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.

Fuller writes:

As the rest of the world was hurtling into the information age, the strict censorship of publications, limited access to global media and creaking connections to the Internet stunted the evolution of the Burmese language, leaving it without many words that are elsewhere deemed essential parts of the modern political and technical vocabulary.

He adds:

“Today, as Myanmar embraces change, many foreign words are being imported wholesale, but their meanings are getting lost in translation.”

And in many ways, I have to agree. The Burmese language lacks an inherent capacity to create indigenous counterparts because there has been no systematic way of absorbing this new terminology, and no governance structure in place. In the case of Thai, which I hope to cover soon, Thai royals, as early as the 1930s, intentionally set out to implement a framework to adopt new vocabulary, and coin indigenized vocabulary for foreign concepts, using a strategic combination of native, Sanskrit, and Pali terms. It’s quite amazing, frankly. While Burmese was readily absorbing English and Hindi vocabulary during colonial rule, the Thais were doing just the opposite. Where’s the Myanmar Language Commission when you need them?

Fuller brings up “democracy” as an example, but it’s far from alone. As some examples, the ruling military junta styled itself the “State Peace and Development Council” or in Burmese, Naingngandaw Ayechanthaya-ye Hnin Hpunhpyoye Kaungsi (နိုင်ငံတော် အေးချမ်းသာယာရေး နှင့် ဖွံ့ဖြိုးရေး ကောင်စီ). But wait there. That last bit. It’s a clear English import: council > kaungsi. This is in spite of perfectly good Burmese words to substitute for the idea of a “council.” And in spite of the SPDC’s tendency to eschew all things foreign.

But that’s not the only one. SPDC’s predecessor, the Burma Socialist Programme Party, in its official Burmese moniker, was known was the Myanma Hsoshelit Lanzin Pati (မြန်မာ့ဆိုရှယ်လစ်လမ်းစဉ်ပါတီ), unabashedly using not just one, but 2 loanwords from English: Socialist and party. As a side note: interestingly enough, Thais have adopted the word phak (พรรค), from a Pali loan, vagga, for the word “[political] party.” [The Burmese loan for Pali vagga, wet (ဝဂ်), refers to each set of 5 consonants in the traditional alphabet grouping.]

But what is so bad about importing, wholesale, words from other languages? Burmese has done it for centuries, drawing from Pali and Sanskrit sources as a treasure trove of concepts and lexicon. Moreover, the evolution of the English language is one of constant borrowing and influence from other languages. However, I would argue that the act of indigenizing foreign words creates a sense of ownership and deeper level of understanding among language speakers that does not exist when foreign language words are just kidnapped and inserted wholesale. And this is especially true in Burmese. And the fact of the matter is that Pali, as compared to other languages, is almost uniquely adapted for both the Burmese phonology and writing system.

Politics aside, there are key sectors that are truly lacking in modern technical vocabulary. This dearth of native vocabulary makes its presence felt in the education sector. The government’s inability to keep pace with evolving curricula and standards has basically forced it to appropriate prevailing English language texts for teaching science and math subjects.

Below is a preparatory video published by the Ministry of Education, for the matriculation exam in Biology. It’s amazing the lecturer, Dr. Myitzu Min, doesn’t even attempt to translate basic vocabulary, or that the sample questions and answers themselves, aren’t translated into Burmese.

A sample question from the video:

“Describe the ventricles in the brain of [a] rabbit.”

Now mind you, the average high school student in Burma will have a pretty superficial understanding of English. But the reason for the examination’s English language content is precisely because high school lectures are conducted in English!

And despite English standards that have declined consistently since the 1950s. As a sign of the times, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Burmese politician today, barring Aung San Suu Kyi, who could conduct himself among foreigners without the presence of an interpreter–in stark contrast to Burmese politicians in the 1950s could deftly articulate themselves in English.

So what can be done to bridge this gap?

4 thoughts on “Bringing the Burmese language up to speed

  1. Wagaung says:

    The sad irony of course is that a liberal insertion of English words, technical or not, in today’s discourse among the educated Burmese does not necessarily mean they can string a simple English sentence together. Daw Suu is almost unique in avoiding them when she addresses the public.

    At least the terms democracy, socialist/communist/fascist, council, committee, party, policy (mu) etc. were adopted long ago whereas capitalism, exploitation, profiteering, globalisation, one-upmanship, strategy, tactics, boycott/strike etc. have their Burmese equivalents.

    Technical terms and jargon are best Burmanised rather than translating them into unwieldy terms – obvious examples are motor car, motorcycle, camera, TV, phone (even hand phone), computer etc. in daily use. Don’t even try translating e-mail and apps regardless of e meaning fart!

    Thein Pe Myint invented tha-yoke pya a-hmün tin for film “director” but it never caught on as the Burmese love abbreviations as much as anyone else, although a director of a govt department easily translates to hnyün-kyar-yay-hmoo or just referred to as hnyün hmoo in speech.

    • Aung Kyaw says:

      Interesting! You’re absolutely right about the Burmese affinity to abbreviate. The other day, I read a Burmese article that abbreviated “ကရိုနီ” (English “crony”) as “ကရို.”

  2. Htoo says:

    Actually I think Burmese is doing pretty well among SE Asian national languages when it comes to restricting foreign loan words (mainly English) creeping into its vocabulary.

    If you ever study Indonesian, Malay or Tagalog, or watch a news broadcast in it, you’ll almost immediately notice the massive amount of English words, definitely much much higher than in Burmese. For poor Tagalog, on top of having an insanely high amount of borrowed English words, it also has at least twice as many Spanish loan words which have become so well entrenched in its vocabulary that many Filipinos don’t even think of them as foreign loan words anymore.

    Also, you have to remember that English itself is full of foreign loan words, especially French, Latin and Greek. In fact, the bulk of its higher specialist and technical vocabulary (including those example words in your article such as ”socialist”, ”party”, ”ventricles”, ”democracy”, ”application” etc.) are either derived directly from Latin and Greek roots or borrowed via French mostly during the Renaissance period or much further back in time after the Norman invasion in the 11th century.

    I would go as far as asserting that there are at least 5 times as many French words in English as there’re English words in Burmese. So I think that our little soft melodious language with its cute little circular alphabet is doing pretty well when it comes to retaining and preserving its unique identity. So relax and go easy on it! 🙂

    • Aung Kyaw says:

      You’re absolutely correct, Ko Htoo!🙂 I reckon that a large part of Indonesian’s, Malay’s and Tagalog’s receptiveness to English words is that they’re also written in the same alphabet, making it especially easy to borrow words wholesale.

      But I do believe that Burmese is missing an “engine” to indigenize a huge corpus of modern vocabulary that speakers are being exposed to. Whereas Khmer and Lao have relied on Thai (to a large extent) to generate calques and neologisms based on Sanskrit roots, and while Vietnamese has relied on Chinese forms, Burmese has no equivalent counterpart.

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