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.
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.
“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?