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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.