Interesting Burmese word origins
A graphic I made, showing some of the linguistic diversity found in the Burmese language.
Burmese has a hodgepodge of words that come from other languages, some that would surprise most people, at least me. It’s a given that many Burmese words come from Pali (from Buddhism) or English (from colonial rule), but quite a number of words also come from obscure and seemingly unrelated languages to Burmese. I’ve compiled a list of the most interesting ones.
- The Burmese word for noodles, khauk hswe (ခေါက်ဆွဲ) comes from Shan ‘khauk hswoi’. Perhaps it’s just me, but I would have expected the word to have been native in Burmese, considering how ubiquitous it is in Burmese cuisine.
- The Burmese word for flag, a lan (အလံ) comes from Arabic ‘alam’. This one was shocking to me, because Arabic seems like a very unlikely language to have influenced Burmese. But I was mistaken, because Arab traders first made contact with Burma during the 1400s and their ships probably carried flags, a term not present in the Burmese language at the time.
- The Burmese word for fish sauce, ngan bya yay (ငပြာရည်) comes from Thai ‘namplah’. I always thought the ngan in ngan bya yay means “salty” (because salty is ‘ngan’ in Burmese), but I found out today, for the first time, they’re spelled differently in Burmese.
- The Burmese word for gun, tha nat (သေနတ်) comes from Dutch ‘snaphaan’, which is a very primitive firearm. At first thought, one would wonder how a Dutch word became incorporated into the Burmese language. However, it is because the Netherlands’ Dutch East India Company first began trading in the 1600s with lower Burma and ended in the early 1700s. With the Dutch came their guns, and thus their word for gun was incorporated in Burmese. It’s also interesting to note that in Burmese, the ‘th’ sound represents the ‘s’ sound (that’s why the Thai Songkran is Thingyan in Burmese), so back then, Burmese speakers might have said sanat.
- The Burmese word for pineapple, na nat thi (နာနတ်သီး) comes from French ananas. The French were not as intimately tied in Burmese history as the British, but they apparently did make come cultural contributions. I’m assuming that the French either traded pineapples or introduced pineapple cultivation in Burma during the late 1800s (according to the Burmese government website).
- The Burmese word for money, pat hsan, also pronounced paik san (ပိုက်ဆံ) comes from Hindi ‘paik sa’. I remember watching several Bollywood movies, including Taxi No. 9211 (which was a good film), where the characters constantly said ‘paik sa’ or something along those lines whenever the word ‘money’ popped up in the subtitles. Perhaps coincidence, I thought, but I was mistaken. Hindi lent Burmese the word for ‘money’, which one would assume is a very basic word. I assume that the word was probably was carried over when Burma was an British Indian province.
- The Burmese word for window, ga dwin pauk (ပြာတင်းပေါက်) comes from Mon ‘batang’. This one took me by surprise, in both its spelling and its origin. I always used to wonder why people say ga dwin pauk, even though it’s spelled pya tin pauk. But I guess a lot of architectural terms, even those as basic as window, come from Mon, because Burmans adopted a lot of Mon culture.
- The Burmese word for clothing or shirt, ein gyi (အင်္ကျေး) comes from Hindi ‘amgiya’. This is very interesting, because the modern Burmese longyi comes from India, the result of British colonization (beforehand, the Burmese longyi was more elaborate and looked similar to Thai sarongs). Apparently the Burmese borrowed more than the sarong from India.
- The Burmese word for foot (the measurement), pay (ပေ) comes from Portuguese ‘pé’. This was absolutely shocking. Myanmar is almost an anomaly in not using the metric system for measurements. It uses a wide range of traditional measurements like peiktha and English measurements like the pound. Originally, I assumed that pay was an attempt to sound out English “foot”, because Burmese has no equivalent sound for the “f” sound and usually substitutes the “p” sound. But, it’s interesting that the Burmese word for foot actually comes from Portuguese, and I have no idea how they introduced the word into Burmese. Also interesting is the Burmese word for water fountain/water tap, bone hmaing, also pronounced bone baing (ဘုံဘိုင်), which comes from Portuguese as well.
- The Burmese word for garage or warehouse, go daung (ဂိုဒေါင်) comes from Malaysian ‘godong’. I’m not sure how this word transferred into Burmese, but my guess is that during British rule, Malaysian shippers and traders who transported goods to and from Burma introduced this word into the general populace, or that because lower coastal Burma is so close to Malaysia that a few words such as garage slipped into the Burmese vocabulary.
Update: Sorry, the Zawgyi pseudo-Unicode doesn’t work on WordPress for some reason, at least for me.
Update 2: I’m using Unicode 5.1 for this. You just need to install the ပီတောက် font here: http://scripts.sil.org/Padauk.