The Burmese language (: မြန်မာဘာသာ, MLCTS: mranmabhasa, IPA: [mjəmà bàðà]) is the official language of Myanmar. Although the Constitution of Myanmar officially recognizes the English name of the language as the Myanmar language, most English speakers continue to refer to the language as Burmese. In 2007, it was spoken as a first language by 34 million, primarily the Bamar (Burman) people and related ethnic groups, and as a second language by 10 million, particularly ethnic minorities in Myanmar and neighboring countries.
Burmese is a tonal, pitch-register, and syllable-timed language, largely monosyllabic and analytic, with a subject–object–verb word order. It is a member of the Lolo-Burmese grouping of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Burmese alphabet is ultimately descended from a Brahmic script, either Kadamba or Pallava.
Burmese belongs to the Southern Burmish branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages. Burmese is the most widely spoken of the non-Sinitic Sino-Tibetan languages. Burmese was the fifth of the Sino-Tibetan languages to develop a writing system, after Chinese characters, the Pyu script, the Tibetan alphabet and the Tangut script.
The majority of Burmese speakers, who live throughout the Irrawaddy River Valley, use a number of largely similar dialects, while a minority speak non-standard dialects found in the peripheral areas of the country. These dialects include:
- Tanintharyi Region: Merguese (Myeik, Beik), Tavoyan (Dawei), and Palaw
- Magway Region: Yaw
- Shan State: Intha, Taungyo and Danu
Despite vocabulary and pronunciation differences, there is mutual intelligibility among Burmese dialects, as for the most part, they share the same four tones, consonant clusters and the use of the Burmese script. However, several dialects substantially differ in Burmese with respect to vocabulary, lexical particles, and rhymes.
Irrawaddy River valley
The standard dialect of Burmese (the Mandalay-Yangon dialect continuum) comes from the Irrawaddy River valley. Regional differences between speakers from Upper Burma (e.g., Mandalay dialect), called anya tha အညာသား, and speakers from Lower Burma (e.g., Yangon dialect), called auk tha အောက်သား, occur in vocabulary choice, not in pronunciation. Minor pronunciation differences do exist within the Irrawaddy River valley. For instance, for the term ဆွမ်း "food offering [to a monk]", Lower Burmese speakers use [sʰʊ́ɴ] instead of [sʰwáɴ], which is the pronunciation used in Upper Burma.
The standard dialect is represented by the Yangon dialect because of the modern city's media influence and economic clout. In the past, the Mandalay dialect represented standard Burmese. The most noticeable feature of the Mandalay dialect is its use of the first person pronoun ကျွန်တော် kya.nau [tɕənɔ] by both men and women, whereas in Yangon, the said pronoun is used only by male speakers while ကျွန်မ kya.ma. [tɕəma̰] is used by female speakers. Moreover, with regard to kinship terminology, Upper Burmese speakers differentiate the maternal and paternal sides of a family whereas Lower Burmese speakers do not.
Spread of Burmese in Lower Burma
Spoken Burmese is remarkably uniform among Burmese speakers, particularly those living in the Irrawaddy valley, who all use variants of Standard Burmese. The first major reason for the uniformity is the traditional Buddhist monastic education system, which encouraged education and uniformity in language throughout the Upper Irrawaddy valley, the traditional homeland of the Bamar people.
According to the 1891 British census conducted five years after the annexation of the entire country, Konbaung Burma had an "unusually high male literacy" rate where 62.5% of age 25 and over in Upper Burma could read and write. The figure would have been much higher if non-Bamars (e.g., Chins, Kachins, etc.) were excluded. For the whole country, the literacy rate was 49% for men and 5.5% for women.
The migration of Burmese speakers of Bamar descent to Lower Burma is relatively recent. As late as the mid-1700s, the Austroasiatic language Mon was the principal language of Lower Burma and the Mon people who inhabited it. After the Burmese-speaking Konbaung Dynasty's victory over the Mon-speaking Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom in 1757, the shift to Burmese began in Lower Burma. By 1830, an estimated 90% of the population in the region identified themselves as Bamar (and, as such, Burmese speakers) due the influx from Upper Burma, assimilation, and intermarriage. In the British colonial era, British incentives, particularly geared toward rice production, as well as political instability in Upper Burma, accelerated this migration.
Outside the Irrawaddy basin
More distinctive non-standard varieties emerge as one moves farther away from the Irrawaddy River valley toward peripheral areas of the country. These varieties include the Yaw, Palaw, Myeik (Merguese), Tavoyan and Intha dialects. Despite substantial vocabulary and pronunciation differences, there is mutual intelligibility among most Burmese dialects. Dialects in Tanintharyi Region, including Palaw, Merguese and Tavoyan, are especially conservative in comparison to Standard Burmese. The Tavoyan and Intha dialects have preserved the /l/ medial, which is otherwise only found in Old Burmese inscriptions. They also often reduce the intensity of the glottal stop. Myeik has 250,000 speakers while Tavoyan has 400,000.
The most pronounced feature of the Arakanese language of Rakhine State is its retention of the [ɹ] sound, which has become a [j] sound in standard Burmese. Also, Arakanese features a variety of vowel differences, including the merger of the ဧ [e] and ဣ [i] vowels. Hence, a word like "blood" သွေး is pronounced [θwé] in standard Burmese and [θwí] in Arakanese.
- Literary High (H) form (မြန်မာစာ mranma ca): the high variety (formal and written), used in literature (formal writing), newspapers, radio broadcasts, and formal speeches
- Spoken Low (L) form (မြန်မာစကား mranma ca.ka:): the low variety (informal and spoken), used in daily conversation, television, comics and literature (informal writing)
The literary form of Burmese retains archaic and conservative grammatical structures and modifiers (including particles, markers and pronouns) no longer used in the colloquial form. In most cases, the corresponding grammatical markers in the literary and spoken forms are totally unrelated to each other. Examples of this phenomenon include the following lexical items:
- "this" (pronoun): HIGH ဤ i → LOW ဒီ di
- "that" (pronoun): HIGH ထို htui → LOW ဟို hui
- "at" (postposition): HIGH ၌ hnai. [n̥aɪʔ] → LOW မှာ hma [m̥à]
- plural (marker): HIGH များ mya: → LOW တွေ twe
- possessive (marker): HIGH ၏ i. → LOW ရဲ့ re.
- "and" (conjunction): HIGH နှင့် hnang. → LOW နဲ့ ne.
- "if" (conjunction): HIGH လျှင် hlyang → LOW ရင် rang
Historically the literary register was preferred for written Burmese on the grounds that "the spoken style lacks gravity, authority, dignity". In the mid-1960s some Burmese writers spearheaded efforts to abandon the literary form, asserting that the spoken vernacular form ought to be used. Some Burmese linguists such as Minn Latt, a Czech academic, proposed moving away from the high form of Burmese altogether. Although the literary form is heavily used in written contexts (literary and scholarly works, radio news broadcasts, and novels), the recent trend has been to accommodate the spoken form in informal written contexts. Nowadays, television news broadcasts, comics, and commercial publications use the spoken form or a combination of the spoken and simpler, less ornate formal forms.
The following sample sentence reveals that differences between literary and spoken Burmese mostly occur in grammatical particles:
|Gloss||The Four Eights Uprising||happen||when||people||measure word||3,000||approximately||die||past tense||plural marker||sentence final|
Spoken Burmese has politeness levels and honorifics that take the speaker's status and age in relation to the audience into account. The particle ပါ pa is frequently used after a verb to express politeness. Moreover, Burmese pronouns relay varying degrees of deference or respect. In many instances, polite speech (e.g., addressing teachers, officials, or elders) employs feudal-era third person pronouns or kinship terms in lieu of first and second person pronouns. Furthermore, with regard to vocabulary choice, spoken Burmese clearly distinguishes the Buddhist clergy (monks) from the laity (householders), especially when speaking to or about bhikkhus (monks). The following are examples of varying vocabulary used for Buddhist clergy and for laity :
- "sleep" (verb): ကျိန်း kyin: [tɕéɪɴ] for monks vs. အိပ် ip [eɪʔ] for laity
- "die" (verb): ပျံတော်မူ pyam tau mu [pjàɴ dɔ̀ mù] for monks vs. သေ se [θè] for laity
Burmese primarily has a monosyllabic received Sino-Tibetan vocabulary. Nonetheless, many words, especially loanwords from Indo-European languages like English, are polysyllabic, and others, from Mon, an Austroasiatic language, are sesquisyllabic. Burmese loanwords are overwhelmingly in the form of nouns.
Historically, Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, had a profound influence on Burmese vocabulary. Burmese has readily adopted words of Pali origin because of phonotactic similarities between two languages alongside the fact that the script used for Burmese can reproduce Pali spellings with complete accuracy. Pali loanwords are often related to religion, government, arts, and science.
Burmese loanwords from Pali primarily take four forms:
- Direct loan: direct import of Pali words with no alteration in orthography
- "life": Pali ဇီဝ jiva → Burmese ဇီဝ jiva
- Abbreviated loan: import of Pali words with accompanied syllable reduction and alteration in orthography (usually by means of a placing a diacritic, called athat အသတ် (lit. "nonexistence") atop the last letter in the syllable to suppress the consonant's inherent vowel
- "karma": Pali ကမ္မ kamma → Burmese ကံ kam
- "dawn": Pali အရုဏ aruṇa → Burmese အရုဏ် arun
- "merit": Pali ကုသလ kusala → Burmese ကုသိုလ် kusuil
- Double loan: adoption of two different terms derived from the same Pali word
- Pali မာန māna → Burmese မာန [màna̰] "arrogance" and မာန် [màɴ] "pride"
- Hybrid loan (e.g., neologisms or calques): construction of compounds combining native Burmese words with Pali or combine Pali words:
- "airplane": လေယာဉ်ပျံ [lè jɪ̀ɴ bjàɴ], lit. "air machine fly", ← လေ (native Burmese, "air") + ယာဉ် (from Pali yana, "vehicle") + ပျံ (native Burmese word, "fly")
Burmese has also adapted a great deal of words from Mon, traditionally spoken by the Mon people, who until recently formed the majority in Lower Burma. Most Mon loanwords are so well assimilated that they are not distinguished as loanwords as Burmese and Mon were used interchangeably for several centuries in pre-colonial Burma. Mon loans are often related to flora, fauna, administration, textiles, foods, boats, crafts, architecture and music.
As a natural consequence of British rule in Burma, English has been another major source of vocabulary, especially with regard to technology, measurements and modern institutions. English loanwords tend to take one of three forms:
- Direct loan: adoption of an English word, adapted to the Burmese phonology
- "democracy": English democracy → Burmese ဒီမိုကရေစီ
- Neologism or calque: translation of an English word using native Burmese constituent words
- "human rights": English "human rights" → Burmese လူ့အခွင့်အရေး (လူ့ "human" + အခွင့်အရေး "rights")
- Hybrid loan: construction of compound words by native Burmese words to English words
- "to sign": ဆိုင်းထိုး [sʰáɪɴ tʰó] ← ဆိုင်း (English, "sign") + ထိုး (native Burmese, "inscribe").
To a lesser extent, Burmese has also imported words from Sanskrit (religion), Hindi (food, administration, and shipping), and Chinese (games and food). Burmese has also imported a handful of words from other European languages such as Portuguese.
Here is a sample of loan words found in Burmese:
- suffering: ဒုက္ခ [doʊʔkʰa̰], from Pali 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 [kʰaʊʔ sʰwɛ́], from Shan ၶဝ်ႈသွႆး [kʰāu sʰɔi]
- foot (unit of measurement): ပေ [pè], from Portuguese pé
- flag: အလံ [əlàɴ], Arabic: علم ʿalam
- storeroom: ဂိုဒေါင် [ɡòdàʊɴ], from Malay gudang
Since the end of British rule, the Burmese government has attempted to limit usage of Western loans (especially from English) by coining new words (neologisms). For instance, for the word "television," Burmese publications are mandated to use the term ရုပ်မြင်သံကြား (lit. "see picture, hear sound") in lieu of တယ်လီဗီးရှင်း, a direct English transliteration. Another example is the word "vehicle", which is officially ယာဉ် [jɪ̀ɴ] (derived from Pali) but ကား [ká] (from English "car") in spoken Burmese. Some previously common English loanwords have fallen out of usage with the adoption of neologisms. An example is the word "university", formerly ယူနီဗာစတီ [jùnìbàsətì], from English "university", now တက္ကသိုလ် [teʔkəðò], a Pali-derived neologism recently created by the Burmese government and derived from the Pali spelling of Taxila (တက္ကသီလ Takkasila), an ancient university town in modern-day Pakistan.
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 လ la̰ (native Tibeto-Burman), စန္ဒာ/စန်း [sàɴdà]/[sáɴ] (derivatives of Pali canda "moon"), or သော်တာ [θɔ̀ dà] (Sanskrit).
The transcriptions in this section use the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The consonants of Burmese are as follows:
- ( သ ), which was */s/ in Pali and OB, but was shifted forward by the shift of ( စ ) */ts/→/s/, is often transliterated as ⟨s⟩ and transcribed /θ/ in MSB but its actual pronunciation is closer to /ɾ̪ʰ~ɾ̪θ~tθ̆/, a dental flap, often accompanied by aspiration or a slight dental fricative, although it can also be voiced. It has a short release generated by moving the tongue back sharply from an interdental position, and will sound to English speakers like a short dental fricative combined with elements of a tap or stop. /ð/ is the voiced allophone of ( သ ) and is not itself a phoneme.
- /sʰ/ is a complex phoneme to define. It is a reflex of the earlier /tɕʰ/ and then /tsʰ/ consonants. It is still distinguished from /s/ although it is not so much aspirated as pronounced breathy, and imparts a slight breathy quality to the following vowel making /s̤/ a more accurate, if more complex transcription.
- /ɹ/ is rare, used only in toponyms and personal names that have retained Sanskrit or Pali pronunciations (such as Amarapura, pronounced [àməɹa̰pùɹa̰] and in English-derived words. Historically, /ɹ/ became /j/ in Burmese, and is usually replaced by /j/ in Pāli loanwords, e.g. "monk" ရဟန္တာ ra.hanta [jəhàɴdà], "king" ရာဇ raja. [jàza̰]. Occasionally it is replaced with /l/ (e.g., "animal" တိရစ္ဆာန် ti.rac hcan), pronounced [təɹeɪʔ sʰàɴ] or [təleɪʔ sʰàɴ].
- /j/ is often realised as [ʝ], particularly word initially.
- /ʍ/ is rare, having disappeared from modern Burmese, except in transcriptions of foreign names and a handful of native words.
Medials and Palatalisation
Burmese permits the palatalisation of certain letters. Besides [u̯], which is often erroneously treated as a medial [w] (see vowels), Burmese only permits the palatal medial. This is derived from Old Burmese */-j-/ */-l-/ and */-ɹ-/, and is, therefore, reflected in various ways in different dialects. In MSB orthography, two spellings exist for the medial (demonstrated on the consonant က /k/), one reflecting an original /-j-/ (ကျ - ky), and one an original /-ɹ-/ (ကြ - kr). Official government romanistion still reflects this fact, as Myanmar, in official romanistion is rendered mran-ma.
The letter for /l/ ( လ ) is still pronounced as /l/ in initial position, but as a medial, it has completely merged with /-j-/ and /-ɹ-/. In OB inscriptions this medial could be rendered with a subscript or “stacked” လ as in ( က္လ ), a practice still used in the rare dialects, such as Tavoyan/Dawe where the /-l-/ medial is still pronounced distinctly. Although the palatalisation of the labials is simple /m pʰ p b/ → [mʲ pç pʲ bʲ], and the velar nasal predictably palatalises into a palatal nasal /ŋ/ → [n̠ʲ]. The palatalisation of /l/ leads, ostensibly to /lʲ/, however it often causes vowel raising or breaking, and may remain unchanged before /i/. The velar stops /kʰ k g/ palatalise into /tɕʰ tɕ dʑ/.
The alveolars /n tʰ t d/ and historical palatals /n̠ʲ sʰ s z/ cannot be followed by medials except in loan words, but even this is rare. Indeed, the letter *jʰ ( ဈ ) [z, sʰ] is almost indistinguishable from the s+y sequence ( စျ ) and many combinations of alveolar+medial will render poorly in certain font sets which were not designed to handle non-native combined graphs.
The Homorganic Nasal and Glottal Stop
Only two consonants can occur word finally in native vocabulary: the homorganic or placeless nasal, and the homorganic or glottal stop. These bear some similarities to the Japanese moraic n, ン and sokuon っ.
The glottal stop /ʔ/ is the realisation of all four possible final consonants: ပ် /p/ တ် /t/ စ် /s/ က် /k/ and the retroflex ဋ် /ʈ/ found in loan words. It has the effect of shortening the vowel and precluding it from bearing tone. This itself is often referred to as the "checked" or "entering" tone, following Chinese nomenclature. It can be realised as a geminate of a following stop, although this is purely allophonic and optional as the difference between the sequence /VʔtV/ and /VtːV/ is only in the catch, and thus barely audible. The primary indicator of this final is the impact on the vowel.
The final nasal /N/, (not to be confused with the standard IPA symbol /ɴ/, see below), is the value of the four native final nasals: မ် /m/ န် /n/ ဉ် /n̠ʲ/ င် /ŋ/ as well as the retroflex ဏ /ɳ/ and nasalisation mark anusvara demonstrated here above ka (က → ကံ ). It does not, however, apply to ည် which is never realised as a nasal, but rather as an open front vowel [iː] [eː] or [ɛː]. The final nasal is usually realised as nasalisation of the vowel. It may also allophonically appear as a homorganic nasal before stops. For example in /mòʊɴdáɪɴ/ "storm", which is pronounced [mõ̀ũndã́ĩ].
It must be noted that the proper phonemic transcription is /N/, which is a non-standard, but widely used IPA symbol for a homorganic nasal. Similarly to /Q/, the common symbol for a homorganic obstruent. There is an increasing tendency across many linguistic media (Wikipedia included) to substitute the IPA symbol [ɴ] (small majuscule n) which is the symbol for the uvular nasal, a sound which does not exist in Burmese. This is largely due to the rarity of /ɴ/ across languages and the fact that the use of a small majuscule makes transcription easier to read. Note that other languages with homorganic nasals, such as Japanese, also use intermittent /ɴ/ in transcription. Nevertheless, the use of ⟨ɴ⟩ in Burmese transcription, though common and easy to read, is incorrect.
the four series of stops
Burmese orthography is based on Brahmic script and can perfectly transcribe words from Pali, an Indic language. As a result, Burmese script uses far more symbols than Burmese needs for its phonemic inventory. Besides the set of retroflex consonants ဌ /ʈʰ/ ဋ /ʈ/ ဍ /ɖ/ ဎ /ɖʰ/ ဏ /ɳ/ ဠ /ɭ/ which are pronounced as alveolar in Burmese, All stops come in sets of four: voiceless aspirated, voiceless, voiced, and voiced aspirated or murmured. The first set ဖ /pʰ/ ထ /tʰ/ ဆ /sʰ/ ခ /kʰ/ and second set ပ /p/ တ /t/ စ /s/ က /k/ are commonly used in Burmese. The voiced set ဗ /b/ ဒ /d/ ဇ /z/ ဂ /g/ are used in Burmese but sparingly. They are frequently seen in loans from Pali. It may be possible to say that they exist only in loans, however some of the words they appear in are so old and deeply integrated into the language that the three-way voicing/aspiration distinction can still be said to be an important part of the language. The final set ဘ /bʰ/ ဓ /dʰ/ ဈ /zʰ/ ဃ /gʰ/ are exceedingly rare. They are generally pronounced as voiced [b d z g] or, when following a syllable final stop, aspirated [pʰ tʰ sʰ kʰ]. The most common by far is ဘ used in the negative indicative verb particle ဘူး bhú [búː] or [pʰúː], and also in some common loans such as လက္ဘက် lekbhek [lɛ̆ʔ pʰɛ̆ʔ] (tea), although many Pali loans with complex spellings are being simplified in common usage, leaving the phonetic rendering လက်ဖက် in some tea houses.
Burmese Voicing Sandhi
Burmese exhibits voicing sandhi. Traditionally, Burmese has voiced voiceless unaspirated stops into voiced stops, which at first, was allophonic. However, due to the influx of phonemeic voiced stops from loan words, and owing to the extension of sandhi to voiceless aspirated stops as well – a feature which does not affect more conservative dialects – sandhi has become an important part of Burmese phonology and word building. In brief, the following shifts can occur in MSB:
- /kʰ, k/ → /ɡ/
- /tɕʰ, tɕ/ → /dʑ/
- /sʰ, s/ → /z/
- /tʰ, t/ → /d/
- /pʰ, p/ → /b/
Additionally ( သ ) can become voiced under the same conditions, however this is purely allophonic since the voiced [ɾ̪~ð̆~d̪̆] phone does not exist in any other context.
Sandhi can occur in two environments. In the first environment, consonants become voiced between vowels or after nasals. This is similar to rendaku in Japanese. This Therefore can affect any consonant except the first consonant of the phrase or a consonant preceded by a stop.
- e.g. "hot water": [jèbù] ရေပူ ← /jè/ + /pù/
The second environment occurs around reduced syllables (see reduction for more). When a syllable becomes reduced, the vowel and any final consonants are reduced to a short schwa [ə̆]. Reduction cannot occur in the final syllable of a word. When a syllable becomes reduced, if both the consonant preceding and following the schwa – i.e. the consonant of the reduced syllable and the consonant of the following syllable – are stops, then both will be voiced:
- e.g. "promise": [ɡədḭ] ကတိ ← /ka̰/ + /tḭ/
In some compound works, the phoneme /dʑ/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can shift to a /j/ sound:
- e.g. "blouse" (အင်္ကျီ angkyi): [èɪɴdʑí] → [èɪɴjí].
The phonemes /p, pʰ, b, t, tʰ, d/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can become /m/ in compound words:
- e.g. "to consult" တိုင်ပင်: [tàɪɴ pɪ̀ɴ] → [tàɪɴ mɪ̀ɴ]
- e.g. "to apologize" တောင်းပန်: [táʊɴ pàɴ] → [táʊɴ màɴ]
- e.g. "airplane" လေယာဉ်ပျံ: [lèi jɪ̀ɴ pjàɴ] → [lèɪɴ mjàɴ]
Aspiration and devoicing
Although Burmese natively contrasts unaspirated and aspirated stops, there is an additional devoicing/aspirating feature. In OB, h- or a syllable beginning with /h/ could be prefixed to roots, merging over time with the consonant of the following syllable. In the case of the unaspirated stops, these are replaced with the aspirated letter, however words beginning with မ /m/ န /n/ ည /n̠ʲ/ င /ŋ/ လ /l/ ရ /j/ ယ /j/ ဝ /w/ use a subscript diacritic called ha-to to indicate devoicing: မှ နှ ညှ ငှ လှ ရှ ယှ ဝှ /m̥ n̥ n̠̊ʲ ŋ̊ l̥ ɕ ɕ ʍ/, although as noted above, [ʍ] is incredibly rare. Devoicing in Burmese is not strong, particularly not on nasals. The sequence /n̥a/ is pronounced closer to [n̤a̤] than [n̥na].
In many Burmese verbs, pre-aspiration and post-aspiration distinguishes the causative and non-causative forms of verbs, where the aspirated initial consonant indicates active voice or a transitive verb, while an unaspirated initial consonant indicates passive voice or an intransitive verb:
- e.g. "to cook" [tɕʰɛʔ], ချက် vs. "to be cooked" [tɕɛʔ], ကျက်
- e.g. "to loosen" [pʰjè], ဖြေ vs. "to be loosened" [pjè], ပြေ
- e.g. "to elevate" [m̥jɪɴ], မြှင့် vs. "to be elevated" [mjɪɴ], မြင့်
The vowels of Burmese are:
|Front||Central||Back||Front offglide||Back offglide|
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). /ə/ only occurs in a minor syllable, and is the only vowel that is permitted in a minor syllable (see below).
The close vowels /i/ and /u/ and the close portions of the diphthongs are somewhat mid-centralized ([ɪ, ʊ]) in closed syllables, i.e. before /ɴ/ and /ʔ/. Thus နှစ် /n̥iʔ/ "two" is phonetically [n̥ɪʔ] and ကြောင် /tɕàuɴ/ "cat" is phonetically [tɕàʊɴ].
Although this analysis is (more or less) correct from a purely phonetic point of view, it hides the diachronic nature of Burmese vowel development and mergers, and obfuscates the reasoning behind Burmese orthography.
Vowels in Open Syllables Synchronically, there can be said to be a total of 10 vowels in Modern Standard Burmese (MSB) open syllables: /a/ /u̯a/ /ɛ/ /u̯ɛ/ /e/ /u̯e/ /i/ /ɔ/ /o/ /u/. Although the vowels /u̯a/ /u̯ɛ/ /u̯e/ are commonly treated as medial-vowel sequences, reducing the vowel inventory of MSB in open syllables from 10 to 7, the behaviour of /u̯a/ /u̯ɛ/ /u̯e/ is unlike that of glide-vowel combinations. See the section on glides below for a more complete explanation.
Diachronically, however, all of the MSB open syllable vowels are derived from Old Burmese (OB) open syllables or diphthongs. The four vowels of OB were */a/ */i/ */o/ */u/. Early in the development of Burmese */o/ broke to form */u̯a/. Additionally, any vowel could be followed by either of two glides: */j/ and */w/. The diphthongs which result from these glides were considered to be closed syllables in OB and as such, could not be followed by any other consonant. However, in MSB, all OB diphthongs have become monophthongs and are thus phonetically viewed as open syllables. As a result, the vowels /ɛ/ /u̯ɛ/ /e/ /u̯e/ /ɔ/ /o/ can only exist in open syllables in MSB (with some rare exceptions), and the use of these sounds in closed syllables is the result of */a/ */i/ */u̯a/ */u/ shifting before a final.
The /j/ offglide results in the e-class vowels */aj/→/ɛ/, */ij/→/e/, */u̯aj/→/u̯ɛ/, */uj/→/u̯e/ respectively. Note the symmetry with the base vowel system: The closed vowels */i/ and */u/ create the mid-closed vowels /e/ and /u̯e/ while */a/ and */o/ create the mid-open vowels /ɛ/ and /u̯ɛ/. Similarly, the rounded on-glide is a result of a rounded base vowel */u/ or */o/.
Currently, the /w/ offglide is only believed to have existed in */aw/ and */uw/ resulting in the MSB o-class vowels /ɔ/ and /o/ respectively. The absence of */iw/ and */ow/ in reconstructions is something of a mystery, however it is possible that, by analogy with the /j/ offglide, */aw/ */iw/ */ow/ */uw/ all existed, resulting in pairs with or without the rounded on-glide: /ɔ/ /o/ /u̯ɔ/ /u̯o/ which later merged. This may explain why the Burmese orthography indicates the vowel /o/ with both the diacritics for both the /i/ and /u/ vowels and, previously, a following consonantal /w/.
MSB recognises 8 finals in native vocabulary which are all distinguished from their initial forms with the c-shaped superscript diacritic asat ( ် ) which for ease of reading, is omitted here: the stops: ပ /p/ တ /t/ စ /c/ က /k/ and the nasals: မ /m/ န /n/ ည / ဉ /ɲ/ င /ŋ/. All of the stops in final position are realised as a glottal stop /ʔ/ (or, potentially, a geminate of a following stop) which shortens the vowel and precludes it from bearing any tone. All of the nasals on the other hand nasalise the vowel but are not pronounced as consonants unless there is a following nasal or stop. Syllables ending on nasals can bear any of the three tones, but rarely have tone 1 (short, high, creaky phonation).
Finals are broadly grouped into two sets: front and back finals. Front finals include the labial and alveolar finals -m -n and -p -t which are not distinguished in MSB, leading to mergers such as အိပ္ (*/ip/ sleep) and အိတ္ (*/it/ bag), both pronounced [ĕɪʔ]. In Tavoyan dialects however, the labial finals -m and -p often cause vowel breaking (*/un/ -> /ũː/, */um/ -> /ãʊ/). The back finals include the palatal finals -c -ɲ and velar -k -ŋ, although their uses are even more complex.
Current reconstruction holds that the OB vowel-offglide sequences – which today are /ɛ/ /u̯ɛ/ /e/ /u̯e/ /ɔ/ /o/ in MSB – counted as a closed syllables and thus could not be followed by a final. As a result, most closed syllables in MSB are built around the 4 basic vowels /a/ /i/ /u̯a/ /u/.
Finals in Loans
In loan words, usually from Pali, လ /l/ ရ /ɹ~j/ ဝ /w/ သ /s/ are found but are silent and do not affect the vowel, which continues to behave as an open syllable vowel. Also from Pali are the retroflex finals ဋ /ʈ/ and ဏ /ɳ/ which merge with their alveolar counterparts, as does the superscript diacritic ( ံ ) anusvara which is a pan-Brahmic nasalisation mark functioning as a final -m or -n in MSB distinguished only by the fact that it bears tone 1 (short, high, creaky) by default, and can be modified to bear tone 3 (long, high / high falling, breathy), but cannot bear tone 2 (long, low / low rising). Othernasal syllables, by contrast, bear tone 2 by default, and must be modified to bear tones 1 or 3. The consonant ( ယ ) is also seen with an asat diacritic, but this is the standard spelling for the vowel /ɛ/ with tone 2 and is not viewed in any way as a final (although, as noted above, this is an etymologically accurate rendering of /ɛ/ which originated from the */aj/ sequence). Finally, Pali loan words, as well as loans from English or Chinese, may add a final after the vowel /e/. An example of this is the commonly displayed Pali word မေတ္တာ mettā, from Sanskrit मैत्र maitra, a Buddhist notion of sharing good will and positive wishes. This is exclusively used to transcribe an /e/ vowel in closed syllables in loans, but cannot occur in native vocabulary, although many such loans, particularly from Pali, may be centuries old.
Vowels Before Front Finals
The 4 basic vowels /a/ /i/ /u̯a/ /u/ can all occur before the front finals. In MSB before the -p and -t finals they are pronounced /æ̆ʔ/ /ĕɪʔ/ /u̯æ̆ʔ~ʊ̆ʔ/ /ŏʊʔ/ respectively. Similarly, before the -m and -n finals, vowels use the same qualities except that they are nasalised and are pronounced long by default thus giving: /æ̃ː/ /ẽɪː/ /u̯æ̃ː~ʊ̃ː/ /õʊː/.
The variation between /ʊ̆ʔ/ /ʊ̃ː/ and /u̯æ̆ʔ/ /u̯æ̃ː/ is regional. North-central dialects in and around Mandalay tend to use the original opening diphthong while southern dialects in and around Yangon tend to use the monophthong. Both pronunciations are universally accepted and understood. In more conservative dialects /i/ /u/ and */o/ may not break, and thus remain /ĭʔ/ /ĩ/, /ŭʔ/ /ũ/, and /ɔ̆ʔ/ /ɔ̃/, additionally */an/ may move back, not forward, leaving /ɔ̃/ and not /æ̃/, but all of these features are considered non-standard.
Vowels Before Back Finals
The finals ( ည / ဉ ) originally */ɲ/ in OB, can only occur after the vowel /a/ and are highly variable in pronunciation. Across Burmese dialects ( ည ) does not nasalise the vowel, and tends to result in an open syllable monophthong, often with multiple possible realisations. ( ဉ ) on the other hand nasalises the vowel and tends to have a more conservative pronunciation. As the original final was realised */aɲ/ in OB, the vowel underwent a shift /aɲ > ajɲ > ajn > aɪn (> ãɪ > ɛ/e/i)/. The pronunciation of ( ဉ ) tends to be /aɪn~ãɪ/ in the Rakhine/Arakanese dialects, but /in~ĩː/ in other dialects, including MSB and the conservative Tavoyan/Dawe dialect. In MSB ( ည ) is most commonly pronounced /ɛː/, following the shift of */aj/ > /ɛː/ in open syllables, although it can be /iː/ and less often /eː/. Tavoyan dialects restrict the pronunciation to /ɛː/ exclusively, while Rakhine dialects use /eː/.
The final ( စ ) shows a lot of similarities to the development of ( ဉ ). It similarly exists only after the vowel /a/. In MSB and Tavoyan dialects it is pronounced as /ɪ̆ʔ/, but Rakhine dialects preserve it as /ăɪʔ/ following the same shift /ac > ajc > aɪc > aɪʔ (> iʔ)/.
The velar finals ( က ) and ( င ) can follow the vowels /a/ and /u̯a/ and, unusually, /ɔ/ and /o/. In MSB /a/ and /u̯a/ become /ɛ̆ʔ/ /u̯ɛ̆ʔ/ and /ɪ̃ː/ /u̯ĩː/ with the stop and nasal finals respectively. This is, it must be said, a distinctive feature of MSB however, as the Rakhine dialects shift the /a/ back to become /ɔ̆ʔ/ /ɔ̃ː/, and Tavoyan dialects merge the -ak -aŋ rimes with the -at -an and -ap -am rimes, allegedly resulting in /ăʔ/ /ãː/, although it is unclear whether these are truly [a] or [æ] as in MSB.
The rimes */ɔk/ (အောက်) */ɔŋ/ (အောင်) are somewhat problematic from a linguistic perspective. Despite the fact that these rimes are written with the same compound vowel diacritics which indicate the open syllable /ɔ/, as noted above, the rime */aw/ is viewed by linguists to have been a closed syllable and thus, it is assumed that the */aw/ vowel which resulted in MSB /ɔ/ is distinct from the vowel in the rimes */ɔk/ */ɔŋ/ which either did not exist in open syllables, or merged completely with a vowel which did. Whatever the etymology, in MSB the rimes */ɔk/ */ɔŋ/ are realised as /ăʊʔ/ /ãʊ/, and realised /ɔ̆ʔ/ /ɔ̃ː/ in Tavoyan.
The rimes */ok/ (အိုက်) */oŋ/ (အိုင်), written with the compound vowel diacritic for /o/ are pronounced /ăɪʔ/ and /ãɪ/ respectively and are currently believed to have been innovations in Burmese, and as such their shared orthography with the /o/ vowel is coincidental.
The Closed Syllable Vowel Inventory
Just as open syllables have ten vowels, so too do closed syllables: /æ/ /ɪ/ /ɛ/ /u̯æ~ʊ/ /u̯ɛ/ /u̯ɪ/ /eɪ/ /oʊ/ /aɪ/ /aʊ/. It is worth noting that in Yangon MSB no vowel quality exists in both closed and open syllables, and that therefore nasalisation cannot be said to be a contrastive feature in and of itself.
Notes on Glides
Note that, the vocalic onglide /u̯/ is usually transcribed both in phonetic transcription and in romanisation as /w/. This is due to the fact that, phonetically, it behaves as a medial, however, here the transcription /u̯/ is used to emphasise that it is a part of the vowel and not a true medial like /-j-/ (romanised -y-). /-j-/ is derived from OB */-j-/ */-l-/ and */-ɹ-/, and is, therefore, reflected in various ways in different dialects. In MSB orthography two spellings exist for the medial (demonstrated on the consonant က /k/), one reflecting an original /-j-/ (ကျ - ky), and one an original /-ɹ-/ (ကြ - kr) and official government romanistion still reflects this fact (Myanmar, in official romanistion is rendered mran-ma). However, in MSB, */ɹ/, for which there is also a unique initial letter ( ရ ), is pronounced /j/ in all instances (usually realised as [ʝ] initially) except in loan words. The letter for /l/ ( လ ) is still pronounced as /l/ in initial position, but as a medial, it has completely merged with /-j-/ and /-ɹ-/. In OB inscriptions this medial could be rendered with a subscript or “stacked” လ as in ( က္လ ), a practice still used in the rare dialects, such as Tavoyan/Dawe where the /-l-/ medial is still pronounced distinctly. These medials behave differently than the /u̯/ onglide in the following ways:
- a medial */-j-/ */-l-/ */-ɹ-/ can be placed before the on-glide /u̯/, whereas two medials can never be used in the same syllable.
- the use of /u̯/ is restricted by the vowel nucleus (only used with /a/ /ɛ/ /e/) and may in some cases drastically change the pronunciation of the vowel e.g. in Yangon /wa/ before a final becomes [u], while /a/ before a final becomes [æ]. However, it cannot affect the pronunciation of the initial.
- glides are restricted by the preceding initial, and often change its pronunciation. Bearing in mind that MSB does not reliably indicate the development of */-l-/, /m/ /pʰ/ /p/ /b/ can apparently be followed by any glide, in which case the glide becomes [ʲ]. Similarly /kʰ/ /k/ and /g/ can be followed by any glide, in which case the cluster becomes [tɕʰ] [tɕ] or [dʑ] respectively. /ŋ/ can be followed by /-ɹ-/ but not /-j-/ in which case the cluster becomes [ɲ], merging with the palatal nasal letter ( ည / ဉ ). And finally, /l/ can be followed by /-j-/ but not /-ɹ-/. It should be noted that this is rare and in Yangon MSB this represents the only case where the medial impacts the vowel, whereby the sequence လျာ */ljaː/ is realised [lea̯]. Tavoyan front vowels are frequently raised following /-j-/.
There is, at least in Yangon MSB, no difference between an initial /j/ /ɹ/ /w/ and a null initial with /-j-/ /-ɹ-/ /u̯/. This extends to a /w/ initial followed by a /u̯/ onglide. Therefore, in Yangon (and likely much of MSB) /wa/, /Øu̯a/, and /wu̯a/ are pronounced identically.
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.
There are four contrastive tones in Burmese. In the following table, the tones are shown marked on the vowel /a/ as an example.
(shown on a)
|Low||နိမ့်သံ||à||normal||medium||low||low, often slightly rising|
|High||တက်သံ||á||sometimes slightly breathy||long||high||high, often with a fall before a pause|
|Creaky||သက်သံ||a̰||tense or creaky, sometimes with lax glottal stop||medium||high||high, often slightly falling|
|Checked||တိုင်သံ||aʔ||centralized vowel quality, final glottal stop||short||high||high (in citation; can vary in context)|
For example, the following words are distinguished from each other only on the basis of tone:
- Low ခါ /kʰà/ "shake"
- High ခါး /kʰá/ "be bitter"
- Creaky ကြေး /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 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. The "ordinary" tone consists of a range of pitches. Linguist L. F. Taylor 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."
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 /màʊɴ/ (term of address for young men)
- CGVVC /mjáʊɴ/ '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.loʊʔ/ 'knob'
- /pə.lwè/ 'flute'
- /θə.jɔ̀/ 'mock'
- /kə.lɛʔ/ 'be wanton'
- /tʰə.mə.jè/ 'rice-water'
The Burmese alphabet consists of 33 letters and 12 vowels, and is written from left to right. It requires no spaces between words, although modern writing usually contains spaces after each clause to enhance readability. Characterized by its circular letters and diacritics, the script is an abugida, with all letters having an inherent vowel အ a. [a̰] or [ə]. 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.
The development of the script followed that of the language, which is generally divided into Old Burmese, Middle Burmese and modern Burmese. Old Burmese dates from the 11th to the 16th century (Pagan and Ava dynasties); Middle Burmese from the 16th to the 18th century (Toungoo to early Konbaung dynasties); modern Burmese from the mid-18th century to the present. Orthographic changes 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. For example, 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 [tɕáʊɴ] in modern Burmese). 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.)
Written Burmese dates to the early Pagan period. The British colonial period scholars believed that the Burmese script was developed c. 1058 from the Mon script. However, evidence shows that the Burmese script has been in use at least since 1035 (perhaps as early as 984) while the earliest Burma Mon script, which is different from the Thailand Mon script, dates to 1093. The Burmese script may have been sourced from the Pyu script. (Both Mon and Pyu scripts are derivatives of the Brahmi script.) Burmese orthography originally followed a square format but the cursive format took hold from the 17th century when popular writing led to the wider use of palm leaves and folded paper known as parabaiks ပုရပိုက်. Much of the orthography in written Burmese today can be traced back to Middle Burmese. 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. During British colonial rule, Burmese spelling was standardized through dictionaries and spellers. The latest spelling authority, named the Myanma Salonpaung Thatpon Kyan မြန်မာ စာလုံးပေါင်း သတ်ပုံ ကျမ်း, was compiled in 1978 at the request of the Burmese government.
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). 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.
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 အ a. [ʔə] + adjective + ဆုံး hcum: [zóʊɴ].
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.
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 [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'm going to 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 မ ma. [mə], which is prefixed to the verb. Generally speaking, other particles are suffixed to that verb, along with မ.
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 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.
"five children" ကလေး ၅ ယောက် hka.le: nga: yauk /kʰəlé ŋá jaʊʔ/ child five classifier
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], ဖ hpa [pʰa̰], or ဖို hpui [pʰò], depending on the noun, and feminized with the particle မ ma. [ma̰]. Examples of usage are below:
- ကြောင်ထီး kraung hti: [tɕàʊɴ tʰí] "male cat"
- ကြောင်မ kraung ma. [tɕàʊɴ ma̰] "female cat"
- ကြက်ဖ krak hpa. [tɕɛʔ pʰa̰] "rooster/cock"
- ထန်းဖို htan: hpui [tʰáɴ pʰò] "male toddy palm plant"
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 [jaʊʔ] 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," လ do not require classifiers.
Below are some of the most commonly used classifiers in Burmese.
|ယောက်||yauk||[jaʊʔ]||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|
|ခု||hku.||[kʰṵ]||general classifier||Used with almost all nouns except for animate objects|
|လုံး||lum:||[lóʊɴ]||for round objects|
|ပြား||pra:||[pjá]||for flat objects|
|စု||cu.||[sṵ]||for groups||Can be [zṵ].|
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 အ [ə], which is prefixed to verbs and adjectives to form nouns or adverbs. For instance, the word ဝင် means "to enter," but combined with အ, it means "entrance" အဝင်. Also, in colloquial Burmese, there is a tendency to omit the second အ in words that follow the pattern အ + noun/adverb + အ + noun/adverb, like အဆောက်အအုံ, which is pronounced [əsʰaʊʔ ú] and formally pronounced [əsʰaʊʔ əòʊɴ].
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 men and ကျွန်မ kya. ma. [tɕəma̰] for women, both meaning "your servant", and refer to the addressee as မင်း min [mɪ́ɴ] "your highness", ခင်ဗျား khang bya: [kʰəmjá] "master, lord" (from သခင်ဘုရား, meaning "lord master") or ရှင် hrang [ʃɪ̀ɴ] "ruler/master". 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. 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:
kywan to tui.
kywan ma. tui.
khang bya: tui.
- * The basic particle to indicate plurality is တို့ tui., colloquial ဒို့ dui..
- ‡ Used by male speakers.
- † Used by female speakers.
Other pronouns are reserved for speaking with bhikkhus (Buddhist monks). When speaking to a bhikkhu, 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. paey. tau "royal disciple" or ဒကာ da. ka [dəɡà], "donor" are used. When speaking to a monk, the following pronouns are used:
- † The particle ma. မ is suffixed for women.
- ‡ Typically reserved for the chief monk of a kyaung (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 "Myanmar's" respectively).
Minor pronunciation differences do exist within regions of Irrawaddy valley. For example, the pronunciation [sʰʊ́ɴ] of ဆွမ်း "food offering [to a monk]" is preferred in Lower Burma, instead of [sʰwáɴ], which is preferred in Upper Burma. However, the most obvious difference between Upper Burmese and Lower Burmese is that Upper Burmese speech still differentiates maternal and paternal sides of a family:
|Term||Upper Burmese||Lower Burmese||Myeik dialect|
1 The youngest (paternal or maternal) aunt may be called ထွေးလေး [dwé lé], and the youngest paternal uncle ဘထွေး [ba̰ dwé].
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|
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).
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 (လှပ → လှလှပပ [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 sʰàɪɴ 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 Pali-based transcription system in existence, MLC Transcription System 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 [kʰàɪɴ] may be romanized as Khaing, Khine, or Khain.
Computer fonts and standard keyboard layout
The Burmese script can be entered from a standard QWERTY keyboard, and is supported within the Unicode standard, meaning it can be read and written from most modern computers and smartphones.
Burmese has complex character rendering requirements, where tone markings and vowel modifications are noted using diacritics. These can be placed before consonants (as with ေ), above them (as with ိ) or even around them (as with ြ). These character clusters are built using multiple keystrokes. In particular, the inconsistent placement of diacritics as a feature of the language presents a conflict between an intuitive WISIWYG typing approach, and a logical consonant-first storage approach.
Since its introduction in 2007, the most popular Burmese font, Zawgyi, has been near-ubiquitous in Myanmar. Linguist Justin Watkins argues that the ubiquitous use of Zawgyi harms Myanmar languages, including Burmese, by preventing efficient sorting, searching, processing and analyzing Myanmar text through flexible diacritic ordering.
Zawgyi is not Unicode-compliant, but occupies the same code space as Unicode Myanmar font. As it is not defined as a standard character encoding, Zawgyi is not built in to any major operating systems as standard. However, allow for its position as the de facto (but largely undocumented) standard within the country, telcos and major smartphone distributors (such as Huawei and Samsung) ship phones with Zawgyi font overwriting standard Unicode-compliant fonts, which are installed on most internationally-distributed hardware. Facebook also supports Zawgyi as an additional language encoding for their app and website. As a result, almost all SMS alerts (including those from telcos to their customers), social media posts and other web resources may be incomprehensible on these devices without the custom Zawgyi font installed at the operating system level. These may include devices purchased overseas, or distributed by companies who do not customize software for the local market.
Keyboards which have a Zawgyi keyboard layout printed on them are the most commonly available for purchase domestically.
Until recently, Unicode compliant fonts have been more difficult to type than Zawgyi, as they have a stricter, less forgiving and arguably less intuitive method for ordering diacritics. However, intelligent input software such as Keymagic and recent versions of smartphone soft-keyboards including Gboard and ttKeyboard allow for more forgiving input sequences and Zawgyi keyboard layouts which produce Unicode-compliant text.
A number of Unicode-compliant Burmese fonts exist. The national standard keyboard layout is known as the Myanmar3 layout, and it was published along with the Myanmar3 Unicode font. The layout, developed by the Myanmar Unicode and NLP Research Center, has a smart input system to cover the complex structures of Burmese and related scripts.
In addition to the development of computer fonts and standard keyboard layout, there is still a lot of scope of research for the Burmese language, specifically for Natural Language Processing (NLP) areas like WordNet, Search Engine, development of parallel corpus for Burmese language as well as development of a formally standardized and dense domain-specific corpus of Burmese language.
- Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
- at Ethnologue (15th ed., 2005)
- Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). . Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
- Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008), Chapter XV, Provision 450
- , p. 147.
- , p. 16-17.
- , p. 189.
- , p. 202-206.
- at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
- , p. 99.
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- , p. 5–21.
- , p. 81–99.
- , p. 2.
- , p. 39.
- , p. 68-70.
- , p. 48-49.
- , p. 26.
- , p. 135-136.
- , p. 64.
- , p. 370.
- , p. 65.
- , p. 81.
- , p. 67.
- , p. 94.
- , p. 68.
- word final consonants in loans are omitted entirely in speech
- , p. 253-260.
- , p. 17.
- Note that ( စ ), here labeled “palatal” and transcribed as -c is pronounced /s/ initially in MSB but it is attested as an affricate /ts/ as recently as the 1800's and in earlier stages was likely /tʃ~tɕ/ and before that /c/, mimicking the development of Latin ⟨C⟩ in the daughter Romance languages / k > c > tʃ (> ts > s (> θ)) /.
- ( ည )and ( ဉ ) behave much the same, except that ( ည ) is not itself pronounced, and has a broader range of effects on the vowel. It is indistinguishable from open syllable words. ( ဉ ) on the other hand nasalises the vowel like the other nasal finals and usually only has a single realisation.
- this is itself sometimes referred to as the “checked tone” or “entering tone” following Chinese nomenclature
- ( သ ), which was */s/ in Pali and OB, but was shifted forward by the shift of ( စ ) */ts/→/s/, is often transliterated as ⟨s⟩ and transcribed /θ/ in MSB but its actual pronunciation is closer to /ɾ̪ʰ~ɾ̪θ~tθ̆/, a dental flap, often accompanied by aspiration or a slight dental fricative, although it can also be voiced. It has a short release generated by moving the tongue back sharply from an interdental position, and will sound to English speakers like a short dental fricative combined with elements of a tap or stop
- Although Burmese vowel diacritics all have different default tones, the four vowels used before front finals all imply a short tone (tone 1) by default, which is promoted to tone 2, the long low and level or slightly rising tone before a nasal final.
- Note that vowel length and tone are intertwined and can be modified with diacritics. The transcription here with long vowels is representative only of the default value of the vowel with a nasal final.
- , p. 135-136.
- , p. 91–106.
- , p. 184–191.
- , p. 307.
- , p. 167–178, 197–200.
- , p. 136.
- , p. viii.
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- Watkins, Justin. (PDF).
- "Myanmar Wikipedia – Font".
- Hotchkiss, Griffin (23 March 2016). .
- , p. 8.