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Ersu: Documentation of an Endangered Language of South-West China


Language Ersu
Depositor Katia Chirkova, Wang Dehe (王德和)
Affiliation CNRS-CRLAO
Location China
Collection ID 0316
Grant ID MDP0257
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Blog post

Sociolinguistic Survey of Ersu 


Summary of the collection

Ersu is an endangered Tibeto-Burman language cluster, comprising three mutually unintelligible languages: Ersu, Duoxu, and Lizu, spoken by language communities in the western part of Sichuan Province in the People’s Republic of China.

The Ersu language cluster was first brought to the attention of linguists by the eminent Chinese linguist Sun Hongkai (1983), based on his fieldwork in the area in the early 1980s. In Sun’s analysis (1982, 1983), the Ersu language comprises three dialects:

(a) Eastern (Ersu proper): Spoken in Ganluo and Yuexi Counties in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture and in Hanyuan and Shimian Counties in the Ya’an Municipality.

(b) Central (Duoxu): Spoken in Mianning County in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture.

(c) Western (Lizu or Lüzu): Spoken in Muli and Mianning Counties in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture and in Jiulong County in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Despite his observation that Ersu, Duoxu, and Lizu are not mutually intelligible and share only 50% cognates in their basic vocabulary, Sun (1982: 241) analyzes the three as dialects of one language, i.e. Ersu. The three are currently classified as such in Ethnologue, where they share one code (ISO-639 ers).

This collection is based on data on Ersu proper (the eastern dialect of the Ersu language in Sun’s classification), collected by the research team of the project “Ersu and Xumi: Comparative and Cross-Varietal Documentation of Highly Endangered Languages of South-West China” (MDP0257, 2013-2017), funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) of SOAS, University of London.

The collection comprises audio and video recordings of personal narratives, traditional stories, traditional songs, conversations, elicitations from Mandarin Chinese (using both written and non-written stimuli), and translations from Mandarin Chinese collected in the Ersu-speaking areas in Southwest China. Annotation files in our collection mostly include four layers of analysis:

  • phonetic transcription (in IPA)
  • underlying morpheme sequence
  • literal Mandarin translation
  • free translation in Mandarin

As a rule, we used two layers of analysis (phonetic transcription and free translation in Mandarin Chinese) for elicited data; and four layers of analysis for narratives. In addition, 2-layer annotations (phonetic transcription and free translation in Mandarin Chinese) were exceptionally made for a number of Ersu stories.


Group represented

Speakers of the Ersu language reside in five counties in Sichuan Province (四川省) in the People’s Republic of China: (i) Ganluo (甘洛县), and (ii) Yuexi (越西县) counties of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture (凉山彝族自治州), (iii) Shimian (石棉县) and (iv) Hanyuan (汉源县) counties of Ya’an Municipality (雅安市), and (iv) Jiulong (九龙县, brgyad zur in Written Tibetan) county of Ganzi (甘孜, dkar mdzes in Written Tibetan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The total number of speakers is estimated at 16,800 people. Speakers of the Ersu language are officially classified as part of the Tibetan ethnic group. Close neighbors of the Ersu group include Han Chinese (speakers of Southwest Mandarin), Yi (speakers of Nuosu), as well as Muya and Pumi groups (speakers of the Muya and Pumi languages, respectively).

For more information on Ersu, see


Special characteristics

The Ersu language (/ə́˞-s̪v̩́ xò/, 尔苏语 ěrsūyǔ) is isolating (weakly agglutinative). The unmarked word order is SOV. The language has been historically influenced by Mandarin Chinese (Southwest Mandarin), Nuosu (Northern Ngwi or Yi 彝), and Pumi (普米).

Interesting features of Ersu include a rich phonemic system of 8 vowel phonemes, 38 simple consonant phonemes, and three types of consonant clusters (clusters with approximants, prenasalized clusters, and clusters with a schwa-like segment); a well-developed system of nominal and verbal classifiers; an aspectual system, in which the basic distinction between perfective and imperfective aspect is expressed by lexical-derivational means: verbal stems and directional prefixes, whereas the expression of other types of aspects (such as experiential, change of state, continuous) relies on periphrastic constructions and is tightly interwoven with modality; and complex systems of evidentiality and epistemic modality.

Ersu is relatively little researched, but the group and its language and culture have been receiving increasing attention in recent years (e.g. Wang 2010, Wu Da 2010, Schmidt 2011, Zhang 2013, 2014). Early linguistic accounts include Sun (1982, 1983) and Liu (2007 [1983]), which focus on the Ersu as spoken in Ganluo county.


Collection contents

The collected data includes digital audio and video recordings, and texts of various kinds (transcriptions, annotations, notes, description, metadata files).

The main focus of the collection is on the variety of Ersu, as spoken in Ganluo County. The collection includes 177 traditional Ersu stories and song lyrics transcribed in the Ersu Romanization System and translated into Mandarin Chinese. It also comprises audio and video recordings of conversations and elicitations from Mandarin Chinese (using both written and non-written stimuli) collected in all Ersu-speaking areas.

Other notable components of the collection are:

(i) the Ersu-Mandarin Flex lexical database (of currently 8,735 entries) to be used for the compilation of a comprehensive Ersu-Mandarin dictionary (by Wang Dehe, in preparation)

(ii) audio recordings for an experimental study of synchronically productive tone sandhi patterns in Ersu (by Katia Chirkova and Wang Dehe, 2016). This experimental study explored the derivational relationship (a) between the two contrastive lexical tones on monosyllabic words and multiple tonal patterns on polysyllabic words, and (b) between tonal patterns on polysyllabic words in isolation and in connected speech

(iii) audio recordings for a sociolinguistic study of Ersu, which focused on consonant variation in the Ganluo variety of that language (by Katia Chirkova, James N. Stanford, and Wang Dehe, 2015). This study focuses on four variables from over 24 hours of speech data from 97 speakers of Ganluo Ersu (52 women, 45 men, ages 8-94). These include (a) loss of typologically uncommon trilled retroflex segments (e.g., [ʈɽ], [ɽ]), (b) delateralization of the lateral fricative ([ɬ] ~ [x]), (c) devoicing of stops and affricates (e.g., [b] ~ [p]), and (d) simplification of onsets (e.g., [mb] ~ [b]). A comparison of the speech of older and younger speakers shows change in progress, consisting of the leveling of phonological differences between Ersu and its dominant contact language Mandarin.


Collection history

Data in the collection were collected and in part annotated by Wang Dehe (王德和), assisted by Katia Chirkova, Wang Xuan (王轩), Wang Min (王敏), Wang Lianqing (王连清), Wang Guangsheng (王广胜), and Gu Tao (古涛).


Other information

Parts of the collection are available at the language archive COCOON (« COllections de COrpus Oraux Numériques » ) of the National Research Center of France (CNRS) and the Bibliothéque Nationale de France:

More information on our fieldwork on Ersu can be found at:

Upon the completion of the Ersu and Xumi ELDP documentation project, the project participant Wang Dehe (王德和) successfully applied for an independent ELDP project, started in December 2017 “A Comprehensive Illustrated Dictionary of Ersu with Audio Files”, see at:


Acknowledgement and citation

Thank you to the Ersu communities of the Ganluo, Yuexi, Shimiang, and Hanyuan countries who participated in the study. Thank you to the ELAR team and in particular to Gema Zamora for their help with the upload and curation of the data.

This project is supported by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP, SOAS, Major Documentation Project 0257).

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Chirkova, Katia & Wang Dehe. 2017. Ersu: Documentation of an Endangered Language of South-West China. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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