Burmese is a member of the Tibeto-Burman languages, which is a subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Burmese is a tonal and analytic language. The language uses the Burmese script, derived from the Mon script and ultimately from the Brāhmī script.
In addition, different particles (to modify nouns and verbs) are used in the prestige form than in the spoken form. Literate Burmese speakers are able to intuitively interpret ancient Burmese despite transcriptions that date many centuries due to innate pronunciation rules. For example, ၌ (hnai.), which serves as a postposition after nouns is only used in formal Burmese, and is မှာ (hma) in colloquial Burmese.
A newer system of orthography for Burmese (one based on phonology) has been proposed to accommodate such differences. Another obstacle in reforming Burmese orthography lies in the existence of conservative Burmese dialects (that retain older pronunciations more similar to formal Burmese), which primarily come from coastal areas. In addition, some Burmese linguists have proposed to shift away from formal Burmese, as seen in the on television broadcasts, which use the vernacular. However, formal Burmese remains well-established in Burmese society. Furthermore, since the mid-1960s, there has been a reform movement by some Burmese writers (particular leftist writers, who believe laymen's language ought to be used) to abandon the written style in favour of the vernacular style in writing, but the written style remains preferred form of Burmese writing, because "the spoken style lacks gravity, authority, dignity." The formal written style remains used throughout Burmese literature, in radio news bulletins, formal letters, novels, journalism and books on serious or educational matters.
A sample sentence below reveals that much of the differences between formal and colloquial Burmese occur in the particles:
|(8888 Uprising)||(happen)||(when it occurred)||(people)||(counter word)||3,000||(approx.)||(die)||(plural marker)||(past tense)||(sentence final)|
|Translation||When 8888 Uprising occurred, approximately 3,000 died.|
Colloquial Burmese has various politeness levels. The actual first and second person pronouns of the language ငါ (nga [ŋà]; "I; me") and နင် ([nìn]; "you") are used with only the closest people of the same or younger age. The use of nga and nin with the elders and strangers is considered extremely rude or vulgar. To address the elders, teachers and strangers, the polite speech employs feudal era third person pronouns in lieu of first and second person pronouns. One must refer to oneself in third person ကျွန်တော် (kya. nau [tʃənɔ̀]) for males, and ကျွန်မ (kya. ma. [tʃəma̰]) for females, both meaning "your servant") and refer to the addressee as မင်း (min [mín]; "your highness") , ခင်ဗျား (khin bya: [kəmyá]; "master lord") or ရှင် (shin [ʃìn]; "ruler/master"). So ingrained are these terms in the daily polite speech that people use them as the first and second person pronouns without giving a second thought to the root meaning of these pronouns.
When speaking to a person of the same status or of younger age, nga and nin may be used. Still, most choose to use third person pronouns to be safe. For example, an older person may use daw-lay (aunt) or u-lay (uncle) to refer to oneself, and address the younger person as either tha (son) or thami (daughter). When speaking to a monk, a person must refer to the monk as poun-poun and to himself as daga (ဒဂါ (da. ga [dəgà]), or dabyidaw/dabyidawma. (Burmese monks may speak to fellow monks using Pāli, and it is expected of faithful Burmese Buddhists to have a basic knowledge of Pāli.)
Despite the large differences, Burmese speakers rarely distinguish formal and colloquial Burmese as separate languages, but rather as two registers of the same language.
However, more distinctive accent and word usage differences emerge in the peripheral areas of the Ayeyarwady valley. Dialects include Merguese, Yaw, Palaw, Beik (Myeik), and Dawei (Tavoyan). The Rakhine dialect (Arakanese) is most reminiscent of archaic Burmese, especially in its usage of the [r] sound, which has become a [j] sound in standard Burmese. Dialects in Tanintharyi Division (such as Beik) often reduce the intensity of the glottal stop. The Dawei dialect has preserved the [-l-] medial, which is only found in Old Burmese transcriptions. Despite vocabulary and pronunciation differences, there is mutual intelligibility among the dialects.
Here is a sample of loan words found in Burmese:
Burmese tends to have many synonyms of the same word, each having certain usages, such as formal, literary, colloquial, and poetic. One example is the word "moon", which can be လ (la̰̰; Tibeto-Burman), စန္ဒာ/စန်း ([sàndà]/[sán]); Pali derivatives of chanda), or သောတာ ((Sanskrit).
Burmese also has a tendency to 'double-loan' from Pali, where it adopts two different terms based on the same Pali root. An example is Pali mana, which in Burmese has two derivatives, မာန (màna̰), or 'arrogance' and မာန် ([mà̃]), or 'pride').
Furthermore, Burmese loan words, especially from Pali, often attach Burmese words to Pali roots. An example is "airplane" လေယာဉ်ပျံ (literally "air machine fly"), which includes လေ (native Burmese word, "air"), ယာဉ် (Pali loan derived from yana, "vehicle") and ပျံ (native Burmese word, "fly"). A similar trend is seen in English, where native Burmese words are attached to English loans, such as in the verb "to sign" ဆိုင်းထိုး ("sign inscribe"), with ဆိုင်း (English loan "sign") and ထိုး (native Burmese word "inscribe"). In the case of Mon loans, they are indistinguishable in most cases because they were more often borrowed from speech rather than writing, because for several centuries, Burmese and Mon were interchangeably used in modern-day Burma.
At times, the Burmese government has attempted to limit usage of Western loans, especially from English. For example, in Burma, publications containing the word တယ်လီဗီးရှင် (directly transliterated from English 'television') must be replaced with a Burmese substitute ရုပ်မြင်သံကြား, literally 'see picture, hear sound.' Another common English word loan that has fallen out of usage is ယူနီဗာစတီ which has been replaced with a recent Pali loan တက္ကသိုလ် created by the Burmese government and named after an ancient university town in modern-day Pakistan called Taxila.
The Burmese language is generally divided in three, Old Burmese, Middle Burmese and modern Burmese. Old Burmese dates from at least the 1100s to the 1500s (Pagan to Innwa dynasties), while Middle Burmese dates from 1500s to the 1700s (Taungngu to Konbaung dynasties). Modern Burmese covers the period from the 1700s to the modern-day. It is important to note that these period divisions are largely because of orthography changes (which followed shifts in phonology, such as the merging of the [-l-] and [-r-] medials) rather than transformations in Burmese grammatical structure and phonology, which has not changed much from Old Burmese to modern Burmese.
Written Burmese dates to the reign of King Kyanzittha (r. 1084-1113). The Mon script, which descended from the Brāhmī script, was adapted with many changes to suit the phonology of Burmese for transcribing spoken Burmese. The earliest evidence of written Burmese is the Myazedi stone inscription (written in 1113), which was a story about King Kyanzittha as told by his son Prince Yazakumar in four scripts: Pyu, Mon, Pali, and Burmese. During the Pagan era, the medial [-l-] (္လ) was transcribed in writing, which was been replaced by medials [-y-] (ျ) and [-r-] (ြ) in modern Burmese (e.g. "school" in old Burmese က္လောင် ([klɔŋ]) compared to modern Burmese ကျောင်း ([ʧáʊ̃]).
The Burmese script is characterized by its circular letters and diacritics. It is an abugida, with all letters having an inherent vowel အ (a. [a̰] or [ə]). Tone markings are in the form of diacritics placed to the left, right, top, and bottom of letters, but are not always indicative of the proper tone. Likewise, written Burmese has preserved all nasalized finals which have merged to [-n] in spoken Burmese. The exception is [-ɲ], which, in spoken Burmese, can be one of many open vowels (). Likewise, other consonantal finals have been reduced to [-ʔ]. Similar merges are seen in other Sino-Tibetan languages like Shanghainese, and to a lesser extent, Cantonese.
Much of the orthography in written Burmese today can be traced back to Middle Burmese, which had a wider range of finals. Standardized tone marking was not achieved until the 1700s. From the 1800s onward, orthographers created spellers to reform Burmese spelling, because of confusions and ambiguities arose over spelling sounds that had been merged. During colonial rule under the British, spelling was standardized through dictionaries and spellers. The latest spelling authority, named the Myanma Salonpaung Thatpon Kyan မြန်မာစာလုံးပေါင်းသတ်ပုံကျမ်း)), was made in 1978 at the request of the Burmese government.
| Velar and|
|Plosive and Affricate||pʰ p b||tʰ t d||tʃʰ tʃ dʒ||kʰ k g||ʔ|
|Nasal||m̥ m||n̥ n||ɲ̥ ɲ||ŋ̊ ŋ||N|
|Fricative||θ (ð)||sʰ s z||ʃ||h|
The phones are often pronounced as /b/, as /g/, as /dʒ/, and as /z/ in compound words. /dʒ/, when following a nasalised final can become a /j/ sound. For example, "blouse" (အင်္ကျီ ang kyi) can be pronounced /èiNdʒí/ or /èiNjí/. However, this effect only occurs in compound words. Burmese has a tendency to pronounce words with as /m/ when those phones are spelled in compound words. Examples include တိုင်ပင် ("to consult" , commonly pronounced ), တောင်းပန် ("to apologise" , commonly pronounced ), လေယာဉ်ပျံ ("airplane" , commonly pronounced ).
In many Burmese words, aspirated and unaspirated consonants indicate active or passive voice or transitivity/intransitivity in verbs. Examples include the verb "cook," where the aspirated version ချက် ([tʃʰeʔ]) means "cook", while the unaspirated ကျက်([tʃeʔ]) means "to be cooked." Another example is "lessen", where the aspirated version ဖြေ ([pʰjè]) means "lessen" (transitive) while the unaspirated version ပြေ ([pjè]) means "lessen" (intransitive).
|Front||Back||Front offglide||Back offglide|
The monophthongs /e/, /o/, /ə/, and /ɔ/ occur only in open syllables (those without a syllable coda); the diphthongs /ei/, /ou/, /ai/, and /au/ occur only in closed syllables (those with a syllable coda).
|Tone name|| Symbol|
(shown on a)
|Low (နိမ့်သံ)||à||Normal phonation, medium duration, low intensity, low (often slightly rising) pitch|
|High (တက်သံ)||á||Sometimes slightly breathy, relatively long, high intensity, high pitch; often with a fall before a pause|
|Creaky (သက်သံ)||a̰||tense or creaky phonation (sometimes with lax glottal stop), medium duration, high intensity, high (often slightly falling) pitch|
|Checked (တိုင်သံ)||aʔ||Centralized vowel quality, final glottal stop, short duration, high pitch (in citation; can vary in context)|
For example, the following words are distinguished from each other only on the basis of tone:
In syllables ending with /N/, the Checked tone is excluded:
However, in present-day spoken Burmese, some linguists classify two real tones (there are four nominal tones transcribed in written Burmese), “high” (applied to words that terminate with a stop or check, high-rising pitch) and “ordinary” (unchecked and non-glottal words, with falling or lower pitch), with those tones encompassing a variety of pitches. The “ordinary” tone consists of a range of pitches. Linguist L. F. Taylor has 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.”
A syllable whose vowel is /ə/ has some restrictions:
Some examples of words containing /ə/-syllables:
The most commonly used verb particles and their usage are shown below with the verb root စား (ca: [sá]) which means "eat".
The suffix တယ် tai [dɛ̀] can be viewed as a particle marking the present tense and/or a factual statement.
The suffix ခဲ့ (hkai. [gɛ̰]) denotes that the action took place in the past. However, this particle is not always necessary to indicate the past tense such that it can convey the same information without it. But to emphasise that the action happened before another event that is also currently being discussed, the particle becomes imperative. Note that the suffix တယ် (tai [dɛ̀]) in this case denotes a factual statement rather than the present tense.
နေ (ne [nè]) is a particle used to denote that the action is in progression, and is equivalent to the English '-ing'.
This particle or tense has no equivalence in English. It is used when an action which another person or persons expected to be performed by the subject is finally being performed. So in the above example, if someone had been expecting you to eat and you have finally started eating, the particle ပြီ (pri [bjì]) is used.
This particle is used to indicate the future tense or an action which is yet to be performed.
The particle တော့ (tau. [dɔ̰]) is used when the action is about to be performed immediately. Therefore it could be termed as the "immediate future tense particle". The particle မယ် (mai mɛ̀]) is still imperative in this case.
The plural suffix however is not used when the noun is quantified by being counted.
|Burmese||MLC transcription||Phonetic transcription||Usage||Remarks|
|ပါး||pa:||[bá]||for people||Used exclusively for monks and nuns of the Buddhist order|
|ခု||hku.||[kʰṵ]||general classifier||Used with almost all nouns except for animate objects|
|လုံး||lum:||[lóuN]||for round objects|
|ပြား||pra:||[pjá]||for flat objects|
|စု||cu.||[sṵ] or [zṵ]||for groups|
|ဦး||u:||[ʔú]||for people||Used in formal context and also used for monks and nuns|
|ယောက်||yauk||[jauʔ]||for people||Used in informal context|
|Burmese||MLC transcription||Phonetic transcription||English||Remarks|
|ငါ||nga||[ŋà]||I/me||Informal, used with family and friends|
| kywan tau|
|I/me|| Formal, used by males|
Formal, used by females
| da. ga|
da. ga ma.
|I/me||Formal, used while speaking to a monk or nun (lit. "donor") exclusively|
| ta. pany. tau|
ta. pany. tau ma.
|I/me||Formal, used while speaking to a monk or nun (lit. "disciple") exclusively|
|နင်||nang||[nèiN] or [nìN]||you||Informal|
|နင်တို့||nang tui.||[nìNdo̰]||you all||Informal|
|မင်း||mang:||[míN]||you||Informal, used among close friends|
|အရှင်||a hrang||[ʔəʃìN]||you||Formal, used by females|
|ခင်ဗျား||hkang bya:||[kʰəmjá] or [kʰìNmjá]||you||Formal|
|အဲ(ဒါ)ဟာ||ai: (da) ha||it/that||Informal, used rudely to refer to animate objects|
In colloquial Burmese, possessive pronouns are contracted when the root pronoun itself is low toned. However, this only occurs in colloquial Burmese, which uses ရဲ့ ([yḛ]) as postpositional marker for possessive case, whereas literary Burmese uses ၏ ([ḭ]). Examples include the following:
There is no official romanisation system for Burmese. There have been attempts to make one, but none have been successful. Replicating Burmese sounds in the Latin script is complicated. There is a Pāli-based transcription system in existence, which was devised by the Myanmar Language Commission (MLC). However, it only transcribes sounds in formal Burmese and is based on the orthography rather than the phonology. Several colloquial transcription systems have been proposed, but none is overwhelmingly preferred over others.
Transcription of Burmese is not standardized, as seen in the varying English transcriptions of Burmese place names.