17 Facts About Burmese: Tones, Alphabet and Loan Words

Burmese is the language of Myanmar (previously exclusively and now co-officially Burma). The Burmans, the major ethnic tribe of Myanmar, have Burmese as their official language. It’s also known as the Myanmar language. It belongs to the Sino-Tibetan group of languages and is relatively small compared to some other world tongues.

The following facts explore this fascinating language, including its formation, its grammar, its distribution, and more. Spoken by around 45 million people worldwide, this language deserves its time in the limelight – and here is a good place to make yourself a proper introduction to Burmese linguistics!

1. Burmese is an official language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)

This organization mostly operates in English, but uses languages from its ten member countries. Its official languages are English, Burmese, Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Tamil, Thai, and Vietnamese.

2. It mostly uses a subject – object – verb (SOV) structure

English tends to use SVO. Where an English speaker would say “Kyaw learned a language”, Burmese would read as “Kyaw a language learned.”

3. Words in Burmese tend toward monosyllables

A lot of vocabulary only has one syllable, though many loan words and words from outside influences are multisyllabic, especially those influenced from Indo-European languages.

4. The Burmese alphabet is a Brahmic script

It doesn’t use spaces (except in modern writing after clauses for clarity) and it is read from left to right. It dates back to the late 900s or early 1000s and has been modified over the years to match the evolving language. The letters don’t directly ‘translate’ into Latin letters, but rather into sounds.

The sentence “I speak Burmese” is pronounced as “Ngar bamar lo pyawwtaal” but written ငါဗမာလိုပြောတယ်.

5. As well as upward of 33 million Burmans who speak Burmese as their first language, a number of surrounding peoples speak it as their second

It’s used as a second language by ethnic minorities in Myanmar and its bordering countries of China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh, and India.

6. Tone, pitch, and the timing of syllables all change the meaning of words and phrases in Burmese

It also heavily depends on the social context of the phrase. A person speaking Burmese will choose vastly different words for a superior at work than for a friend or family member.

7. Most Burmese speakers live along the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River

Along the valleys, the dialects are surprisingly similar. They only start to change when moving further away into other areas, though these groups are very small.

8. British colonialism heavily affected Burmese as a language, but it experienced a renaissance in the 1930s

Before then, the idea of English as ‘superior’ still lingered in government, education, and more. When the nation gained full independence in 1948, Burmese was reinstated as its official language.

9. There are two distinct registers in Burmese

The first is the literary high form, which is used in formal speeches, news broadcasts, formal literature, newspapers, and other official situations. The spoken low form is used in day-to-day speech, informal literature, magazines, and comics, and on television.

10. Pre-colonial Myanmar had Burmese and the Mon language as interchangeable

Modern Burmese uses so many “loan words” from Mon that they’re now considered simply Burmese words.

11. As part of the revolution from enforced English, common global English terms have been officially replaced by neologisms using concepts and ideas.

For example, although spoken Burmese often uses တယ်လီဗီးရှင် (taalle bee shin) as a transliteration of ‘television’, publications are legally required to use ရုပ်မြင်သံကြား (rotemyinsankyarr) which means ‘see picture and hear sound’.

12. Some words in Burmese have several synonyms depending on context

Different words will be used for formal, casual, official, poetic, and literary descriptions of the same thing.

13. Because it is a tonal language, words that are written and ostensibly pronounced exactly the same can mean completely different things

This entirely depends on the tone and emphasis that the speaker places on the word.

14. There are 33 letters and 12 vowels in Burmese

They also use diacritics to modify sounds. This is a mark (similar to an accent such as é) which distinguishes emphasis and tone. In Burmese and other Brahmic scripts, diacritic marks are in the form of lines in and around different parts of the letter.

15. There aren’t real adjectives in Burmese

While in English we use adjectives to describe nouns (“an interesting language”), Burmese instead uses verbs that mean “to be [adjective]”. In this example, စိတ်ဝင်စားစရာဘာသာစကားတစ်ခု (hcatewainhcarrhcarar bharsarhcakarr taithku) would mean “a language that is interesting.”

16. There is no grammatical gender in Burmese

However, suffixes to the words are used to emphasize whether the noun is male or female.

17. There are three types of personal pronouns in Burmese

The first-person and second-person pronouns are usable for those of the same social status or someone younger, though people tend to default to third-person pronouns. For example, in a case where an older woman met a younger woman, “I am glad to meet you”, would be “Aunt is glad to meet daughter.”

In formal speech or to someone of higher rank such as a teacher, or a stranger, third-person is exclusively used, though the words are different. In the example above, if the girl was a student of the older woman, she would say, “Your (female) servant is glad to meet your highness.” This dates back to feudal-era Myanmar and these terms are not considered literally as they might look to English speakers.

Speaking to Buddhist monks requires a different set of pronouns, meaning things like royal teacher, monk, or your lordship depending on status. The monks refer to themselves in third person as donor or royal disciple.

Final Thoughts

Burmese is an interesting language for English speakers to study in that it’s very different from many that we’re used to experiencing in our day to day lives. Learning about languages is the best way to learn about cultures, and the more we know, the better for everyone.

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