I’m often asked how similar Burmese is to the national languages of its Southeast Asian neighbors, namely Thai, Lao and Khmer. And I’ve got to say: Burmese is quite different from the other three, whether it’s phonology, grammar, vocabulary, or writing.
In my perspective, one can divide Southeast Asia into two distinct sub-regions: continental Southeast Asia (Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) and insular Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore). The national languages of Southeast Asia can similarly be divided along those same lines.
It’s worth nothing that all languages fall into a number of language families, which groups together languages that share a common ancestor, the proto-language of that family.
According to this conceptualization, Burmese is a clear outlier, as it is the only national language that’s part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, among the ranks of Chinese varieties and Tibetan. Thai and Lao are members of the Tai-Kadai language family. In fact, the two are quite similar, such that Thai and Lao are seen as languages in a Tai language ‘dialect continuum’ spanning from Thailand to southwest China. On the other hand, Khmer is part of the Mon-Khmer language family, linguistically related with neighboring Vietnamese.
When Burma’s regional languages are overlaid on the chart (for the sake of simplicity, I’ve only listed languages of ethnic groups that have statehood), one realizes that Burma contains many indigenous languages in all three language families.
In the Sino-Tibetan language family, the numerous languages of the Chin, Pwo and S’gaw Karen, and Kachin are all linguistically related to Burmese–all falling under the “Tibeto-Burman” subfamily. In the Tai-Kadai language family, the Shan languages and dialects are related to Thai and Lao. Lastly, in the Mon-Khmer language family, Mon shares a linguistic affinity to Khmer and Vietnamese.
Not the full picture
However, this is far from telling the whole story. The languages do not fall into neatly siloed buckets. Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia share similar religious traditions (Theravada Buddhism + indigenous animistic practices) and have deeply intertwined histories, especially during pre-colonial times.
Consequently, palpable evidence of this shared past can be clearly seen in the four national languages of continental Southeast Asia*, where influences from Sanskrit and Pali, are essential parts of these languages’ lexicon. By the same token, the writing systems of Burmese, Lao, Thai, and Khmer descend from a common Indic ancestor, providing a useful look at how these languages came to be written. There are also less obvious regional peculiarities.
*I’ve intentionally omitted Vietnam, because its precolonial past has parallels with other countries in the Sinosphere (China, Korea, and Japan).
In the next few posts, I hope to explore the similarities that Burmese shares with these languages, as well as the differences.
For the record, I don’t speak Lao and Khmer, and I know elementary Thai (owing to some college coursework). So native speakers are more than welcome to chime in and correct any misstatements.