image: traditional Tujia brocade

Brief Introduction to the Tujia Language

Although Tujia is the language of the Tujia minority of China, it is now only spoken by some 70,000 people, a figure which is less than 1% of the total Tujia population. These speakers live in the northern half of Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Hunan Province. Evidence from place names indicates that the language was once spoken throughout the Tujia-inhabited areas around the common borders of Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou and Chongqing. The Chinese language began to be widely used among the Tujia in the eighteenth century, after the gaituguiliu reforms of the Qing court had placed the Tujia areas under direct imperial rule and opened up the region to Chinese settlement (see Introduction). Although Tujia is still widely spoken in many villages, most speakers are bilingual in Tujia and the local Chinese dialect, with very few monolingual Tujia speakers remaining. All children now learn to speak fluent Chinese, and increasingly prefer to use Chinese rather than Tujia when chatting together. If the current rate of decline continues, it is likely that the language will disappear early in the 22nd century.

Among those who still speak fluent Tujia, Chinese borrowings are frequent. Chinese loan words are used not only for new technical vocabulary, such as 'telephone', 'cadre' and 'bus', but are also used as alternatives for existing Tujia words, with many Tujia verbs being freely interchangeable with their Chinese equivalents. The use of Chinese is so common that we have indicated such Chinese loans in italics in the Tujia transcriptions in this language archive. Even when their speech contains lots of Chinese words, most speakers adhere strictly to Tujia grammatical order. However, less fluent Tujia speakers may use Chinese grammatical order for phrases or even whole sentences when speaking Tujia.

Tujia is a member of the Tibeto-Burman group of languages, which are widely spoken in China and parts of Southeast Asia. Tujia is usually considered an isolate within the group; although it has grammatical and phonological similarities with Yi (spoken in Sichuan and Yunnan), its vocabulary is very different. Its sound system is summarised in the Pronunciation guide. Some of the major features of Tujia grammar are listed below.

Word orderThe word order is characteristically SOV (subject-object-verb); compare this with English which is SVO.
VerbsThe expressive power of Tujia lies particularly in the verbs, which can take numerous suffixes with a wide range of meanings.
NounsNoun phrases are ordered head noun-modifier-number-classifier.
CopulaThe copula verb 'to be' is omitted and understood implicitly.
Conjunctions   Conjunctions are rare in Tujia, and relations between clauses are usually inferred from context.

Copyright (C) 2004 Philip & Cecilia Brassett