The Burmese Language

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The Burmese language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group of the Tibeto-Chinese family of languages, but, unlike Chinese, it is not ideographic. That is, it does not have characters which originated as pictures, but an alphabet, of eleven vowels and thirty-two consonants, derived from the Pahlavi script of South India. "Our language comes from North and South" would look like this in Burmese type:

By this I mean that our actual words, and the way we put them together, came to us from the North, with the early migrations from China, while the way we write them came from the South, brought to Burma by Indian traders and missionaries at a slightly later period. So far as we know, Burmese was first reduced to writing in the eleventh century at Pagan. Many inscriptions on stone still survive there.

Burmese, as is true of many Oriental languages, is monosyllabic; generally speaking, each word has only one syllable. Nouns, adjectives, and verb tenses are formed by the addition of suffixes to the verbal roots --a process of agglutination, as the philologists call it. To express anything but the very simplest things we must combine words of different meanings. In English, for example, you have separate root-terms for "sheep," "ewe," "lamb," and "mutton." To render these distinctions a Burmese will say: "sheep" (tho), "female sheep" (tho-ma), "young sheep" (tho-galay), and "meat of sheep" (tho-tha).

Like Chinese, Burmese is tonal. Being monosyllabic, it has a shortage of basic root-words since the consonants can only be combined in a limited number of ways. So each combination must do heavy duty, the differences in meaning being indicated by the speaker's tone of voice. For this we use three tones: the abrupt, the level, and the falling tone. As an example, ka, in the abrupt tone, means "to dance"; kã, in the level tone, means "to shield"; while :, in the falling tone, means "to spread wide." Or, if I wanted to say, "I saw a tall horse," it would be "Myin: myin myin thee."

These complications make our language difficult but also one of the most musical in the East; its subtleties of sound have greatly enriched our poetry.

Our grammar is very simple, but its word order is sometimes the reverse of English. We have many loan-words that came to us with the Sanskrit of Hinduism and the Pali of Buddhism, from Arab traders, or from contact with our neighbors, the Shans, Thais, Malays, Chinese, Manipuris, and Bengalis.

The language of old Pagan was simple and direct; that of succeeding periods of our literature became learned, rigid, and ornate. With the printing press and a mass reading public Burmese has again become more simple and colloquial. Our problem now is to give it the technical vocabulary needed to cope with the wide range of modern science. To this end, a new dictionary and an encyclopaedia are being prepared, and thousands of new words are being coined.

U Wun, born in 1909 in a district near Rangoon of Burman-Mon-Shan ancestry, was educated at the University of Rangoon and at Oxford. A philologist who has worked with Old Burmese, Mon, Pyu, Pali, Tibetan, and Sanskrit, he is now head of Rangoon University's Department of Translation and Publication, and directs the new Burmese Dictionary Project. U Wun is also one of Burma's most distinguished poets.
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