted by geekyguy at 8:04 AM on December 29, 2005

Hmmm...I wonder what the syntax is like. Some of the pictograms (or possibly pictogram sets) seem to tell complete stories within themselves.
posted by Alison at 8:37 AM on December 29, 2005

[this is good]
posted by weston at 11:10 AM on December 29, 2005

Excellent post, thanks!

Actually, I have a scroll with Naxi script in my study (right next to me here). I bought it a couple of years ago in Lijiang, which, incidentally, is a very cool place to visit -- think Naxi culture mixed with Tibetan restaurants on cobblestone streets (well, at least the old part of Lijiang).
posted by sour cream at 12:15 PM on December 29, 2005

Lijiang was the most beautiful place I've ever seen in my life. Particularly, at night.
posted by swerdloff at 4:34 PM on December 29, 2005

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