All About the Burmese Language

My first Independence-Day Related post of 2018! (Well, discounting the shout-out to Slovakia I gave on New Year’s Day). Today is Burmese Independence Day and I thought it would be a good occasion to write about the language.

A year ago at around this time my parents were floating the idea of visiting Myanmar (Burma) after isolationist policies were relaxed. Interestingly they weren’t the only ones thinking this way—Sammy Samuels of “Myanmar Shalom”, a Jewish-Burmese Tourist Agency (YES, there are Burmese Jews, both in the country proper and abroad, and I’ve met BOTH!) described it as a “gold rush” when we met for the first time in May.

In a mall in Yangon that looked fancier beyond most malls in America, there were photographs of the country’s many minorities with captions about their lifestyles in Burmese and in English. My father told me that the underlying implication was that the wave of investors from China, the West and Myanmar’s immediate neighbors such as India and Thailand would threaten many aspects of local culture that remained unchanged during the years of military dictatorship.

Myanmar’s internal politics are labyrinthine and the ethnic diversity found in the country is similar to the situation that was present in the Americas before European colonization happened. (Fun Fact: Europe is the least linguistically diverse continent!)

It’s been more than half a year since I took off from Yangon and since then I’ve kept up my studies of Burmese on-and-off. It has proved to be one of the most difficult languages I have encountered by virtue of the fact that it is…different. (And Lao, for many reasons, I found significantly easier both to learn and to understand).

Here are some videos that I made about Burmese and my journey learning it last month. Sadly due to some circumstances I wasn’t able to complete the Eurolinguiste 30-Day Challenge but I’m glad I did what I did:

In any case, I turned to Polyglot Polls for potential topics to write about, and I got some topics that I’m not too qualified to write about, such as:

  • Burmese street slang
  • Tai-Kadai loan words in Burmese
  • Mon-Khmer loan words in Burmese

 

IF YOU KNOW about any of these topics in any capacity, PLEASE let me know about them in the comments.

One thing I really have noticed was the fact that, much like with languages like Yiddish, Uyghur and Tajik, Burmese takes a lot of words from a religious language, in the case, Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism’s scriptures.

Burmese native words are one syllable each, and so expressions that have more than one syllable are usually of foreign origin. It goes without saying that words like “telephone” and “Internet” are detectable English loan words, as well as many names for countries and nationalities.

But one of the first things I had to learn in Burmese (as SOON as my visa got approved), was how to ask for only vegetarian food and the word that is used is သက်သတ်လွတ် (θɛʔ.θæʔ.luʔ). There were also some other things that pointed to foreign influence that was Indo-European but clearly not European, like the fact that the word for “name” is နာမည် (næɴmɛ), which is very similar to the English word “name” (it’s a Pali word.

Interestingly I notice that the patterns for liturgical-language loan words throughout the world are quite similar (and my observations tell me that they tend to skew towards nouns and higher registers of language).

But, here are some things you need to know about Burmese, whether you may be starting to learn it or want to learn a little bit or just want to read a list of facts:

  • No grammatical gender.

 

  • You put words at the end of a sentence in order to indicate what tense it is:

 

Tense Markers DONE

These will also be DIFFERENT depending on how formal (or not) the text (or spoken word) is. On inscriptions you’ll usually see formal variants. In phrasebooks, you’ll see informal.

 

 

  • Men and women will speak differently. My first day in Mandalay I went to a bank with my father and the servicewomen opened the door and told me “mingalaba SHIN” (the “shin” at the end is a “polite particle” used by women. For those unaware: it really doesn’t have a meaning, a bit like adding “sir” or “ma’am” at the end of sentences in English. I, as a man, would say “mingalaba khimya” (using a different polite particle). Also! Polite versions of “I” will be gendered as well. ကျွန်တော် (ʨənɔ) for men and ကျွန်မ (ʨəmá) for women.

 

 

  • You will also use classifier words as well. To say “I want coffee + 4” you would say “I want four cups of coffee”. To say “I want paper + 3” you would say “I want three sheets of paper”.

 

Here are some classifier words:

Category Words DONE

  • You can usually omit the subject of the sentence if it is implied. I remember one time I was talking to a Burmese taxi driver about Burmese music and I mentioned Chan Chan (described a musician who made her career off women’s broken hearts, in a sense). He said “very beautiful”, leaving it unclear as to whether it was the music OR the singer that he was talking about. Expect this commonly.

 

  • The tones are probably the trickiest out of any tonal language that I’ve encountered (with Mandarin probably having the easiest system, in my opinion). I’ll link to various sites that can help you better.

 

One website I would recommend is this below: provides a LOT of cultural information and provides steady information where a lot of other sites are lacking. Great for learning the Burmese script as well as tones and the finer points of language:

https://www.asiapearltravels.com/language/intro_burmese.php

Another resource I would recommend for getting a very basic level is Kenneth Wong’s playlist. He has one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard in my life:

Concerning books, Lonely Planet is also a good bet (when I first became enthused by Burmese in 2014, WAAAAY before I know that I would end up in the country and I honestly didn’t ever think I would end up there, they didn’t have the standalone Burmese phrasebook but now they do. I have the Southeast Asia one).

Also Reise Know How is pretty much always fantastic if you read German. In case of the Burmese one, the proceeds will go to funding children’s schools in rural Myanmar.

 

And as for USING it:

Burmese is very lively on the internet and when I was in the country I could see why. Even among some of the temples in Bagan which are crowded with homeless people, there were people using smartphones there.

What’s more, the Burmese-American communities are also noteworthy to point out (and the U.S. isn’t the only place that has these expatriate communities). They also have many ethnic minorities of Myanmar represented as well within these communities.

Burmese music is also fantastic especially when you consider the fact that, in some cases, it somewhat resembles Tom Lehrer’s confession as Lobachevsky (“Every chapter I stole from somewhere else”). Tons of Western, Chinese and Russian pop songs are covered in barely legal manners and translated into Burmese. A lot of the lyrics are also readily available embedded as subtitles in the video (so you’ll need the Burmese script for that!).

Some songs I’ve heard rendered into Burmese include “My Heart Will Go On”, ABBA, VIA Gra (Band from Ukraine popular in the Russian-speaking world), “A Million Voices” (that almost won Eurovision 2015), and many songs that I vaguely remember hearing in produce isles in the United States. (Confession: I know pathetically little about American popular music and, to be honest, I like it that way).

Anyhow, I’m happy to answer your questions or receive your expertise.

Above all, know that Asian Languages are not scary as you may make them out to be!

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Rhythm, Vocabulary, Music, and a Song in Estonian

Yesterday evening and this morning I was browsing through my musical collection in order to ease telltale signs of slight infirmity (thankfully I’m a lot better now…)
A certain gem of my collection was the following song (although possibly not everyone will call it a song):

The song, which is in Estonian—although I can’t possibly classify it as either sung, chanted, screamed, or spoken—almost represented Estonia at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2013, “Meiecundimees üks Korsakov läks eile Lätti”, translates to “One Man of Ours from Korsakov went to Latvia Yesterday”

The lyrics are probably about as deranged and eccentric as the costumes you may see, and deals with the man in question having his bones broken one after another. I was reminded by Daniil Kharms’ stories which I first savored as a sophomore in college.

My family members didn’t particularly like the song and I imagine that many of you won’t be enthused by it either. BUT this post isn’t about this song, it is about a revelation I had about vocabulary learning, which is partially indebted to this demented but possibly brilliant…yes, I will say it…masterpiece.

The rhythm of the lyrics managed to induce a certain catchiness, despite the fact that the lyrics weren’t particularly sung nor was the melody anything of particular note. Perhaps it was some variety of modernistic ritual chant…

It was very easy for me to memorize the long title of the song, largely as a result of the fact that it was repeated in the song very often but also as a result of the primal rhythm which somewhat resembles a very excited heartbeat.

Later on that day I found myself looking at my Greenlandic phrasebook before going to bed. Awfully long words, I thought, how am I going to memorize everything in this book…
…and then it came to me…

…what if I used that rhythm from “Meiecundimees”, or a similar-sounding one, in order to commit these words to memory?

“Naalagaaffeqatigiit”…the Greenlandic word for the “United States of America”, a very important word for me to remember…so how did I memorize it?

Upon chanting it several times, I’ve noticed that it stuck, very much like the longer song title did.

Afterwards, I tried it with a number of other words as well, but I didn’t want to “stuff” my memory too badly before the night was up.

With most Indo-European Languages, I could manage to make out cognates and remember them that way. This was even true when I found myself committing Northern Sami vocabulary to memory (I could just search for cognates between the Scandinavian Languages or Finnish).

The only way I could do that with Greenlandic is with the modern words that came from Danish. “Beta Versioni” doesn’t strike me as too hard to remember. But for most of the words with Inuit origins? No way…

…and that is how music became necessary.

I imagine that many of you would seek to study more commonly studied European languages, and in that case you may already have methods of memory that involve tying them to languages you already know.

Chinese and Japanese with their systems of characters call for another set of memory methods altogether, but the fact is that with Greenlandic I found myself alone, without too many colorful resources or speaking partners.

So when all else fails when you need to remember something, or are just seeking to learn new words…remember my lesson…

…and face the music…