New York Public Library’s Digital Collections recently rolled out a number of public domain works. I was pleased to find a beautiful repository of postcards from colonial Burma by D.A. Ahuja, a Rangoon-based photographer.
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?
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.
Since the election of the 330 odd Pyithu Hluttaw (People’s Assembly) representatives (MP’s) two years ago, I haven’t seen much in the actual composition of Burma’s lower house, a look at the members’ demographic data, aside from their party affiliation. Fortunately, the Pyithu Hluttaw website (pyithuhluttaw.gov.mm) now has biodata for all 314 of the sitting Pyithu Hluttaw MP’s.
The Thein Sein administration is planning to expand its ministerial portfolio, bringing that total up to 32 (a listing as of March 2014 can be found here). In late May, one of Thein Sein’s ministers, Soe Thein, announced that the the Ministry of Youth Affairs would be established [link].
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 (mmproverb.com), but unfortunately, much of the content is locked out to English speakers. That’s saddening.
The collection can be found at zagabon.tumblr.com
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.
In the mean time, enjoy.