10 things I hate about the Burmese language

Tipitaka stone inscriptions at Kuthodaw Pagoda

To be fair, Burmese isn’t the hardest language in the world to learn how to read and write. Its letters are simple and in general, pronunciation follows spelling. However, it has its fair share of oddities, mostly found in spelling. I’ve listed my top 10 annoyances below.

  1. Ya-yit (ရရစ်) versus ya-pin (ယပင်)
    In Burmese, there are two different spellings for for the ‘-y-‘ medial (as in ‘Myanma’), called ya-yit (ြ) and ya-pin (ျ). In olden times, the two symbols stood for two different pronunciations, -r- and -y- respectively (so ‘Myanma’ today was once pronounced ‘Mranma’). However, modern day Burmese has basically merged the ‘r’ sound into the ‘y’ sound, so there are now two medials for the same pronunciation. This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve in writing in Burmese. A dizzying number of Burmese words use the -y- medial. Deciding which one to use when I try to spell by sound is practically impossible without a dictionary, unless I bet on the 50/50 chance that one of the two is correct.
  2. Pali spellings
    Without Pali, the Burmese would be at a loss for words, literally. Pali, as I’ve discovered (after learning to read and write) how much Pali and Pali-derived words are a part of daily conversation. We wouldn’t have the word for ‘taste’ (ayatha, အရသာ from Pali rasa) or even something as pedestrian as ‘things’ (pyissi, ပစ္စည်း from Pali paccaya) among other things, without even delving into Pali’s role in Theravada Buddhism (there’s a whole row of 5 complicated Burmese letters mostly dedicated to Pali). But, Pali and Pali-derived words are a source of pain to spell. Many have stacked consonants (next point) and spellings that don’t match pronunciation. A case in point: ‘knowledge,’ which is spelled pa-nya (ပညာ) but pronounced pyin-nya. I still don’t understand how a nasal ending and a -y- medial were added in the pronunciation–perhaps it’s an orthography rule because ‘perception’ is spelled tha-nya (သညာ) but pronounced thin-nya.
  3. Stacked consonants
    Let’s not get started with stacked consonants (the practice of putting smaller consonants underneath the syllabic ending to start off another syllable). Since Burmese has merged all of its consonant endings into a glottal stop (like the uh in “Uh oh!”), you’re basically left to guess what consonants to use. Thankfully, stacked consonants are confined to loan words, usually Pali.
  4. Sa (စ) and hsa (ဆ) letters
    Am I alone in thinking that the Burmese letters sa-lone (စလုံး) and hsa-lein (ဆလိမ်) sound exactly the same? I am just glad that sa is more commonly used.
  5. Ya (ယ) and ya/ra (ရ) letters
    The Burmese alphabet has to catch up to modern spoken Burmese (although Arakanese and conservative dialects still use the ‘r’ sound though). The ‘r’ sound has essentially been obliterated from Burmese, save for a handful of Pali, Indian and English loan words. Yet, two letters exist for the ‘y’ consonant, ya-pa-let (ယပက်လက်) and ya-gauk (ရကောက်). For me, the fact that there are two letters that are phonetically equivalent makes spelling so much more difficult than it need be.
  6. Measure words
    Measure words are such a hassle, especially when I speak Burmese. In Burmese, there are hundreds of words that categorize dozens of nouns (flat things have one measure word, vehicles have another, and monks have another) that can be added to counted nouns [NOUN+NUMBER+MEASURE WORD] (like ‘two cars’ ka hna zi, ကားနှစ်စီး which is literally CAR+TWO+MEASURE WORD) in the same way English uses ‘two cups of coffee’ instead of ‘two coffees.’ It’s especially frustrating when I cannot think of the right measure word to use. Luckily, there’s always the ubiquitous hku (ခု) for things to fall back on.
  7. Two letters per consonant sound (z, b, d)
    This has bewildered me from the time my mother began teaching me the Burmese alphabet. Why in the world are there three pairs of letters, with each pair having the same equivalent pronunciation? (One thing to note: Burmese follows the Brahmic system of organizing letters, and in other Brahmi-based alphabets, those pairs have different pronunciations.) These include the letters for the ‘z’ sound: za-gweh (ဇကွဲ) and za-myin-zweh (ဈမျဉ်းဆွဲ); the ‘d’ sound: da-dway (ဒထွေး) and da-auk-chaik (ဓအောက်ခြိုက်); and the ‘b’ sound: ba-la-chaik (ဗထက်ခြိုက်) and ba-gone (ဘကုန်း). Perhaps a vestigial relic of ancient Burmese.
  8. Consonant and nasal endings
    This is another one of the most confusing things about learning to write in Burmese. Three different nasal endings have the same pronunciation (-န်, ံ, -မ်) and two different consonant endings (-ပ်, -တ်) have the same pronunciation. An example: the only difference between ‘card’ (kat, ကတ်) and ‘disaster’ (kat, ကပ်) is the spelling difference between an ending ‘t’ and an ending ‘p’ because they sound exactly the same.
  9. Ta (တ) and tha (သ) letters
    Maybe I don’t have a good ear, but I honestly cannot tell the difference between words spelled with the letter ta-win-bu (တဝမ်းပူ ) and the letter tha (သ) when they’re spoken. And both letters are commonly used, which add to the confusion. My understanding is that the Burmese ‘tha’ is equivalent to Pali ‘sa,’ which is the reason the Burmese water festival Thingyan (သင်္ကြန်) would be Sangkran in Pali (corresponding with the Thai Songkran) and the reason Burmese monks say ‘thadhu’ while Thai monks say ‘sadhu’ while chanting. But the words for ‘to attack’ (taik, တိုက်) and ‘nest’ (thaik, သိုက်) still sound identical to me.
  10. Oddballs: Words that are pronounced very differently from their spelling
    Burmese has a number of words (usually loaned or commonly used ones) whose pronunciations don’t correspond to their spellings. A big example (at least to me) is the word ‘mint,’ (as in mint leaves) which is pronounced pu-si-nan but spelled pu-di-na (ပူဒီနာ). Maybe it’s because the word is originally Hindi. Another is the word ‘turmeric’, which is pronounced sa-nwin but spelled na-nwin (နနွင်း). How did the ‘n’ became an ‘s’?

That said, I’m glad Burmese spelling is much simpler than Thai spelling (where up to five letters exist for one consonant) or even English spelling (where many words are an exception to the rule of “sounding it out”).

I hope everyone had a great New Year.

Note: This post requires a Unicode 5.1 Burmese font (I highly recommend Padauk.) Zawgyi and other pseudo-Unicode fonts will not properly display the following Burmese text.


50 thoughts on “10 things I hate about the Burmese language

  1. mingalaba24 says:

    Hi fifty viss,

    Just one thing to add to your list is the lack of standards for learning Burmese. As a native English speaker it is incredibly difficult to find consistent guidance for pronunciation and conversion of Burmese words into english words. It is so sad that the SPDC doesn’t see the value of such standards for propagating the Burmese language abroad.

    Thanks for all that you do and all the best in the New Year.


  2. Maya Rasheed says:

    Burmese? That sounds hard. This is very good. I learn English and that is difficult enough. You have made a very impressive site so far. I look forward to reading and learning more.

  3. Dom says:

    Pali is an (ancient) Indian language. So not just any old influence it seems- when you hear an Indian language do you understand some words?

      • 勉強 says:

        No, very very late reply, but Burmese people will be able to understand alot of Chinese (dialects included) and some Japanese (grammar wise).

        for example.
        English (Brain) | Burmese (ong nao) | Chinese (tou nao)
        English (Chicken) | Burmese (je/kye) | Chinese (ji)
        English ( I ) | Burmese (nga) | Chinese (nga/ngo/wo/wa)
        English (he/she) | Burmese (tu/tu-ma) | Chinese (ta)
        English (Yours) | Burmese (nin) | Chinese {hokkien dialect} (nin)
        English (Father) | Burmese (a hpei) | Chines {hokkien dialect} (lao pei)
        English (Know) | Old Burmese (si/shi) | Modern Burmese (ti) | Chinese (zhi)
        English (Eye) | Burmese (mye) | Chinese {cantonese dialect} (muk)
        English (Life/Breath/Kill) | Old Burmese (sat) | Modern Burmese (tat) | Chinese {cantonese dialect} (sat)
        And many more which I have forgotton, just so you get the idea.

        Burmese has indian loanwords such as, gabba (world), widiya (no accurate english translation but it’s close to peserverence), thadda (grammar), etc etc.

        Old Burmese phonetics sounds alot like Tangut phonetics.

        Burmese, apart from the silent “n” ending consonant and the breathy “hattou”, has no ending consonant. Making it a perfect fit for syllabary writing systems. Where one symbol presents (1vowel) or (1consonant+1vowel).

        The current system, despite it’s ridiculous ineffective difficulties, was maintained for reading pali buddhist texts, which rarely ocassionally happens. A very sorry excuse that blocks the potential of language growth.

        As for Japanese Grammar similarities. Both languages are SOV grammar. and the particles are eerily similar, for example

        English (As for ___, ___) | Japanese (ha/wa) | Burmese (ga/ga tau)
        English (almost like “is”) | Japanese (ga) | Burmese (ha/ti)
        English (From) | Japanese (kara) | Burmese (kanei)

        and the grammatical particle for commanding

        English (Stop it!) | Japanse (ya me ro) | Burmese (yep pa to)

        Summary: Burmese is a little hidden gem, with a sturbborn and ineffective writing system like thai.

      • Wagaung says:

        Wish we were able to understand Chinese and Japanese but no, we don’t. Your examples sound rather contrived. Having said that we do find Japanese and Hindi easier to learn than Chinese, or English for that matter.

        Pali words feature in everyday Burmese not just in reading Buddhist texts which for many is more than ‘rarely occasionally. People may make spelling mistakes but that is only to be expected. There was a drive to “write as it’s spoken” in the sixties which made some headway though failing to supersede the old form completely. Too much simplification however may only create more confusion as in thinking the ancient city Bagan and a dinner plate because they sound the same are spelled the same way! The vowels ya-yit and ya-pint (true the end consonant is not sounded in either) change not only the meaning of the word, the former retains the rolling r sound in the Rakhine dialect whereas the Burmese having lost the r (typically calling the Rakhine Yakhine) are wont to misspell the words. A recent well known example is the historian Thant Myint-U wrongly translating Mrauk U the ancient capital of the Rakhine into “monkey egg” confusing north (mrauk spelled with ya-yit) with monkey (myauk spelled with ya-pint)! A spelling mistake typically made by the Burmese, never the Rakhine, and thus open to misinterpretation.

      • 勉強 says:

        I don’t know what made you think burmese people would be able to understand hindi better than chinese. Most Burmese I’ve met in my country picked up chinese quickly and japanese even faster. (Most likely due to burmese being old chinese and japanese loan words were actually old chinese and not modern chinese)

        After which they would confess their discontent with their writing system. Words with same pronunciation and different meaning are common in sino tibetan language and others have no problem what so ever. Again aside from buddhism, there is no other reason to kill your language like that with that ineffective writing system.

        My latest discoveries have led to tibetan origin words that were used before pali came. And those words look and sound beautiful. It screams Burmese, only to be replaced by…pali. Notable examples being ShinJin (Life) and Kikkan (World). instead of bawa and gabba.

        But don’t get the wrong idea. I love burmese people and their language. Just really discontent with it’s unfortunate fate to be killed by its own people. Had so much potential. Was expecting to be like xishuangbanna, where they remove pali words for religious purposes and maintain their sino-tibetan heritage. Beautiful. But I guess not for Burmese or Tibetan.

        Burmese went from language beautifier to abomination

      • Wagaung says:

        Sorry to see you feel so strongly about the Pali ‘adulteration’ of the Burmese language. Discarding its Buddhist Canon influence would be worse than ridding English of its Latin derivatives.

        Language I believe is one of the few priceless and truly democratic institutions that belong to an entire nation, and it continues to evolve regardless of elitist or academic proscriptions.

        The simple grammar and syntax of Hindi and Japanese lend itself favourably in learning as a second language whereas the more complicated tones of Chinese, not to mention the multitude of characters one needs to master, pose a not insignificant hurdle for the Burmese never mind the similarities and roots.

        Why a people would kill their own language in the absence of alien suppression and impostion of a foreign tongue as in harsh colonial rule is beyond me admittedly no scholar in the subject under discussion.

  4. Stephanie says:

    Wow. I’m just barely, and I stress barely learning how to read and write Burmese. I’ve wanted to for some time and did learn alittle when I was much younger. Recently a Burmese monk offered to teach me, so what better opportunity!! I enjoyed your perspective. It gives me an idea of what I am to learn;)

  5. Luke says:

    Interesting post … I’ve been thinking about trying to learn Burmese next and found what you had to say interesting. I am currently studying a Bachelor’s degree in Thai and am very much interested in studying all languages which may be related to Thai, the fact that the Burmese writing system is so similar to the ancient Lanna writing system used in the Chiang Mai area (likely in parts of Burma too), has made me want to learn the language in order to study influences present in modern Thai. The fact that so many Burmese live in Thailand, should make it really easy to find native speakers to practice with too.

    Anyway, I’ll keep digging through your blog … Thanks.

  6. Aung Zeya says:

    Amusing rant. 🙂 But quite insightful observations/musings… I guess these valid observations could come only from those outside looking in; with the benefit of having learned another language.

    Anyway, as a native Burmese speaker, here are my two cents on #4, #9 and #7.

    #4: Sa (စ) and hsa (ဆ) letters
    Yes, they sound similar but there’s a subtle difference. Yes, I and many others can hear and do pronounce differently.

    So, it’s really Aung Hsan Suu Kyi, isn’t it?

    #9: Ta (တ) and tha (သ) letters
    I’m laughing so hard because it’s a pet peeve of mine. Yes, they do sound *very* *very* different. I notice that a substantial portion of Burmese Chinese can’t differentiate the “ta” and “tha” sounds. (…But I did once listen to a sermon by a Burman monk from central Burma, who had the same problem. He at least kept me awake since I was trying to figure out where he was from).

    #7: Two letters per consonant sound (z, b, d)

    The Burmese alphabet retains certain letters for spelling Pali loan words although many of which are homophones in spoken Burmese. In addition to (z, b, d), (t, ht, l and g) sounds are represented by different letters too.

    So “ဗ” is used for “b” in Pali and whereas “ဘ” for “bh”.
    Likewise, “ဒ” for d and “ဓ” for “dh”;
    “ဇ” for “j”; “ဈ” for “jh”;
    “ဂ​” for “g”; “ဃ” for “gh”;

    The following sets are also homophones in Burmese but retained for Pali. (Don’t know exactly how their Pali transliteration works. At the limit of my knowledge.)
    “ဍ​” and “ဎ​” — also “d”! (They are usually seen stacked under some other letters; your pet peeve #3.)
    “တ” and “ဋ​” — unaspirated “t” sound as the t in “stock”
    “ထ” and “ဌ​” — aspriated “t” as the t in “time”
    “လ​” and “ဠ​” — “l” sound

    Someone who’s learned (and can read) the Burmese Buddhist prayers would definitely know the differences. But my knowledge of prayers is not much beyond Awgatha…

    Hope it helps,

    • Aung Kyaw says:

      Aung Zeya – Thanks for the comment I think part of my difficulty in distinguishing different Burmese sounds is that many Burmese speakers, especially my age are less concerned with their pronunciation and mutter a lot (or as some would say, get lazy with their pronunciation. I think it’s happening in a lot of languages these days, even English). As for the 2 homophones per sound, I agree that Burmese probably should preserve them for the sake of etymology, but it is somewhat impractical imo since the Burmese script has historically merged medials or gotten rid of archaic characters (like combining the ‘la-hswe’ with ‘ya-pin’).

    • Michelle says:

      Two questions:

      How do you pronounce Thair Aye and Zeya in English? I have to interview two people who those words as part of their name. Thanks.

  7. GinJ says:

    I’m interested in figuring out the basics of the Burmese script before I make a trip there this summer. Can anyone point me to some free Burmese script practice sheets or websites online? Simple charts are kind of hard to learn off of.

  8. Aung Zeya says:

    Ko Aung Kyaw,

    I didn’t realize that you were born and raised in LA when I wrote my previous comment. I naturally assumed you were Burmese born. I must say your command (and knowledge!) of the Burmese language is very impressive, better than most native Burmese. How did you learn to read and write? Learning to write Burmese abroad isn’t for the faint-of-heart.

    Anyway, going back to distinguishing different Burmese sounds, I’m not sure that it’s a generational thing. Your having been raised in the LA Burmese community could be a reason. Based on my highly unscientific observations, the inability to distinguish “th” and “t” sounds is usually associated with Chinatown speech (at least in Yangon). The ethnic Chinese elsewhere in the city speak Burmese as well as any (no accents whatsoever) but those inside the enclave do retain very minor but still noticeable accent (and pronoun usage) differences. (My visit to Mandalay also confirmed this; or should I say, reinforced what I was looking for.)

    I notice that in Chinatown Burmese:
    * “th” (as in thin), “th” (as in then) are both pronounced as unaspirated “t” — probably because Chinese doesn’t have the “th” sounds. (I know that Mandarin and Cantonese don’t. Not sure about Hokkien.)
    * to a lesser degree, differentiating “s” and “sh” — Probably a legacy of southern Chinese speech which transfers “sh” to “s” –> e.g., si (four) and shi (water) sound pretty much the same in Mandarin spoken by southern Chinese, including Taiwanese Mandarin. Shanghai becomes Sanghai, Xiao is siao, etc.
    * a more liberal use of “nin” (you) and “nga” (I) first person pronouns with close family members

    Anyway, I wonder if LA-based Burmese is influenced by the Burmese Chinese immigrants who grew up in old Chinatown?! — if the language is still spoken by the American born at all… Do you find any accent/usage differences with the Burmese spoken in Burma?


    • Aung Kyaw says:

      Actually, my mom taught me to read and write in Burmese when I was younger. Needless to say, I had to completely rethink my idea of the alphabet, because Burmese letters work completely differently from English ones. But I still have some trouble reading more complicated material like newspapers. I guess it just takes practice because Burmese literature tends to be long, dense and convoluted (at least in comparison to English).

      You may well be right, because a great deal of Burmese immigrants in the United States are ethnic Chinese. I wouldn’t be surprised if they form the plurality of Burmese immigrants. I do notice that even between my dad’s and mom’s families, my dad’s is a lot more informal in speaking Burmese. They substitute Hokkien “lu” and “wa” for “you” and “I” when speaking Burmese, but this is pretty normal in the Burmese community here. I don’t think Hokkien has any “th” sounds either.

      But aside from that, Burmese Americans tend to use older words like “hawteh” (hotel) while in Burma “hoteh” is preferred. And Burmese Americans are less likely to pronounce the “r” sound. But I don’t notice any other pronounced differences.

      • ကုိုရင္ေလး says:

        ဆရာကီး အေဖ က လု တို႔ ၀ တို႔ ေျပာတယ္ ဆိုမွ ေတာ့ တူလည္း တ နဲ႔ သနဲ႔ ဗယ္ကြဲမတုန္း။
        ခင္ဗ်ားေျပာသလိုပါပဲ ခုမ်ားေတာ့ ရန္ကုန္မွာလည္း အရပ္ထဲမွာ အသံပ်က္ေတြနဲ႔ေျပာကုန္ၾကပါျပီ။
        အသံလႊင့္တဲ့ေနရာေတြကေတာင္ ျဖစ္သလိုေျပာေနၾကေသးတာ ဆိုေတာ့လည္း…
        ေက်ာင္းဒကာၾကီ ေအာင္ေဇယ် ေျပာသလို ခင္ဗ်ားကိုေတာ့ ခ်ီးက်ဴးစရာပါ။
        ဘာပဲျဖစ္ျဖစ္ ျမန္မာစာကို စိတ္၀င္စားလို႔ , ေနာက္ သရုပ္ခြဲဖို႔ၾကိဳးစားလို႔ ( မွန္တာမွားတာထက္ အားထုတ္မွဳကို ခ်ီးက်ဴးရမွာေပါ့ )
        ဒီထက္ပိုျပီး သိေစလိုတာကေတာ့
        ခ်စ္စရာေကာင္းတဲ့ ျမန္မာျပည္ရယ္ ၊ ပ်က္စီးလာေနတဲ့ ျမန္မာ့လူ႔အဖြဲ႔အစည္းရယ္ ၊ ခ်စ္ဖို႔ေကာင္းတဲ့ ျမန္မာကေလးငယ္ေတြရဲ႕အနာဂတ္ရယ္ ၊ အဲဒါေတြကို ျပီး တဲ့ေနာက္မွာ ေခတ္မွီေအာင္မြမ္းမံသင့္တဲ့ ျမန္မာ့ဓေလ့ထုံးတမ္းေတြေပါ့ေလ…ဘာသာေဗဒ က စလို႔ေပါ့

  9. Aung Zeya says:

    Again, it’s quite a feat to have learned to read/write Burmese in another country. I know quite a few of my friends have tried teaching their children Burmese. They have a hard enough time teaching speaking, much less writing. My wife and I are determined to teach at least spoken Burmese to our children (when we have children) but I must admit we haven’t been that ambitious about teaching them writing. Kudos to you and your mom.

    I’m surprised by the old Chinatown speech’s hold in LA. Even in Yangon, that type of speech is confined to Chinatown and getting smaller. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone (save very old people) speaking “lu” and “wa” today in Yangon, even in Chinatown. But it seems the LA speech is kind of frozen in time. I guess that’s how dialects began in the old days.


  10. bariloche says:

    Can anyone explain the meaning of “head of pure man” in Burmese? It sounds complimentary but it doesn’t translate well.

  11. David Chase says:

    I stumbled across your site and found it very insightful. I need some advice and was hoping you could help me out – I just met some Burmese refugees at a church last week. I spoke with one person who speaks pretty good English and has been learning for the last two years. I would like to develop a friendship with many of the people that I met last week and I want to learn to speak their language. I was told the group here in Texas speaks three languages: Burmese, Thai, and ?Karen? – does that sound right? Could you point me in the right direction to find resources to help with learning the languages and learn some of the culture? Thank you for any help you can give.

  12. zin moe oo says:

    I’m Burmese and I can speak Burmese but my writing and reading is not good. Does anybody know where they teach Burmese in L.A. Great job on you Burmese btw because I think Burmese is not too English friendly. I went to a website were they Burmese everyday word is English with English meaning. If i wasn’t Burmese I wouldn’t be able to read the pronunciation in English.I’m currently taking Japanese and knowing Burmese helps.

  13. Hninzi says:

    I don’t know why you’re complaining about stacked consonants. In my opinion, they are beautiful, elegant, and give a new extra dimension to the Burmese script which true alphabets such as Latin, Cyrillic etc. and true syllabaries such as hiragana and katakana lack where the letters or syllables are just arranged one after another in a boring linear or two-dimensional fashion. With the Burmese script, one could say that the alphabet is three-dimensional and this extra dimension gives a unique appearance to those most frequently used words in the Burmese language(as you mentioned, mostly derived from Pali) which use stacked letters. This allows the reader to easily become aware of these Pali-derived words and differentiate them from those predominantly monosyllabic native Burmese words and grammatical particles.


  14. Gigi says:

    Here is a website that teaches Burmese script. It has do-it-yourself exercises and even recordings.

    http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Burmese/Default.htm (link to fonts)
    http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Burmese/language.htm (link to start script lessons)

    You’ll need to download fonts to view it properly but I’m able to use it with Firefox (it says you need Netscape).

    The site will also link you to SEASSI which is a summer program where students come from all over the US and the world to learn Southeast Asian languages.
    Hope this helps many of you that have posted to this site to further your studies of Burmese.

  15. Eric says:

    Your blog is great : I read a lot of exciting things on a topic I know little, though I visited Burma three years ago.

    Especially Burmese language seems very strange, very “exotic” to me (spelling, phonetics,…). I read somewhere a description like “a lot of particles embarrass Burmese sentence, making it somewhat unclear” (sorry for my poor translation). How would you describe Burmese to indo-european speakers? How new words or concepts are created? How is it “learnable”? Is there a contemporary, modern litterature in Burmese? (I mean : not only buddhist works, but for example novels, etc.).

    Last but not least : how are family names are working? I understood that names were not actually family names but I am not sure.

    Sorry for all these naive questions,



  16. tin htut says:

    i do not understand why people hate for nothing.if u do not understand the language just study properly.
    if you hate that is you just get nothing.
    u are against the good religious teaching.i hope u understand the meaning of life.

    • Hninzi says:

      I think you completely misunderstood what the author of this blog is saying in this thread. He doesn’t actually ‘hate’ the language. It’s more like he just finds some aspects of the Burmese language somewhat odd and peculiar. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s free speech. He’s just making an analysis of the Burmese language in a light-hearted, fun and entertaining way. And how in the world is that against religion, and how is that relevant to the ‘meaning of life’?

  17. pansuriya says:

    I also find the seasite.niu.edu site is very good, but you have to be online to use it. If you want more material and material you can use away from your computer too, download John Okell’s Burmese by Ear book and audio free from http://www.soas.ac.uk/bbe. Ko Aung Kyaw, perhaps you could put in links to sites you have found useful in your blogroll.

  18. Wagaung says:

    Admittedly I’m no linguist but here’s my tuppence worth as a native speaker born and bred Mandalay. And I doff my hat to Aung Kyaw for his obvious passion over the Burmese language though born (through no fault of his own) oceans away from its home. His mom did a better job than I did for my British born youngest who can read Burmese very slowly but finds official Burmese very difficult.

    1. We used to learn at school the “pin(k) yit thanbauk” mnemonic verses by a famous Sayadaw (abbot). A typical stanza goes something like:
    kyah saya kyaung, taw hma pyaung, hsin byaung go lè yit ya myi” meaning…For cat master of the tiger, gaur in the forest, and bull elephant, use yit to be sure.

    2. Yes, Pali in Burmese is probably far more important than French words in English. And not just pyin-nya for pa-nya, also pyissi for pissi. I remember saying pyissato for pistol and olanpyit for olympics as a youngster; it made sense!

    3. Stacked letters, indeed piggyback consonants or vowel over consonant, are an integral part of Burmese. Not only do they indicate their Pali origin, in later periods it is suggestive of a word’s foreign origin which I believe is very useful as in the terms India, English, even engineer.

    4. We were taught as kids how to say the aspirated hsa by reciting this: “hsan, hsi, hsah, hsay” meaning…rice, oil, salt, medicine. So yes, Aung San is actually Aung Hsan. Sah is to eat and hsah salt.

    One peculiar and distinctive grammatical phenomenon (not a rule) is the aspirated simply turning into the unaspirated in certain transitive verbs:
    hpi = press pi = pressed
    hpouk = pierce pouk = pierced
    hpyouk = lose pyouk = lost
    hpyoat = undo pyoat = undone
    hpor = uncover por = uncovered
    hpyor = dissolve/mix pyor = dissolved
    hpyek = ruin/break pyek = ruined/broken
    hpwint = open pwint = open
    hpyant = spread pyant = spread
    hpyone = waste pyone = wasted

    hpaw = plenty paw = plenty/cheap
    hpone = cover pone = hide

    hlè = fell = fall
    hlut = free lut = freed/escape
    hlant = frighten lant = frightened
    hlan = lift lan = lifted/unstuck
    hlaint = roll laint = roll(ed)
    hlwint = throw lwint = thrown/blown
    hlwè = divert lwè = diverted/miss(ed)

    chek = cook kyek = cooked
    chouk = frighten kyouk = frightened/afraid
    choant = shrink kyoant = shrunken
    chut = strip kyut = stripped
    choe = break kyoe = broken
    chè = widen kyè = widened/scatter(ed)
    chan = put aside/save kyan = left over/remain
    chwin = put aside/exempt kywin = left over/remain

    Hnyat = crush/trap nyat = crushed/trapped

    The ‘problem’ applies to names too for non-native speakers. Aung Chi and Aung Kyi are two different persons as are U Hpyu (usual spelling Phyu) and U Pyu. Likewise Ma Ti and Ma Hti, Ko Win Htet and Ko Tet Htun (also spelt Tun as a similar sounding name with the unaspirated t does not exist). It is important among us to distinguish between them. Confusion in non-native speakers cannot be helped.

    Sterling, starling, Stirling and Stalin are all spelt and pronounced exactly the same by the Burmese. There was a story about the hunt for Stalin in colonial times before WWII when the authorities received a report about someone called Stirling in the Shan hills!

    5. The r sound you can safely forget in Burmese though we do say it for Pali words albeit not all of them such as yaza for rajah more often than not falling back to the default y. The r and y in the sun thuriya or teacher arsariya however will be pronounced properly as the two occur together. Spelling however has to be correct regardless.

    6. Measure words are a minefield for those who speak Burmese as a second language including the ethnic minorities in Burma. It can sound very rude when used incorrectly. Lu ta yauk a man must never be confused with hkway da gaung a dog or yahan da bah a monk for that matter.

    7. Here again the correct spelling needs the right letter as in dana wealth and dhana charity. Likewise nibban nirvana and ponna Brahmin, or zhan levitation and zarti place of birth.

    8. Consonant endings are similar to the above but card is even spelt with a d ending today to conform to the sound of this borrowed word. Both p and t endings are acceptable here. But wek wun bear has the dot above the wa whereas saya wun doctor has the (silent) n ending.

    9. Confusion between ta and tha is common in children and as a lisp. We have both the theta sound and th as in then. The voicing rule (should be #11) dictates which one as with other consonants. Pickled tea salad lahpet thoke is pronounced as in thousand but ginger salad jin thoke as in thus.

    10. Oddballs: The dictum “yay daw a hman, hpat taw a than” tells us to write the correct form but read the speech form. English also has numerous examples but mostly names. Burmese is full of such words like hpaya pagoda/Buddha spelt bu rah, or ba yin king spelt bu rin.

    #12 has to be the dichotomy between spoken Burmese and formal written/official Burmese which has lagged behind for some reason over the recent centuries just as we have lost the r sound whereas our close cousins the Rakhine have retained it. This gave rise to a literary movement in the 1960s in favour of writing as we actually speak which has gained currency among the public and the media but only to a limited extent.

    • maungkaung says:

      Ko Waguang,
      Commenting 3 years after the fact, but this is an excellent post. I never realized myself that aspiration serves a grammatical function across minimal pairs!

      • Wagaung says:

        Thanks. As native speakers we don’t stop and think about it, do we? It’s the same with the voicing rule. It’s just natural to us.

  19. Wagaung says:

    More examples of transitive verbs changing from aspirated to unaspirated;

    hpyè = tear/rip pyè = torn/ripped
    hpyat = cut/sever pyat = cut/severed
    hpwa = clutter/make a mess pwa = cluttered/messy
    shway = move/shift yway = moved/shifted
    (short creaky vowel)
    hmyouk = lift myouk = lifted
    hmyint = raise/heighten myint = raised/high
    hmyaw = float myaw = float

  20. Thu Ta says:

    LOL (sorry for my very informal way of talk in this blog >..>) e.g – a girl named “Thiri”, we dont say thiyi but thiri with r sound

    But feel free to correct me as i only have a very limited knowledge of burmese history, and if you correct me I learn more dont I? 🙂

  21. waosterman says:

    Fun piece…..look up the parallel piece “Why is Chinese so damn hard?” ………..On a serious note – I am looking for the best Burmese language tools for computer analysis use…… Dictionary, thesuarus and most important is a grammar structure to deconstruct open text into grammatical parts……..my Tibetan is a bit rusty; but Burmese seems closely related……thanks for the help…..

  22. UKT says:

    Hello everyone who are interested in the spoken Burmese language

    I am U Kyaw Tun aka Joe Tun writing from my home in Deep River, Ontario, Canada.
    As far as know – and that’s very little – no one has studied the Burmese speech from phonetics-phonemics point of view. Now, let’s remind ourselves that speech and script are quite different. Burmese is speech. Myanmar is the script to write it in graphemes. So let’s say, Bur-Myan for Burmese speech in Myanmar akshara, Karen-Myan for Karen speech in Myanmar akshara, Shan-Myan for Shan speech in Myanmar akshara. Now theres a world of difference between the Abugida system and Alphabetic system. Aksharas are units in the Abugida system similar to letters of the Alphabetic system. Myanmar and Devanagari (the script used for wrting Hindi and Sanskrit) are Abugidas, whereas Latin is the Alphabetic script used to write the English speech, French speech, Spannish speech, etc.
    I am studying – at my advanced age of 78 – how to unify the four languages of interest to me: BEPS – Burmese-Myanmar, English-extendedLatin, Pali-Myanmar, and Sanskrit-Devanagari. Please consult my work in http://www.tuninst.net (hosted from Canada) and http://www.softguide.net.mm (hosted from Myanmar). I am sure you will find lots of answers to the questions posted.

    U Kyaw Tun (UKT) aka Joe Tun 120520
    retd. Associate Prof. and Hd of Chemistry Dept., Taunggyi College (now Univ)

  23. Swe says:

    It is so interesting to know that many people are interested in this topic. Many of our Burmese speaking people commenting on this as such, is very educational. I am so proud of them.

    It’s my humble opinion, learning Burmese may be quite daunting, I would say, like every other language especially to get the right pronunciation. Many have mentioned the difficulties associating with pronunciations and spellings – writing script.

    I think it is all the same with every other languages too, That is why they said “mother tongue”. If you are not the native speaker and have learn the language since you are young it’s hard to get the right accent in speaking. Writing can be harder too.

    Anyway, as I grew up being a Burmese (Myanmar) girl, I have never thought it was such a difficult language. Reading Pali (although not very well) seems not that difficult after all when you started learning and chanting like the monks do, as you often go to the monastery whilst making good merits.

    Thank you all for having this opportunity to learn a bit more on people’s thought and interest in Burmese Language. Sadhu, Sadhu, Sadhu or Thadu thadu thadu it’s the same for me. Happy learning. Good Luck, guys….

    • rbm1207 says:

      The Unkown writer and others Articulation of the human sound has been studied since the days of Yaska who must have lived before Panini. Panini, who has been called the Sanskrit grammarian was a contemporary of the Gautama Buddha. So, Yaska must have lived at least 3000 (three thousand) years ago. Grammar is not about writing: it is about the human sound which with syntax is known as language. What Panini could do was to study the production of human sound in parts of the upper part of the mouth. That concerns only the consonants. Being a very carful observer he must have noticed that the vowels are produced further down the throat that no one could see. We have come to know about the production of vowels only some decades ago with the advance of surgery. The most important part played is the hyoid bone which is probably the only bone not connected to any other bony structure. It is suspended by muscles connected to the top of the head — a rigid structure, but is also connected to other parts such as the jaw which itself is quite moveable. The hyoid-movements depend on which set of muscles are involved, and may vary from person to person depending on the ethicity, sex, age, and the present health. Though complex, the production of human sound is relatively easy to understand compared to what you hear. As far as I know, hearing has not been studied well. Summing up, production and perception of sound are very interesting fields of study and human observers are not very reliable. Until recently instrumental analysis has not been developed. Everything on that side is beyond me. I am doing what I could to study the languages now current and past. Burmese, English, Mon, Pali, and Sanskrit written in Myanmar, IPA, and Devanagari. I am finding that the IPA – alphabet – has become very narrow in scope by going after the nuances of pronunciation. What I am relying on is not phonetics but phonemics. I have added Mon to my study since January and I am finding that my invention – Romabama, the intermediary language – is under a very severe stress. Please refer to my recent updates on http://www.tuninst.net hosted from Canada. U Kyaw Tun aka Joe Tun (retd. Assoc. Prof. of Chemistry, Taunggyi Degree College

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  25. ei ei says:

    we don’t spell pu si nan as pu di na. you are wrong.Our consonants are derived from mon consonants. not from hindi.u shouldn’t hate other countries language

      • Wagaung says:

        Pudina, instead of Pusinan, as a different version for mint is not uncommon. Getting it mixed up with Nannanbin (cilantro, coriander) however is most unusual.

    • Wagaung says:

      Mon and Burmese already coexist as the Myazedi Stone will testify. The script comes from south India.

      This blog clearly reflects the love for Burma and the Burmese language by someone born and brought up in the West by Burmese born parents. One of the best relating to the country of my birth I have come across.

      There are nuances in any language, not literal, so some people will get the wrong end of the stick.

      • rbm1207 says:

        I quote the following: 36-0936 / {pu-di.na} / Spearmint; Wild mint / Mentha sylvestris / Labiatae from Botanical Names of Myanmar Plants of Importance, (Agri.dept.2000), an Index in order of Burmese names in Myanmar akshara, by Agricultural Department (Planning), Government of Union of Myanmar, 2000, pp 65. Please go to my website: Tun Institute of Learning, http://www.tuninst.net

  26. Maria Daniella says:

    Have not gone through other comments but have read the article through….totally enjoyable as I have learnt basic Bamazaga and found my problems relavent to the author’s….There remains to be varying difference on how different layers of people in the country pronounce the words, spoken Burmese in a local market would be different than in an office environment if similar vocabulary is contested!

    Nice job with the article! Thanks!

  27. Lynette says:

    I love the language!
    Would you be able to translate this for me I wanted my name and husbands name written in Burmese. I want it with the word and between. I would really appreciate your help!

    Dominique and Lynette

    • Wagaung says:

      က (unaspirated ka as in skip) is pronounced differently from ဂ and ဃ (both ga as in god). K as pronounced by native English speakers sounds like ခ (kha aspirated) in Burmese. The Burmese therefore have trouble saying a proper English k sound. Similarly p in pain is likely to be pronounced by the Burmese as ပ the p in Spain, t in Tom တ like in stop, th in Thomas ထ like in thousand သ. The difficulty unsurprisingly is mutual.

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