Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Burmese: Notes About the Language

I’m learning Burmese. Here are my initial notes about the language.

About the Burmese Language

  • Native speakers: 33 million (2007). Second language: 10 million.
  • Language family: Sino-Tibetan
  • Burmese is a tonal, pitch-register, and syllable-timed language, largely monosyllabic and analytic language, with a subject–object–verb word order.
  • The phonology of Burmese includes a three-way contrast (voiced, voiceless and aspirate, e.g. g-k-kh) at five points of articulation, it has six pairs of plain and breathed continuants (e.g. l-hl), and distinguishes four types of syllable by means of a combination of pitch and voice quality (high vs low, creaky vs plain).
  • Notable features of Burmese syntax are that the verb is always final in the sentence, that all subordinate clauses precede the main clause, that relative clauses precede their head noun, that markers corresponding to English prepositions follow the noun, and that the counting system uses classifiers.
  • Burmese was the fourth of the Sino-Tibetan languages to develop a writing system, after Chinese, Tibetan, and Tangut.
  • The standard dialect of Burmese (the Mandalay-Yangon dialect continuum) comes from the Irrawaddy River valley
  • Burmese is a diglossic language with two distinguishable registers (or diglossic varieties), used in various settings: Literay High form and Spoken low form
  • Burmese vocabulary is primarily monosyllabic and of Tibeto-Burman stock
  • Historically, Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, has been of profound influence to the Burmese language, especially in enriching the Burmese vocabulary.
  • Pali loanwords are often related to religion, government, arts, and science.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Special pronouns for speaking to Buddhist monks
  • Reduplication is prevalent in Burmese and is used to intensify or weaken adjectives’ meanings.

Sources

  • Wikipedia
  • TODO

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