The emergence of gender-specific pronouns in Burmese

Growing up, I always wondered why Burmese didn’t have a distinction between ‘he’ and ‘she.’ As with a lot of Asian languages, including Chinese*, Burmese has a gender-neutral  3rd person pronoun. ‘He’ and ‘she’ are all and the same, သူ (thu). Or so I thought…

*The modern written distinction between ‘he’ and ‘she’ (他 vs. 她) emerged in Standard Chinese in 1917, the consequence of influence from European languages. Both are still pronounced tā.

It was one of those things that I always just assumed ordinary Burmese speakers wouldn’t miss, because the language just never had those nuances to start off with. Much like the Burmese distinction between ‘cooked rice’ and ‘uncooked rice’ (ထမင်း vs. ဆန်), a distinction that’s not found in the English lexicon.

New times, new pronouns?

However, times are changing. In recent years, as the Burmese-speaking community has exponentially proliferated its online footprint, I’ve noticed a glaring trend of late: a new pronoun has emerged. And ‘she,’ or shall I say, သူမ (thu ma) may be here to stay.

At first, I was perplexed. Growing up, my family only used သူ, so I found it rather peculiar when other Burmese speakers, otherwise fluent, used သူမ. Burmese dictionaries didn’t have an entry for it, so I always assumed it was incorrect, relegated to the category of colloquial slang, in the same genre as words like ချာတိတ် (cha teit) and ကျုပ် (kyot). In fact, the first few times I heard it, I mistakened the word for a mispronunciation of တူမ (tu ma), the Burmese word for ‘niece,’ a near-homonym.

(In a side note, although the Burmese language possesses true pronouns, most of the time, speakers can get away with omitting the actual pronoun, which tends to be perceived as rude. Three more polite options are to substitute the person’s honorific and/or name, or simply imply a reference to the person. For example, I would just call my mom မေမေ (may may) instead of သူ (thu), even in the third person.)

But then I started seeing more widespread usage of သူမ in print media, including more reputable journals like Zaygwet (ဈေးကွက်ဂျာနယ်) and even the state-owned MRTV. Even serious government documents were using it! Below is a press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that refers to Yanghee Lee, a UN human rights representative, as သူမ, not သူ:

A writer’s take

So I decided to investigate this further. I perused Google for some insight, where I stumbled across an excerpt from ငယ်ပေါင်းကြီးဖော် မြန်မာစာ (The Burmese Language, Companion in Life), written by Maung Khin Min (Danuphyu), a Burmese writer who has written many books on the Burmese language. Entitled “4. Incorrect Usage No. 1” (၀၄။ မှား​သုံး​လေ့​ရှိ​သော အသုံး​အနှုန်း​များ​ (၁)), he addressed my question. I’ve translated interesting excerpts below.

The writer makes the same exact observation about the growing usage of ‘သူမ’ in written works:

Nowadays, in books and articles, one frequently observes a pair of pronouns referencing males as distinctly as ‘သူ’ and females as ‘သူမ.’

တစ်စုံတစ်​ယောက်ကို နာမ်စား​ဖြင့်​ ရည်ညွှန်း​သုံး​ရာတွင် ​ယောကျာ်း​ကို ‘ သူ ‘ ၊​ မိန်း​မကို ‘ သူမ ‘ ဟု ခွဲသုံး​မှုမျိုး​ကို စာအုပ်စာတမ်း​များ​တွင် မကြာခဏ ​တွေ့​ရပါသည်။

Maung Khin Min pretty much decries this newfangled pronoun as incorrect, writing:

Actually, ‘သူမ’ is not used in Burmese at all. ‘သူမ’ doesn’t exist. In the Burmese language, သူ is the pronoun used, whether male or female.

စင်စစ် ‘ သူမ ‘ သည် မြန်မာသုံး​မဟုတ်ပါ။ မြန်မာစကား​မှာ ‘ သူမ ‘ ဆို​သောအသုံး​အနှုန်း​မရှိပါ။ မြန်မာစကား​မှာ ​ယောကျာ်း​ကိုဖြစ်​စေ၊​ မိန်း​မကိုဖြစ်​စေ နာမ်စား​သုံး​လျှင် ‘ သူ ‘ ဟုသာ သုံး​ပါသည်။

The origins of ‘she’

Maung Khin Min traces the origins of သူမ back to a Burmese translation of a grammar book, Manual of English Grammar and Composition, written by J. Nesfield. Since Burmese doesn’t distinguish ‘he’ and ‘she,’ the Burmese translations used ‘သူ(မ)’ in lieu of ‘she.’

And it stuck, even though Burmese historically lacks this gender distinction. For instance, the 1845 edition of the Anglo-Burmese Dictionary (Hough) translates ‘she’ as ‘သူ’:

Adoniram Judson’s influential Burmese-English Dictionary (1893) similarly acknowledges that ‘သူ’ is a reference to both he and she:

What’s the big deal?

All this begs the question… Is this really a big deal? Languages evolve and change over the years, accommodating changes in pronunciation and reflecting native speakers’ evolving perceptions and preferences. Is the emergence of gender-specific pronouns in Burmese really a bad thing? Is all of this academic railing against this linguistic development futile?

After all, during the Pagan era, the 3rd person pronoun in vogue was actually အယင်း (ayin). According to Sino-Tibetan linguist David Bradley, သူ descends from အသူ, the Old Burmese word for ‘who,’ which is now commonly used in Burmese words as a prefix (e.g., thakho သူခိုး, ‘one who steals’ aka ‘thief’) and as a suffix (chitthu ချစ်သူ, ‘one who loves’ aka ‘lover’).

What is notable, though, is that while those who reject gender binaries and speak languages with gender-specific pronouns have championed the usage of gender-neutral pronouns (especially in European languages), Burmese is moving in the opposite direction. သူမ continues to gain social currency as an acceptable pronoun in Burmese.

I’m a traditionalist, so I still find it incredibly off-putting and awkward to use သူမ in any sense of the word. Regardless, it will be fascinating to observe whether သူမ becomes enshrined in the Burmese lexicon within the next generation or so.



4 thoughts on “The emergence of gender-specific pronouns in Burmese

  1. Wagaung says:

    Thanks for digging up old references to confirm the evolution of this gender specific third person pronoun which I have always thought arose from an attempt at translating she. This usage thu-ma therefore remains peculiar to the written language. It has never caught on in speech and probably never will. Burmese have no patience for lengthening a word, unnecessarily in this case, quite on the contrary like most other languages. Any creature is referred to by the same third person pronoun, not just people.

  2. N.Ballerand says:

    Thank you for this interesting article.
    I am French and studying Burmese at Inalco, Sorbonne University, France (Bachelor’s graduation in June 2017).
    I agree with your last paragraph. If this is difficult to raise barriers to the everyday English influence, especially regarding internet, computer, economy and business environments (same issues in French = Franglais), the occidental influence shouldn’t impact the core language syntax.
    I also take the opportunity to thank you for posting your thoughts and analysis on this blog.
    Best regards,

  3. NJG says:

    wonderful article.
    gender is fluid. a continuum. valid in a comparative sense.
    asian societies have recognized this for centuries.

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