Over the years, I’ve encountered and observed several phonological changes in spoken Burmese. It’s more easily discerned when you have a handle of the actual spelling of these words. Unfortunately, there’s not much academic treatment on the Burmese language’s ongoing linguistic evolution, so I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I can readily point out.
I’ve noticed that the older generation tends to give equal weight to each syllable, precisely enunciating each syllable in each word. My grandfather, for instance, speaks this way. Also, I’ve observed that conventional broadcasting (news and radio) tends to adhere to the conservatives pronunciations. However, interviews with celebrities and other light entertainment do not, falling on both ends of the spectrum.
I actually find the topic of phonological shifts to be quite interesting. One that immediately comes to mind are the developments in modern Cantonese. For instance, younger and Hong Kong speakers have merged the initial l and n sounds (so that “you” or 你 is pronounced lei, not nei), whereas older speakers (and those in the mainland) tend not to. A small but vocal group of Cantonese speakers rejects these new pronunciations altogether, calling them improper and even “lazy.” But of course, that’s an extreme example, especially given that Cantonese isn’t written with an alphabet, which gives cues as to the correct pronunciation of each word.
1. Merger of wun (ဝမ်) and wut (ဝတ်) to win (ဝစ်) and wit (ဝင်)
This is the most pronounced of the bunch. A lot of Burmese speakers nowadays, merge the wun/wut sounds into win/wit. Given that my mom also merges the 2 sounds, I’m guessing that this merger has been ongoing for at least a generation or two. However, speakers of my grandparents’ generation, at least in my observations, make a clear distinction between the two sets of rhymes. David Bradley, a linguist specializing in Tibeto-Burman languages, also makes this observation (3rd to last slide) [link]. The following are a few examples of this merger:
“to wear” – wut (ဝတ်) > wit (ဝစ်)
“happy” - wun tha (ဝမ်းသာ) > win tha (ဝင်းသာ)
2. Merger of initial hs (ဆ) to s (စ)
Increasingly, it’s become difficult to encounter a native Burmese speaker who can discern, let alone, explain the difference between the hs (ဆ) and s (စ) consonants to me (even among educated Burmese). An example of this consonant merger:
“salt” – hsa (ဆား) > sa (စား)
3. Preaspiration of words that start with ‘n’
Presapiration of certain consonants, that is, consonants modified with the ha hto diacritic (ှ) to distinguish words like “step on” (nin, နင်း) and “snow” (hnin, နှင်း) is a relatively uncommon linguistic feature that Burmese possesses. However, I’ve noticed a tendency, especially for female speakers, to preaspirate, even for syllables that don’t require this. I’m not sure why, but maybe it’s because hn is less harsh than a full on n sound. Some examples:
“and” – ne (နဲ့) > hne (နှဲ့)
[verb suffix indicating possibility] – naing (နိုင်) > hnaing (နှိုင်)
4. Imprecise pronunciations of grammatical particles
The last one is a catch-all for very common grammatical particles in the Burmese language, found in almost every single sentence.
What happens most often is that the initial consonants of the syllable are completely lost when spoken. This is certainly not confined to Burmese–in Cantonese, these days, the word for “me” (我) is more commonly pronounced o, not ngo, with the initial consonant completely vanished. Some examples below:
[sentence final] – de (တယ်) > ye (ယယ်) – NOTE: Arakanese dialect uses re (ရယ်)
[possessive marker] – de (တဲ့) > ye (ယဲ့)
[subject marker] – ga (က) > wa (ဝ)
[object marker] kou (ကို) > ou (အို)
[emphasis particle] daw (တော့) > aw (အော့)
Which brings me to my next question — what are the main driving forces of these changes? The ease of pronouncing and controlling the flow and speed of conversation? Are the old pronunciations just too difficult? Just obsolete? Are these perceptible changes confined to certain socioeconomic classes?
What are some other pronunciation shifts that you’ve encountered in Burmese? If so, please leave a comment below!