ꓡꓲ-ꓢꓴ ꓥꓳꓽ, Lisu ngot
Native toChina, Myanmar (Burma), India, Thailand
Native speakers
c. 940,000 (2000–2007)[1]
Fraser alphabet, Lisu syllabary, Latin
Official status
Official language in
Weixi Lisu Autonomous County, Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture (PRC)
Language codes
ISO 639-3lis
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Lisu (Fraser alphabet: ꓡꓲ-ꓢꓴ, ꓡꓲ‐ꓢꓴ ꓥꓳꓽ or ꓡꓲꓢꓴ; Latin: Lisu ngot; Lisu syllabary: ; 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, Jingphaw and Yi languages.


In China, the Lisu people are mostly found in Yunnan, the majority living mainly in Nujiang and Weixi,[2] but also in Baoshan, Dehong, Lincang, Chuxiong, Luquan and Dali. In Sichuan, where they make a small minority, they also speak Lipo, and they are sometimes classified under the Yi nationality. A number of Lisu can also be found in southern Tibet.

In Myanmar, it is spoken in Shan State, Kachin State, Sagaing Division and Mandalay Division. The two states are bordered by Yunnan. The Fraser script was invented in Myanmar by Sara Ba Thaw.

In India, it is spoken in the Changlang District of Arunachal Pradesh and possibly in the Tinsukia District of Assam. See Lisu people § Lisu in India for more information. Lisu people in India are called Yobin.

In Northern Thailand, it is spoken mainly in the provinces of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Kamphaeng Phet.

Possibly, there are also perhaps some Lisu speakers in the Phongsaly Province of Laos and in the Lai Chau Province of Vietnam. [citation needed]


Three dialects can be distinguished: northern, central and southern, with northern being the standard.[3]

Bradley (2003)

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

Mu and Sun (2012)

In their study of Lisu dialects, Mu and Sun (2012) split Lisu into three dialects.[5]

Mu and Sun (2012) compare a total of five datapoints in their comparative vocabulary table.[5]


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 script

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 named 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 Chữ Nôm 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.[citation needed]

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.[4]


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].

In Central Lisu, [i] is heard as a syllabic [z̩] when after alveolar sibilant sounds, and as [ʐ̩] when after retroflex sibilant sounds. /ɑ/ is heard as more fronted [a] when following alveolo-palatal sounds.[7]

/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 six tones: high [˥], mid creaky [˦ˀ], mid [˧], low [˨˩], rising [˧˥] and low checked [˨˩ʔ] (that is, [tá ta̰ ta 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
Labial Alveolar Retroflex (Alveo-)
Velar Glottal
plain sibilant
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ h,
tenuis p t ts k ʔ
aspirated tsʰ tʂʰ tɕʰ
voiced b d dz ɡ
Fricative voiceless (f) s ʂ ɕ x
voiced v~w z ʐ j ɣ
Continuant l

[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 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 Central Lisu, /j/ can be heard as an alveolo-palatal [ʑ] when before /i/.[7] 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 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.[4]


  1. ^ Lisu at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015) (subscription required)
  2. ^ omniglot
  3. ^ Handel, p. 2
  4. ^ a b c Bradley (2003)
  5. ^ a b Mu & Sun (2012)
  6. ^ Handel, p. 1
  7. ^ a b Tabain, Bradley & Yu (2019)

Works cited

  • Bradley, David (2003). "Lisu". In Thurgood, Graham; LaPolla, Randy J. (eds.). The Sino-Tibetan Languages. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-7007-1129-5.
  • Handel, Zev. "Proto-Lolo–Burmese Velar Clusters and the Origin of Lisu Palatal Sibilant" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2020-08-03 – via
  • Mu, Yuzhang 木玉璋; Sun, Hongkai 孙宏开 (2012). Lìsùyǔ fāngyán yánjiū 傈僳语方言研究 [A Study of Lisu Dialects] (in Chinese). Beijing: Minzu chubanshe. ISBN 978-7-105-12004-8.
  • Tabain, Marija; Bradley, David; Yu, Defen (2019). Central Lisu. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 49(1). pp. 129–147.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location (link) CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)

Further reading