01 July, 2007:
Naxi, a Unique Language of China
While the rebus principle may still seem like a strange basis for a written language, it is actually used for other languages besides Chinese. The Naxi language, which is spoken by a minority group in Yunnan Province (云南), has a pictographic writing system. Although the system is not a fully functional orthography, it definitely takes advantage of the rebus principle to deal with abstract words and grammatical particles. The picture below shows a sign printed in English, Chinese, and Naxi:
It appears that in this picture, many of the Naxi pictographs are not used to symbolize that which they are a picture of. For example, the pictograph that looks like a rabbit appears under the Chinese character for “district,” 区 qu1. Probably, this character is being used for its sound.
The Naxi pictographic script was originally the sole property of religious leaders. These figures were the only ones who learned to read the complicated pictures, and the script was kept guarded. More recently, the unique script has acquired its own fame, and is used more frequently in public settings. A result of increased use is that the orthography must develop to suit modern needs, which sometimes means stretching the rebus principle to cover more words in various contexts.
Chinese script also encountered such stretching throughout its development. Fortunately, the script was adapted to suit its changing needs. The current Chinese writing system takes advantage of more sophisticated tools than the rebus to make itself clearly understood.