How to pronounce “Aung San Suu Kyi”

Coming across an op-ed from here, I came to the conclusion that most of the time, Burmese names are not done justice.

The op-ed states this:

Bush continued making us proud by thinking and saying that he was addressing an OPEC summit instead of the APEC summit. He thanked the Austrian army for providing security. Yes, of course, it was the Australians who provided the security in Australia not the Austrians. He got lost on stage and couldn’t find his way off and couldn’t pronounce the name of Myanmar’s democratic opposition leader; all grade A Bush material for late night comics everywhere.

Assuming that the “democratic opposition leader” is Aung San Suu Kyi, I’ve heard her name mispronounced numerous times. Firstly, there are news broadcasts or documentaries that refer to her as “ONG SAN SU CHEE,” using syllables that don’t even exist in Burmese. To understand the eccentric way the Burmese like to romanize would take a skilled linguist.

Aung San Suu Kyi

“Aung” is roughly pronounced “Oun” (rhymes with “sound,” without the ‘d’ and ‘s’). Most Burmese people with the name ‘Aung’ spell it misleadingly with ‘ng’ because in Burmese, it is spelled with a silent ‘ng.’ “San” is pronounced close enough, but to be more exact, it has to be lengthened (so more “Saan” rather than “San”.) “Suu,” unlike the misleading lengthening of the vowel, is short and abrupt. So it’s more of a a snappy and quick “Su” rather than a long-voweled “Suu.” And “Kyi” is the one most people have trouble with. The pronunciation of “Kyi” does not even exist in English, so a “Chee” is the closest approximation. But for those who are familiar with Spanish or French, the ‘k’s in those languages are softened. But the “Kyi” is a combination of the soft ‘k’ and a ‘y’ sound, which is hard to explain.

Shortly put:

  • “Aung” rhymes with “sound” (without the ‘s’ and ‘d’);
  • “San” rhymes with “sun,” except with a long vowel.
  • “Su” ends abruptly, like French ‘zut,’ or less closely, to English “loot” (replace the ‘t’ with an abrupt stop)
  • “Kyi” is a softened “Chee.” Like the French or Spanish ‘k.’

I do not understand why many news articles that include pronunciation keys for Aung San Suu Kyi’s name, like so: “democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (ONG-SAN-SUU-CHEE)” are even put there if they bear little resemblance to the name’s pronunciation. I guess it’s sort of like simplifying her name’s pronunciation, but unfortunately that has become standard name pronunciation in most media outlets like CNN.

But considering even Burma’s other name “Myanmar” is butchered by the English-speaking world (for starters, Myanmar is two syllables, not three), I guess these pronunciation variants are supposed to occur naturally. By the way, for those who use “Myanmar,” please say “Myan-ma” or “Myan-mar” instead of “My-an-mar.”


34 thoughts on “How to pronounce “Aung San Suu Kyi”

  1. william rettig says:

    thank you very much for helping me with the proper pronunciation. i have been wondering how to say her name correctly. we owe her that honor.

  2. Dan Ford says:

    Thank you! But one more question:

    Is Aung San a family name? I see the Wall Street Journal refer to her as “Ms. Aung San”, while the less buttoned-up wire services refer to her as “Suu Kyi”. It had been my impression that Burmese had but one name. However, Wikipedia notes that Suu Kyi (if that’s an acceptable usage) had brothers, both of whose names began Aung San after their father.

    Blue skies! — Dan Ford (I visited Rangoon and Toungoo in December 1986, an unforgettable experience, while researching the American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers that trained in Burma and defended Rangoon, 1941-1942)

  3. Aung Kyaw says:

    Dan Ford:

    In Burmese tradition, there are no family names or surnames. I find it strange that WSJ would refer to ASSK as Ms. Aung San, because BBC and other media sources refer to her as “Suu Kyi” or “Ms. Suu Kyi,” which is strange, but is now accepted usage.

    It’s wonderful that you visited Rangoon and Taungoo in the 1980s. My father’s family comes from a small town near Taungoo.

    • Kyaw Zin says:

      Dear Dan Ford:
      It would be better idea and more preferable to call Our Leader by her full name, which is more fully in compliance with the Myanmar Tradition; It also mean you are paying your respect to her while calling by full name.

  4. ZAungZ says:

    It can be shortened to Daw Suu ( daw being an honorific ) if desired : this is often used by those who know her . Otherwise Ms Suu Kyi is generally accepted as opposed to Ms Aung San which is not .

  5. absolutelybangkok says:

    Actually the regime calls her “Daw Suu,” as U Tin Oo had once told me. Her friends refrain therefore from calling her Daw Suu.

  6. Roser says:

    Excellent your post. I had also problems, or better said, any knowledge at all about its pronunciation.
    I’ve just discovered your blog which I find it very very useful. Ms Suu Kyi’s son Alexander read a beautiful speech written by her on 1992, when the olympic flame arrived to the catalan coast. I discovered her and immediately after it the brutal regime your country has.I am deeply concerned to enlarge the knowledge of everything what’s happened in your country.
    All of us, we have to use our freedom to promote
    Birmania’s freedom.

  7. Ryan says:

    Is there any way you can post a recording of someone saying her name properly? I know for myself at least, that would help with getting a better feel for the pronunciation. If you can’t, it’s no big deal. Very interesting site, by the way.

  8. faye says:

    can someone please tell me the translation of ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ and ‘free burma’ and ‘freedom’, i cannot get the font so it would have to be in picture form

  9. qui says:

    thank you very much for helping me with the proper pronunciation. i have been wondering how to say her name correctly. we owe her that honor.

  10. Hninzi says:

    For the person who suggested that ‘Kyi’ should be spelt ‘Chee’, you have to realise that the Burmese language clearly differentiates between the aspirated and unaspirated forms of the ‘Ch’ consonant. ‘Ch’ is the aspirated form and ‘Ky’ is the unaspirated one. It’s hard to explain exactly what the unaspirated ‘Kyi’ sounds like because it doesn’t exist in English. But basically ‘Kyi’ is the unaspirated form of ‘Chee’ which is pronounced without a puff of air. But I think if you spoke a language like Hindi or Thai, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about because AFAIK this differentiation also exists in those languages.

    Also if you were to spell it ‘Chee’ it gives the impression that it is in the high tone. Whereas the ‘Kyi’ in Aung San Suu Kyi is in the mid tone.

    I know that sounds quite confusing but the point I’m making is, it wouldn’t make much linguistic sense to start spelling ‘Kyi’ in Aung San Suu Kyi with ‘Chee’ because in Burmese ‘Ky’ and ‘Ch’ are two very different consonants or phonemes unlike say in English where only the aspirated form (‘Ch’) exists.

    • Wagaung says:

      Hninzi is too polite to say ‘Chee’ in fact means s***t in Burmese. The Burmese would only laugh at the gaffe and not offended by a foreigner at least trying. It should sound like how they say ‘chana dahl’ in Hindi.

    • David says: – There’s plenty of sites when/where you can find audio examples. And there’s always youtube where you can often find native speakers clarifying. However, having the written explanation was kind of cool.

  11. Sengwhyo Kang says:

    Thank you. I really needed this because I’m doing a first-person presentation on her next week. It would be really bad to mispronounce “my” name! Plus, Aung San should be respected at least by pronouncing her name correctly. I know I really hate it when people mispronounce my name (in Korean it’s pronounced sing hyo with the first part being a short i, but even in English it’s pronounced seng hyo with the first part being a short e which most people can’t figure out by the spelling of my name)

    • Lionel Rowe says:

      @Kay: that link sounds wrong to my ear, the vowel in “Aung” sounds off. (Not that I’m Burmese or know the language particularly well)

  12. AgreeToDisagree says:

    She is unsuitable as her father himself was military junta before becoming PM and thrown off his ‘throne’ by other junta. This Aung San Su Kyi if she becomes PM, would create an OLIGARCHY and FAMILY DYNASTIES and is unsuitable as an example to the people of Burma.

    Any second liner supporters of Aung Sang Su Kyi or in NLD however could be a great PM in lieu of Aung San Su Kyii herself though. Aung Sang herself creates conflict of interest as her father was also PM, and she would creates oligarchy and family dynasty if she becomes PM.

    That scenario is no better than a Military Junta being in power currently. Aung Sang Su Kyi herself is also likely a CIA/FBI plant, so, no thanks and Burmans, please be aware that the US is still stinging from it’s Vietnam losses, now they target Burma? Choose anyone in the NLD except her, if you want NLD to be respected and not accused to creating FAMILY DYNASTIES.

    To prevent nepotism/oligarchy/ FAMILY DYNASTIES is very important in the 3rd world. Those who support such behaviour have ‘VESTED INTERESTS’ and are selling out fellow citizens and democratic protections and prohibitions on Oligarchy/Dynasty.

  13. Sprudl says:

    So useful, but I’m confused by the opening post, which says “san” rhymes with “sun”—yet the Forvo example doesn’t sound like sun but rather like “san.” I work for a news organization. What would be a better pronunciation guide in roman? Judging from Forvo, I’d be inclined to write “Ow-SAN-su-she,” because the emphasis seems to fall on the second syllable, and if CHEE sounds like “sh–t” in Burmese, then “she” would seem to be the softer pronunciation discussed. What do people think? (The “n” in Aung sounds swallowed, but if it isn’t, how to write that syllable? “own” wouldn’t work. Perhaps “OWun”?) Thanks much.

  14. dharani555 says:

    Using a foreign alphabet (in this case, the Roman system) to pronounce words in a language using a different alphabet *(in this case Burmese) is bound to cause some problems and confusions, so guides like yours are very helpful.

  15. James says:

    The letter “k” is not used in the French or Spanish languages, except in foreign words (or “loanwords”) that already contain it. The same is true of the letter “w”.

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