The Naxi script is not technically pictographic. Although many of the characters probably were originally pictographic in nature, each character now represents a specific sound, and many characters have phonetic or phono-semantic markers (see below), whilst yet more are used according to the rebus principle to represent words of similar/identical pronunciation. Chinese scholarship however does not have such a strict understanding of the word ‘pictographic’ and the label, ‘象形文字’ (pictographs), has, for better or worse, stuck. Across this site the Naxi Dongba characters are referred to as either ‘characters’ or ‘pictographs’.
In his Collection of essays on Naxiology (纳西学论集), Naxi scholar Fang Guoyu 方国瑜 outlines ten general categories into which most Naxi pictographs can be placed. Although this is not by any means a definite categorisation of the Naxi script, it goes some way to introducing various aspects of the pictographs to the uninitiated.
1. Basic pictographic representation
sun, moon, rain
2. Focusing on a particular feature
chicken (crown), pine (needles), tiger (stripes)
3. Variations of a single character
(in this case a person) sit, left, right
4. Pictographic representations of abstract ideas
on top, tall, middle
5. Adding strokes/characters to give new meaning
burrow, stab, crow (note that the extra strokes here are not characters in themselves)
6. Combining two characters to give one meaning
catch, clear weather, hold in the arms (these are all composed of two separate characters)
7. One character, multiple meanings
silver/earring, collar button/gold, fire/red
8. One meaning, multiple characters
bright, bright (sunlight)
9. Pictographs with phonetic/phonetic-semantic markers
foot of the mountain, back of the house, root
10. Phonetic loan characters for abstract ideas
monkey (life), cream (come out), scissors (small)
1) One character, with one syllable, representing a single word.
2) More than one character grouped to form an ideogrammic compound, with one syllable, representing a single word
3) More than one character grouped to form an ideogrammic compound, with more than one syllable, representing a word-group
4) More than one character grouped to form an ideogrammic compound, with more than one syllable, representing a short phrase
5) More than one character grouped to form an ideogrammic compound, with more than one syllable, representing a single sentence
We can therefore see that knowing the pictographs will not necessarily enable one to read Dongba scriptures: some scriptures are written in a very terse style, with many missing words and repetitions, and as in the example above (function no. 5), the meaning of some characters will not be directly obvious to those who do not know the story in question. Modern, secular usage of the script however differs greatly in its reliance on loan characters and direct representation of each syllable – see the article on a diary entry in the Naxi script.