One of the most interesting things about a new language is connecting vocabulary in that language with vocabulary in languages I’m already familiar with. I still recall, when I was learning elementary Thai in college, I did not face the same challenge that my peers did, in learning to rattle off the days of the week. The reason: Sanskrit.
The death of the Thai monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, on October 13 has shaken up the country, and created a serious vacuum in Thailand’s monarchy. All eyes will be on his son, Vajiralongkorn, who is expected to succeed Bhumibol, yet lacks both the following and gravitas of his father, whose public image was carefully cultivated over his seven decade reign.
The other day, I came across something profound. Perhaps it’s been forgotten by the vast majority now, but Burma, like its Southeast Asian neighbors, once had an Indic national motto, during its short-lived parliamentary period following independence from 1948 to 1962.
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.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Education announced a reform to its kindergarten curriculum, a reform that has attracted much criticism within the Burmese-speaking community. What has sparked the most controversy is a sweeping change in the way the Burmese alphabet is taught. Beginning in the next academic year, Burmese kindergartners will no longer be taught 8 of the 33 letters, which will instead be taught in the subsequent grade.
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.
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…
I’ve always wondered why Burmese is an outlier among many languages in the world when it comes to tea. Not simply the concept and tradition of eating tea leaves, but the Burmese word for “tea” itself. Turns out there’s an explanation.
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.
Throughout the rest of the world, local numeral systems are quickly being replaced with Hindu-Arabic numerals (i.e., 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). This holds true across Asia, where countries with native sets of numerals, like Thailand, Cambodia, and China, increasingly prefer the Hindu-Arabic forms in daily use, relegating the indigenous sets to ceremonial usage. In Europe, Hindu-Arabic numerals had replaced cumbersome Roman numerals by the 1400s.
Yet Burmese remains a curious outlier in Asia. Record-keeping is still largely done in Burmese numerals, even after nearly a century of British colonization. And although mathematics is taught using the Hindu-Arabic set, the traditional set of Burmese numerals is still widely used, in literature, newspapers, and handwriting. But why?
As descendants of the Old Mon script, both Burmese and Lanna can and are used to transcribe Pāḷi, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, akin to Latin’s role in Roman Catholicism. In fact, for hundreds of years, both Burmese and Lanna have historically served as vehicles of knowledge transfer in Mainland Southeast Asia, used in to transcribe Pali texts and religious commentaries on inscriptions and manuscripts.
I explore the conventions of Pali transcription in both Lanna and Burmese below. The similarities almost render Lanna transcriptions readable to a literate Burmese speaker.
There’s been much confusion in English language media with respect to the translation of the name of Burma’s national capital, Naypyidaw (နေပြည်တော်). Conventional translations range from “abode of kings” to “royal capital” to “seat of the king” to “royal city.” All of these are mostly correct, but are without nuanced context.
Burmese is quite inconsistent in its transcription of foreign place names. Historical practice has tended toward preservation of the original language’s orthography. For example, the Burmese word for France is ပြင်သစ်, pronounced Pyinthit in modern Burmese, but spelt prang sac, which is much closer to the Roman spelling of France.
Nowadays, the prevailing trend is to imitate pronunciation of the place name in the English language. However, when it comes to place names that use obvious Indic loanwords, especially in neighboring countries like Thailand, Burmese speakers, on occasion, employ equivalent Indic spellings. For one, Bangkok’s International Airport, called Suvarnabhumi, is rendered into Burmese as Thuwunnabumi (သုဝဏ္ဏဘူမိ), in line with the actual Indic orthography, not with the actual Thai pronunciation (Suwannaphum) nor with the expected English pronunciation.
Unfortunately, this is an exception, not the rule. In many instances, Burmese speakers fail to recognize the Indic origins of the Thai place names they transcribe. Instead, they create Frankenstein transcriptions that are neither based on original orthography nor the intended pronunciation, ultimately doing a disservice to the longstanding literary and linguistic heritage shared by both Thais and the Burmese.
My apologies: WordPress prematurely published the draft of “Brothers from the same mothers: the Lanna and Burmese scripts.” I meant to publish this as a separate post because I realized my original post was too long.
Below is a more detailed commentary on the letters and characters found in the Lanna and Burmese alphabets, as well as an analysis of unique Lanna letters, which transcribe native Tai vocabulary (i.e., multiple tones, unique consonants like ‘f’ not found in Indic scripts, etc.).
My interest in Chiang Mai’s indigenous script was piqued when I first noticed the astounding similarity between the Burmese and Lanna scripts. The Lanna script, also known as the Tai Tham (Tham comes from Dhamma, because the script was used to transcribe Buddhist manuscripts), Tua Mueang, and Northern Thai scripts, is traditionally used to transcribe the Northern Thai language, also known as Kham Mueang. It is closely related to Lao Tham, a liturgical script used in Laos.