On Zawgyi’s slow march towards death

Last month, the Burmese tech community joined hands with the national Ministry of Transport and Communications to launch the Myanmar Unicode Migration initiative, which has sparked and garnered greater attention from Burmese media (e.g., on 7 Day, BBC, DVB, Eleven Media, VOA, Myanmar Business Today, etc.).

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Bhumibol’s royal demise

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.

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Bringing the Burmese language up to speed

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.

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Map of Siam

How to transcribe Thai place names into Burmese

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.

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Side by side: A comparison of Lanna and Burmese letters

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.).

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Brothers from the same mother: the Lanna and Burmese scripts

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.

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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 (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.

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! (zagabon.tumblr.com/ask)

In the mean time, enjoy.

Documentary on Harvard’s Burmese American basketball player

I came across a trailer for No Look Pass, a documentary on a Burmese-(Chinese)*-American basketball player by the name of Emily Tay, who plays for Harvard. The twist: she’s a lesbian, who’s caught in between her parents’ traditional views and her own aspirations.

Perhaps (heterosexual) marriage is a more pressing issue in the Burmese Chinese community than in the Burmese community in general. In college, I read some papers (12) on the unprecedented percentages of unmarried men and women in the country, as compared to other Asian countries. What forces are shaping these behaviors and marriage delays? It’s an intriguing question to ask. The UN reports that Burma’s mean age of marriage in 2000 was 27.5 for men and 26.4 for women, simply unparalleled among countries of similar economic standing (e.g. Cambodia and Laos).

The documentary certainly caught my attention. Sexuality is rarely discussed and little understood within the Burmese community. I know for a fact that many Burmese Buddhists use the 3rd Precept (abstaining from the vaguely termed ‘sexual misconduct’) as a way of justifying their homophobia. When I was temporarily ordained as a monk, I was specifically asked whether I was a male. Then, the ordaining monk clarified, and asked if I were gay (being gay apparently means one is not a “complete” man, in line with traditional Burmese views, even though it’s not based on Buddha’s direct teachings or the Vinaya).

To many Burmese, there exist only 2 kinds of homosexuals (simply put, their understanding of homosexuality is that it is essentially transsexuality): men who want to be women and women who want to be men, without understanding that one’s attraction to members of the same sex does not dispose one to transsexuality. Sexuality cannot be understood in terms of black and white.

Certainly, the issue of homosexuality is not talked about in the Burmese American community as well. The only time I’ve ever discussed homosexuality with my parents was when the campaign for Proposition 8 in California (which sought to eliminate gay marriage) was in full swing. My parents voted against Prop 8 only because they thought what happens behind closed doors and in private homes (in marriages and families) has absolutely nothing to do with them. But my own parents are vehemently opposed to homosexuality, in principle and practice. It’s been interesting to tread this fine line, as both my sister and I support such rights, along with the majority of folks in our generation.

Growing up, I didn’t even have the sufficient Burmese vocabulary to adequately describe homosexuals. (By the way, New Mandala has a nice article on gay slang in Burma). FYI, it’s lein-thu chit-thu (လိင်တူချစ်သူ), literally “same-sex lover.” I only knew of these slang terms:

  1. For gays: mein-ma-sha (မိန်းမလျှာ), a-chauk (အခြောက်), or gandu (ဂန်ဒူး)
  2. For lesbians: yauk-ka-sha (ယောက်ကလျှာ)

There’s a review at Hyphen Magazine. Anyway, I’m excited to see this movie sometime, if it screens in the LA area.

What are your thoughts on homosexuality’s place or role in Burmese society?

*I made the assumption that her family is Burmese-Chinese, because Tay (鄭) is a Hokkien surname, and because they’re seen worshipping at the Thien Hau Temple.