On standardizing the romanization of Burmese Pali names

It absolutely irks me when I read English news articles written about Burmese monks, which repeatedly transcribe the monks’ names into an inconsistent mishmash of Pali and Burmese-influenced spellings.

Burmese is one of few alphabets capable of transcribing Pali text with 100% orthographic fidelity. However, because Pali is no longer a spoken, but a written language, the standard pronunciation of Pali text occurs in accordance with the phonetic values and inherent rules of the corresponding alphabets used. Consequently, like Thai, Khmer, Lao and Sinhala speakers, the Burmese have a very distinct accent when using Pali words.

To illustrate, take the word ‘Dhamma’ (Buddha’s teachings). Among the national languages of the 5 majority Theravada Buddhist countries, there is no standard single pronunciation. 6 renditions of Pali, 6 separate pronunciations.

Pali Burmese Khmer Lao Thai Sinhala
/d̪ʱɐmmɐ/ /dəma̰/ /tʰoammeaʔ/ /tʰám máː/ /ˈtʰam mà/ /ðʰəmma/
‘Dhamma’ ဓမ္မ ធម្ម ທັມມ ธรรม ධම්ම

The situation is just as bizarre for for the word ‘Buddha’:

Pali Burmese Khmer Lao Thai Sinhala
/bud̪d̪ʱɐ/ /boʊʔ da̰/ /puttʰeaʔ/ /pʰūt tʰā/ /ˌpʰút.tʰa/ /bʊððʰɑ/
‘Buddha’ ဗုဒ္ဓ ពុទ្ធ ພຸດທ พุทธ බුද්ධ

I won’t go into the distinct characteristics of these Pali variants, but Pratyeka.org provides an excellent overview of Khmer Pali, Lao Pali, and Thai Pali.

(It’s also important to note that the modern Lao alphabet is incapable of transcribing Pali, because it lacks the complete set of 33 Pali consonants. Historically, Lao has used the Tai Tham alphabet to transcribe Pali. Also, transcribing Pali in the Thai alphabet is still rather cumbersome. In fact, until 1893, Thai wasn’t even used to transcribe Pali. For most of Thai history, the Khmer script was adapted to transcribe Pali. King Mongkut invented a system called karnyut to transcribe Pali to Thai in the late 1890s.)

Inconsistencies in transcribing Burmese Pali

However, the Burmese have not standardized a romanization system for Burmese Pali, despite the existence of a nearly universal romanization scheme for Pali, based the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration scheme (IAST). But IAST fails to take into account some significant peculiarities of Burmese Pali.

Moreover, the Burmese tend segment Pali words by syllable when transliterating such words into Roman letters. For example, take the Burmese word for the ‘United Nations,’ which derives from Pali kula + samagga (ကုလ + သမဂ္ဂ). Burmese speakers tend to fall prey to the language’s monosyllabic tendencies and treat each syllable separately, rendering what should be ‘Kula Thamegga’ or ‘Kula Thamagga’ as something like ‘Ku La Tha Met Ga.’

I performed a few Google searches of notable Burmese monks, using different spelling variations. Not surprisingly, a half dozen permutations yielded hits.

Here’s a look at the romanized permutations of Ashin Sandadhika (အရှင်ဆန္ဒာဓိက, Chandādhika), a very well known Burmese writer and monk:

Spelling Number of Results
‘sandardika’ 30,000
‘sandadika’ 21,200
‘sandar dika’ 1,420
‘san dar di ka’ 1,350
‘chandādhika’ 530
‘sanda dika’ 371
‘sandadhika’ 78
‘sandar dhika’ 3

Here’s yet another look at the many romanized permutations of Wirathu (ဝီရသူ, Vīrasū), the acerbic nationalist monk who’s infamously tainted the reputation of Burmese Buddhism:

Spelling Number of Results
‘wirathu’ 248,000
‘virasu’ 2,470
‘wiyathu’ 2,050
‘vīrasū’ 741
‘wi ya thu’ 552
‘wi ra thu’ 211
‘wee ra thu’ 186

In my next post, I’ll introduce a modified form of the IAST uniquely tailored for Burmese Pali. Stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “On standardizing the romanization of Burmese Pali names

  1. Wagaung says:

    This monosyllabic tendency in spelling Burmese as well as Pali names is irritatingly rampant,not least in official usage, the most glaring example being Nay Pyi Taw! Myitkyina has turned into Myit Kyi Nar, likewise Meiktila to Meik Htee Lar. Obviously these offenders have never read about those places in English language history books and articles about Burma and WW2 in Asia.

    You would have thought at least the Pali names would be spared the ruthless amputations. Shwe Dagon for Shwedagon is acceptable.Likewise Maha Muni but not Ma Ha Mu Ni.

  2. Tun Khaing Oo says:

    Because military juntas are very stupid but they think they can do everything. You know they can’t even properly transcribe Burmese names to English. Transcribing Pali names to English is far away from their capability.

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