Modern developments in spoken Burmese

Over the years, I’ve encountered and observed several phonological changes in spoken Burmese. It’s more easily discerned when you have a handle of the actual spelling of these words. Unfortunately, there’s not much academic treatment on the Burmese language’s ongoing linguistic evolution, so I thought I’d compile a list of the ones I can readily point out.

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The state of Burmese Unicode

This past week, I switched over to a new Android phone, the much touted Google Nexus 5, a Google-branded smartphone bearing the latest version of the Android OS, version 4.4 (aka Kitkat). I’ve been impressed with the phone’s build and software capabilities, but the real gem I unearthed was that it has full support for the Burmese language, while browsing through my music library. That’s right, Android 4.4+ now has support for Burmese.

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New project: Zagabon, a compilation of Burmese proverbs

New project: Zagabon, a compilation of Burmese proverbs

I’ve begun a small side project on Tumblr, called Zagabon, to collect and publish Burmese proverbs and sayings of all kinds, along with English translations and context if necessary. There’s a pretty extensive Burmese proverb website up (, but unfortunately, much of the content is locked out to English speakers. That’s saddening.

The collection can be found at

My mom inspired my own attempt to collect all these sayings. I was raised in a bilingual household–my dad used only English with the children, while my mom used only Burmese, even though they communicate to each other in Burmese. Growing up, I became familiar with a plethora of Burmese sayings, perhaps the one thing I associate most with my mother. During the early years of their marriage, my father started his own form of documentation: Burmese scribbles onto notebooks and memo pads here and there, on the sayings my mom had to offer. So much so, that she began to say “Write it down” after reciting a proverb. This is just (hopefully) a more systematic approach and a continuation of his work.

Also, I’ve taken note at many folks who have an interest in these sayings, both Burmese speakers and non-speakers alike.

I think proverbs truly highlight the beauty of the Burmese language, with its earthy fluid sounds, regular vowel rhymes and mostly monosyllabic vocabulary. But it’s exceedingly difficult to translate the nuances of the Burmese language, so I’ll try my best to render the proverbs as well as I can in English.

I could use some help though–if anybody wants to chip in a proverb or two, feel free to do so in my submit box! (

In the mean time, enjoy.

10 things I hate about the Burmese language

Tipitaka stone inscriptions at Kuthodaw Pagoda

To be fair, Burmese isn’t the hardest language in the world to learn how to read and write. Its letters are simple and in general, pronunciation follows spelling. However, it has its fair share of oddities, mostly found in spelling. I’ve listed my top 10 annoyances below.

  1. Ya-yit (ရရစ်) versus ya-pin (ယပင်)
    In Burmese, there are two different spellings for for the ‘-y-‘ medial (as in ‘Myanma’), called ya-yit (ြ) and ya-pin (ျ). In olden times, the two symbols stood for two different pronunciations, -r- and -y- respectively (so ‘Myanma’ today was once pronounced ‘Mranma’). However, modern day Burmese has basically merged the ‘r’ sound into the ‘y’ sound, so there are now two medials for the same pronunciation. This is perhaps my biggest pet peeve in writing in Burmese. A dizzying number of Burmese words use the -y- medial. Deciding which one to use when I try to spell by sound is practically impossible without a dictionary, unless I bet on the 50/50 chance that one of the two is correct.
  2. Pali spellings
    Without Pali, the Burmese would be at a loss for words, literally. Pali, as I’ve discovered (after learning to read and write) how much Pali and Pali-derived words are a part of daily conversation. We wouldn’t have the word for ‘taste’ (ayatha, အရသာ from Pali rasa) or even something as pedestrian as ‘things’ (pyissi, ပစ္စည်း from Pali paccaya) among other things, without even delving into Pali’s role in Theravada Buddhism (there’s a whole row of 5 complicated Burmese letters mostly dedicated to Pali). Continue reading

The beauty of Burmese sayings

I just came back from a family outing to the movies (it’s a family tradition). While watching Valkyrie, about a coup attempt by Nazi officers of Adolf Hitler’s government under the guise of Hitler’s assassination during WWII, my mom uttered another one of her sayings. Unfortunately, The movie wasn’t a thriller as advertised (especially because everyone knows what really happened to Hitler).

Watching the final minutes of the movie, my mom whispered to me the Burmese saying သေရင်မြေကြီး ရှင်ရင်ရွှေထီး (thay yin myay-gyi, shin yin shwe hti), poorly translated ‘death means going to the ground, living means being under a golden umbrella’ because Burmese kings were shaded underneath a ceremonial golden umbrella. The saying refers to certain situations such as coups in which people face a life-or-death situation, either becoming “king” (succeeding) or being buried (failing).

My mom has a store of thousands of Burmese sayings in her mind, appropriate for every situation. It’s actually quite remarkable (when my dad married my mom, he realized her penchant for Burmese sayings and starting keeping a notebook of thousands of sayings she’s said).

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How to pronounce “Aung San Suu Kyi”

Coming across an op-ed from here, I came to the conclusion that most of the time, Burmese names are not done justice.

The op-ed states this:

Bush continued making us proud by thinking and saying that he was addressing an OPEC summit instead of the APEC summit. He thanked the Austrian army for providing security. Yes, of course, it was the Australians who provided the security in Australia not the Austrians. He got lost on stage and couldn’t find his way off and couldn’t pronounce the name of Myanmar’s democratic opposition leader; all grade A Bush material for late night comics everywhere.

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Typing in Burmese on Windows Vista

Does anybody know how to install ‘keyboards’ (Burmese Unicode) on Windows Vista (I have a 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate laptop)? I’ve tried every program imaginable on the Internet to install keyboards so that I can type in Burmese but none will install. If anybody does, please leave a comment because I can’t figure this out.

Works now.

Interesting Burmese word origins

Burmese word origins
A graphic I made, showing some of the linguistic diversity found in the Burmese language.

Burmese has a hodgepodge of words that come from other languages, some that would surprise most people, at least me. It’s a given that many Burmese words come from Pali (from Buddhism) or English (from colonial rule), but quite a number of words also come from obscure and seemingly unrelated languages to Burmese. I’ve compiled a list of the most interesting ones.

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Stigmas of being Indian and Muslim

Politically correct: 'Eindiya Gayha' instead of 'Kala Gayha', both of which mean "India House" in Burmese. I think the India House is the residence of the Indian ambassador to Burma.

The recent Economist article (“Unlikely sanctuary”) on Burmese Muslims living in Yunnan, China inspired me to write about the rampant discrimination Indians, and in particular, Indian Muslims face in Burma.

Kala is a commonly-used Burmese term to describe Indians or Indian-looking people. According to a Burmese dictionary, the term comes from Pali. However, despite the term’s popularity, it is seen as derogatory among the Indian community. (In official contexts, the term kala has been phased out in favor of Burmese equivalents of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, similar to how Yodaya, the Burmese term for Thai is being replaced by Htaing in Burmese). The offensive term kala has become a root word, suffixing or prefixing many Burmese words like “chair” (kala-htaing).

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The Arakanese dialect

Sittwe Port

A woman serving mohinga at the port of Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State.

Burmese is an remarkably uniform language, considering it covers a wide area in Burma, or so I thought. Since I could not differentiate Burmese spoken in Mandalay and that spoken in Rangoon (aside from minor vocabulary differences) and instead thought that there is probably a greater difference between the pronunciation of the younger generations and the older ones (I’ve noticed that older people tend to use Bama over Myanma, which is more commonly used among younger people, even in movies) and that younger people are more likely to slur their words.

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