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Documentation of the Cosao Language Focused on Traditional Biological and Ecological Knowledge around Wild Mushrooms in Yunnan, China

"Documentation of the Cosao Language Focused on Traditional Biological and Ecological Knowledge around Wild Mushrooms in Yunnan, China"

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Depositor Xianming Xu
Location China
Collection ID 0581
Grant ID MDP0379
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Forthcoming
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

The Cosao is a one of the smallest ethnic groups in China, with a population of 149 (2017), live in Mangang Village, Mengban Town, Mengla County, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. They were referred to “unidentified ethnic group” before 2004. After that the Government lumped them into Hani because of linguistic and cultural similarities.

Terminologically, “Cosao” is their autonym, which means “a happy group of people living on a fertile land”. However, they are known as “the Paiguo people” by an exonym because of women’s headdresses looking like cow horns.

The Cosao have their own language, which shares some features of the Yi-Burman branch of the Tibeto-Burman family in the Sino-Tibetan phylum.

About 300 people (2017) live in Bannanli and Banshalue Village in Wude County, Phongsaly Province in Laos. Their language is mutually intelligible. However, their language and culture are now in danger of extinction.


Group represented

The collection created within this project mainly focuses on the speakers in China. A few data also came from the speakers in Laos.

In history, the Cosao people lived on agriculture and took frequent migrations between the China-Laos borderline. Then settled in Bannanli Village in Wude County, Phongsaly Province of Laos. An 83 years old Cosao elder named Bobeng recalled that he fled with his father and 12 relatives from Bannanli Village in Laos to Mengban Town in China in 1944. Other Cosao families followed them after they settled down.

The Cosao have their own language used in their daily life. However, 19 people over 51 years old were proficient in their mother tongue. Among 60 people who were from 26 to 50 years old, 34 people were proficient. 42 young people who were from 16 to 25 years old, 13 people spoke their mother tongue. 9 persons from 6 to 15 and the group under 5 years old, no one spoke the Cosao language. They spoke either Chinese or Dai, Akha and Yao languages.



The Cosao language is a newly-discovered language which is a member of Yi-Burmese Branch Languages of Tibeto-Burman Language Family in Sino-Tibetan Phylum. It is a lesser described language. Herein are some genetic relations and characteristics to the Yi-Burmese languages. For example:

Tones. The Cosao language is a tonal language, in which the five basic tones are found in Cosao adult speech, namely, low falling 31, for instance, ma31/mə31 not, la31 hand, ta31 paint; mid level 33, for instance, ma33 dream, la33 stir, ta33 ride; high level 55, for instance, ma55 night, la55 length of arm spread, ta55 little amount; high falling 53, for instance, ma53 tired, la53 massage, ta53 look; and mid rising 24, for instance, xaŋ24 weld, tɔŋ²⁴ bamboo joint, ta24 big.

There are bunch of cognate words and phonetics correspondences to the same group of languages of the Yi-Burmese language group of Tibeto-Burman language family, such as Hani, Jinuo, Sadu, Yi, Lisu, Lahu, Naxi, Nu. etc. Many cognate words in its vocabulary find their genetic relations, such as “tɕha⁵³ cook”, “pa⁵⁵ fly”, “tshai⁵³ wash”, “tsa³³la³³drop”, “tsə³¹ eat”, etc. It obviously demonstrates that Cosao nasal consonants correspond to the rest languages above. For more examples, such as “ŋɔ⁵⁵ I” and “ŋə³¹ five”, its initial consonant corresponds to the rests: ŋ ~ ŋ. “na̠³³ black” and “nɛ⁵⁵ you ”, its initial consonant corresponds to its counterparts: n ~ n. “mɛ⁵³ hungry” and “mə³¹ not”, its initial consonant corresponds to the comparisons: m ~ m. While “mɔm³¹old ”, its initial consonant corresponds all but only one exception of Jinuo: m ~kh. Two negative forms, “mə³¹/ma³¹ not ” and “thə³¹/ tha³¹ don’t” in Cosao agrees to: m~m, th~th. Other stop consonants, such as “khu³¹ fill ” and “mɔ⁵⁵khɯ⁵³ dog ”, its consonant agrees the counterpart: kh~kh. “ky³¹ nine ” and “ko³¹- needle ” corresponds: k~ɣ/tɕ/ɡ/ʑ/k/q/ŋɡ, points and manners of articulation are almost the same. Affricate consonants show the most consistent evolution rules, such as “ɕi³¹ blood ” corresponds to: ɕ ~ɕ/s, “zə³¹- son” consistent to: z ~z, “tsə³¹ eat” corresponds to: ts ~ts/dz/ndz.

Consonant Changes and Generation Gaps. Linguistic data provided evidence that there were some consonant changes and generation gaps. The elders have voiced consonant clusters bl-, pl-, phl-, ml-. While the younger generations have changed all above mentioned voiced consonant clusters into voiceless palatalized consonants pj-, pj-, phj-, mj-, simultaneously voiceless unaspirated clusters into voiceless unaspirated palatalized and aspirated clusters into voiceless aspirated palatalized ones.

Syntactically Cosao is an SOV language sharing many commonness with other Tibeto-Burman languages. Syntax examples are given in the following:
ŋɔ⁵⁵(1SG.NOM-I)tsho⁵⁵sɔ⁵⁵-tsho⁵⁵-zə³¹(Cosao-people-offspring). I am a Cosao person.  ŋə⁵⁵ɣu⁵³(1PL-we)phə³¹-zə³¹(father-son) ŋjɛ⁵³(two/be)We two are father and son relation.

a³³tshai³³ ( elder-sister) i⁵⁵tɕhɔ⁵³( water) pa⁵³( carry) ʑi⁵⁵( go )lə³¹( PRT ). The elder sister went to carry water. ŋə⁵⁵ɣu³³ (1PL-we) a³¹kja³¹( stuff ) ʑu⁵⁵( collect) ky³¹( PRT) lə³³( PRT), tso⁵⁵ (home) a³¹( LOC ) ko³¹( back) li³³( go-up) ə³³( PRT). We collected the stuff and went back up home.

Plant codes:One traditional way of communication is using plants to encode and decode meanings and feeling to communicate within their tribe. Peripheral people called this phenomenon as “green codes”. There were approximately 400 plants that were used to express meanings and feelings covering love, ethics, worship, number, birth, offering sacrifices to gods and ancestors, etc.

For example: There’s a parasitic vine with no roots that is used to symbolically tell people to “Stop spreading rumors”. When a villager spreads rumors, elders would pick some vines and take them to the home of the rumor-starter. When some one receives this “gift”, he or she knows that what he or she has been saying is a groundless allegation, and he knows to stop.

The following plant indicates “living with both old and bald”. When two young people love each other, the young man will send the bark of the plant to the girl, which means he has decided to marry her. If the girl returns the same plant to him, then it shows that she agrees to marry and grows old with him. The message encodes natural traits: green leaves mean youth, the white leaves mean white hair inferring to the old.

Kapok tree flowers mean to elope or run away from a parent-arranged marriage.

The following fruits means you are so beautiful and I love you.

Most Cosao use one or two plants. Some of them use three or four plants. A few use five or more plants. They can also send short messages like we do via mobile-phone or WeChat. For example:

two plants: Let’s run away together.

Four plants: We have encountered trouble. No matter what happens, we will get married and we can grow old together with white hair or bald head.

Five plants: You are a good-for-nothing, disgusting, ugly old man. You want to eat tender vegetables, but that’s a day dream!

Wild Mushroom:The Cosao are good at searching for wild mushrooms and cooking. They know different mushrooms growing in different places. For example:

Collybia Albuminosa normally grows in the mountainous area without thick trees, where there is not too much water, but the land is wet. There are many different variants of Collybia Albuminosa in this area.

Boletus Edulis grows under pineapple trees in the soft soil where there are thick pineapple tree leaves usually.

Adults can find different mushrooms in mountains because they have some biological and ecological knowledge annually.


Collection contents

The collection focuses on the above mentioned characteristics which reflect spontaneous language use in the form of monologues and dialogues. The recordings have captured in their life either in the village or in the mountains nearby. The files included personal life stories, plant-codes use experiences, mushroom-picking and cooking experiences, explaining soil with its environment, e.g. In ELAN files, each bundle contains a video, an audio recording, word and PDF documents with interlinear transcriptions in 6 tiers. In MP4 files, there are three tiers which can be seen on the screen which might help younger generations to learn their mother tongue. The pictures related this project compiled with themes and output in videos. Most pictures have brief explanations. In this way, it might help audience to understand what the pictures mean. This collection also includes electronic picture-book with some tropical plants and mushrooms. The total length of the videos is 42 hours and audios is 17 hours. 20 hours of the recordings have already been transcribed. They are available to be openly accessed by any user of ELAR, without restriction. The more materials will be collected and transcribeds in the process of the project.


Collection history

The videos and audios for this collection was collected from December, 2018. But the Cosao language research actually started in the end of 2012. Therefore, some pictures captured from 2013 to 2018. Bibo BAI, Xiangming XU and Ming YIN are the principal investigators, who went to the village many, many times, have witnessed a great change in many aspects in the last seven years.


Acknowledgement and citation

Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Xianming Xu as the principal investigator, the data collector and the researcher. Users should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) as the funder of the project. Individual speakers whose words and/or images are used should be acknowledged by respective name(s). Any other contributor who has collected, transcribed or translated the data or was involved in any other way should be acknowledged by name. All information on contributors is available in the metadata.

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

Xu, Xianming. 2019. Documentation of the Cosao Language Focused on Traditional Biological and Ecological Knowledge around Wild Mushrooms in Yunnan, China. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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