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


Language Northern Prinmi
Depositor Henriëtte Daudey, Gerong Pincuo
Affiliation La Trobe University
Location China
Collection ID 0483
Grant ID SG0500
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle



Summary of the collection

Northern Prinmi, 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 documents Northern Prinmi oral art, and especially ritual speech, one of the domains of the language that is more severely threatened by disappearance. The collection comprises of video and audio recordings and photos from 12 different locations in the Northern Prinmi area, and contains rituals, traditional songs, folktales and conversational data. Part of the recordings have been transcribed into IPA and translated into Chinese and English.


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 researchers estimate 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 researchers estimate 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 Prinmi is of significant scholarly interest. Geographically adjacent languages include Xumi and Kham 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, no single one has been accepted for general use by the community yet.


Special characteristics

Northern Prinmi speakers are mostly Tibetan Buddhist and major religious practices (such as funerals) are conducted in Tibetan. However, in a few places where the more traditional shaman still plays a role in religious life, rituals are conducted in the Northern Prinmi language. Lay religious practice, such as the daily incense burning ritual or the calling back of a run-away soul, also uses Northern Prinmi. Religious or ritual speech, as employed in these rituals, is part of Prinmi oral art. Other oral art, such as folk stories, riddles, proverbs, songs and oratory, is normally addressed to humans. Ritual speech can be defined as speech that is addressed to the supernatural world. It 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, other oral art -especially songs and folktales- has been recorded whenever the opportunity arose.


Collection contents

The collection comprises 305 bundles adding up to more than 24 hours of video and audio recordings from 12 different locations in the Northern Prinmi area, including a total of 39 speakers (27 males and 12 females; most of them over 40 years old). The recordings contain 80 rituals, 58 traditional songs, 23 folktales and conversational data. The collection also includes over a 1000 pictures of the language area, the recording sessions, cultural and natural objects.

Close to 5 hours of data have been annotated. This includes all the consent files, which have been translated into Mandarin Chinese and English, and a little over 4 hours of ritual speech, songs and stories that have been transcribed in IPA, translated into Mandarin Chinese and English and glossed in FLEx. The bundles that have been transcribed, translated and glossed in FLEx, contain an ELAN file and a PDF of the interlinear; the bundles that have been translated but not glossed, contain only an ELAN file.

Transcription has been done in IPA. The transcription for the data recorded in the Wenquan area is roughly phonemic; the transcription done for other places is phonetic.


Collection history

Data in this collection were collected by Henriëtte Daudey and Gerong Pincuo, with the assistance of Padma Rgyalmtshan and Deji, during several fieldwork trips in October and November 2017. Part of the data were transcribed and translated into Chinese by Gerong Pincuo and translated into English, glossed in FLEx and time-aligned in ELAN by Henriëtte Daudey.


Other information

Data included in this collection will be made available on the website


Acknowledgement and citation

Thank you to the Northern Prinmi speakers and communities who gave their time and allowed us to record their oral art for posterity. Thank you to Padma Rgyalmtshan for his help on the road and during the recording sessions, and thank you to Deji for some of the photography. Thank you to the ELAR team for their help with the upload and curation of the data.

This project was funded by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programma (ELDP; Small Grant 0550).

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

Daudey, Henriëtte & Gerong Pincuo. 2018. Documentation of Northern Prinmi oral art, with a special focus on ritual speech. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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