Lijiang’s road signs

Lijiang has done a good job in trying to preserve and indeed promote the Naxi pictographic script, a writing system that was previously controlled and used exclusively by the Dongba priests and passed down from generation to generation.  Now, of course, primary school students can opt for extra curricular lessons in the script, and there is a course at the local teacher’s college that teaches it to foreigners. The script is used on all shop fronts in the old town and some in the new town, and on road signs throughout the city. However, it’s ultimately debatable how useful this is to anyone because there are so few people who can actually read it – all the above mentioned courses and educative measures have no real testing structure and are perceived as more ‘frivolous’ than courses in say, English or Maths.

Road Signs

Street signs in Lijiang have three components: the Chinese characters of the street name, the Pinyin transliteration and the translation in Naxi script. As I’ve slowly been learning more characters, the signs are coming to life.  I’ve always wondered how exactly the translator went about translating the Chinese street names into Naxi, and similarly for shop names, because they have two options: literal translation and transliteration. Of course, for road signs, transliteration is the only sensible method, because if you change the sounds of the name depending on what language you speak then it makes things complicated when asking for directions or planning routes. For more literal shop names, translation would make more sense (but is often not used, because transliteration is easier for the Dongba to do – I’ll talk about this later).

Example 1: Jinjia Road


Here the Chinese 金甲路 jinjia lu is transliterated as jinjia lu p ʨi55 ʨə55 33 33, with ʨi55 meaning ‘scissors/small’, and ʨə55 meaning ‘cook’. The first two characters are entirely phonetic in nature (although Naxi does of course have a word for the Chinese 金 jin, gold, the difficulty arises because there is no direct equivalent of 甲 jia which has a range of meanings, like ‘carapace’ or even ‘A’ as in A,B,C etc.). ‘Road’, zɪ33 33, is a direct translation.

Example 2: Shishan Road


Looking at this next example, I thought I had caught the translator out. The Chinese 狮山路 shishan lu, literally lion hill road, seems to have a direct translation of lion in the Naxi – shishan lu p ʂi21 21 33 33 - where you can see the first pictograph is clearly a lion’s head. If you’re going to translate, fine, but don’t do both, as the sæ21, the second Naxi character in place of hill, means  ‘God of the Bai people’, and is obviously used phonetically as of course the Naxi have their own character for ‘hill/mountain’, hill dʑy21. However, checking my dictionary, it just so happens that ‘lion’ in Naxi is pronounced ʂi21, very much like lion in Chinese (the main difference is tonal, the Naxi word has a falling tone whilst the Chinese has a high first tone). This is probably because it’s a loan word from Chinese, as lions are not indigenous to the regions in which the Naxi have inhabited.

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