Bai language

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白语 Báiyǔ
Native to Yunnan, China
Ethnicity Bai
Native speakers
1.3 million (2003)[1]
  • Jianchuan-Dali
  • Panyi–Lama
  • ? Laemae
Language codes
ISO 639-3 Variously:
bca – Central Bai, Jianchuan dialect
bfs – Southern Bai, Dali dialect
bfc – Northern Bai, Bijiang dialect (Panyi Bai)
lay – Lama Bai?
ISO 639-6 bicr
Glottolog baic1239[3]

The Bai language (Bai: Baip‧ngvp‧zix; simplified Chinese: 白语; traditional Chinese: 白語; pinyin: Báiyǔ) is a language spoken in China, primarily in Yunnan province, by the Bai people. The language has over a million speakers and is divided into three main dialects. It is a tonal language with eight tones and a rather rich set of vowels. The vowels of Bai have a phonemic opposition between tense vowels and lax vowels (creaky voice vs. normal voice). There exists a small amount of traditional literature written with Chinese characters, Bowen (僰文), as well as a number of recent publications printed with a recently standardized system of romanisation using the Latin alphabet.


Within the core Bai area, three dialects are recognized, which may actually be distinct languages: Jianchuan (Central), Dali (Southern), and Bijiang (Northern). Jianchuan and Dali are close, and speakers are reported to be able to understand one another after living together for a month. Bijiang is more divergent, and may itself be two languages, Panyi and Lama, the latter mixed with Nung.

The Laemae (lɛ˨˩mɛ˨˩, Leimai, Leimo), a clan numbering about 50,000 people who are submerged within the Lisu, are reported to speak a "Bai group language" (Bradley 2007:363). Bradley (2007) estimates that there are about 15,000 speakers of Laemae in Fugong County, Yunnan. Lisu and Northern Bai are also spoken in the region.

Wang Feng (2012)[4] gives the following tree for 9 Bai dialects (datapoints). The Lama (拉玛) are in Tuoluo, Gongxing, and Enqi; the Lemo (勒墨) are in Ega and Jinman.


Wang (2012)[5] also documents a Bai dialect in Xicun, Dacun Village, Shalang Township, Kunming City (昆明市沙朗乡大村西村).[6]


The position of this language (or language group) within the Sino-Tibetan family is undetermined. Traditionally, Bai has been considered to be a Tibeto-Burman language, but starting with R.A.D. Forrest in 1948, the rival argument has been made that it is instead an offshoot of Proto-Sinitic, coordinate with Old Chinese.[7] Within the last generation, this argument has been taken up by Sergei Starostin, G. van Driem, and S. Zhengzhang. The state of the debate on the genetic position of Bai is surveyed by Wang (2005), who points out that the proper investigation of the issue is hampered by the fact that Proto-Bai, the ancestor of the three modern dialects, has yet to be reconstructed. Indeed, the dialects themselves have not yet all been thoroughly described.

The question is complicated by the fact that Bai vocabulary has been influenced over millennia by both neighboring Tibeto-Burman languages and several varieties of Chinese. The Sinologist Jerry Norman has stated: "While it would probably be going too far to consider Bái a Sinitic [Chinese] dialect, its close links to Sinitic cannot easily be dismissed."[8]

On the other hand, Lee & Sagart (2008)[9] argue that Bai is a Tibeto-Burman language that has borrowed very heavily from Old Chinese. Lee & Sagart (2008) note that word relating to rice and pig agriculture tend to be non-Chinese, and that the genetic non-Chinese layer of Bai shows similarities with Proto-Loloish. Lee & Sagart's (2008) analysis has been further discussed by List (2009).[10]

Gong Xun (2015)[11] has suggested that Bai may be an outlier Sinitic language with a Qiangic substratum, noting that Bai has both a Sino-Bai vocabulary layer and a pre-Bai vocabulary layer.


Bai has a basic syntactic order of subject–verb–object (SVO). However, SOV word order can be found in interrogative and negative sentences.


  1. ^ Central Bai, Jianchuan dialect at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Southern Bai, Dali dialect at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Northern Bai, Bijiang dialect (Panyi Bai) at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Lama Bai? at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ S. Robert Ramsey (1987). The Languages of China. Princeton University Press. pp. 290–. ISBN 0-691-01468-X. 
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Baic". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  4. ^ Wang Feng [汪锋]. (2012). Language Contact and Language Comparison: The Case of Bai [语言接触与语言比较:以白语为例 ]. Beijing: Commercial Press [商务印书馆]. 92–94
  5. ^ Wang Feng [王锋]. 2012. A study of the Bai language of Shalang [昆明西山沙朗白语研究]. Beijing: China Social Sciences Academy Press p中国社会科学出版社].
  6. ^
  7. ^ James B. Minahan (10 February 2014). Ethnic Groups of North, East, and Central Asia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 23–. ISBN 978-1-61069-018-8. 
  8. ^ Norman 2003:73
  9. ^ Lee, Y.-J., & Sagart, L. (2008). No limits to borrowing: The case of Bai and Chinese. Diachronica, 25(3), 357–385.
  10. ^ List, Johann-Mattis. 2009. How Basic is Basic Vocabulary? The Problematic Case of Bai. Presentation at Evolution and Classification in Biology, Linguistics and the History of Science, Heinrich Heine University, June 11-12, 2009.
  11. ^ Gong Xun (2015). How Old is the Chinese in Bái? Reexamining Sino-Bái under the Baxter-Sagart reconstruction. Paper presented at the Recent Advances in Old Chinese Historical Phonology workshop, SOAS, London.

Further reading[edit]

  • Allen, Bryan and Zhang Xia. 2004. Bai Dialect Survey. Yunnan Nationalities Publishing House. ISBN 7-5367-2967-7.
  • Bradley, David. 2007. "East and Southeast Asia." In Moseley, Christopher (ed). Encyclopedia of the World's Endangered Languages. New York: Routledge.
  • Lee Yeon-ju & Sagart, L. 1998. The strata of Bai. Paper presented at the 31st ICSTLL, University of Lund, Sweden, Sep. 30 – Oct. 4, 1998. [1]
  • Lee, Yeon-Ju; Sagart, Laurent (2008). "No limits to borrowing: The case of Bai and Chinese". Diachronica. 25 (3): 357–385. doi:10.1075/dia.25.3.03yeo. 
  • Matisoff, J. A. 2001. On the genetic position of Bai within Tibeto-Burman. Paper presented at the 34th International Conference on Sino-Tibetan languages and linguistics, Yunnan minzu xueyuan. [2]
  • Starostin, Sergej. 1995. “The historical position of Bai”. Moskovskij Lingvisticheskij Zhurnal 1:174-190. Moscow.
  • Norman, Jerry. 2003. The Chinese dialects: phonology. In Graham Thurgood and Randy J. LaPolla, eds., The Sino-Tibetan Languages. Routledge. Routledge language family series. Chapter 5, 72ff.
  • Wang, Feng. 2005. On the genetic position of the Bai language. Cahiers de Linguistique - Asie Orientale. 34(1):101–127. Paris.
  • Wang, Feng. 2006. Comparison of languages in contact: the distillation method and the case of Bai. Language and Linguistics Monograph Series B: Frontiers in Linguistics III. Taipei: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica, 2006.
  • Wiersma, Grace. 1990. Investigation of the Bai (Minjia) language along historical lines. PhD dissertation, University of California at Berkeley.
  • List, Johann-Mattis. 2009. How Basic is Basic Vocabulary? The Problematic Case of Bai. Presentation at Evolution and Classification in Biology, Linguistics and the History of Science, Heinrich Heine University, June 11-12, 2009.
  • Fēng Wāng. 2006. Comparison of Languages in contact: the distillation method and the case of Bai. Language and linguistics monograph: Frontiers in linguistics. Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica.
  • Fēng Wāng. 2013. Báiyǔ yǔ báizú de liúbiàn: Duōjiǎodù jiéhé de shìyě 白語與白族的流變:多角度結合的視野. In Fēng Shí and Gāng Péng, editors, Dàjiāng Dōngqù: Wāng Shìyuán Jiàoshòu Bāshísuì Hèshòu Wénjí. 大江東去:王士元教授八十歲賀壽文集. City University of Hong Kong Press.
  • Lín Xú and Yǎnsūn Zhào. 1984. Báiyǔ Jiǎnzhì 白语简志. Mínzú Chūbǎnshè.
  • Míngjūn Yuán. 2006. Hànbáiyǔ diàochá yánjiū 汉白语调查研究. Zhōngguó Wénshǐ Chūbǎnshè.
  • Yǎnsūn Zhào and Lín Xú. 1996. Bái-Hàn Cídiǎn 白汉词典. Sìchuān Mínzú Chūbǎnshè.
  • Dali Prefecture Bai Cultural Studies Editorical Committee [大理白族自治洲白族文化研究所编]. 2008. Dali series: Bai language, vol. 3: Vocabulary of the dialects of the Bai people [大理丛书·白语篇 卷3 白族方言词汇]. Kunming: Yunnan People's Press [云南民族出版社]. ISBN 9787536738799 [Contains word lists of 33 Bai language datapoints.]

External links[edit]