Lisu

Fraser script orthography notes

Updated 24 January, 2024

This page brings together basic information about the Lisu (Fraser) script and its use for the Lisu language. It aims to provide a brief, descriptive summary of the modern, printed orthography and typographic features, and to advise how to write Lisu using Unicode.

The Lisu language has numerous dialects, spread across 3 countries. The sources are not always clear which dialect they are describing or whether a feature is common to all dialects. In this page we try to point out descriptions that may or may not apply generally, but the page attempts to provide a general idea of how Lisu works in the absence of a specific standard orthography.

Referencing this document

Richard Ishida, Lisu (Fraser script) Orthography Notes, 24-Jan-2024, https://r12a.github.io/scripts/lisu/lis

Sample

Select part of this sample text to show a list of characters, with links to more details.
Change size:   28px

ꓖꓳ ꓕꓯ ꓢꓲ-ꓢ-ꓡꓰ ꓡꓳ ꓒꓱ ꓗꓪ꓾ ꓬꓲ-ꓔ-ꓡꓲ ꓟꓯꓼ ꓜꓴ ꓗꓪ ꓟ ꓟꓯꓼ ꓕꓲ ꓦꓬ ꓙꓵꓽ ꓒ꓾ ꓘꓳ-ꓠꓲ-ꓡꓲ-ꓬꓴ ꓟꓬꓱ ꓔ ꓟ ꓟꓯꓼ ꓢꓲꓽ ꓒꓽ ꓕꓲ ꓣꓳ ꓔꓬ ꓡꓳ꓿ ꓬꓲˍ ꓐꓰ ꓬꓲ ꓕꓲ ꓦꓲ ꓢꓴ ꓮꓽ ꓙꓵ ꓠꓬ ꓪꓴ-ꓢ ꓔꓯ ꓙꓳꓺ ꓒꓵꓽ ꓢꓴ ꓥ ꓠꓬꓲ꓾ ꓫꓸˍ ꓟ ꓑ ꓫꓬꓼ ꓐꓴ ꓔꓯ ꓬꓰ ꓙ ꓔꓳꓹ ꓙ ꓢꓲ꓾ ꓪꓴ-ꓢ ꓔꓯ ꓟꓽ ꓠ ꓠꓽ ꓪꓽ ꓘꓴ ꓔꓬ ꓢꓴ ꓥꓳ꓿ ꓕꓲ ꓠꓬꓲ ꓙꓳˍ ꓠꓬ ꓮꓽ ꓡ ꓟꓳꓼ ꓡꓳ ꓗꓸ ꓠꓯꓸ ꓢ ꓙꓵꓹ ꓗꓪ꓾ ꓫꓬꓽ ꓫꓬꓽ ꓡꓰ ꓦ ꓐꓬꓱꓽ ꓗꓪ ꓐꓰ ꓪꓴ-ꓢ ꓬꓲ ꓟꓴꓽ ꓗꓪ ꓝꓲ ꓓꓴ ꓠꓬ ꓬꓲ ꓔꓬ ꓗꓪ ꓡ ꓢꓲ꓾ ꓘꓳ-ꓠꓲ-ꓡꓲ-ꓬꓴꓳ꓾ ꓐꓯ ꓡ ꓟ ꓔꓯ ꓬꓲ ꓟꓳˍ ꓡꓳ꓿ ꓘꓳ-ꓠꓲ-ꓡꓲ-ꓬꓴ ꓠꓬ ꓙꓳꓺ ꓠꓬꓲ ꓬꓲ ꓔꓯ ꓟꓬ ꓔꓱꓹ ꓡꓳꓸ ꓢꓲ꓾ ꓢꓲ ꓒꓽꓳ꓾ ꓮꓸ ꓫꓵ ꓥ ꓡ? ꓐꓰ ꓠ ꓠꓬꓲˍ ꓕꓯ꓾ ꓟꓴꓽ ꓗꓪ ꓝꓲ ꓓꓴ ꓡꓰ꓾ ꓠꓴ ꓪꓽ ꓘꓴ ꓘꓶꓽˍ ꓐꓰ ꓠꓴ ꓬꓰ ꓗꓷ ꓟ ꓙꓲˍ ꓟ ꓟꓬꓱꓽ ꓠꓬ ꓪꓴ-ꓢ ꓟꓲꓽ ꓙꓬ ꓗꓪ ꓓꓯ ꓛꓲ ꓬꓰꓳ꓿ ꓬꓲ ꓠꓬ ꓖꓳ ꓟ ꓔꓯ ꓮꓽ ꓘꓶꓸ ꓠꓲꓹ ꓒꓴˍ ꓡꓳ꓿ ꓮ ꓟꓶ ꓬꓳꓹ-ꓒ ꓗꓪ ꓡ ꓞꓳ ꓝꓲ ꓩꓴ ꓗꓷ ꓢꓲ꓾ ꓒꓲ-ꓕꓱ ꓟꓬꓱ ꓔ ꓟ ꓢꓲ-ꓟꓴ ꓔꓯ ꓧꓳꓽ ꓔꓯꓹ ꓡꓯ꓿ ꓬꓲ ꓠꓬ ꓬꓲꓻ ꓡꓴꓽ ꓐꓱ ꓘꓶꓽ ꓗꓪ ꓔꓬ ꓟ ꓧꓪꓽ ꓙꓲꓻ ꓑꓴꓺ ꓙꓵꓻ ꓒ ꓢꓲ-ꓟꓴ ꓦꓲ ꓗꓪ ꓔꓬ ꓡꓳ꓾ ꓐꓯˍ ꓡꓳ꓿

Source: Acts 10:1-6 in Bible.is

Usage & history

According to ScriptSource, "there are 630,000 Lisu people in China, mainly in the regions of Nujiang, Diqing, Lijiang, Dehong, Baoshan, Kunming and Chuxiong in the Yunnan Province. Another 350,000 Lisu live in Myanmar, Thailand and India. Other user communities are mostly Christians from the Dulong, the Nu and the Bai nationalities in China."

The Chinese government recognized the alphabet in 1992 as the official script for writing in Lisu.

Around 200,000 Lisu in China use the Lisu script and about 160,000 in the other countries are literate in it. The Lisu script is widely used in China in education, publishing, the media and religion, and various schools and universities at the national, provincial and prefectural levels have been offering Lisu courses for many years. Globally, the script is also widely used in a variety of Lisu literature.

ꓡꓲ-ꓢꓴ li-su Lisu

The script was invented around 1815 by a Karen preacher from Myanmar, Sara Ba Thaw, and revised by the missionary James Fraser.

Because there are newer, Latin-based orthographies for writing the Lisu language, this is sometimes called the Old Lisu script.

Sources: Unicode Standard, Wikipedia.

Basic features

The script is an abugida: consonants carry an inherent vowel. See the table to the right for a brief overview of features for the modern Lisu orthography.

The script is based on a fairly simple syllabic structure. Many Lisu characters look like Latin capital letters, but they are not unified.

Lisu text is written horizontally, from left to right. There is no case distinction.

Generally, syllables are separated by spaces, whether or not they are part of a multisyllabic word, and text is wrapped at spaces regardless of word boundaries. Syllables in proper nouns, however, are separated by hyphens.

❯ consonantSummary

Lisu has 30 basic consonant letters. They don't join or interact with each other. Many of the consonants are the same as Latin uppercase consonants, but rotated versions of those letters are used to represent additional sounds in the Lisu language. The rotated letters are separate and fully equal letters in the alphabet.

❯ basicV

The Lisu orthography is an abugida with 1 inherent vowel, pronounced ɑ. Other vowels are written using 10 vowel letters, rather than with combining vowel signs. There are no combining marks, no circumgraphs, pre-base glyphs or multipart vowels

Standalone vowels are written using just the vowel letter, although in pronunciation this is often preceded by an unwritten glottal stop.

Lisu is tonal and has 6 tone marks (which resemble Latin punctuation). Tones are written at the end of the syllable, using what look like western punctuation marks.

Punctuation mixes western and Chinese characters with a couple of Lisu-only characters. Lisu uses ASCII digits.

Character index

Letters

Show

Consonants

ꓑ␣ꓐ␣ꓒ␣ꓔ␣ꓓ␣ꓕ␣ꓗ␣ꓖ␣ꓘ␣ꓝ␣ꓜ␣ꓞ␣ꓚ␣ꓙ␣ꓛ␣ꓩ␣ꓢ␣ꓤ␣ꓣ␣ꓫ␣ꓬ␣ꓧ␣ꓭ␣ꓦ␣ꓨ␣ꓟ␣ꓠ␣ꓥ␣ꓪ␣ꓡ

Vowels

ꓲ␣ꓵ␣ꓶ␣ꓴ␣ꓰ␣ꓱ␣ꓷ␣ꓳ␣ꓯ␣ꓮ

Tones

ꓸ␣ꓹ␣ꓺ␣ꓻ␣ꓼ␣ꓽ␣ꓹꓼ

Other

ʼ␣ˍ

Punctuation

Show
꓾␣꓿␣《␣》␣…

ASCII

?␣!␣(␣)␣-
:␣;

Other

Show

To be investigated

%␣,␣.␣§␣«␣»␣ʼ␣͏␣​␣‌␣‍␣‑␣–␣—␣‘␣’␣“␣”␣†␣‡␣‰␣′␣″␣‹␣›␣⁠
Items to show in lists

Phonology

These are sounds for the Lisu language.

Click on the sounds to reveal locations in this document where they are mentioned.

Phones in a lighter colour are non-native or allophones. Source Wikipedia.

Vowel sounds

Plain vowels.

i y y ɯ ɯ u e ø ø o ɛ ɑ ɑ

Consonant sounds

labial dental alveolar post-
alveolar
palatal velar glottal
stops p b t d       k ɡ  
aspirated        
affricates   t͡s d͡z   t͡ɕ d͡ʑ      
aspirated   t͡sʰ   t͡ɕʰ      
fricatives f   s z ʃ ʒ ɕ x ɣ h ɦ
nasals m   n   ɲ ŋ
approximants w   l   j  

Tone

Lisu has 6 phonological tones, 2 of which are 'abrupt'. The following is an interpretation of Fraser's description of Lisu tones.

Name IPA Accent Lisu Digit
High ˥˥ é ¹
Abrupt rising ˦˥ˀ ě ²
Mid ˧˧ ē ³
Low mid ˨˨
Low ˩ è
Low abrupt ˧˩ˀ e᷆
See the Wikipedia description of tones

Wikipedia gives the following description of Lisu tones.wf,#Tones

tsɑ̄˧ ꓝꓸtsɑ́˥˥ ꓝꓹtsɑ̌xxx
ꓝꓻtsɑ̄ˀ˧ ꓝꓺtsɑ̄ˀxxx ꓝʼtsɑ̄̃xxx
ꓝꓼtsɑ̂ˀxxx ꓝꓽtsɑ̂xxx ꓝˍtsɑ̄ɑ̂xxx

It also has the following, but it's not clear how they match.

Lisu has six 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.wl,#Tones

Structure

Lisu syllables generally conform to the following pattern:

(C (M)) V (V)
Legend
C
Consonant.
V
Vowel.
M
Medial.

Lisu syllables have no coda, however they may be nasalised. Diphthongs are not especially common, but they do occur.

Syllables may have a medial consonant in the onset (one of w or j).

A Lisu syllable may start with a vowel, but most standalone vowels are preceded by a glottal stop.

Vowels

Vowel summary table

The following table summarises the main vowel to character assigments.

ⓘ represents the inherent vowel. See also nasalisation and tones.

All:
ꓲ␣ꓵ␣ꓶ␣ꓴ
ꓰ␣ꓱ␣ꓳ
ⓘ␣ꓮ␣ˍ

Inherent vowel

ka U+A4D7 LISU LETTER KA

ɑ following a consonant is not written, but is seen as an inherent part of the consonant letter, so is written by simply using the consonant letter.

Vowel letters

Dedicated vowel letters

ꓗꓲ ki U+A4D7 LISU LETTER KA + U+A4F2 LISU LETTER I

Non-inherent vowel sounds that follow a consonant can be represented by following the consonant with a vowel letter. No combining marks are used to represent vowels.

Lisu is unusual for an abugida. Normally, abugidas produce a different vowel than the inherent one by attaching vowel signs to the base consonant. Lisu instead uses ordinary spacing letters after the consonant to represent vowels, so it looks very much like an alphabet except where the inherent vowel is used.

ꓲ␣ꓵ␣ꓶ␣ꓴ␣ꓰ␣ꓱ␣ꓷ␣ꓳ␣ꓯ␣ꓮ

There are no multipart vowels, prebase vowels, or circumgraphs.

Vowel-related modifier

ˍ

ˍ [U+02CD MODIFIER LETTER LOW MACRON] marks various aspects of verbal forms. It is pronounced a with a falling 31 tone, and is written at the end of a syllable.p,4 It introduces a second vowel to the syllable, but there is no glottal stop before it.ws

ꓠꓴ ꓙꓰꓻˍ ꓥꓳꓻ

ꓖꓳꓻ ꓡꓱꓻ ꓮˍ ꓟꓲ

Diphthongs

Most syllable nuclei are monophthongs, but diphthongs do also occur. The following is a set of syllables containing diphthongs found during a search of a few sample pages from the Bible.is site.

ꓝꓮꓲ t͡sɑi, ꓡꓰꓳ leo, ꓝꓴꓲ t͡sui, ꓝꓲꓳ t͡sio, ꓗꓷꓳ kəo, ꓗꓴꓷ kuə, ꓠꓴꓳ nuo, ꓫꓵꓳ ʃyo, ꓠꓬꓲꓳ ɲio,

Consonant characters used as vowels

According to Wikipedia, 3 consonants are sometimes used as vowels for the Naxi language, but are consonants when writing Lisu.

ꓪ␣ꓬ␣ꓭ

and often occur as medial consonants in an onset, and some people refer to such as rhymes composed of diphthongs.

Standalone vowels

Syllable-initial vowels usually occur after an unwritten glotttal stop. For example:

ꓮꓸ ꓭꓸ

Cheuk et al. indicate that the sounds ɯ and ə are exceptions to this rule.p,2

Fraser writes that, with the exception of ɑ and ɯ, standalone vowels are always nasalisedf,3.

Nasalisation

ʼ

ʼ [U+02BC MODIFIER LETTER APOSTROPHE] is used to indicate nasalisation. It may occur after the onset consonant or after the vowel nucleus, but either way produces the same result; the nasalisation of the vowel.f,3

Fraser writes that, with the exception of ɑ and ɯ, standalone vowels are always nasalised (although the nasalisation marker doesn't appear to be used in many texts). On the other hand vowels following a written consonant are normally never nasalised in pure Lisu words. Exceptions arise for words beginning with , and some words adapted from Chinese where nasalisation replaces the Chinese -n or codas.f,3

Tones

Lisu uses the following signs, which look like western punctuation, to represent the tone of a syllable. The Unicode Standard says that they may use the same fixed-width spacing as the letters.

ꓸ␣ꓹ␣ꓺ␣ꓻ␣ꓼ␣ꓽ

The expected typing and storage position for tone marks is after all other elements in a syllable.

The first four tone letters can be used in combination with the last two to represent certain combination tones. The Unicode Standard says that, of the various possibilities, only ꓹꓼ is still in use and the rest are now rarely seen in China.u

However, examining a random selection of pages in Bible.is, the following syllables were found, each of which has a different combination of doubled tone marks.

ꓐꓲꓺꓼ bī᷆ ꓚꓸꓼ t͡ɕ́᷆ ꓔꓱꓹꓼ tø̌᷆ ꓠꓯꓸꓼ nɛ́᷆ ꓦꓵꓻꓼ hy̰᷆

Consonants with no following vowel

Consonant clusters don't normally occur in Lisu, since syllables generally have the structure CV. There are no special mechanisms for showing consonant clusters, and no conjuncts, etc.

Consonants

Consonant summary table

The following table summarises the main consonant to character assigments.

Stops
ꓑ␣ꓐ␣ꓔ␣ꓓ␣ꓗ␣ꓖ␣ ␣ꓒ␣ꓕ␣ꓘ
Affricates
ꓝ␣ꓜ␣ꓚ␣ꓙ␣ ␣ꓞ␣ꓛ
Fricatives
ꓩ␣ꓢ␣ꓤ␣ꓫ␣ꓣ␣ꓧ␣ꓭ␣ꓦ␣ꓨ
Nasals
ꓟ␣ꓠ␣ꓠꓬ␣ꓥ
Other
ꓪ␣ꓡ␣ꓬ

Consonant letters

Whereas the table just above takes you from sounds to letters, the following simply lists the basic consonant letters used (however, since the orthography is highly phonetic there is no actual difference in letters or ordering).

ꓑ␣ꓐ␣ꓔ␣ꓓ␣ꓗ␣ꓖ␣ ␣ꓒ␣ꓕ␣ꓘ␣ ␣ꓝ␣ꓜ␣ꓚ␣ꓙ␣ ␣ꓞ␣ꓛ␣ ␣ꓩ␣ꓢ␣ꓤ␣ꓣ␣ꓫ␣ꓧ␣ꓭ␣ꓦ␣ꓨ␣ ␣ꓟ␣ꓠ␣ꓥ␣ ␣ꓪ␣ꓡ␣ꓬ

Onsets

and occur as medial consonants in an onset. There is no shaping involved; just a sequence of consonants.

ꓠꓬꓲ ꓤꓽ

ꓥꓪꓸ

Finals

There are no syllable-final consonants in pure Lisu. Fraser writes that words of Chinese origin ending in a nasal coda and others simply nasalise the vowel.f

However, the Wikipedia article provides an example of a Chinese loan word 凉粉 which includes both a final -w and final -n sound, both of which are written.

ꓡꓬꓮꓳ ꓩꓷꓠ

Numbers

Lisu uses ASCII digits.

The thousands and decimal separators are the same as those used in English.

Text direction

Lisu text runs left to right in horizontal lines.

Show default bidi_class properties for characters in the Lisu orthography described here.

Glyph shaping & positioning

You can experiment with examples using the Lisu character app.

Context-based shaping & positioning

tbd

Lisu letters don't interact, so no special shaping is needed.

There are no combining marks, so combining mark positioning is not an issue.

Graphemes

Grapheme clusters

Since there are no combining marks or decompositions, graphemes correspond to individual characters.

Unicode grapheme clusters can be applied to Lisu without problems. There are no special issues related to operations that use grapheme clusters as their basic unit of text.

Punctuation & inline features

Word boundaries

tbd

Syllables are separated by spaces, however where syllables combine to form a proper noun, a hyphen is used to bind the syllables together.u,754

For multi-syllable words the inter-syllable space is still used. Because of difficulties determining which syllable sequences correspond to multi-syllablic words, except when dealing with proper nouns, the syllable is normally taken to be the basic unit for text processing.u,754

Hyphens.As just mentioned, - is used between the syllables that compose a proper noun. The Unicode Standard suggests the use of 2010 instead, as its semantics are less ambiguous.

ꓬꓰ‐ꓢꓴ

Phrase & section boundaries

tbd

꓾␣:␣;␣꓿␣!␣?

Lisu uses a mixture of ASCII and native punctuation.

phrase

[U+A4FE LISU PUNCTUATION COMMA]

sentence

[U+A4FF LISU PUNCTUATION FULL STOP]

? [U+003F QUESTION MARK]

! [U+0021 EXCLAMATION MARK]

A lesser and greater degree of finality are represented by [U+A4FE LISU PUNCTUATION COMMA] and [U+A4FF LISU PUNCTUATION FULL STOP], respectively.

Chapter and verse in biblical texts tend to be separated by the ASCII colon and semicolon. The numeric context helps distinguish these separators from the Lisu tone marks.

Lisu also uses the ASCII characters ? and ! for question and exclamation marks. The question mark replaces the A4FA A4FD A4FF sequence of characters which was used in older texts.

Bracketed text

(␣)

Lisu commonly uses ASCII parentheses to insert parenthetical information into text.

  start end
standard

(

)

Quotations & citations

Book titles

《␣》

These fullwidth characters are used to identify book titles.

  start end
standard

Abbreviation, ellipsis & repetition

Ellipsis is written using .

In Chinese texts this is always doubled, ie.

……

Line & paragraph layout

Line breaking & hyphenation

Syllables are separated by spaces (see word), and the space between syllables provides the primary break opportunity for wrapping text, even where that occurs in the middle of a multi-syllable word.u,754

Line breaks are not allowed inside a syllable, or before a punctuation mark (even if that is separated from the previous syllable by a space).u,753

A multi-syllable proper noun, where syllables are separated by a hyphen, can be wrapped after the hyphen.u,754

Show (default) line-breaking properties for characters in the modern Lisu orthography.

Hyphenation

Since syllables are not split during line wrapping, and there are spaces or hyphens between syllables, there is no need for automatic hyphenation.u,754

Baselines, line height, etc.

Lisu uses the so-called 'alphabetic' baseline, which is the same as for Latin and many other scripts.

Page & book layout

Online resources

  1. The Sound of the Lisu language (Numbers, Words & The Parable)
  2. Bible.is

Further reading