Lisu language

Native to China, Burma (Myanmar), India, Thailand
Ethnicity Lisu
Native speakers
ca. 940,000 (2000–2007)[1]
Fraser Alphabet
Official status
Official language in
Weixi Lisu Autonomous County, Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture (PRC)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 lis
Glottolog lisu1250[2]
Lisu language test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator

Lisu (Lisu: ꓡꓲ-ꓢꓴ or ꓡꓲꓢꓴ; Chinese: 傈僳语; pinyin: lìsùyǔ; Burmese: လီဆူဘာသာစကား, pronounced: [lìsʰù bàðà zəɡá]) is a tonal Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Yunnan (southwestern China), northern Burma (Myanmar), and Thailand and a small part of India. Along with Lipo, it is one of two languages of the Lisu people. Lisu has many dialects that originate from the country in which they live. Hua Lisu, Pai Lisu, and Lu Shi Lisu dialects are spoken in China. Although they are mutually intelligible, some have many more loan words from other languages than others.

The Lisu language is closely related to the Lahu and Akha languages and is also related to Burmese, Jinghpaw, and Yi languages.


Lisu can be split up into three dialects: northern, central, and southern, with northern being the standard.[3]

Bradley (2003)

Bradley (2003) lists the following three Lisu dialects.[4]

Mu & Sun (2012)

In the introduction of A Study of Lisu dialects (傈僳语方言研究), Mu & Sun (2012) split Lisu into 3 dialects.

Mu & Sun (2012) compare a total of 5 datapoints in their comparative vocabulary table.


Pollard alphabet

Main article: Pollard script

Sam Pollard's A-Hmao was adapted to write Lipo, another Lisoish language (sometimes called Eastern Lisu) spoken by the Lisu people.

Fraser alphabet

Main article: Fraser alphabet

The Lisu alphabet currently in use throughout Lisu-speaking regions in China, Burma, and Thailand was primarily developed by two Protestant missionaries from different missionary organizations. The more famous of the two is James O. Fraser, a British evangelist from the China Inland Mission. His colleague, who developed the original version of the alphabet (later revised and improved with Fraser and various colleagues from the C.I.M.) was Sara Ba Thaw, a polyglot Karen preacher based in Myitkyina, Burma, who belonged to the American Baptist Mission.

Ba Thaw had prepared a simple Lisu catechism by 1915. The script now widely known as the "Fraser alphabet" was finished by 1939, when Fraser's mission houses in the Lisu ethnic areas of Yunnan Province (China) received their newly printed copies of the Lisu New Testament.

Lisu syllabary

Lisu syllabary

From 1924 to 1930, a Lisu farmer called Ngua-ze-bo (pronounced [ŋua˥ze˧bo˦]; Chinese: 汪忍波/哇忍波) invented the Lisu syllabary from Chinese script, Dongba script and Geba script. However, it looks more different from the Chinese script than Chu Nom and Sawndip (Zhuang logograms). Since Ngua-ze-bo initially carved his characters on bamboos, the syllabary is known as the Lisu Bamboo script (傈僳竹书).

It has a total of 1250 glyphs and 880 characters.

Latin Lisu alphabet

A new Lisu alphabet based on pinyin was created in 1957, but most Lisu continued to use the old alphabet. The Fraser alphabet was officially recognized by the Chinese government in 1992, since which time its use has been encouraged.

Burmese Lisu script

In a few places in Myanmar in which Lisu is spoken, an orthography based on the Burmese alphabet has been developed and is taught to speakers and used in several publications and school books.


The Lisu phonological inventory is as follows.[5]


Lisu vowels
Front Back
Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded
Close i~ɨ y~ʉ ɯ u
Mid e ø ɤ o
Open ɛ ɑ

[i] and the fricative vowel [ɨ] are in complementary distribution: [ɨ] is only found after palato-alveolars, though an alternate analysis is possible, with the palato-alveolars viewed as allophones of the palatals before [u] and [ɨ].[6] The distinction originates from proto-Lolo–Burmese consonant clusters of the type *kr or *kj, which elsewhere merge, but where Lisu normally develops /i/, they remain distinct with the latter producing the type [tʃɨ], the former the type [tɕi]. Inherited palatal affricates + /i/ also become [tʃɨ].

/y/ is variable across dialects. It may be either endolabial or exolabial, central [ʉ], or even merged with /u/. The distinction between ɯ and ɤ is marginal, and both are written e in pinyin.


Lisu has 6 tones: high [˥], mid creaky [˦ˀ], mid [˧], low [˨˩], rising [˧˥], and low checked [˨˩ʔ] (that is, [tá ta̰ ta tà tǎ tàʔ]). In some dialects the creaky tone is higher than mid tone, in others they are equal. The rising tone is infrequent, but common in baby talk (which has a stereotypical disyllabic low–rising pattern); both high and rising tone are uncommon after voiced consonants.


Lisu consonants
Bilabial Alveolar Affricate (Alveo-)
Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Tenuis p t ts k
Aspirated tsʰ tɕʰ
Voiced b d dz ɡ
Voiceless fricative (f) s ɕ x
Voiced fricative
or approximant
v~w l z j ɣ

[v] and [w] are in complementary distribution, with [v] before front vowels. /f/ is marginal, occurring in a few words before /u/ or /y/. The subdialect Fraser first encountered also distinguishes a retroflex series, /tʂ tʂʰ dʐ ʂ ʐ/, but only before /ɑ/.

Medial glides appear before /ɑ/. These are /w/ with velars and /j/ with bilabials and //. The latter consonant (see rhinoglottophilia) has a non-nasal allophone in the imperative particle [hɑ́]. /ɣ/ is only distinctive before /ɑ/, and in some dialects is merged with /j/.

In Southern Lisu, the velar plosives become alveopalatal before front vowels. The vowels /u/ and /e/ trigger an offglide on preceding consonants, so /tu du te de/ are pronounced [tfu dvu tje dje].

The vowels ɯ ɤ do not occur initially—or, at least, in initial position they are pronounced [ɣɯ ɣɤ]. It has been argued that the initial vowels /i e y u ɯ ɤ/ are phonetically [ji je fy fu ɣɯ ɣɤ], so initial consonants do not need to be posited in such cases (and marginal /f/ can be removed from the inventory of native words), or that they are phonemically /ʔV/, with glottal stop (Bradley 2003).


  1. Lisu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Lisu". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Bradley, David. 2003. "Lisu". In Thurgood, Graham and Randy J. LaPolla (eds.) (2003). The Sino-Tibetan Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1129-5.
  4. David Bradley, 2003. "Lisu". In Thurgood & LaPolla, The Sino-Tibetan languages
  5. "Proto-Lolo–Burmese velar clusters and the origin of Lisu palatal sibilant" (PDF). (76.2 KB), p. 1.
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