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.
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?
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.