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 ironic tragedy is that while Burma’s economic system has been decimated by decades of sustained political mismanagement, the country’s education system has also produced some of the world’s most prominent and influential economists, including Hla Myint*, Ezra Solomon*, and Ronald Findlay*, all of whom were educated at Rangoon University. (All subsequently established academic careers outside the country, at world-class institutions like London School of Economics, Stanford University and Columbia University.)
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.
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.
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.
Ever since I started working full time, I’ve tried to make a habit of traveling outside the U.S. at least once a year. I am completely infected with wanderlust. If I had the luxury of choice and money, I would not be spending my 20s working full time. And I really don’t want to end up like my older colleagues and acquaintances–filled with regret over not having traveled more. Last winter, I spent about 2 and a half weeks in Taipei and Hong Kong.
This is the third installment on Alcohol and the Theravada Buddhist World.
I decided to take a closer look against the ring of countries that constitute the Theravada Buddhist world, in the context of alcohol consumption. Theravada Buddhism takes a relatively hard stance on drinking alcohol (or any mind-altering substances, for that matter) so it was quite interesting to see great variation in consumption patterns among these countries. At one end of the spectrum was Laos, whose citizens, both male and female, embrace alcohol. At the other end of the spectrum was Burma, the least likely to drink of the bunch.
I took 2,500 photos in Bangkok this spring break, so sorting them out and deciding which ones to use, has been, to say the least, time-consuming. 7 days in Bangkok were not enough, to even begin to capture it all. Next time I visit Thailand, I’m going to Chiang Mai and surrounding areas.
But the experience was amazing. Despite the simmering heat, which stripped me of my energy, I thoroughly enjoyed the visit. My only complaint was the terrible heat. California is hot, but thankfully dry as well, so the heat doesn’t feel so instense. I am now thoroughly tan from my time there.
I arrived in Bangkok at 2 in the morning, because of flight delays, but I was surprised at how blatant prostitution was in the wee hours. By the freeway, in alleyways and on major streets, there were huge throngs of prostitutes soliciting men for services. I’ve never seen so many women, obviously and openly doing this for a living. The taxi driver, as he took my family to the hotel, sighed as he muttered “night ladies.” Dishonorable, perhaps, but as long as there’s demand, people will continue supplying and fueling the industry. Las Vegas is nothing in comparison to Bangkok in this respect.
I’ve completely neglected this blog for the past month due to a seemingly neverending line of midterms and finals. But just to be sure, I am still alive. I’m currently writing this from Bangkok, where I’m spending this spring break. It’s hot and humid, but a beautiful place nonetheless.
The Economist had an interesting point to make on how governments react differently to different countries. In Thailand, an Australian journalist was charged and detained with lese majeste, that is, offending the Thai monarchy, in a book that sold a few copies. The Australian government is now seeking a “royal pardon” to set the journalist free. The article then concludes:
If this were Myanmar, governments like Australia’s would line up to denounce the arbitrary use of archaic laws and defend the rights of dissidents. Instead, it is meekly waiting for a royal pardon so it can spirit its citizen back home.
-“The trouble with Harry” (link), The Economist
Today, my family went to to the Wat Thai of Los Angeles, one of the largest Thai temples in the L.A. area (the other one is in the suburb of the City of Industry). Every weekend, Thai families sell different types of Thai food at a market in the parking lot. But today, I believe there was a festival, where some people circled the main wat, led by two ‘dancers’ and a Brahmin priest holding lotus flowers. I think it has something to do with the Buddhist lent, which in the Burmese calender, starts at the month of Waso and ends at Thadingyut. Since, Waso is between the months of June and July (this year, the full moon of Waso is on July 29, starting the Buddhist lent), I’m assuming that the parade march is associated to the Buddhist lent. My mother guessed it was monk robe (Waso thingan) offerings, but I’m not completely sure.
Pictures of the temple below: