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.
It absolutely irks me when I read English news articles written about Burmese monks, which repeatedly transcribe the monks’ names into an inconsistent mishmash of Pali and Burmese-influenced spellings.
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.