Modern developments in spoken Burmese

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!

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12 thoughts on “Modern developments in spoken Burmese

  1. We have done this before if my memory serves.

    1. As far as I can recall, and I am probably older than your parents, these have always been interchangeable. Only the correct spelling will be adhered to I should hope. The general rule – yay dawt ahman, hpat tawt athan (correct spelling when you write, correct pronunciation when you read) – applies here. The Burmese language as you know is riddled with such irregularities. Thingyan (water festival) is pronounced Thagyan by many in Mandalay but some would stick to the written word either being pedantic or just ignorant of the majority pronunciation in the same city. It happens in English when some of the British may pronounce say “controversy” the American way or preventative instead of preventive.

    2. It is probably laziness, and perhaps a lack of robustness in teaching today that has seen a lapse in distinguishing the aspirated and unaspirated sounds that confer different meanings in the example given. Aung San is pronounced Aung Hsan whereas Thein Sein is not Thein Hsein, and you know the first is spelt with a hsa lein whereas the second has a sa lone.

    3. The ha hto is simply impossible for northerners which southerners add to the na sound almost routinely. So someone from Myitkyina or Mogok (but not Mandalay) would say nin for hnin (snow) whereas their friend from Yangon would say hney lè for ney lè (afternoon). On the other hand yannyo (grudge) has always been pronounced yan hnyo. Again as in your own example of naing always pronounced hnaing it follows the rule mentioned above in 1.

    4. I do not recognise this last item of silent consonants. Perhaps it is peculiar to ethnic Chinese speakers of the Burmese language even when they are Burmese born, rather like the pronouns lu (you, nin in Burmese) and wa (I, nga in Burmese).

    • Hi Wagaung, thanks for your comments! Much appreciated. I think I’ve broached this topic before, albeit from different angle.

      1. In that case, would the word for sand (သဲ), thale or the fall under that same principle or is that just a glaring mispronunciation that seems to plague almost every other Burmese speaker I’ve come across?

      2. That brings to mind the English merger of the “wh” and “w” sounds. In school, we were taught to enunciate the “h” in words spelled “wh,” but most of my peers don’t make that distinction anymore, at least in conversation.

      3. I hadn’t observed that before! Very interesting, could that possibly be influence from other spoken languages in upper Burma?

      4. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: an interview with a Burmese model [link] Around 0:45, if you listen closely, she says “ကိုယ်တော့ …” There are a few other instances in the clip. In another interview with Ni Ni Khin Zaw [link], when she says “မန္တလေးမှာ ပိုပျော်တယ်”, when using the sentence final de (တယ်), she seems to utter something between a light “d” and a “y” sound.

  2. 2. I recall mentioning the mnemonics we were taught as children – hsan hse hsar hsay (rice, oil, salt, medicine). Not sure if today’s kids are taught the same anymore. If not, neither at home nor at school, it’s hardly surprising the kids haven’t a clue.

  3. 1. Sorry, Aung Kyaw, you lost me there. The word thè (sand) can only be said transposing the theta sound to the unaspirated t by someone with a commonly recognisable lisp. One very unfortunate development has been Burmese on Facebook writing the sound eh or è, say Palel in English for the name Pearl instead of Pale in the old style Burmese English. So you get something like Lin Let Kyel Sin. Then the name Ye Myint should also be spelled Yel Myint! The irony here of Burmese in general being unable to say the L ending properly is lost to them, or perhaps that’s the reason. So it’s English rendition for the Burmese who evidently think everyone including non-Burmese would say it correctly!

    The name Pe Maung Tin or Thein Pe Myint nowadays may be spelled with a Phay which doesn’t make sense to anyone wanting the correct pronunciation. But Phone Myint or Phyu Phyu has always been spelt that way, wrong from the start. This I am almost certain came about because the aspirated and unaspirated sounds are important to distinguish in our language including the correct spelling and pronunciation of people’s names. So a rather botched attempt that stuck.

    Nay Myo Zin would have been spelt as in Ne Win, but I’ve seen Nay Win too. It just reflects the younger generations growing up unfamiliar with the older English rendition of their own names having had an appalling standard of English language teaching. And it’s not just ordinary folk because official names like Magway changed from Magwe must have been the handiwork of someone either from the same generation or simply ill-educated. Sorry about the rant.

    2. My own difficulty with certain English vowel sounds and consonants including your own example easy for native speakers is pretty plain to them. I’d say Chris Why for Chris Hoy, or make an effort to say persons and Parsons differently.

    3. If you were Mandalay born and bred like me you’d have grown up hearing all sorts of regional accents and lisps North, South, West of the Irrawaddy, the Midlands, even people from Monywa missing out the ya saying Monwa with a lisp of their own! Mohnyin too will be Mo(h)nyin to its townsfolk. Natives of Pakokku say yedoon for yedwin (well), and khwin hnit for khun hnit (seven).

    4. I have listened to both clips and recognised the d sound at the end of sentences which at a stretch may sound re/reh instead of de/deh or is it del?!
    Another very annoying development of late that does no good to my blood pressure is the liberal sprinkling of English words and phrases by the “educated” middle class Burmese including government officials and the media. Okay among themselves but in public? Where perfectly good Burmese words and phrases exist. They don’t even bother with the transliteration of foreign names in print, both business concerns and people, not just Anglo names but everything foreign, even seminar titles advertised in the Burmese media! As if all Burmese were literate in English. Besides the irony is that most of these people themselves can’t really string together a proper English sentence.

    One thing I admire about Daw Suu is despite growing up and having lived most of her life in the West she would never use a single English word when she addresses the public. And not just that she sets a great example in fashion to all those modern youth and the not so young with their short skirts, skimpy shorts and bleached hair. Perhaps it’s because I’m just a grumpy old man from her generation… the perennial debate of modernity vs tradition I suppose. Always hard to strike a balance.

  4. My apologies for overlooking the alternative word thalè for thè (sand) – as in thalè thee (pomegranate), not sure if the sandy gritty texture of the fruit has any bearing on its name. It is indeed a very common variation in Mandalay. It may be spelled as it sounds in dialogue form but in formal usage thè would be the preferred term.

  5. Of the expressions featuring sand I can only think of one that uses thalè in: “kyauk khè thalè hma mahote hta” (not like stones and sand, meaning not without value or worth).

  6. As a foreigner who is just starting out in learning burmese, I must say that both of you are linguists with immaculate english skills.

    Its good to know that such pronunciation shifts are happening as we speak, as part of a natural development of language. As a self learner i guess it means that pronunciation is highly important in burmese language, similar to chinese which I learnt as a Singaporean.

    Which brings me to another question, I’ve heard of friends learning burmese who tried practising by speaking to taxi drivers and most of the time despite their utmost effort to pronounce the words correctly, the drivers wouldn’t understand. So I wonder if nuances in pronunciation is usually picked up automatically by a local speaker?

  7. I guess it applies to every language. You pick up any language quite naturally from infancy, and you learn best as an adult by listening well and mingling. A lot of Burmese are quite well educated in English but less confident or unable to carry a conversation as the instruction at school in spoken English has always been weaker even in the old missionary school days when some of them insisted on fining pupils speaking in the vernacular as it were. But it went in a downward spiral after 1962 with the military takeover.

    I am sure tone and stress are important aspects of any language, and perhaps because of that including accent and cadence it seems a full sentence is usually harder to understand for native speakers than a single or few words. You just need to keep at it, listening and saying it out. Certain expressions/sentences are formulaic as in English.

    There was a story about an Englishman who put too much stress on lo jin deh (I want or I want to) and it came out loe jin deh (I want to f**k) every time.

  8. Another phonological shift in Burmese I’ve noticed is that in many instances, the intensity of the glottal stop is becoming less and less, and slowly transitioning to an open vowel especially in relatively fast speech.

    For example, a word like alouk (work) would sound more like aloh, and anauk (back/west) –> anau etc.

    In fact, in dialects of Burmese spoken in Dawei and Myeik in Tanintharyi, glottal stops have all but disappeared and transformed into fully open vowels. Also, the initial consonant of many sentence particles have dropped completely. So

    alouk louk-te (to work) would sound like aloh loh-eh.

    So I think that standard Burmese phonology is becoming more and more like the dialects spoken in Tanintharyi particularly when it comes to glottal stops disappearing and initial consonants dropping.

    • Interesting you bring that up, because I’ve noticed that too, especially among younger generation Burmese! Considering that the trajectory of the Burmese language in the past 3 centuries has been: consonantal final > glottal stop (ʔ), I wouldn’t be surprised to see in another half century for Burmese speakers to read အနောက် as anao instead of anauh.

  9. Another trend I’ve noticed especially among younger people is the more and more frequent use of emotive final sentence particles like ‘pawt’ and ‘naw’.

    Emotive particles in Burmese are wonderful and beautiful in that it allows the speaker to convey one’s feeling and attitude about the topic of discussion in subtle ways where in English one would have to use intonation and stress because English simply does not have such equivalent particles. However, the excessive use of such emotive particles like ‘pawt’ or ‘naw’ can sometimes make the speaker appear insecure and sound as though they’re not confident or sure with what they are saying and as though they’re somehow indirectly trying to seek agreement or approval from the listener.

    Listen to or read a transcript of a news interview such as on VOA or BBC with a native Burmese speaker especially a young person where they’re recounting some recent event, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The use of ‘pawt’ and ‘naw’ is becoming too annoyingly excessive! Then for a comparison, listen to an interview with someone from an older generation especially a very articulate speaker such as Daw Suu, and one can’t help but notice the big difference in terms of the much less frequency of ‘pawt’ and ‘naw’.

    The closest thing I can think of in English is how it can become really annoying for the listener if a speaker excessively uses the phrase ‘you know’, ‘you know’, ‘you know’ at the end of each sentence multiple times in a conversation.

    • Ordinarily pawt indicates agreement or confirmation, and naw as assurance or apologetic. Liberal or excessive use amounts to a dumbing down, and it seems a Yangon-centric celebrity culture is to blame.

      Punt-poe is another frequently used word which seems to have lost its original negative connotation. It used to indicate a burdensome act (e.g. supporting a mistress or a wayward member of the family) rather than its modern use to mean support in a positive sense.

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