Documentation of Northern Prinmi oral art, with a special focus on ritual speech

Documentation of Northern Prinmi oral art, with a special focus on ritual speech

Language: Northern Prinmi (ISO639-3:pmi)
Depositor: Gerdine Henriette Daudey
Location: China
Deposit Id: 0483
Grant id: SG0500
Funding body: ELDP
Level: Deposit

Summary of deposit
Northern Prinmi (ISO 639: pmi, +27° 55'45", +101° 16'49"), a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in China by several thousand ethnically Pumi in northern Yunnan Province and an estimated 40,000 ethnically Tibetan in southern Sichuan Province, is increasingly endangered due to the development of large-scale infrastructure in the region, urbanisation, and the influence of Southwestern Mandarin Chinese. This project will document Northern Prinmi oral art, with a special focus on ritual speech, one of the domains of the language that is more severely threatened by disappearance. The project will result in a collection of annotated video and audio texts and rituals.

Group represented

The Northern Prinmi language community straddles the border of the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China. Due to the presence of a provincial border, the community is divided into two ethnicities: an independent Pumi ethnicity in Yunnan (shared with speakers of the -mutually unintelligible- Southern Prinmi language); and Tibetan ethnicity for speakers in Sichuan.

It is difficult to give a precise number of Northern Prinmi speakers: Ethnologue gives a figure of 5,000 Prinmi-speaking Pumi in Yunnan and 30,000 Prinmi-speaking Tibetans in Sichuan. Looking at the number of villages in northern Yunnan where Prinmi is spoken, the researcher estimates there to be several thousand speakers in Yunnan. The situation in Sichuan a bit harder to establish, since all Prinmi speakers are counted as Tibetans in the national census. Based on a 2013 figure of 45,056 Tibetans in Muli County, of which an estimated 85% Prinmi (not all of whom still speak the language), and a few thousand speakers in Jiulong and Yanyuan counties, the researcher estimates that there are about 40,000 Tibetan Prinmi speakers.

Language information

Northern Prinmi (Sino-Tibetan, Tibeto-Burman, Qiangic) is said to be most closely related to Qiang, Muya and the extinct Tangut. Since the details of genetic relationship among the so-called 'Qiangic' languages is still being established, further research on Prinrni is of significant scholarly interest. Geographically adjacent languages include Xumi and lham Tibetan (northwest); Muya (north); Lizu, Ersu, Tosu and Namuyi (northeast); Nuosu Yi (east and south}; Na (Mosuo) and Naxi (south); and Southwestern Mandarin Chinese (all areas). The latter is used as the language of wider communication.

The language is not used in media and education, except for the efforts of some Pumi scholars who implemented a Prinmi-based language teaching course using Tibetan script in one school in Yunnan. Online use of the language on Weixing (the Chinese equivalent of Facebook) by various Prinmi speakers is on the rise.

Even though Prinmi is the language of an official minority, the Pumi minority in Yunnan Province, and is entitled to language development, there is no officially established orthography yet. Attempts have been made by various Prinmi speakers and outside scholars to create an orthography.However, at this point in time, no single one has been accepted for general use by the community.

Special characteristics

Deposit contents

Deposit history

According to Ethnologue, Northern Prinmi is listed as 'vigorous'. This is not accurate any more. According to the depositor, there has been an observable linguistic shift in many places, especially among the younger generation that does not always speak or even understand the language any more. The researcher/depositor therefore argues the language should be classified as 'threatened', and in some places, such as Jiulong and Yanyuan Counties, as 'shifting' or 'moribund', since only the older (40+) generation in a few villages still speak Prinmi. For some of the more remote areas of Muli, the language can still be said to be vigorous, but how long that level will be sustained is a burning question.

A major factor that has to be taken into consideration for this project is the expected development of the area in the immediate future. The government's plan is to open up Muli County for tourism, by building highways and encouraging travel to areas of natural beauty (of which Muli has several). This is part of the government's grand-scale plans for developing the more remote western areas of the country. They have already started building a highway that will cut through traditional Prinmi land and will open up remote areas to the outside world. Even though this will bring many benefits to the local population (such as better access to hospitals), the depositor argues this will also severely impact the language. In parts of Northern Yunnan which have already been open for tourism, the language shows serious Mandarin Chinese influence.

Another factor is the rise of education level among the community . More and more Prinmi children attend schools where they are taught in Standard Chinese. Because of the remoteness of many places, they live in boarding schools and only go home during weekends or holidays. This prevents them from being exposed to the language on a daily basis. In some areas parents have switched to speaking Chinese with their children, in order to help them integrate better in mainstream society. Urbanisation is another major factor in language endangerment. Many young people move to the cities for work. A significant percentage of them ends up marrying people from outside their ethnic group. As a result, children are often not being taught to speak Prinmi.

Northern Prinmi speakers are mostly Tibetan Buddhist and major religious practices (such as funerals) are conducted in Tibetan. However, in a few places the more traditional shaman still plays a role in religious life. In addition, lay religious practice, such as the daily pouring out of libation or the calling back of a run-away soul, point to an older animist layer that still influences people's thinking. It is this layer of religious practice that the researcher aims to address in the current project. Religious speech, as employed in these rituals, is part of Prinmi oral art. It can be defined as speech that is addressed to the supernatural world. Other oral art, such as folk stories, riddles, proverbs, songs and oratory, is normally addressed to humans. Ritual speech is characterized by its chant intonation, its poetic structure of parallelism, stanzas and refrain, and ritual binomials (a combination of two words with a similar meaning that are juxtaposed for poetic effect, and of which the second is often archaic). While focusing on ritual speech, the researcher will also record other oral art where the opportunity arises.

Other information

Acknowledgement and citation

To refer to any data from the corpus, please cite the corpus in this way:

Daudey, Gerdine Henriette. 2018. Documentation of Northern Prinmi oral art, with a special focus on ritual speech. London: SOAS, Endangered Languages Archive. URL: Accessed on [insert date here].


Resources yet to be deposited


Gerdine Henriette Daudey
Affiliation: La Trobe University

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