Bringing the Burmese language up to speed

The Burmese language has a huge task at hand: modernizing itself. It’s amazing how stunted the language feels when one tries to describe business and technical jargon, making it difficult to lucidly articulate oneself in the professional realm, especially for those schooled in the West.

I, for one, work in health IT, which has specialized vocabulary that the average layman would find difficult to understand, let alone laymen speaking other languages. In the world of virtualized servers and system thin clients, I was hard pressed to explain these concepts in Burmese when I returned earlier last year, or even more generic project management concepts. Even my recent examination of Google’s Burmese Gmail translation effort reveals the usage of several unfiltered imports from English, including the word email itself.

Yesterday, I came across a newly published article, “Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them,” which examines, if just scratching the surface, the challenges of the Burmese language in terms of its lexical capacity.

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Come July, Burma to begin rolling out health insurance

Working in the American health care sector has intensified my fascination with the health care landscape, the complex interplays between patient and provider, government and business sector, and the competing motivators of money versus care.

And the bottom line is that the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and populations is at stake. Yet most people overlook what underpins these medical transactions: insurance policies and legislation.

So the Finance Ministry’s announcement that health insurance is coming to Burma let me feeling like this was a bit premature.

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Burmese Americans

How big is Burmese America?

We Burmese Americans are an elusive bunch. We’re rather underrepresented among Asian Americans. But our exact numbers are unknown. The other day, my mom asked me how big the Burmese American community was, and to that I had no answer. So I turned to some numbers from the 2010 Census, which shed some light on the size of the Burmese American community.

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Will Burmese numerals ever fall out of fashion?

Throughout the rest of the world, local numeral systems are quickly being replaced with Hindu-Arabic numerals (i.e., 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). This holds true across Asia, where countries with native sets of numerals, like Thailand, Cambodia, and China, increasingly prefer the Hindu-Arabic forms in daily use, relegating the indigenous sets to ceremonial usage. In Europe, Hindu-Arabic numerals had replaced cumbersome Roman numerals by the 1400s.

Yet Burmese remains a curious outlier in Asia. Record-keeping is still largely done in Burmese numerals, even after nearly a century of British colonization. And although mathematics is taught using the Hindu-Arabic set, the traditional set of Burmese numerals is still widely used, in literature, newspapers, and handwriting. But why?

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Lanna script vs Burmese script

How to transcribe Pāḷi in Lanna and Burmese

As descendants of the Old Mon script, both Burmese and Lanna can and are used to transcribe Pāḷi, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, akin to Latin’s role in Roman Catholicism. In fact, for hundreds of years, both Burmese and Lanna have historically served as vehicles of knowledge transfer in Mainland Southeast Asia, used in to transcribe Pali texts and religious commentaries on inscriptions and manuscripts.

I explore the conventions of Pali transcription in both Lanna and Burmese below. The similarities almost render Lanna transcriptions readable to a literate Burmese speaker.

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