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How to transcribe Thai place names into Burmese

Burmese is quite inconsistent in its transcription of foreign place names. Historical practice has tended toward preservation of the original language’s orthography. For example, the Burmese word for France is ပြင်သစ်, pronounced Pyinthit in modern Burmese, but spelt prang sac, which is much closer to the Roman spelling of France.

Nowadays, the prevailing trend is to imitate pronunciation of the place name in the English language. However, when it comes to place names that use obvious Indic loanwords, especially in neighboring countries like Thailand, Burmese speakers, on occasion, employ equivalent Indic spellings. For one, Bangkok’s International Airport, called Suvarnabhumi, is rendered into Burmese as Thuwunnabumi (သုဝဏ္ဏဘူမိ), in line with the actual Indic orthography, not with the actual Thai pronunciation (Suwannaphum) nor with the expected English pronunciation.

Unfortunately, this is an exception, not the rule. In many instances, Burmese speakers fail to recognize the Indic origins of the Thai place names they transcribe. Instead, they create Frankenstein transcriptions that are neither based on original orthography nor the intended pronunciation, ultimately doing a disservice to the longstanding literary and linguistic heritage shared by both Thais and the Burmese.

Oddities of Thai Orthography

The Burmese and Thai alphabets share similarities as both are descendants of the Brahmi script, have consonants with inherent vowels, use diacritics to change tone and vowel, and more importantly, both possess complete alphabet inventories capable of transcribing both Pali and Sanskrit.

The interesting thing about Thai is that while the actual pronunciation may diverge significantly from the original Indic pronunciation (making Thai orthography difficult to master), it tends to preserve the original Indic spelling. Consequently, it’s quite easy to trace back the etymological root.

For example, the Thai word for “food,” ahaan (อาหาร), is actually spelt āhāra, identical to the Burmese word for “nutrition,” ahaya (အာဟာရ). Both loanwords, of course, come from Pali. Needless to say, I came across this many times when I studied elementary Thai in college, where I recognized basic words based on similarities with a corresponding word in Burmese, as the words shared the same etymological root (despite being neighbors, Burmese and Thai have not exchanged many native words to each other’s languages–the majority of shared vocabulary tends to come from Sanskrit or Pali). However, this is one of many reasons that learning to read in Thai is much more challenging than in Burmese, because pronunciation diverges from spelling very frequently.

Unlike Thai, the Burmese script innovated a devowelizer diacritic (အသတ်, athat, ‘sound killer’), which suppresses the inherent vowel of a particular word, useful in indicating whether a word has been truncated (especially important in Indic-based vocabulary).

For instance, the Burmese word for “appearance” comes from Pali rupa (ရုပ). In Burmese, this is rendered as rup (ရုပ်), with the devowelizer clearly indicating that the pa in rupa isn’t pronounced as a separate syllable. In Thai, however, the same word is spelt รูป, which can be pronounced either rup or rupa depending on context, as the following table illustrates:

Burmese Thai
Original Indic form rupa
ရူပ
rupa
รูป
Truncated form rup
ရုပ်
rup
รูป

Why Are Thai Place names So Long?

Thailand has a history of elevating people and places to higher status through the adoption of Indic loans, whether in the form of royal titles or place names. Consequently, Thailand is replete with Sanskrit- and Pali-derived place names that should be somewhat familiar to the Burmese. In fact, the majority of Thai provinces and major cities use place names that are direct Sanskrit/Pali loans.

In terms of city names, Thais prefer the following Indic words in naming cities and towns (words that any Burmese with some familiarity with historical chronicles or even the fanciful place names in Naypyidaw would recognize):

  • Thani, from Pali/Sanskrit ṭhānī (spelt ธานี in Thai, ဌာနီ in Burmese)
  • Nakhon, from Pali/Sanskrit nagara (spelt นคร in Thai, နဂရ in Burmese)
  • Buri, from Pali/Sanskrit purī (spelt บุรี in Thai, ပုရီ in Burmese)

Burmese practices in Transcribing THai Place names

Unfortunately, the conventional practice by Burmese speakers, when transcribing Thai place names, is to follow the English phonetic spelling and render that into Burmese pronunciation, as close as possible. This is a short-sighted practice that completely eliminates the original meanings portrayed by the place names, meanings that could be discerned by Burmese speakers. A few examples below:

Thai Burmese Transcription Meaning
Current Proposed
Nakhon Si Thammarat
นครศรีธรรมราช
Nakhun Sihtamara
နခွမ်စီထမာရ
Nagara Sirī Dhammarāja
နဂရသိရီဓမ္မရာဇ
“City of the Glorious Dhammaraja”
Phetchaburi
เพชรบุรี
Phetchaburi
ဖက်ချဘူရီ
Vajirapurī
ဝဇိရပုရီ
“City of Diamonds”
Ratchaburi
ราชบุรี
Ratchburi
ရတ်ချ်ဘူရီ
Rājapurī
ရာဇပုရီ
“City of the King”
Kanchanaburi
กาญจนบุรี
Kanchanaburi
ကန်ချာနာဘူရီ
Kāñcanapurī
ကဉ္စနပုရီ
“City of Gold”

Proposed Burmese Transcriptions for Thai Place Names

I studied almost 40 Thai city names to see whether they could be accurately transcribed into Burmese–excluded are Thai place names that employ indigenous Thai words and Khmer loanwords. Below are my proposed Burmese equivalents to the Thai city names:

Thai Burmese Pali
(Sanskrit)
Etymological Meaning
Nakhon Ratchasima
นครราชสีมา
Nagara Razathima
နဂရရာဇသီမာ
Nagara Rājasīmā nagara = town;
rāja = king;
sīmā = boundary
Ubon Ratchathani อุบลราชธานี Oppala Razahtani
ဥပ္ပလရာဇဌာနီ
Uppala Rajaṭhānī uppala = waterlily;
rājaṭhānī = king’s abode
Buriram
บุรีรัมย์
Puriramma
ပုရီရမ္မ
Purīramma
(Purīramyā)
purī = city;
ramma = charming
Udon Thani
อุดรธานี
Ottara Htani
ဥတ္တရဌာနီ
Uttaraṭhānī uttara = northern;
ṭhānī = city
Nakhon Si Thammarat
นครศรีธรรมราช
Nagara Thiri Dhammaraza
နဂရသိရီဓမ္မရာဇ
Nagara Sirīdhammarāja
(Nagara Srīdharmarāja)
nagara = city;
sīri = glorious;
dhamma = teaching;
rāja = king
Sisaket
ศรีสะเกษ
Thirithaketha
သိရီသ?ကေသ
Sirīsakesa
(Srīsakesa)
sīri = glorious;
sa = wash?;
kesa = hair
Surin
สุรินทร์
Thureinda
သုရိန္ဒ
Surinda
(Surendra)
sura = god;
inda = Indra
Chonburi
ชลบุรี
Zalapuri
ဇလပုရီ
Jalapurī jala = water;
purī = city
Samut Prakan
สมุทรปราการ
Thamoddapakara
သမုဒ္ဒပါကာရ
Samuddapākāra (Samudraprākāra) samudda = ocean;
pākāra = encircling wall
Chaiyaphum
ชัยภูมิ
Zeyabumi
ဇယဘူမိ
Jayabhūmi jaya = victory;
bhūmi = land
Sakhon Nakhon
สกลนคร
Thakala Nagara
သကလနဂရ
Sakalanagara sakala = complete;
nagara = city
Nonthaburi
นนทบุรี
Nandapuri
နန္ဒပုရီ
Nandapurī nanda = blissful;
purī = city
Nakhon Sawan
นครสวรรค์
Nagara Thegga
နဂရသဂ္ဂ
Nagarasagga
(Nagarasvarga)
nagara = city;
sagga = heaven
Surat Thani
สุราษฎร์ธานี
Thurattha Htani
သုရဋ္ဌဌာနီ
Suraṭṭhathani
(Surāstrāṭhānī)
su = good;
rattha = kingdom;
ṭhānī = city
Phetchaburi
เพชรบุรี
Wazirapuri
ဝဇိရပုရီ
Vajirapurī
(Vajrapurī)
vajira = diamond;
purī = city
Pathum Thani
ปทุมธานี
Padoma Htani
ပဒုမဌာနီ
Padumaṭhānī paduma = lotus;
ṭhānī = city
Kalasin
กาฬสินธุ์
Kalatheindu
ကာလသိန္ဓု
Kālasindhu kāla = black;
sindhu = river
Maha Sarakham
มหาสารคาม
Maha Tharagama
မဟာသာရဂါမ
Mahāsāragāma (Mahāsāragrāma) mahā = great;
sāra = excellent; gāma = village
Nakhon Pathom
นครปฐม
Nagara Pahtama
နဂရပထမ
Nagarapathama (Nagaraprathama) nagara = city;
pathama = first
Phitsanulok
พิษณุโลก
Wathulawka [1]
ဝါသုလောက
Vāsuloka
(Visṇuloka)
vāsu = Vishnu;
loka = world
Suphan Buri
สุพรรณบุรี
Thuwannapuri
သုဝဏ္ဏပုရီ
Suvaṇṇapurī
(Suvarnapuri)
suvaṇṇa = gold;
purī = city
Kanchanaburi
กาญจนบุรี
Kinzanapuri
ကဉ္စနပုရီ
Kāñcanapurī kāñcana = gold;
purī = city
Ratchaburi
ราชบุรี
Razapuri
ရာဇပုရီ
Rājapurī rāja = king;
purī = city
Ayutthaya
อยุธยา
Ayodya
အယုဓျ
Ayudhya
(Ayodhyā)
city of Ayodhya [2]
Lopburi
ลพบุรี
Lawapuri
လဝပုရီ
Lavapurī lava = Lavo people;
puri = city
Narathiwat
นราธิวาส
Naradiwatha
နရဓိဝါသ
Naradhivāsa nara = people;
adhivāsa = dwelling
Saraburi
สระบุรี
Tharapuri
သရပုရီ
Sarapurī sara = ponds;
puri = city
Sukhothai
สุโขทัย
Thukhawdaya
သုခေါဒယ [3]
Sukhodaya sukho = bliss;
udaya = ascent
Sawankhalok
สวรรคโลก
Theggalawka
သဂ္ဂလောက
Saggaloka
(Svargaloka)
sagga = heavenly;
loka = world
Phichit
พิจิตร
Wizitta
ဝိစိတ္တ
Vicitta
(Vicitra)
vicitta = ornamented
Yasothon
ยโสธร
Yathawdara
ယသောဓရ
Yasodhara yasodhara = famous
Chanthaburi
จันทบุรี
Sandapuri
စန္ဒပုရီ
Candapurī
(Candrapurī)
canda = moon;
purī = city
Prachinburi
ปราจีนบุรี
Pazinapuri
ပါစီနပုရီ
Pācīnapurī
(Prācīnapurī)
pācīna = eastern;
purī = city
Uttaradit
อุตรดิตถ์
Ottarateittha
ဥတ္တရတိတ္ထ
Uttaratittha
(Uttaratīrtha)
uttara = northern;
tittha = harbor
Mukdahan
มุกดาหาร
Mottahara
မုတ္တာဟာရ
Muttāhāra
(Muktāhāra)
muttāhāra = string of pearls
Chai Nat
ชัยนาท
Zeyanada
ဇယနာဒ
Jayanāda jaya = victory;
nāda = cry
Uthai Thani
อุทัยธานี
Udaya Htani
ဥဒယဌာနီ
Udayaṭhānī udaya = rise;
ṭhānī = city
Nakhon Nayok
นครนายก
Nagara Nayaka
နဂရနာယက
Nagaranāyaka nagara = city;
nāyaka = leaders
Sing Buri
สิงห์บุรี
Thihapuri [4]
သီဟပုရီ
Sīhapurī
(Simhapuri)
sīha = lion;
purī = city
Samut Songkhram สมุทรสงคราม Thamodda Theingama
သမုဒ္ဒသင်္ဂါမ
Samuddasaṅgāma (Samudrasangrāma) samudda = ocean;
saṅgāma = war

The list is certainly far from complete and perhaps some etymologies are inaccurate. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can correct them.

Footnotes

  1. Could be further indigenized into Beitthanolawka (ဗိဿနိုးလောက), since the Burmese word for Vishnu is actually Beikthano (ဗိဿနိုး), a borrowing of Sanskrit Viṣṇu (ဝိၑ္ဏု), not from Pali Vāsu (ဝါသု).
  2. An Indian city, also known as Sāketa (သာကေတ).
  3. Sukhodaya (သုခေါဒယ) is used in Burmese in reference to Sukhothai, although Thaukkate (သောက္ကတဲ) is more popular.
  4. Can also be spelt Singhapuri (သိံဟပုရီ) in Sanskrit.

Bonus Edition: Place Names in Bangkok

Thai Burmese Pali
(Sanskrit)
Etymological Meaning
Thonburi
ธนบุรี
Danapuri
ဓနပုရီ
Dhanapuri dhana = riches;
purī = city
Thawi Wattana
ทวีวัฒนา
Htawi Wadana
ထဝိဝဎန
Thavivaḍhana thavi = extoled;
vaḍhana = growth
Ratchathewi
ราชเทวี
Yazadewi
ရာဇဒေဝီ
Rajadevi rājadevī = queen
Watthana
วัฒนา
Wadhana
ဝဎန
Vaḍhana
(Varḍhana)
vaḍhana = growth
Pathum Wan
ปทุมวัน
Padomawana
ပဒုမဝန
Padumavana paduma = lotus;
vana = forest
Sathorn
สาทร
Thadara
သာဒရ
Sādara sādara = reverential

References

  1. http://sealang.net/burmese/
  2. http://sealang.net/thai/
  3. http://www.thai-language.com/dict
  4. http://dictionary.sutta.org

One thought on “How to transcribe Thai place names into Burmese

  1. wonglingchih says:

    The article reveals the relation between Burmese and Thai vocabulary via Pali literature, but actually, there is a simpler approach since both the scripts share a same source from South India. If you check Thai alphabet on a Thai textbook, you’ll realize the order it got presented being identical with Burmese “Aekayar sin”. Each single Burmese letter can just be reflected in Thai script. By memorizing the reflection table, transcribing the names can be even easier.

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