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A comprehensive illustrated dictionary of Ersu with audio files


Language Ersu
Depositor Dehe Wang
Affiliation Xichang College Library
Location China
Deposit ID 0517
Grant ID SG0487
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Forthcoming


Summary of the deposit

The project builds on the results from the prior ELDP project (MDP0257, see to arrive at a first-ever, comprehensive illustrated dictionary of the Ersu language, accompanied by audio files. Ersu is a little-studied, endangered Tibeto-Burman (Qiangic) language, spoken by approximately 8,000 people from an overall ethnic population of around 16,800 people in rural areas of Southwest China. The project will yield a dictionary of 5,000 entries compiled in accordance with best lexicographic practices, and a corpus of audio and video data documenting endangered meanings, that is, words related to such domains as traditional material culture, aphorisms, epigrams, and proverbs.


Group represented

This collection represents members of the Ersu community. The coordinates provided are for Ganluo County, Liangshan Yi Autonomous Region, Sichuan Province, China.

Ersu is spoken by approximately 8,000 people from an overall ethnic population of ca. 16,800 people in four counties in Sichuan Province (Sun 1982, 1983; Wang 2010: 207; Zhang 2013: 3-29). The four counties in which Ersu speakers reside are: Ganluo and Yuexi in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture; and Shimian and Hanyuan in Ya’an Municipality. In all four counties, Ersu speakers are a minority. In the counties of Shimian and Hanyuan, Mandarin speakers form the ethnic majority, and the Ersu population is heavily Sinicized. Among the Ersu population in those two counties, reportedly only a few people are still proficient speakers of Ersu. In the counties of Ganluo and Yuexi, on the other hand, Nuosu speakers form the ethnic majority. In Yuexi in particular, Ersu settlements are interspersed with those of Nuosu, bringing them in close contact with the Nuosu language. Finally, Ganluo traditionally has the largest monolingual Ersu-speaking community (e.g. Munai 2015: 33). In all four counties, Ersu speakers are traditionally in contact with Nuosu and Mandarin, albeit to different extents. Over the past decades, there has been an increasing influence of the Chinese language through schooling and mass media across all Ersu-speaking areas.

Traditionally, the Ersu people have been farmers, practicing swidden agriculture—with a focus on cultivating buckwheat—as a major livelihood strategy (Schmitt 2011, 2014). Before the 1980s, they followed a custom of marrying strictly within their own group. But the past decades have brought important changes to their lifestyle. Starting with Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening-Up Policy in the late 1970s, Ersu communities have been undergoing profound socioeconomic changes, as their region became more closely integrated into the Chinese state, as well as urbanization and environmental changes.

Integration with the national Chinese economy led to a shift from swiddening to cash crops (corn, potatoes, and soybeans). Implementation of the national reforestation program (Returning Farmland to Forest Program) initiated in 1999, led to an occupational shift from agriculture to non-agricultural sectors. As a consequence, Ersu working-age people (both men and women) now commonly seek jobs in urban areas, and they spend most of the year outside of their home villages. Institutional reforms (including the reinstatement of China’s national college entrance examinations in 1977) improved educational opportunities for young Ersu. The growing numbers of Ersu studying and working in urban areas also led to a change in marital practices. Intermarriages of Ersu people with Chinese and Nuosu are now very common.

The work on the Ersu dictionary is warmly welcomed in all Ersu-speaking areas. Many ethnic Ersu feel strongly that their traditional culture is endangered and express concern about the future of the Ersu language. An Ersu dictionary, in their eyes, would be a useful tool to maintain and learn Ersu and to ensure that the language is documented for generations to come.


Language information

Ersu is a little-studied Tibeto-Burman language of the Qiangic subgroup spoken in rural areas of Southwest China. This language is spoken in close contact with two distinct Sino-Tibetan languages: Nuosu (or Yi, Lolo-Burmese, a Tibeto-Burman language) and Southwest Mandarin Chinese (a Sinitic language). Due to the long-standing history of linguistic and cultural contact between the Ersu group and the Nuosu and Mandarin groups, prior literature often refers to the Ersu group as a people with “three tongues”, i.e. Ersu, Nuosu, and Mandarin (e.g. Wu Da 2004).

The past decades have witnessed important changes in the regional linguistic influences. Mandarin has firmly established itself as a regional dominant language and a local lingua franca, replacing Nuosu, the language of the local ethnic majority in that role. It is still possible to find older Ersu speakers (above sixty years of age) who are monolingual in Ersu, bilingual in Ersu and Nuosu, or trilingual in Ersu, Nuosu, and Mandarin; but most younger speakers (below thirty years of age) are bilingual in Ersu and Mandarin or simply monolingual in Mandarin.

As a result of the changes, the present-day Ersu is highly endangered and has but one last generation of fully proficient speakers (above 60s) left. Major factors contributing to language attrition in the Ersu-speaking areas include an increasing influence of the national Mandarin language through mass media and education, and the languages of locally more numerous ethnic neighbours (Nuosu and Mandarin). In addition, mixed marriages are on the increase, which means that the Ersu language (which is generally afforded lower status in the Ersu speech community) is not being transmitted to children.

The language is relatively little studied with only a few phonological and grammatical sketches (Sun 1982, 1983, Liu 1983 [2007], Song 2006, Chirkova et al. 2015, Chirkova and Wang 2017, Zhang 2014a, 2014b, Zhang and Wang 2016), and one reference grammar (Zhang 2013, the Yuexi variety of Ersu) to date. No separate word list or dictionary for any variety of Ersu has ever been compiled.


Special characteristics

This collection combines an insider’s perspective on the Ersu language and culture with an outsider’s view and analysis; it sets forth a collaboration with a proven track record of collecting rich fieldwork data between a native Ersu ethnographer and linguistic (Dehe Wang) and a professionally trained linguistic with fifteen years of experience in Southwest China (Katia Chirkova).

The main researcher and depositor for this collection, Dehe Wang, is a native Ersu linguist and ethnographer who is a member of the Ganluo Ersu community. Since 2010, Wang has been actively engaged in the documentation and research of the Ersu language and culture. In addition to various research publications, Wang also founded “Ersu Zangzu Wenhua” [Ersu Tibetan Culture], a blog focused on the culture, customs and the writing system of the Ersu group. Xuan Wang and Ke Wang (Dege Wang’s son and daughter, respectively) have passive knowledge of Ersu. Xuan Wang, trained as a software engineer, is currently a graduate student majoring in the national traditional sports and culture at Sichuan University. His role in the project consists in addressing all documentation-related technical and hardware issues and making photographs for the dictionary. Xuan Wang is thoroughly familiar with the use of the Ersu phonetic transcription system and assists Dehe Wang in his work on ELAN annotations of the collected data. Ke Wang studied Journalism and Communication with a focus on video recording. She is in charge of video recording during interviews, editing video files and assisting in data collection (in particular obtaining and recording consent) and dictionary compilation. Tao Gu (Wang Dehe’s wife) works on the proofreading of the Ersu dictionary (in particular, Mandarin glosses and translations), preparation of data for archiving, and logistic support for the team’s work in Xichang.


Deposit contents

This collection provides a first-ever dictionary of Ersu compiled in accordance with best lexicographic practices and containing 5,000 entries (high frequency basic vocabulary items as well as lower frequency words related to such lexical domains as traditional material culture, place names, traditional clothing and dressing, aphorisms, epigrams, poetry, lyrics, and proverbs), accompanied by audio files and photographic illustrations, and a corpus of audio and video data of 20 hours documenting endangered meanings, that is, words related to such domains as traditional material culture, aphorisms, epigrams, and proverbs.

For the dictionary, each lexical entry comprises the following information:

  1. the Ersu word transcribed in the Ersu Romanization system
  2. the same word in IPA
  3. grammatical information (part of speech)
  4. a translation into Mandarin
  5. a minimum of two example sentences extracted from corpus of naturalistic data with Mandarin translation
  6. an audio file
  7. for some selected entries, an illustration

The audio-visual corpus includes

  • 20 hours of various forms of ritual speech, including songs, cleaning rituals, auspicious hymns, lamentation, and narratives related to folk beliefs
  • eight hours of transcriptions and annotations in ELAN and FLEx, including transcription in the Ersu Romanization system, break-up of the underlying morpheme sequence, morpheme-by-morpheme gloss, and free translations


Deposit history

This collection is based on an earlier corpus of over 177 Ersu narratives (annotated in ELAN and Flex) and a word list of around 8,000 entries (in FLEx, lexical entries with Mandarin glosses) collected over the prior ELDP project MDP0257 (see

In the previous collection, vocabulary items related to traditional Ersu culture as well as on Ersu aphorisms, epigrams, metaphors, idiomatic expressions, and proverbs are underrepresented. At the same time, these vocabulary items are also most vulnerable to loss in the context of fast-disappearing traditional Ersu culture. Also, traditional cleaning rituals, auspicious hymns, lamentation, and other poetic forms of ritual speech have not been documented or studied before. Therefore this collection adds to the previous collection by recording audio and video data focusing on these areas of traditional Ersu culture.

The research underpinning this collection is in direct continuation of the respective work of the Dehe Wang and Katia Chirkova, and of their joint research efforts. Since 2011, Dehe Wang has been working in close collaboration with Katia Chirkova. Together they participated in the production of the DVD “Muli Zangzu Guozhuang, Lüzhuo / Ly tso” [Folk Dances of the Lizu Tibetans of Muli County] (2012), collaborated in the framework of the prior ELDP project led by Chirkova (MDP0257, 2013-2017), and co-authored ten papers (published or under review and presented at international conferences). The participants Xuan Wang, Ke Wang, and Tao Gu have also been involved in the documentation and research work of the prior ELDP project.


Other information

The materials in this collection will also be archived with Xichang Library and with the local governments of the counties of Ganluo and Yuexi.


Acknowledgement and citation

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

Wang, Dehe. Forthcoming. A comprehensive illustrated dictionary of Ersu with audio files. London: SOAS University of London, Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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