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Number of Speakers: Over 30 million
Key Dialects: Rakhine or Arakanese (spoken in Rakhine State - also known as Arakan State - in the southwest of Myanmar); Tavoyan (spoken along the coast of southeastern Burma); and Intha (spoken in the southeastern part of Shan State). See below for more details.
Geographical Center: Myanmar
Burmese is spoken as a first language by about 21,553,000 in Myanmar. This number accounts for about 58% of the total population. There are about 3,000,000 second language speakers in Myanmar and over 32,000,000 speakers worldwide including such countries as Bangladesh, the US, Macao, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Burmese belongs to the Burmish sub-branch of the Lolo-Burmese branch, which is one of the four major branches of the larger Tibeto-Burman family. Burmese, along with Tibetan, the dominant language of Tibet, is one of the two most important languages of the Tibeto-Burman branch, which includes an undetermined number of smaller languages spoken in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma/Myanmar, northern and western Thailand, and the Yunnan and Sichuan (Szechwan) provinces of China (Ehrhardt, 1998).
Standard Burmese evolved from a 'central' dialect spoken by the Burman population of the lower valleys of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers. It is now spoken with in most of Myanmar with some regional variation. According to Wheatley, there are "a number of non-standard dialects, showing profound differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, are found in peripheral regions". [Wheatley, 1990] Arakanese, Tavoyan, and Intha can be considered "dialects", for their distinctive differences in pronunciation and vocabulary from standard Burmese, which does not disrupt a mutual intelligibility with Burmese. Other dialects include Beik, Danu, Taungyo, and Yaw. The issue of dialects as variants of standard language is controversial for Burmese as in most cases regarding dialect issues: in Burmese all these "dialects" are considered "languages" [za-gà], just like Burmese za-gà, or other "languages" spoken by different ethnic minorities.
Although spoken Burmese belongs to the Tibeto-Burman language family, Burmese script is an adaptation of the Mon, which in turn derives from Pali - the language of Theravada Buddhism - and ultimately from the Brahmi script of eastern India. As a result, there is a residue of redundant letters and symbols in Burmese as they were devised originally to represent Indic phonological systems. Besides, over the centuries, the pronunciation of many words has changed, but the spelling has not changed in parallel, a phenomenon that has caused discrepancies between the orthography and the pronunciation. Problems of discrepancy between orthography and pronunciation exist in many languages, but this problem is particularly prominent in Burmese [cf. section below for more explanation].
Burmese uses a syllabic script. The Burmese alphabet is made up of 33 letters, each representing a syllable. Words are made up through the use of the letters alone - in which case, their value is the default vowel /á/, or letters in combination with various symbols representing vowel sounds and tones. Unlike English, Burmese is not necessarily written with a sequence of letters progressing from left to right; symbols for vowels may be written before, above, below, or on the right of the letter representing an initial consonant. Spaces separate phrases or clauses, not words.
Burmese is a tonal language (i.e. pitch and pitch contour can change the meanings of words) with three or four tones, depending on the system of categorization: some identify three tones - low, middle and high; or creaky, level, and heavy falling (Campbell, 1991) - which correspond closely to the Burmese orthographic system; some use four tonal distinctions - creaky, low, high, and checked (Wheatley, 2001); or creaky, level, heavy, and stop (Okell, 1969). The additional fourth tone is an abrupt falling tone that occurs before the glottal stop final.
Burmese makes a phonemic distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, unlike English and other European languages. A limited number of these aspirated-unaspirated pairs can denote transitive-intransitive or causative-stative pairs of verbs.
Like most Tibeto-Burman languages, Burmese shows a tendency toward monosyllabicity. Each syllable has C1 (initial consonant), V (vowel) and T (tone) always present. Syllables can be full, i.e. with all components receiving their full phonetic value, or reduced to a schwa in certain contexts. Final consonants are not pronounced, and consonant clusters are absent in the Burmese sound system. As a result, loan words with final consonants or consonant clusters such as "black" or "brake", for intance, are usually pronounced with an extra vowel inserted between the consonants.
Lexical items include nouns, verbs (including adjectival verbs corresponding to adjectives in English such as "good, pretty, fat", and so on), adverbs, interjections, lexical phrases and particles. Nouns and verbs are preponderantly monosyllabic. Polysyllabic nouns and verbs may be derived from, or by combining other monosyllabic or polysyllabic nouns and verbs. Adverbs can be formed through reduplication of an associated adjective. Particles - which may be post-nominal or post-verbal - include "sentence-final particles, subject markers, or equivalents of English prepositions in/on/at" etc. Particles can also have discourse functions such as indicating the topic of the sentence, or toning down the assertion. In counting Burmese, like many Southeast Asian languages, requires classifiers, which are bound forms that are used with numerals or the prefix /be-hna-/ meaning "how many-". Classifiers often reflect the shape or some other salient feature of the quantified noun, but sometimes also a particular aspect of the nominal referent that the speaker chooses to emphasize.
Burmese is an SOV language, or more precisely a verb-final language, which essentially means that the (main) verb - usually followed by one or more particles with grammatical as well as discourse functions - occupies the final position in the sentence or clause. The place of the subject and object is often interchangeable in the utterance, and it is very common in Burmese to have the subject or even the object left out, when its role is considered obvious from the context by the producer of the utterance. Syntactic relationships are often expressed by particles following the noun or the verb.
Burmese makes a distinction between two different styles, namely colloquial and literary, an important stylistic variation which is "more immediately striking (than the dialectal differences) particularly to the foreigner" (Allott, 1985). The differences between the two styles lie mostly in lexical items: literary style is characterized by a different set of particles and pleonastic counterparts of lexical items in colloquial Burmese.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
Burmese or Myanmar language is the official national language of the Union of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Since the government's decision to change the official name from "Burma" to "Myanmar" in 1989, there have been ongoing debates and confusion regarding the proper English term for the language. For speakers of Burmese, it is simply a matter of a choice between the two "styles" of the language use, namely colloquial and literary. The English word "Burma" or "Burmese" is /ba-ma/ in colloquial, and /myan-ma/ in literary Burmese, which are usually used with a suffix attached to it. To refer to the language, /b?-ma/ or /myan-ma/ are followed by the suffixes - /z?-gà/ "spoken language or /za/ "written language"; thus /myan-ma z?-gà/ and /b?-ma z?-gà/; or /b?-ma za/ and /Myan-ma za/. The term "Burmese" is sometimes preferred over "Myanmar" in English for practical reasons, as it is the case here.
In Myanmar Burmese is used in the media, education (which is government controlled) and government administration. There are slight variations in the existing sources regarding the estimates of the total number of speakers, ranging from 30 to 37 millions. The Revolutionary Government, after its rise to power in 1962, adopted a firm policy for the development of Burmese as the official language. Burmese has since been the language of instruction throughout the formal education: from kindergarten to higher education. Other languages of the ethnic minorities, including the so-called dialects are not used nor taught at schools and universities in general, except in some specialized schools, or in special radio programs [cf. Allott, 1985].
Between the two styles of Burmese, colloquial Burmese is used in casual conversations, and in everyday service counter language use. Literary Burmese can be found in typically written genres such as textbooks, academic writings, news articles, notices, and narrative passages in fiction, or in formal spoken genres such as speeches by government officials in political or ceremonial contexts. A mixture of literary and colloquial styles is also a common characteristic of some genres of spoken and written Burmese such as radio or TV broadcasts, memoirs, and articles in popular magazines, or some speeches in less formal situations. Official speech and anything written tends to be more stylized and stiff. As a result, news articles can be relatively hard to read for foreign learners of Burmese who have been exposed only to the colloquial language.
Rules for orthography and standardization of the language use seem not as strictly enforced as the censorship of content for publications, especially those produced by private enterprises. As a result, it is not uncommon to find, for instance, inconsistent spellings in publications.
Wheatley (2001) states that "precisely when Burmese speaking people appeared in the central plains of Burma is still very uncertain". The earliest specimens of Burmese writing appear around AD 1113, along with three other languages - Pali, Mon, and Pyu - found in the Myazedi inscription which records religious offerings by the Mon King Rajakumar.
Burmese belongs to the "Tibeto-Burman stock with a Mon-Khmer substratum and writing system, plus a Pali-Buddhist ideological superstructure" (Campbell, 1991). In AD 1057 one of the first Burmese kings, Anawrahta, upon defeating Thaton - the Mon kingdom at the time, brought back to Burma Mon monks and scribes, who were practically the original creators of Burmese script. Since the main purpose of writing in the old days was to record religious texts, earlier texts were written in Pali - the language of Theravada Buddhism - which is related to Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages, but now extinct except for use in religious texts. Syntax and lexicon in Burmese have been heavily influenced by Pali (similar to the influence of Arabic, the language of Islam, on Persian or Turkish), and some Burmese loan words from Pali still keep the spelling of the Pali texts. In adapting Pali to Mon, and then ultimately to Burmese, earlier scholars of Burmese had to devise modifications; either adding characters to represent sounds that were absent in Pali but needed for Burmese; or keeping the extra characters that are not needed for writing Burmese.
From the earliest times, Burmese has been in contact with speech or writings in other languages (Mon, Pali, and Pyu in the 12th and 13th centuries, European languages such as Portuguese, Dutch, British and French between the 16th and late 18th centuries), and many of these languages have left their mark in Burmese (Wheatley, 2001). As the spoken language evolved over the centuries (Modern Burmese is considered to have assumed its current form by the end of the 16th century) written language did not change in parallel. Consequently, many Pali lexical items and the syntax - remain in written language or literary style of Burmese, and the orthography which was partly inferred from traditional Indian values of the letters often differs noticeably from the spoken forms. As a result in short, modern Burmese is quite different in its literary form or formal speech from its spoken form or informal speech, particularly in the "choice of the textually frequent post-nominal and post-verbal particles and other grammatical words" (Wheatley, 1990).
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Contributed by San San Hnin Tun, Cornell University.
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