Monday, April 15, 2013

Language Profile: Burmese

This week's language profile is on Burmese, the official language of Burma. It boasts over 32 million native speakers and is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family which also includes Chinese.

Temples in the plains of Bagan, Burma.
In 1989, the military government in control of the country decided to change the official English translation for both the name of the country and its official language to "Myanmar". Many countries still do not officially recognize this government and therefore don't recognize the name change, hence endless disputes as to which name is correct. We're sticking with Burmese today since the majority of sources we've seen, including the Ethnologue, use the name "Burmese". But enough politics already!

Like many other languages, Burmese uses two registers. The formal register is used for literature, journalism, government, and other formal circumstances. The colloquial register, on the other hand, is used for normal daily conversation. However, colloquial Burmese does use several levels of politeness based on the age and social status of speakers. The language also has some vocabulary terms that are reserved solely for the use of Buddhist monks.

The Burmese language has several dialects that differ in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation, though they are all mutually intelligible. Burmese has also been influenced by loanwords from several neighboring languages. Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, has contributed many words relating to religion and art, while vocabulary from English is usually related to technology. The Mon language, spoken in Burma and Thailand, has also given words relating to nature, food, architecture, and music to Burmese.

"Burmese alphabet" written in Burmese script.
Burmese is written using the Burmese alphabet, an abugida that is written from left to right. It has 33 letters used to indicate the initial consonant sounds in syllables, while vowels are represented by diacritics above, below, and on either side of the consonant characters. It's not required to leave spaces between words, but they're often added between clauses in modern times in order to make the language easier to read. Burmese was traditionally written on palm leaves, so its characters are rounded in order to avoid ripping the leaves apart with straight lines. Sounds like a smart idea to us!