Introduction to Naxi Pinyin

     The orthography used in this dictionary is Naxi Pinyin, which was first developed by linguists in the late 1950's and then revised in the early 1980's. It is similar to the Hanyu Pinyin system used for Standard Mandarin Chinese, but differs particularly in two areas: where the phonology of Naxi differs from Mandarin Chinese; and in how the tones are marked. The similarity with Hanyu Pinyin makes it possible for those who have studied Hanyu Pinyin in school to quickly learn to read Naxi. It has also been used as a transitional aid in teaching Naxi children to read Hanyu Pinyin after first learning to read Naxi Pinyin.

     Naxi Pinyin was based on the sub-dialect spoken in Lijiang Old Town (i.e. Dayan Township)1. This was an interesting choice as this sub-dialect has been highly affected by Mandarin Chinese. There are some notable differences between the sub-dialect spoken in Lijiang Old Town and many of the other sub-dialects. And yet, Naxi Pinyin is very flexible. For the Naxi sub-dialects that fall within the dialect group known as Western Naxi, Naxi Pinyin is sufficiently adaptable to express the variations of the sub-dialects' lexicons.

     Historically, Naxi had a four-way voice onset timing distinction within the stops and affricates, for example: /pʰ/; /p/; /b/; /mb/. Although this distinction is in decline, there are still pockets of Naxi speakers who can produce and perceive this four-way difference. It is significant, though, that the voiced—pre-nasalized voiced pairs carry a very low functional load. This means that there are very few true minimal pairs of words (i.e. having the same phonetic shape, tone and part-of-speech) that are distinguished solely on the voiced—pre-nasalized voiced contrast. Therefore there is essentially no need to distinguish these words for the few speakers for whom it still matters.

I. Consonants

     The bilabial consonants are the same as Hanyu Pinyin except for the double "b". The digraph bb represents both the voiced stop [b] and the pre-nasalized voiced stop [mb].

     The letters f and v represent the labiodental consonants [f] and [v]. Consonantal v is primarily used with Chinese loanwords (e.g. vai 'net'), but not exclusively. In Naxi the letter v also can be used as a vowel. This is dealt with below in the vowel section. The labiovelar approximate w is also explained in the vowel section.

p b bb m
p b    mb m

     The alveolar stops, nasal and lateral consonants are similar to Hanyu Pinyin. Like the bilabial digraph bb, the alveolar digraph dd represents both the voiced stop and pre-nasalized voiced stop. Before high back vowels u [u], ee [ɯ] and the rhotacized vowel er [ɚ], these consonants are all pronounced with retroflexion.

t d dd n l
tʰ   ʈʰ t   ʈ d   nd   ɖ   ɳɖ n   ɳ l   ɭ

     The alveolar fricatives and affricates are similar to Hanyu Pinyin, except for the digraphs. The digraph zz represents the voiced alveolar affricate and pre-nasalized voiced alveolar affricate, whereas the digraph ss represents the voiced alveolar fricative. When the alveolar fricatives and affricates are followed by high front vowels or glides, they are usually pronounced as alveolo-palatal sounds: [tɕʰ], [tɕ], [dʑ], [ɕ], [ʑ].

c z zz s ss
tsʰ   tɕʰ ts   tɕ dz   ndz   dʑ s   ɕ z   ʑ

     The alveolo-palatal fricatives, affricates and nasal consonants are similar to Hanyu Pinyin, except for the digraph jj. Like most of the other consonantal digraphs in Naxi, this one represents both the voiced and pre-nasalized voiced sounds.

     One of the most salient phonetic differences between the Lijiang Old Town sub-dialect and a great number of the village sub-dialects occurs with this set of sounds. With the exception of the nasal, all of these consonants are pronounced as palatals in many of the outlying villages. Seen from another perspective, when a speaker of one of the outlying sub-dialects writes a word with a velar sound followed by a high front vowel, it is pronounced as a palatal and should be written with one of these consonants and not with a velar consonant.

q j jj x ni
tɕʰ   cʰi tɕ   ci dʑ   ɟi   ɲɟi ɕ   çi ȵi

     The velar consonants in Naxi are similar to Hanyu Pinyin, except for the digraphs. The digraph gg represents the voiced velar stop and pre-nasalized voiced velar stop. Unlike Hanyu Pinyin, the velar nasal digraph ng does not end syllables. It only begins them.

     Although h usually represents the voiceless glottal fricative, it is included here because when it is followed by a high front vowel, some sub-dialects pronounce h as the palatal fricative [ç].

k g gg ng h
k ɡ   ŋɡ ŋ h   ç

     The last set of consonants is the retroflexed set. In the most basic usage, these are similar to Hanyu Pinyin in that these are pronounced with retroflexion of the tongue. The digraph rh is unique to Naxi. It represents the voiced and pre-nasalized voiced retroflexed affricates: [ɖz] and [ɳɖʐ].

     This set of consonants has a wide variation of pronunciations. Some sub-dialects pronounce these as retroflexed sounds only when followed by the retroflexed apical vowel [ʅ] or the rhotacized vowel [ɚ]. Otherwise these consonants are pronounced as alveolars.

     The sub-dialect spoken in Shuhe (also known as Longquan) is the most unique. When the retroflexed sounds are followed by the mid back unrounded vowel [ɤ], these letters are pronounced as alveo-palatal with a high front glide.

ch zh rh sh r

tsʰu   tsʰw



tsu   tsw


ɖz   ɳɖʐ

dzu   dzɤ



su   sɤ



zu   zw

II. Vowels

     Naxi Pinyin vowels are less like Hanyu Pinyin than the consonants are, but there is still similarity. One difference is that some digraphs in Naxi Pinyin are not diphthongs but represent monophthongs.

     The digraph ee, which Hanyu Pinyin does not use, has three phonetic realizations. The primary pronunciation is a high back unrounded vowel [ɯ]. Following retroflexed fricatives and affricates, it is pronounced as a retroflexed apical vowel [ʅ]. Following alveolar fricatives and affricates, it is pronounced as an alveolar apical vowel [ɿ]. In Hanyu Pinyin these apical vowels are represented with the letter i.

     The vowel o is most commonly pronounced as a mid front rounded vowel [ø], but in some sub-dialects it can actually be a mid back rounded vowel [o].

     The letter v can be syllabic [v̩] and function as the syllable nucleus in Naxi as in the word fvl [fv̩⁵⁵] 'rat'.

     The digraph iu is the same sound as the Hanyu Pinyin ü, which is a high front rounded vowel [y].

     When u follows q, j, jj or x it is pronounced as a high front rounded vowel.

     The following table is a list of the monophthongs and the corresponding IPA symbols.

i iu ee u v ei o e er ai a
i y ɯ  ʅ  ɿ u y e ø o ɤ ɚ a ɑ

     The Naxi vowels, ai, er, a and e can be combined with the on-glides, i and u, to form diphthongs. The vowel ei can only be combined with the on-glide u. The resulting diphthong, uei, is written as ui. When the diphthongs ui or uai follow q, j, jj or x, the on-glide is pronounced as a high front rounded approximate [ɥ]. In some sub-dialects the diphthong uai following q, j, jj or x is pronounced as uer.

iai ier ia ie ui uai uer ua ue
ja we  ɥe wa  ɥa wɚ  ɥɚ

     When the monophthongs i and iu or any of the i initial diphthongs occur without a consonantal onset, they are written with the letter y as the initial, i.e. yi, yu, yai, ya, ye and yui.

     When the monophthong u or any of the u initial diphthongs occur without a consonantal onset, they are written with the letter w as the initial, i.e. wu, wei, wai, wa and we.

     When any of the other monophthongs occurs without a consonantal onset, they are written with just the vowel, for example: ee, e, ai.

III. Tones

     Naxi tones, unlike Hanyu Pinyin, are marked with special syllable final consonants, making the orthography SMS text message friendly by avoiding the diacritics. Naxi has four lexical tones: three level and one rising. The most common tone, the mid level, is left unmarked in the orthography. The low level usually is articulated with a slight fall. The following table presents the tones in alphabetical order, which is the order used in this dictionary.

Tone Pitch Tone Letter
Mid level 33
Low rising 13 f
High level 55 l
Low level 21 q

     There is one other convention that needs to be mentioned. Sometimes it is unclear how to divide a polysyllabic word because a letter could be interpreted either as indicating a syllable initial consonant or as a tone. In such cases, an apostrophe is inserted to facilitate parsing, as in the words la'laq 'healthy' and naiq'vf 'to plan to'. When the first syllable of a word has no tone letter and the second syllable of the word begins with a vowel, an apostrophe is likewise used to facilitate ease of reading, as in tei'ee 'book'.



1He Jiren and Jiang Zhuyi 和即仁与姜竹仪。1985. 纳西语简志 [A Concise Record of the Naxi Language]. Beijing: 民族出版社 Minzu Chubanshe.