Burmese language


Burmese language
Burmese
မြန်မာစာ (written Burmese)
မြန်မာစကား (spoken Burmese)
Pronunciation IPA: [mjəmàzà] or IPA: [mjəmà zəɡá]
Spoken in Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore
Ethnicity Bamar people
Native speakers First language: 32 million
Second language: 10 million  (no date)
Language family
Sino-Tibetan
Writing system Burmese script
Official status
Official language in  Myanmar
Regulated by Myanmar Language Commission
Language codes
ISO 639-1 my
ISO 639-2 bur (B)
mya (T)
ISO 639-3 mya

The Burmese language (Burmese: မြန်မာဘာသာ; pronounced [mjəmà bàðà]; MLCTS: myanma bhasa) is the official language of Burma. Although the constitution officially recognizes it as the Myanmar language,[1] most English speakers continue to refer to the language as Burmese. Burmese is the native language of the Bamar and related sub-ethnic groups of the Bamar, as well as that of some ethnic minorities in Burma like the Mon. Burmese is spoken by 32 million as a first language and as a second language by 10 million, particularly ethnic minorities in Burma and those in neighboring countries.

Burmese is a tonal, pitch-register, and syllable-timed language,[2] largely monosyllabic and analytic language, with a subject–object–verb word order. It is a member of the Tibeto-Burman language family, which is a subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The language uses the Burmese script, derived from the Old Mon script and ultimately from the Brāhmī script.

Contents

Literary language and spoken language

Burmese language, literary and spoken, is called မြန်မာဘာသာ (mranma bhasa [mjəmà bàðà]), with ဘာသာ (from Pali bhasa, "language"). The language is classified into two categories. One is formal, used in literary works, official publications, radio broadcasts, and formal speeches. The other is colloquial, used in daily conversation and spoken. This is reflected in the Burmese words for "language": စာ (ca [sà]) refers to written, literary language, and စကား (ca.ka: [zəɡá]) refers to spoken language. Burmese therefore can mean either မြန်မာစာ mranma ca (written Burmese), or မြန်မာစကား mranma ca.ka: (spoken Burmese). The မြန်မာ (mranma) portion of these names may be pronounced [mjəmà] or, more colloquially, ဗမာ ([bəmà]).

Diglossia

Diglossia occurs to a large extent in Burmese and is fairly noticeable in writing and speech. The written/literary form of Burmese has undergone only a few changes and tends not to accommodate the spoken/colloquial phonology of standard Burmese today. The Burmese saying "the pronunciation is merely the sound, whilst the orthography is correct" (ရေးတော့အမှန်၊ ဖတ်တော့အသံ [jé dɔ̰ ʔəm̥àɴ pʰaʔ tɔ̰ ʔəθàɴ]) reflects the differences between spoken and written Burmese, as spelling is often not an accurate reflection of pronunciation.

In addition, different particles (to modify nouns and verbs) are used in the literary form from those used in the spoken form. Due to innate pronunciation rules, literate Burmese speakers are able to intuitively interpret ancient Burmese despite the potentially ancient nature of the inscriptions. For example, the postposition after nouns is (hnai. [n̥aiʔ] in formal Burmese, and မှာ (hma [m̥à]) in colloquial Burmese.

A newer system of orthography for Burmese (one based on phonology) has been proposed to accommodate such differences, but an obstacle in reforming Burmese orthography lies in the existence of conservative Burmese dialects that retain older pronunciations more similar to formal Burmese, which primarily come from coastal areas like Rakhine State. Moreover, some Burmese linguists such as Minn Latt, a Czech academic, have proposed shifting away from formal Burmese, as seen in television broadcasts, which use the colloquial form.[3] However, formal Burmese remains well-established in Burmese society.

Since the mid-1960s, there has been a reform movement by some Burmese writers (in particular, leftist writers who believe that laymen's language ought to be used) to abandon the formal style in favour of the vernacular style in writing, but the formal style remains the preferred form of Burmese writing, because "the spoken style lacks gravity, authority, dignity".[4][5] The formal written style is used in Burmese literature, radio news broadcasts, formal letters, novels, journalism and scholarly works.[4]

A sample sentence below reveals that much of the differences between formal and colloquial Burmese occurs in grammatical particles and lexical items:

Formal
(Written)
ရှစ်လေးလုံးအရေးအခင်း ဖြစ် သောအခါက လူ ဦးရေ သုံးထောင် မျှ သေဆုံး ခဲ့ ကြ သည်။
Colloquial
(Spoken)
တုံးက အယောက် လောက် သေ - တယ်။
Gloss noun verb part. noun part. adj. part. verb part. part. part.
(The four eight Uprising) (happen) (when it occurred) (people) (counter word) (three thousand) (approx.) (die) (past tense) (plural marker) (sentence final)
Translation When the 8888 Uprising occurred, approximately three thousand people died.

Colloquial Burmese has various politeness levels that take status and age of the speaker in relation to the audience into consideration. For instance, the first and second person pronouns ငါ (nga [ŋà]; "I; me") and နင် (nang [nɪ̀ɴ]; "you") are used with only close people of the same or younger age. The use of these two pronouns with the elders and strangers is considered extremely rude or vulgar. To address elders, teachers and strangers, polite speech employs feudal-era third person pronouns in lieu of first and second person pronouns.

Furthermore, some vocabulary are reserved for Buddhist monks, such as "to sleep," which is ကျိန်း (kyin: [tɕéiɴ]) for monks and အိပ် (ip' [eiʔ]) for laypersons and "to die," which is ပျံတော်မူ (pyam tau mu [pjàɴ dɔ̀ mù]) for monks and သေ (se [θè]) for laypersons.

Despite the large differences, Burmese speakers rarely distinguish formal and colloquial Burmese as separate languages, but rather as two registers of the same language.

Dialects

Upper Burmese and Lower Burmese

Despite its Upper Burmese origins, the standard dialect of Burmese today comes from Yangon, because of the largest city's media influence. It used to be that the speech from Mandalay represented standard Burmese. Most differences between Yangon (Lower Burma) and Mandalay (Upper Burma) are in vocabulary usage, not in the accent or pronunciation. The most noticeable feature of the Mandalay dialect is its use of the first person pronoun ကျွန်တော် (kya.nau [tɕənɔ]) for both males and females, whereas in Yangon, ကျွန်မ (kya.ma. [tɕəma̰]) is used by females. Moreover, Upper Burmese speech still differentiates maternal and paternal sides of relatives whereas Lower Burmese speech does not:

Term Upper Burmese Lower Burmese Myeik dialect
  • Paternal aunt (older)
  • Paternal aunt (younger)
  • အရီးကြီး ([ʔəjí dʑí]) (or [jí dʑí])
  • အရီးလေး ([ʔəjí lé]) (or [jí lé])
  • ဒေါ်ကြီး ([dɔ̀ dʑí]) (or [tɕí tɕí])
  • ဒေါ်လေး ([dɔ̀ lé])
  • မိကြီး ([mḭ dʑí])
  • မိငယ် ([mḭ ŋɛ̀])
  • Maternal aunt (older)
  • Maternal aunt (younger)
  • ဒေါ်ကြီး ([dɔ̀ dʑí]) (or [tɕí tɕí])
  • ဒေါ်လေး ([dɔ̀ lé])
  • Paternal uncle (older)
  • Paternal uncle (younger)
  • ဘကြီး ([ba̰ dʑí])
  • ဘလေး ([ba̰ lé])
  • ဘကြီး ([ba̰ dʑí])
  • ဦးလေး ([ʔú lé])
  • ဖကြီး ([pʰa̰ dʑí])
  • ဖငယ် ([pʰa̰ ŋɛ̀])
  • Maternal uncle (older)
  • Maternal uncle (younger)
  • ဦးကြီး ([ʔú dʑí])
  • ဦးလေး ([ʔú lé])

In a testament to the power of media, the Yangon-based speech is gaining currency even in Upper Burma. Upper Burmese-specific usage, while historically and technically accurate, is increasingly viewed as countrified speech, or at best regional speech. In fact, some usages are already considered strictly regional Upper Burmese speech, and are likely dying out. For example:

Term Upper Burmese Standard Burmese
  • Elder brother (to a male)
  • Elder brother (to a female)
  • နောင် ([nàuɴ])
  • ကို ([kò])
  • ကို ([kò])
  • Younger brother (to a male)
  • Younger brother (to a female)
  • ညီ ([ɲì])
  • မောင် ([màuɴ])
  • Elder sister (to a male)
  • Elder sister (to a female)
  • ([ma̰])
  • Younger sister (to a male)
  • Younger sister (to a female)
  • နှမ ([ɲəma̰])
  • ညီမ ([ɲì ma̰])
  • ညီမ ([ɲì ma̰])

In general, the male-centric names of old Burmese for familial terms have been replaced in standard Burmese with formerly female-centric terms, which are now used by both sexes. One holdover is the use of ညီ (younger brother to a male) and မောင် (younger brother to a female). Terms like နောင် (elder brother to a male) and နှမ (younger sister to a male) now are used in standard Burmese only as part of compound words like ညီနောင် (brothers) or မောင်နှမ (brother and sister).

Outside the Ayeyarwady basin

More distinctive non-standard dialects emerge as one moves farther away from the Ayeyarwady River valley toward peripheral areas of the country. These dialects include Yaw, Palaw, Beik/Myeik (Merguese), Dawei (Tavoyan), Intha, Danu, Rakhine (Arakanese) and Marma. Despite vocabulary and pronunciation differences, there is mutual intelligibility among most Burmese dialects.

The Rakhine dialect (Arakanese) is has retained the [ɹ] sound, which has become a [j] sound in standard Burmese. Also, sound changes from standard Burmese to the Rakhine dialect include the vowel merging of ([e]) to ([i]). Hence, a word like "blood" is သွေး ([θwé]) in standard Burmese while it is သွီး ([θwí]) in Rakhine.

Dialects in Tanintharyi Division, like Beik and Dawei dialects, often reduce the intensity of the glottal stop. The Dawei dialect has preserved the [-l-] medial, which is only found in Old Burmese inscriptions.

Vocabulary

The majority of Burmese vocabulary is monosyllabic and is of Tibeto-Burman stock, although many words, especially those loaned from other languages, are polysyllabic. Burmese has been influenced greatly by Pali, English, and Mon, and to a lesser extent, by Chinese, Sanskrit and Hindi.

  • Pali loan words are often related to religion, government, arts, and science.
  • English loan words are often related to technology, measurements and modern institutions.
  • Mon has heavily influenced Burmese. Many Mon loan words have become so well incorporated in the Burmese language that they are not distinguished as loan words. Mon loans are often related to flora, fauna, administration, textiles, foods, boats, crafts, architecture, and music.[4]
  • Sanskrit (religion), Chinese (games and food), and Hindi (food, administration, and shipping) loan words are also found (albeit to a much lesser degree) in Burmese.[4]
  • Various other languages have also contributed vocabulary

Here is a sample of loan words found in Burmese:

  • suffering: ဒုက္ခ ([douʔkʰa̰]), from Pāli dukkha
  • radio: ရေဒီယို ([ɹèdìjò]), from English "radio"
  • method: စနစ် ([sənɪʔ]), from Mon
  • eggroll: ကော်ပြန့် ([kɔ̀pja̰ɴ]), from Hokkien 潤餅 (jūn-piáⁿ)
  • wife: ဇနီး ([zəní]), from Hindi jani
  • noodle: ခေါက်ဆွဲ ([kʰauʔ sʰwɛ́]), from Shan ၶဝ်ႈသဵၼ်ႈ ([kʰāw sʰēn])
  • foot (unit of measurement): ပေ ([pè]), from Portuguese
  • flag: အလံ ([əlàɴ]), from Arabic علم ʕalam
  • storeroom: ([ɡòdàuɴ]), from Malay gudang

Some words in Burmese may have many synonyms, each having certain usages, such as formal, literary, colloquial, and poetic. One example is the word "moon", which can be (la̰; Tibeto-Burman), စန္ဒာ/စန်း ([sàɴdà]/[sáɴ]); Pali derivatives of chanda), or သော်တာ ([θɔ̀ dà] (Sanskrit).[6]

Burmese also has a tendency to 'double-loan' from Pali, where it adopts two different terms based on the same Pali root.[7] An example is the Pali word mana, which has two derivatives in Burmese: မာန ([màna̰] "arrogance") and မာန် ([màɴ] "pride").

Furthermore, Burmese loan words, especially from Pali, combine native Burmese words to Pali roots. An example is "airplane" လေယာဉ်ပျံ ([lè jɪ̀ɴ bjàɴ], lit. "air machine fly"), made up of လေ (native Burmese word, "air"), ယာဉ် (Pali loan from yana, "vehicle") and ပျံ (native Burmese word, "fly").[7] A similar trend is seen in English, where native Burmese words are attached to English loans, such as the verb "to sign" ဆိုင်းထိုး ([sʰáiɴ tʰó], lit. "sign inscribe"), with ဆိုင်း (English loan "sign") and ထိုး (native Burmese word, "inscribe").[7] In the case of Mon loans, they are indistinguishable in most cases because they were more often borrowed from speech rather than writing, since Burmese and Mon were used interchangeably for several centuries in modern-day Burma.[7]

At times, the Burmese government has attempted to limit usage of Western loans, especially from English. For example, in Burma, publications containing the word တယ်လီဗီးရှင် (directly transliterated from English "television") must be replaced with a Burmese substitute ရုပ်မြင်သံကြား, literally "see picture, hear sound." Another example is the Burmese word for vehicle, which is officially ယာဉ် ([jɪ̀ɴ] Pali derivative, "vehicle") but ကား ([ká] English loan, "car") in spoken Burmese. Some common English word loans have fallen out of usage, like ယူနီဗာစတီ ([jùnìbàsətì]), which has been replaced with a recent Pali loan တက္ကသိုလ် ([teʔkəðò]), created by the Burmese government and derived from တက္ကသီလ (takkasila) the Pali spelling of Taxila, an ancient university town in modern-day Pakistan.

Script

Sampling of various Burmese script styles

The Burmese language is generally divided into Old Burmese, Middle Burmese and modern Burmese. Old Burmese dates from 11th to 16th century (Pagan (Bagan) and Ava (Innwa) dynasties); Middle Burmese from 16th to 18th century (Taungoo to Konbaung dynasties); modern Burmese from the mid-18th century (Konbaung dynasty) to the present.[4] These divisions are largely because on orthography changes, which followed shifts in phonology (such as the merging of the [-l-] and [-ɹ-] medials) rather than transformations in Burmese grammatical structure and phonology, which has not changed much from Old Burmese to modern Burmese.[4]

Written Burmese dates to the early Pagan period. The Old Mon script, which ultimately descended from the Brāhmī script, was adapted with many changes to suit the phonology of Burmese for transcribing spoken Burmese. The earliest writing in Burmese is dated 1058, though the crude and variable spelling indicates that the scribes were still experimenting.[8] The earliest evidence of more settled written Burmese is the Myazedi stone inscription (written in 1113), which was a story about King Kyanzittha as told by his son Prince Yazakumar in the Pyu, Mon, Pali, and Burmese scripts. During the Pagan era, the medial [-l-] (္လ) was transcribed in writing, which has been replaced by medials [-j-] () and [-ɹ-] () in modern Burmese (e.g. "school" in old Burmese က္လောင် ([klɔŋ]ကျောင်း ([tɕáuɴ] in modern Burmese).[9]

The Burmese script is characterized by its circular letters and diacritics. It is an abugida, with all letters having an inherent vowel (a. [a̰] or [ə]). The Burmese script consists of 33 letters and 12 vowels. The consonants are arranged into six consonant groups (called ဝဂ်) based on articulation, like other Brahmi scripts.

Tone markings and vowel modifications are written as diacritics placed to the left, right, top, and bottom of letters. Likewise, written Burmese has preserved all nasalized finals ([-n, -m, -ŋ]), which have merged to [-ɴ] in spoken Burmese. The exception is [-ɲ], which, in spoken Burmese, can be one of many open vowels ([i, e, ɛ]). Likewise, other consonantal finals ([-s, -p, -t, -k]) have been reduced to [-ʔ]. Similar mergers are seen in other Sino-Tibetan languages like Shanghainese, and to a lesser extent, Cantonese.

Much of the orthography in written Burmese today can be traced back to Middle Burmese, which had a wider range of spoken finals. Standardized tone marking was not achieved until the 18th century. From the 19th century onward, orthographers created spellers to reform Burmese spelling, because ambiguities arose over spelling sounds that had been merged.[4] During colonial rule under the British, Burmese spelling was standardized through dictionaries and spellers. The latest spelling authority, named the Myanma Salonpaung Thatpon Kyan (မြန်မာစာလုံးပေါင်းသတ်ပုံကျမ်း), was compiled in 1978 at the request of the Burmese government.[4]

Phonology

The transcriptions in this section use the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Consonants

The consonants of Burmese are as follows:

Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar
and palatal
Velar and
labiovelar
Glottal Placeless
Plosive and Affricate p b t d tɕʰ k ɡ ʔ  
Nasal m n ɲ̥ ɲ ŋ̊ ŋ   ɴ
Fricative   θ (ð) s z ʃ   h  
Approximant   (ɹ) j (w̥) w  
Lateral   l  

The approximant /ɹ/ is rare, and is only used in place names that have preserved Sanskrit or Pali pronunciations (e.g. Amarapura, which is pronounced [àməɹa̰pùɹa̰]) and in English-derived words. Historically, /ɹ/ became /j/ in Burmese, and is usually replaced by /j/ in Pāli loanwords, e.g. ရဟန္တာ (ra.hanta) /jəhàɴdà/ "monk", ရာဇ (raja.) /jàza̰/ "king". Occasionally it is replaced with /l/, as in the case of the Pali-derived word for "animal" တိရစ္ဆာန် (ti.rac hcan), which can be pronounced [təɹeiʔ sʰàɴ] or [təleiʔ sʰàɴ]. Likewise, /w̥/ is rare, having disappeared from modern Burmese, except in transcriptions of foreign names and a handful of native words. [ð] is also uncommon, except as a voiced allophone of /θ/.

Furthermore, there is a voicing rule found in Burmese. When two syllables are joined to form a compound word, the initial consonant of the second syllable becomes voiced. This shift occurs in the following phones:

  • /kʰ, k//ɡ/
  • /tɕʰ, tɕ//dʑ/
  • /sʰ, s//z/
  • /tʰ, t//d/
  • /pʰ, p//b/

The phoneme /dʑ/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can become a /j/ sound in compound words. For example, "blouse" (အင်္ကျီ angkyi) can be pronounced /èiɴdʑí/ or /èiɴjí/.

The phonemes /p, pʰ, b, t, tʰ, d/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can become /m/ in compound words. Examples include တိုင်ပင် ("to consult" [tàiɴ pɪ̀ɴ], commonly pronounced [tàiɴ mɪ̀ɴ]), တောင်းပန် ("to apologize" [táuɴ bàɴ], commonly pronounced [táuɴ màɴ]), လေယာဉ်ပျံ ("airplane" [lèi jɪ̀ɴ pjàɴ], commonly pronounced [lèiɴ mjàɴ]).

The placeless nasal /ɴ/ is realized as nasalization of the preceding vowel or as a nasal homorganic to the following consonant; thus /mòuɴdáiɴ/ "storm" is pronounced [mõ̀ũndã́ĩ].

In many Burmese words, aspirated consonants indicate active voice or a transitive verb, while unaspirated consonants indicate passive voice or an intransitive verb. Examples include the verb "cook," where the aspirated version ချက် ([tɕʰɛʔ]) means "cook", while the unaspirated ကျက်([tɕɛʔ]) means "to be cooked." Another example is "lessen," where the aspirated version ဖြေ ([pʰjè]) means "lessen" (transitive) while the unaspirated version ပြေ ([pjè]) means "lessen" (intransitive).

Vowels

The vowels of Burmese are:

Monophthongs Diphthongs
Front Back Front offglide Back offglide
Close i u
Close-mid e o ei ou
Mid ə
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a ai au

The monophthongs /e/, /o/, /ə/, and /ɔ/ occur only in open syllables (those without a syllable coda); the diphthongs /ei/, /ou/, /ai/, and /au/ occur only in closed syllables (those with a syllable coda).

The close vowels /i/ and /u/ and the close portions of the diphthongs are slightly centered to [ɪ] and [ʊ] in closed syllables, i.e. before /ɴ/ and /ʔ/. Thus နှစ် /n̥iʔ/ "two" is phonetically [n̥ɪʔ] and ကြောင် /tɕàuɴ/ "cat" is phonetically [tɕàʊɴ].

Tones

Burmese is a tonal language, which means phonemic contrasts can be made on the basis of the tone of a vowel. In Burmese, these contrasts involve not only pitch, but also phonation, intensity (loudness), duration, and vowel quality. However, some linguists consider Burmese a pitch-register language like Shanghainese.[10]

There are four contrastive tones in Burmese. In the following table the tones are shown marked on the vowel /a/ as an example; the phonetic descriptions are from Wheatley (1987).

Tone Burmese Symbol
(shown on a)
Description
Low နိမ့်သံ à Normal phonation, medium duration, low intensity, low (often slightly rising) pitch
High တက်သံ á Sometimes slightly breathy, relatively long, high intensity, high pitch; often with a fall before a pause
Creaky သက်သံ tense or creaky phonation (sometimes with lax glottal stop), medium duration, high intensity, high (often slightly falling) pitch
Checked တိုင်သံ Centralized vowel quality, final glottal stop, short duration, high pitch (in citation; can vary in context)

For example, the following words are distinguished from each other only on the basis of tone:

  • Low /kʰà/ "shake"
  • High /kʰá/ "be bitter"
  • Creaky /kʰa̰/ "fee"
  • Checked /kʰaʔ/ "draw off"

In syllables ending with /ɴ/, the checked tone is excluded:

  • Low /kʰàɴ/ "undergo"
  • High /kʰáɴ/ "dry up"
  • Creaky /kʰa̰ɴ/ "appoint"

In present-day spoken Burmese, some linguists classify two real tones (there are four nominal tones transcribed in written Burmese), "high" (applied to words that terminate with a stop or check, high-rising pitch) and "ordinary" (unchecked and non-glottal words, with falling or lower pitch), with those tones encompassing a variety of pitches.[11] The "ordinary" tone consists of a range of pitches. Linguist L. F. Taylor has concluded that "conversational rhythm and euphonic intonation possess importance" not found in related tonal languages and that "its tonal system is now in an advanced state of decay."[11][12]

Syllable structure

The syllable structure of Burmese is C(G)V((V)C), which is to say the onset consists of a consonant optionally followed by a glide, and the rime consists of a monophthong alone, a monophthong with a consonant, or a diphthong with a consonant. The only consonants that can stand in the coda are /ʔ/ and /ɴ/. Some representative words are:

  • CV /mè/ 'girl'
  • CVC /mɛʔ/ 'crave'
  • CGV /mjè/ 'earth'
  • CGVC /mjɛʔ/ 'eye'
  • CVVC /màuɴ/ (term of address for young men)
  • CGVVC /mjáuɴ/ 'ditch'

A minor syllable has some restrictions:

  • It contains /ə/ as its only vowel
  • It must be an open syllable (no coda consonant)
  • It cannot bear tone
  • It has only a simple (C) onset (no glide after the consonant)
  • It must not be the final syllable of the word

Some examples of words containing minor syllables:

  • /kʰə.louʔ/ 'knob'
  • /pə.lwè/ 'flute'
  • /θə.jɔ̀/ 'mock'
  • /kə.lɛʔ/ 'be wanton'
  • /tʰə.mə.jè/ 'rice-water'

Grammar

The basic word order of the Burmese language is subject-object-verb. Pronouns in Burmese vary according to the gender and status of the audience. Burmese is monosyllabic (i.e., every word is a root to which a particle but not another word may be prefixed).[13] Sentence structure determines syntactical relations and verbs are not conjugated. Instead they have particles suffixed to them. For example, the verb "to eat," စား (ca: [sà]) is itself unchanged when modified.

Adjectives

Burmese does not have adjectives per se. Rather, it has verbs that carry the meaning "to be X", where X is an English adjective. These verbs can modify a noun by means of the grammatical particle တဲ့ (tai. [dɛ̰]) in colloquial Burmese (literary form: သော sau: [θɔ́]), which is suffixed as follows:

Colloquial: ချောတဲ့လူ hkyau: tai. lu [tɕʰɔ́ dɛ̰ lù]
Formal: ချောသောလူ hkyau: so: lu
Gloss: "beautiful" + adjective particle + "person"

Adjectives may also form a compound with the noun (e.g. လူချော lu hkyau: [lù tɕʰɔ́] "person" + "be beautiful").

Comparatives are usually ordered: X + ထက်ပို (htak pui [tʰeʔ pò]) + adjective, where X is the object being compared to. Superlatives are indicated with the prefix (a. [ʔə]) + adjective + ဆုံး (hcum: [zóuɴ]).

Numerals follow the nouns they modify. Moreover, numerals follow several pronunciation rules that involve tone changes (low tone → creaky tone) and voicing shifts depending on the pronunciation of surrounding words. A more thorough explanation is found on Burmese numerals.

Verbs

The roots of Burmese verbs are almost always suffixed with at least one particle which conveys such information as tense, intention, politeness, mood, etc. Many of these particles also have formal/literary and colloquial equivalents. In fact, the only time in which no particle is attached to a verb is in imperative commands. However, Burmese verbs are not conjugated in the same way as most European languages; the root of the Burmese verb always remains unchanged and does not have to agree with the subject in person, number or gender.

The most commonly used verb particles and their usage are shown below with an example verb root စား (ca: [sá] "to eat"). Alone, the statement စား is imperative.

The suffix တယ် tai [dɛ̀] (literary form: သည် sany [ðì]) can be viewed as a particle marking the present tense and/or a factual statement:

စားတယ် (ca: tai [sá dɛ̀]) - I eat

The suffix ခဲ့ (hkai. [ɡɛ̰]) denotes that the action took place in the past. However, this particle is not always necessary to indicate the past tense such that it can convey the same information without it. But to emphasize that the action happened before another event that is also currently being discussed, the particle becomes imperative. Note that the suffix တယ် (tai [dɛ̀]) in this case denotes a factual statement rather than the present tense:

စားခဲ့တယ် (ca: hkai. tai [sá ɡɛ̰ dɛ̀]) - I ate

The particle နေ (ne [nè]) is used to denote an action in progression. It is equivalent to the English '-ing'"

စားနေတယ် (ca: ne tai [sá nè dɛ̀]) - I am eating

This particle ပြီ (pri [bjì]), which is used when an action that had been expected to be performed by the subject is now finally being performed, has no equivalent in English. So in the above example, if someone had been expecting you to eat and you have finally started eating, the particle ပြီ is used as follows:

(စ)စားပြီ ((ca.) ca: pri [(sə) sá bjì]) - I am (now) eating

The particle မယ် mai [sá mɛ̀] (literary form: မည် many [mjì]) is used to indicate the future tense or an action which is yet to be performed:

စားမယ် (ca: mai [sá mɛ̀]) - I will eat

The particle တော့ (tau. [dɔ̰]) is used when the action is about to be performed immediately when used in conjunction with မယ်. Therefore it could be termed as the "immediate future tense particle".

စားတော့မယ် (ca: tau. mai [sá dɔ̰ mɛ̀]) - I will eat (straight-away)

When တော့ is used alone, however, it is imperative:

  • စားတော့ (ca: tau. [sá dɔ̰]) - Eat (now)

Verbs are negated by the particle (ma. [mə]), which is prefixed to the verb. Generally speaking, other particles are suffixed to that verb, along with .

The verb suffix particle နဲ့ nai. [nɛ̰] (literary form: နှင့် hnang. [n̥ɪ̰ɴ]) indicates a command:

မစားနဲ့ (ma.ca: nai. [məsá nɛ̰] Don't eat

The verb suffix particle ဘူး (bhu: [bú]) indicates a statement:

မစားဘူး (ma.ca: bhu: [məsá bú]) - [I] don't eat

Nouns

Nouns in Burmese are pluralized by suffixing the particle တွေ (twe [dè] or [tè] if the word ends in a glottal stop) in colloquial Burmese or များ (mya: [mjà]) in formal Burmese. The particle တို့ (tou. [to̰]), which indicates a group of persons or things, is also suffixed to the modified noun. An example is below:

  • မြစ် (mrac [mjɪʔ]) - river
  • မြစ်တွေ (mrac twe [mjɪʔ tè]) - rivers (colloquial)
  • မြစ်များ (mrac mya: [mjɪʔ mjá]) - rivers (formal)
  • မြစ်တို့ (mrac tou: [mjɪʔ to̰]) - rivers

Plural suffixes are not used when the noun is quantified with a number.

ကလေး ၅ ယောက် (hka.le: nga: yauk [kʰəlé ŋá jauʔ])
Gloss: child + five classifier
"Five children"

Although Burmese does not have grammatical gender (e.g. masculine or feminine nouns), a distinction is made between the sexes, especially in animals and plants, by means of suffix particles. Nouns are masculinized with the following particles: ထီး (hti: [tʰí]), (hpa [pʰa̰]), or ဖို (hpui [pʰò]), depending on the noun, and feminized with the particle (ma. [ma̰]). Examples of usage are below:

  • ကြောင်ထီး (kraung hti: [tɕàuɴ tʰí]) - male cat
  • ကြောင်မ (kraung ma. [tɕàuɴ ma̰]) - female cat
  • ကြက်ဖ (krak hpa. [tɕɛʔ pʰa̰]) - rooster/cock
  • ထန်းဖို (htan: hpui [tʰáɴ pʰò]) - male toddy palm plant

Numerical classifiers

Like its neighboring languages such as Thai, Bengali, and Chinese, Burmese uses numerical classifiers (also called measure words) when nouns are counted or quantified. This approximately equates to English expressions such as "two slices of bread" or "a cup of coffee". Classifiers are required when counting nouns, so ကလေး ၅ (hka.le: nga: [kʰəlé ŋà], lit. "child five") is ungrammatical, because the measure word for people ယောက် (yauk [jauʔ]) needs to suffix the numeral.

The standard word order of quantified words is: quantified noun + numeral adjective + classifier, except in round numbers (numbers that end in zero), in which the word order is flipped, where the quantified noun precedes the classifier: quantified noun + classifier + numeral adjective. The only exception to this rule is the number 10, which follows the standard word order.

Measurements of time, such as "hour," (နာရီ) "day," (ရက်) or "month," () do not require classifiers.

Below are some of the most commonly used classifiers in Burmese.

Burmese MLC IPA Usage Remarks
ယောက် yauk [jauʔ] for people Used in informal context
ဦး u: [ʔú] for people Used in formal context and also used for monks and nuns
ပါး pa: [bá] for people Used exclusively for monks and nuns of the Buddhist order
ကောင် kaung [kàuɴ] for animals
ခု hku. [kʰṵ] general classifier Used with almost all nouns except for animate objects
လုံး lum: [lóuɴ] for round objects
ပြား pra: [pjá] for flat objects
စု cu. [sṵ] for groups Can be [zṵ].

Particles

The Burmese language makes prominent usage of particles (called ပစ္စည်း in Burmese), which are untranslatable words that are suffixed or prefixed to words to indicate level of respect, grammatical tense, or mood. According to the Myanmar–English Dictionary (1993), there are 449 particles in the Burmese language. For example, စမ်း ([sáɴ]) is a grammatical particle used to indicate the imperative mood. While လုပ်ပါ ("work" + particle indicating politeness) does not indicate the imperative, လုပ်စမ်းပါ ("work" + particle indicating imperative mood + particle indicating politeness) does. Particles may be combined in some cases, especially those modifying verbs.

Some particles modify the word's part of speech. Among the most prominent of these is the particle ([ə]), which is prefixed to verbs and adjectives to form nouns or adverbs. For instance, the word ဝင် means "to enter," but combined with , it means "entrance" (အဝင်). Also, in colloquial Burmese, there is a tendency to omit the second in words that follow the pattern + noun/adverb + + noun/adverb, like အဆောက်အအုံ, which is pronounced [əsʰauʔ ú] and formally pronounced [əsʰauʔ əòuɴ].

Pronouns

Subject pronouns begin sentences, though the subject is generally omitted in the imperative forms and in conversation. Grammatically speaking, subject marker particles (က ([ɡa̰] in colloquial, သည် [θì] in formal) must be attached to the subject pronoun, although they are also generally omitted in conversation. Object pronouns must have an object marker particle (ကို [ɡò] in colloquial, အား [á] in formal) attached immediately after the pronoun. Proper nouns are often substituted for pronouns. One's status in relation to the audience determines the pronouns used, with certain pronouns used for different audiences.

Polite pronouns are used to address elders, teachers and strangers, through the use of feudal-era third person pronouns in lieu of first and second person pronouns. In such situations, one refers to oneself in third person: ကျွန်တော် (kya. nau [tɕənɔ̀]) for males, and ကျွန်မ (kya. ma. [tɕəma̰]) for females, both meaning "your servant") and refer to the addressee as မင်း (min [mɪ́ɴ]; "your highness") , ခင်ဗျား (khang bya: [kʰəmjá]; "master lord")[14] or ရှင် (hrang [ʃɪ̀ɴ]; "ruler/master").[15] So ingrained are these terms in the daily polite speech that people use them as the first and second person pronouns without giving a second thought to the root meaning of these pronouns.

When speaking to a person of the same status or of younger age, ငါ (nga [ŋà]; "I/me") and နင် (nang [nɪ̀ɴ]; "you") may be used, although most speakers choose to use third person pronouns.[15] For example, an older person may use ​ဒေါ်လေး (dau le: [dɔ̀ lé]; "aunt") or ဦးလေး (u: lei: [ʔú lé]; "uncle") to refer to himself, while a younger person may use either သား (sa: [θá]; son) or သမီး (sa.mi: [θəmí]; daughter).

The basic pronouns are:

Person Singular Plural*
Informal Formal Informal Formal
First person ငါ
nga
([ŋà])
ကျွန်တော်
kywan to
([tɕənɔ̀])

ကျွန်မ
kywan ma.
([tɕəma̰])
ငါဒို့
nga tui.
([ŋà do̰])
ကျွန်တော်တို့
kywan to tui.
([tɕənɔ̀ do̰])

ကျွန်မတို့
kywan ma. tui.
([tɕəma̰ do̰])
Second person နင်
nang
([nɪ̀ɴ])

မင်း
mang:
([mɪ́ɴ])
ခင်ဗျား
khang bya:
([kʰəmjá])

ရှင်
hrang
([ʃɪ̀ɴ])
နင်ဒို့
nang tui.
([nɪ̀ɴ do̰])
ခင်ဗျားတို့
khang bya: tui.
([kʰəmjá])

ရှင်တို့
hrang tui.
([ʃɪ̀ɴ])
Third person သူ
su
([θù])
(အ)သင်
(a.) sang
([(ə)θìɴ])
သူဒို့
su tui.
([θù do̰])
သင်တို့
sang tui.
([θìɴ])
* The basic particle to indicate plurality is တို့ (tui.), colloquial ဒို့ (dui.).
Used by males.
Used by females.

Other pronouns are reserved for speaking with Buddhist monks. When speaking to a monk, pronouns like ဘုန်းဘုန်း bhun: bhun: (from ဘုန်းကြီး phun: kri:, "monk"), ဆရာတော် (chara dau [sʰəjàdɔ̀]; "royal teacher"), and အရှင်ဘုရား (a.hrang bhu.ra:; [ʔəʃɪ̀ɴ pʰəjá]; "your lordship") are used depending on their status (ဝါ); when referring to oneself, terms like တပည့်တော် (ta. pany. tau ; "royal disciple") or ဒကာ (da. ka [dəɡà], "donor") are used. When speaking to a monk, the following pronouns are used:

Person Singular
Informal Formal
First person တပည့်တော်
ta.pany. do
ဒကာ
da. ka
[dəɡà]
Second person ဘုန်းဘုန်း
bhun: bhun:
([pʰóuɴ pʰóuɴ])

(ဦး)ပဉ္စင်း
(u:) pasang:
([(ú) bəzín])
အရှင်ဘုရား
a.hrang bhu.ra:
([ʔəʃɪ̀ɴ pʰəjá])

ဆရာတော်
chara dau
([sʰəjàdɔ̀])
The particle ma. () is suffixed for females.
Typically reserved for the chief monk of a monastery.

In colloquial Burmese, possessive pronouns are contracted when the root pronoun itself is low toned. This does not occur in literary Burmese, which uses ၏ ([ḭ]) as postpositional marker for possessive case instead of ရဲ့ ([jɛ̰]). Examples include the following:

  • ငါ ([ŋà] "I") + ရဲ့ (postpositional marker for possessive case) = ငါ့ ([ŋa̰] "my")
  • နင် ([nɪ̀ɴ] "you") + ရဲ့ (postpositional marker for possessive case) = နင့် ([nɪ̰ɴ] "your")
  • သူ ([θù] "he, she") + ရဲ့ (postpositional marker for possessive case) = သူ့ ([θṵ] "his, her")

The contraction also occurs in some low toned nouns, making them possessive nouns (e.g. အမေ့ or မြန်မာ့, "mother's" and "Burma's" respectively).

Reduplication

Reduplication is prevalent in Burmese and is used to intensify or weaken adjectives' meanings. For example, ချော ([tɕʰɔ́] "beautiful") is reduplicated, the intensity of the adjective's meaning increases. Many Burmese words, especially adjectives with two syllables, such as လှပ ([l̥a̰pa̰] "beautiful"), when reduplicated (လှပလှလှပပ [l̥a̰l̥a̰ pa̰pa̰]) become adverbs. This is also true of some Burmese verbs and nouns (e.g. ခဏ "a moment" → ခဏခဏ "frequently"), which become adverbs when reduplicated.

Some nouns are also reduplicated to indicate plurality. For instance, ပြည် ([pjì] "country"), but when reduplicated to အပြည်ပြည် ([əpjì pjì] "country"), means "many countries," as in အပြည်ပြည်ဆိုင်ရာ ([əpjì pjì sʰàiɴ jà] "international"). Another example is အမျိုး, which means "a kind," but the reduplicated form အမျိုးမျိုး means "multiple kinds."

A few measure words can also be reduplicated to indicate "one or the other":

  • ယောက် (measure word for people) → တစ်ယောက်ယောက် (someone)
  • ခု (measure word for things) → တစ်ခုခု (something)

Romanization and transcription

There is no official romanization system for Burmese. There have been attempts to make one, but none have been successful. Replicating Burmese sounds in the Latin script is complicated. There is a Pāli-based transcription system in existence, which was devised by the Myanmar Language Commission (MLC). However, it only transcribes sounds in formal Burmese and is based on the orthography rather than the phonology.

Several colloquial transcription systems have been proposed, but none is overwhelmingly preferred over others.

Transcription of Burmese is not standardized, as seen in the varying English transcriptions of Burmese names. For instance, a Burmese personal name like ဝင်း ([wɪ́ɴ]) may be variously romanized as Win, Winn, Wyn, or Wynn, while ခိုင် ([kʰàiɴ]) may be romanized as Khaing, Khine, or Khain.

Computer fonts and standard keyboard layout

The Burmese script can be entered from the standard QWERTY keyboard. The most popular Burmese font, Zawgyi, is not Unicode-compliant though a number of Unicode-compliant fonts are available. The national standard keyboard layout for Unicode-compliant font shown here. It is known as the Myanmar3 layout as it was published along with the Myanmar3 Unicode font. The layout, developed by the Myanmar NLP Research Center, has a smart input system to cover the complex structures of Burmese and related scripts.

Further reading

  • Becker, Alton L. (1984). "Biography of a sentence: A Burmese proverb". In In E. M. Bruner (ed.). Text, play, and story: The construction and reconstruction of self and society. Washington, D.C.: American Ethnological Society. pp. 135–55. 
  • Bernot, Denise (1980) (in French). Le prédicat en birman parlé. Paris: SELAF. ISBN 2-85297-072-4. 
  • Cornyn, William Stewart; D. Haigh Roop (1944). Outline of Burmese grammar. Baltimore: Linguistic Society of America. 
  • Cornyn, William Stewart; D. Haigh Roop (1968). Beginning Burmese. New Haven: Yale University Press. 
  • Green, Antony D. (2005). "Word, foot, and syllable structure in Burmese". In In J. Watkins (ed.). Studies in Burmese linguistics. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. pp. 1–25. ISBN 0-85883-559-2. 
  • Okell, John (1969). A reference grammar of colloquial Burmese. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0700711368. 
  • Roop, D. Haigh (1972). An introduction to the Burmese writing system. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300015283. 
  • Taw Sein Ko (1924). Elementary handbook of the Burmese language. Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press. 
  • Watkins, Justin W. (2001). "Illustrations of the IPA: Burmese". Journal of the International Phonetic Association 31 (2): 291–95. doi:10.1017/S0025100301002122. 
  • Wheatley, Julian K. (1987). "Burmese". In In B. Comrie (ed.). Handbook of the world's major languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 834–54. ISBN 0-19-520521-9. 
  • Patricia M Herbert, Anthony Milner, ed (1989). South East Asia Languages and Literatures: Languages and Literatures: A Select Guide. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 0-8248-1267-0. 

References

  1. ^ Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008), Chapter XV, Provision 450
  2. ^ Chang, Charles Bond (2003). “High-Interest Loans”: The Phonology of English Loanword Adaptation in Burmese (B.A. thesis). Harvard University. http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~cbchang/papers/Chang_MAthesis03.pdf. Retrieved 2011-05-24. 
  3. ^ http://irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=19413&page=2
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Herbert, Patricia; Anthony Milner and Southeast Asia Library Group (1989). South-East Asia. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 5–21. ISBN 9780824812676. 
  5. ^ U Thaung (Aung Bala) (1981). "Contemporary Burmese Literature". Contributions to Asian Studies 16: 81–99. 
  6. ^ Myanmar–English Dictionary. Myanmar Language Commission. 1993. ISBN 1-881265-47-1. 
  7. ^ a b c d Wheatley, Julian; San San Hnin Tun (1999). "Languages in contact: The Case of English and Burmese". The Journal of Burma Studies 4: 61–99. http://www.grad.niu.edu/burma/images/journalAbstracts/Volume4/Abstract3_WheatleyOpt.pdf. Retrieved 2008-07-28. [dead link]
  8. ^ GE Harvey (1925). History of Burma. London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd.. p. 307. 
  9. ^ Maung Khin Min (1987). "Old Usage Styles of Myanmar Script". Myanmar Unicode & NLP Research Center. http://www.myanmars.net/unicode/doc/20040408_olduse.htm. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  10. ^ Robert Jones, 1986. Pitch register languages, pp 135-136, in John McCoy & Timothy Light eds., Contributions to Sino-Tibetan Studies
  11. ^ a b Taylor, L.F. (1920). "On the Tones of Certain Languages of Burma". Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies (Cambridge UP) 1 (4): 91–106. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00101685. http://www.jstor.org/stable/607065. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  12. ^ Benedict, Paul K. (Oct-Dec 1948). "Tonal Systems in Southeast Asia". Journal of the American Oriental Society (American Oriental Society) 68 (4): 184–191. doi:10.2307/595942. JSTOR 595942. 
  13. ^ Ko, Taw Sein (1924). Elementary handbook of the Burmese language. Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press. p. viii. 
  14. ^ From Burmese သခင်ဘုရား, lit. "lord master"
  15. ^ a b Bradley, David (Spring 1993). "Pronouns in Burmese–Lolo". Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman area (Melbourne, Australia: La Trobe University) 16 (1): 157–160. http://sealang.net/sala/archives/pdf4/bradley1993pronouns.pdf. 

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