PEOPLE, POPULATION, LANGUAGES OF MYANMAR

PEOPLE OF MYANMAR

People in Myanmar are called Burmese (fortunately the generals didn't change the official name of the people along with the name of the country). The ethnic group after which Burma is named is the Burmans or Bamars. Burmese is both a noun (singular and plural) and adjective. It refers to the language and culture of these people and citizens of Myanmar. The citizens of Myanmar are called Myanmars, Myanmaris or Myanmarese by some.

There are 55 million people in Myanmar (estimated in 2013). Only about 25 percent of all Burmese live in urban areas (compared to 76 percent in the United States). The other 75 percent live mostly in small agricultural villages. The population is only growing at the rate of 1.8 percent a year. The average life expectancy is 61 years; and about 36 percent of all Burmese are under 15, and 4 percent are over 60.

The Burmese (Bamars or Burmans) are related linguistically to Tibetans and they make up 68 percent of the population. They speak Burmese and live primarily on the central plain of Myanmar. The Karen, Kachin, Chin and other tribal groups live in the hill country around the plains.

Ethnic Diversity in Myanmar

Myanmar is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Depending on how these groups are counted there are between 60 and 135 different groups. The latter figure (which is twice the number of ethnic groups in China) is arrived at by counting groups like Black Miao, Red Miao, White Miao and Red and Black Miao as four distinct groups, while ethnologists who use the 60 group count them as one.

Minorities make up to 30 percent to 40 percent of the population. The Shan are the largest minority (9 percent). They live in northeast Myanmar. Other ethnic groups with sizable populations include the Karens (7 percent), who live in the east; the Rashkine, or Arakanese, (4 percent) who live in the west: the Chin (2 percent), the Mon (2 percent), the Kachin (1.5 percent), and Chinese (3 percent) and Indian (2 percent). The remaining 5 percent or so of the population is made of minorities such as the Kayahs, Wa, Naga, Lahu, and Lisu.

The Burmese have traditionally lives mainly in the river valleys and plains, particularly around the Irrawaddy River while the smaller ethnic minorities lived in the mountains and hills. Poor communicatiosn and transportation have tended to isolate ethnic groups from one another and form the lowland Burmese. Many highland people have never visited the lowlands and visa versa.

The Shan, Karens, Rashkine, Chin, Kayahs, Arakanese, Mons and Kachins all have their own semi-autonomous states. Many other minorities live in the Mon state. A third of the Karens live in the Karen state, two-thirds live elsewhere in Burma. There are very few foreigners in Myanmar and they are mostly Indians and Chinese.

According to Human Rights Watch: “Over the past three millennia various peoples have migrated into what is now Burma from other parts of East Asia, creating a diverse ethnic mix. The present population is generally estimated to be approximately 50 million, though no reliable census data exists; this is made up of Burmans and approximately 15 other major ethnicities, each of which has subgroups. While the military junta presently ruling Burma claims that 67 to 70 percent of the population is ethnically Burman, this is based on skewed data from an old census in which anyone with a Burmese-language name was listed as Burman. By contrast, non-Burman groups set the figure at 70 percent non-Burman and 30 percent Burman. Other estimates range between these two extremes. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007]

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “ The name Burma is associated with the dominant ethnic group, the Burmese... Efforts to create a broadly shared sense of national identity have been only partly successful because of the regime's lack of legitimacy and tendency to rely on coercion and threats to secure the allegiance of non-Burmese groups. The low level of education and poor communications infrastructure also limit the spread of a national culture. “Before colonial rule, Burma consisted essentially of the central lowland areas and a few conquered peoples, with highland peoples only nominally under Burmese control. The British brought most of the highlands peoples loosely under their control but allowed highland minorities to retain a good deal of their own identity. This situation changed after independence as the Burmese-dominated central government attempted to assert control over the highland peoples. Despite continued resistance to the central government, those in the lowland areas and the larger settlements in the highlands have come to share more of a common national culture. The spread of Burmese language usage is an important factor in this regard.”[Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ++]

Burmese Identity

Hong Sar Channaibanya, a Burmese-born Australian, wrote: “From the age of 13 to 23, for a decade, I lived in Buddhist monastic institutions. I did basic and then higher Buddhist education over this time which gave me a rich knowledge of Burmese culture. I lived with my Mon ethnicity, as a Burmese citizen. People from Burma’s ethnic minorities do not appreciate being identified as “Burmese” and will most likely identify with their own ethnicity , such as Karen, Kachin or Mon.[Source: Hong Sar Channaibanya, Canberra, Australia May 2010 /\]

“It is fundamental to understanding Burma’s cultures to understand the importance of such cultural complexity and most importantly the great ethnic diversity of Burma. “Burmese” is a common term to all people in Burma but each ethnicity preserves their own cultural identity. Each Burmese individual holds unique identity either as a native Burman or other ethnicity. Different ethnicities have their own account of Burmese history and each individual will find their own meaning from these different accounts, according to their own personal history and experience. /\

“Linguists have identified 110 distinct ethnolinguistic groups, and the government recognizes 135 ethnic groups (referred to as races).The Burmese account for about 68 percent of the population. Other major ethnic groups include the Shan (about four million) , Karen (about three million), Arakanese or Rakhine (about two million), Chinese (over one million), Chin (over one million), Wa (about one million), Mon (about one million), Indians and Bengalis (about on e million), Jingpho (about less than one million), and Palaung (less than one million). With the exception of the Chinese, Indian, and Belgalis, each minorit y group occupies a relatively distinct area. In addition to ethnic diversity it is also important to note the gulf between urban elites and rural people who have very different family practices and attitudes. Society is highly stratified and the rich and poor are classified by their wealth. Educated and uneducated classes are usually seen as two different societies within the one country. [The above figures are from the Myanmar government are regarded a low by half by minority groups] /\

“These different classes often have a very limited understanding of each other’s life experience. Burma is a strongly male dominated society in which social and political power has been held predominantly by men for many centuries. Burmese men, kings and presidents, have had great and sometimes absolute power, in the society for thousands of years. /\

“The Buddhist community dominates the general population although other faiths also have long histories in Burma. A large majority of people practice Buddhist traditions at home. Respecting adults or parents is a common attitude of each individual. Preserving the principle of Buddhism is also import ant to each individual. Forgiveness is a core concept and perhaps the best quality of Buddhist Burmese. On the other hand ignorance is regarded as a sin. The Buddhist community’s emphasis on forgiveness and caring for each other in the family and community at large dominate Burma’s society. People live in a collective culture at home with parents who hold great power in family. In comparison, individual rights and choice are core cultural elements in a country like Australia. There is an unfamiliar culture off ‘complaint and disagreement’ on issues that impact on both the individual and family’ matters. This is a large cultural shift for people from Burma.” /\

Burman Ethnic Group

Burmans (Bamar, Burmese) account for about two thirds of the population of Myanmar. According to Human Rights Watch: “The present population is generally estimated to be approximately 55 million, though no reliable census data exists, While the military junta presently ruling Burma claims that 67 to 70 percent of the population is ethnically Burman, this is based on skewed data from an old census in which anyone with a Burmese-language name was listed as Burman. By contrast, non-Burman groups set the figure at 70 percent non-Burman and 30 percent Burman. Other estimates range between these two extremes. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007]

According to the Myanmar government the Bamar are comprised of nine ethnic groups: the Bamar, Dawei, Beik, Yaw, Yabein, Kadu, Ganan, Salon, Hpon. This distinctions appear to be based in part on linguistic analysis. According to Ethnologue Web: The main dialects are Merguese (Mergui, Beik), Yaw, Danu (Taruw), Burmese, Palaw. Merguese (250,000), Danu (100,000), and Yaw (20,000) may be separate languages and are distinct varieties (Bradley 1997).

Burman, Kayin, Chin, Kayah, Mon, Rakhine and Shan women’s “longyis” are nearly the same, made by cotton. A black waistband is stitched along the waist end. This waistband is folded in front to form a wide pleat, and then tucked behind the waistband to one side.

Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Chin, Kayah, and Shan women’s” eingyis” are nearly the same, comprised of a form-fitting waist length blouse. Kayah women tie this traditional shawl on their “eingyi”. It is embroiled of male and female royal birds of them called “Keinayee & Keinayah”. Burman, Rakhine and Mon women put the shawl on their shoulders. Kayah, Kayin, Shan , Kachin, Chin women tie a lovely band on their head Bamar, Mon and Radhine women wear beautiful flowers in their hair.

Early Burmans and Ancient People of Myanmar

The ethnic Burmans—the people who ruled Pagan and dominate Myanmar today— didn't arrive until A.D. 9th century. Over a period of few centuries, they emigrated south from Tibet, passed through what is now the Yunnan Province of China and established settlements along the Irrawaddy River.

The ancestors of modern Laotians, Thais and possibly Burmese and Cambodians originated from southern China. The Burmans appear to have migrated south from Tibet to Yunnan in China, along with several other linguistic and cultural groups, more than 3,000 years ago. They, the Tai and the Mons have similar physical characteristics have been described by some anthropologist as southern Mongoloids.

Trickles of Burman migrations may have begun as early as the 7th century. According to the Myanmar government : By “A.D. 800 Bamar and its racial groups came into Myanmar along the Thanlwin river via the Nat Htate Valley in the south-east of Kyauk-se Township. At that time Thet and Kadu were living in the northern part of Myanmar at Tagaung, which was in the east of Irrawaddy river. Ancient Rakhine were living at Vesali . Mon were residing at Thaton which was situated near the sea and Pyu were staying at Sri Kshetra which was near Hmaw Zar village near the town of Pyi. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Burmans came down in significant numbers with the early 9th Nanzhao raids of the Pyu states and remained in Upper Burma. Like that of the Pyu, the original home of Burmans prior to Yunnan is believed to be present-day Qinghai and Gansu provinces. After the Nanzhao attacks had greatly weakened the Pyu city-states, large numbers of Burman warriors and their families entered the Pyu realm in the 830s and 840s and settled at the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, perhaps to help Nanzhao pacify the surrounding countryside. Over the next two hundred years, the small principality gradually grew to include its immediate surrounding areas— to about 200 miles north to south and 80 miles from east to west by Anawrahta's accession in 1044. Historically verifiable Burmese history begins with Anawrahta's accession. [Source: Wikipedia]

Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism were introduced into southeast Asia around the time of Christ, when Thailand and southern Burma were inhabited by people known as Mons. The Mons adopted Therevada which had been introduced by way of Eastern India. Northern Burma, which had stronger historical links with India, was dominated by Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism from the 5th century to the 11th century as was the case in India.

Population of Myanmar

Population: 55,167,330 (July 2013 est.). Country comparison to the world: 24 note: estimates for this country take into account the effects of excess mortality due to AIDS; this can result in lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, higher death rates, lower population growth rates, and changes in the distribution of population by age and sex than would otherwise be expected. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Age structure: A) 0-14 years: 26.7 percent (male 7,514,233/female 7,227,893); B) 15-24 years: 18.6 percent (male 5,183,653/female 5,060,385); C) 25-54 years: 42.8 percent (male 11,724,297/female 11,879,420); D) 55-64 years: 6.7 percent (male 1,754,397/female 1,963,051); E) 65 years and over: 5.2 percent (male 1,244,758/female 1,615,243) (2013 est.)

Median age: total: 27.2 years; male: 26.7 years; female: 27.8 years (2012 est.)

Population density (people/sq km) (2005):65.2. Burma is one of the least densely populated countries in Asia having a population of 40 million that is concentrated in the arable plains bordering the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers.

Population Growth, Sex Ratio and Fertility Rare in Myanmar

Population growth rate: 1.07 percent (2012 est.), country comparison to the world: 108 Birth rate: 19.11 births/1,000 population (2012 est.), country comparison to the world: 98 Death rate: 8.1 deaths/1,000 population (July 2012 est.), country comparison to the world: 92 Net migration rate: -0.3 migrant(s)/1,000 population (2012 est.), country comparison to the world: 129

Sex ratio: A) at birth: 1.06 male(s)/female; B) under 15 years: 1.04 male(s)/female; C) 15-64 years: 0.99 male(s)/female; D) 65 years and over: 0.77 male(s)/female; E) total population: 0.99 male(s)/female (2011 est.).

Total fertility rate: 2.21 children born/woman (2013 est.), country comparison to the world: 102

Languages in Myanmar

There are hundreds of different languages and dialects spoken in Myanmar. According to the Myanmar government there are approximately 107 languages spoken in Burma “relating to the separateness of ethnic groups.” Each ethnic groups speaks a distinct language or dialect. Most of these languages are classified as Tai (various dialects spoken in the Shan states), Mon-Khmer (spoken in southern Burma) and some Indian languages spoken in the western frontier. Some minorities speak Burmese and some don't.

According to the Myanmar government: “Burma is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in Southeast Asia having more that 100 indigenous languages spoken within its borders, although Burmese is the common and official language. Three ethnic groups, the Mon, the Pyu, and the Burmese have made the greatest contribution to the development of the arts and culture of Burma and they all settled in the central plains along the middle and lower reaches of the Irrawaddy or Salween.” [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “A few regional dialects of Burmese are associated with subgroups. Closely related Southern Burmish languages include Arakanese, Intha, and Taungyo (or Tavoyan). Burmese is spoken as a second language by most educated members of other ethnic groups, but some of those groups have little contact with the national language. Many educated urban residents speak English as a second language, but English is not widely spoken among the population as a whole. The teaching of English in schools was banned from 1966 to 1980. Shan is as an important second language for many ethnic groups in Shan State, while Jingpho is spoken as a second language by many smaller ethnic groups in Kachin State. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

Even though Burma was a once a British colony time, less people in Myanmar speak English than in other former British colonies. Even so, enough people in the major tourist areas speak it so you shouldn't have much trouble being understood. Off the beaten path is another story.

In Myanmar schools it is often forbidden to teach in languages other than Burmese. In the early years after independence, Burma had an extensive network of missionary schools that employed foreign teachers that children English and other subjects. In the 1960s, Ne Win decreed that English was the language of colonizers and should no longer be taught in schools. Foreign teachers were kicked out of the country.

Burmese Language

Burmese is the official and most widely spoken language in Myanmar. Spoken by about 70 percent of the population, it is Tibeto-Burmese language, a subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages language, which also includes Kachin, Chin and several tribal languages spoekn in the Myanmar-China border region.

Burmese, the mother tongue of the Bamar, is linguistically related to Tibetan and to the Chinese languages. The Burmese language incorporates widespread usage of honorifics and is age-oriented. By some estimates only 65 percent of the population speaks Burmese. There is a smaller Burmese-speaking ethnic group known as Baramagyi (or Barua).

Burmese is a tonal language—like Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese—with five tones (meaning that words or syllables with similar sound have a different meaning depending on the high, low, rising, falling or level tone or pitch of the sound). Burmese has three main tones (high, low and creaky) and two other tones (stopped and reduced). The tones are indicated in writing using diacritics or special letters. To untrained ears the differences between tones is sometimes very hard to pick up. Burmese is very difficult to speak even if you have a phrase book.

According to Ethnologue Web: 1) Alternate names for Burmese are Bama, Bamachaka, Myanmar, Myen. The main dialects are Merguese (Mergui, Beik), Yaw, Danu (Taruw), Burmese, Palaw. Diglossic high and low varieties. Preferred variety is spoken in Mandalay. Merguese (250,000), Danu (100,000), and Yaw (20,000) may be separate languages and are distinct varieties (Bradley 1997). Bangladesh speakers speak Bomang [mya], not Standard Burmese. 3) Classification: Sino-Tibetan, Tibeto-Burman, Lolo-Burmese, Burmish, Southern. 4) Language use: National language. 10 million as a second language. Many Mon and some Shan are monolingual in Burmese. Native Burmese speakers seldom speak a second indigenous language. If they have one, it is usually English. 5) Language development: Fully developed. Bible: 1835–2006. 6) Writing system: Myanmar (Burmese) script, derived from south Indian scripts. 7) Comments: Burmese dominates the nation’s publishing production. Myanma is the largest ethnic group; another is Baramagyi (Barua). Educated speech has many Pali borrowings. SOV. Peasant agriculturalists; fishermen; craftsmen; industrialists. Buddhist.[Source: Ethnologue Web: www.sil.org/ethnologue/ ]

Sino-Tibetan languages predominate in China and mainland Southeast Asia. They are broken into three main subfamilies: 1) Tibeto-Burman, 2) Tai and 3) Sinitic, including many of the language spoken in China. One unique feature of all Sino-Tibetan languages is that most words consist of a single syllable. Multi-syllable words are as unthinkable to Tibetans and Chinese as words with only consonants are to English speakers. Sino-Tibetan languages are tonal, which means that the meaning of the word can change with the tone of pitch in which it is spoken.

English and Minority Languages in Myanmar

Even though Burma was a once a British colony time, less people in Myanmar speak English than in other former British colonies. Even so, enough people in the major tourist areas speak it so you shouldn't have much trouble being understood. Off the beaten path is another story. "Hello" and "David Beckham" are arguably the most widely-known English words in Myanmar.

In Myanmar schools it is often forbidden to teach in languages other than Burmese. In the early years after independence, Burma had an extensive network of missionary schools that employed foreign teachers that children English and other subjects. In the 1960s, Ne Win decreed that English was the language of colonizers and should no longer be taught in schools. Foreign teachers were kicked out of the country.

The Karen languages are related to Burmese. Mon is a member of the Mon-Khmer group of the Austroasiatic languages. It is spoken Myanmar and Thailand.

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “ Many educated urban residents speak English as a second language, but English is not widely spoken among the population as a whole. The teaching of English in schools was banned from 1966 to 1980. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

See Film

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: A very large number of Burmese speak English. I met several enterprising fellows who had started English Institutes (they were civil servants; their "Institutes" started classes at six in the evening). In Nyaungu, signs in English announce a literacy campaign; the English is for the many tourists who visit Nyaungu's ruins. (It is expensive to be literate in Burma—a cheap Burmese paperback costs at least one U.S. dollar.) I complimented one pavement bookseller on his English; pleased with the compliment he recited this sentence: "I am enduring exposure ... to the sun's powerful rays ... before I reach my destination." He removed his spectacles and repeated it, looking at the sky. Much of their English may be learned from British and American films. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971 ]

Burmese Written Language

Burmese has its own unusual alphabet and written number system, both of which look like a lot of loops and squiggles (signs, newspapers and written documents are sometimes in English, but not always).

Burmese is written in a script consisting of circular and semi-circular letters, which comes from the Mon script. The Burmese alphabet adapted the Mon script, which in turn was developed from a southern Indian script in the 700s. The earliest known inscriptions in the Burmese script date from the 1000s. The script is also used to write Pali, the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism. The Burmese script is also used to write several ethnic minority languages, including Shan, several Karen dialects, and Kayah (Karenni), with the addition of specialised characters and diacritics for each language.

Notable Features of the Burmese written language: 1) Type of writing system: syllabic alphabet - each letter has an inherent vowel [a]. Other vowels sounds are indicated using separate letters or diacritics which appear above, below, in front of, after or around the consonant. 2) The rounded appearance of letters is a result of the use of palm leaves as the traditional writing material. Straight lines would have torn the leaves. 4) The Burmese name for the script is ca-lonh 'round script'. 5) The Burmese used to write on copper. [Source: Omniglot]

On her effort to learn Burmese for the film about Aung San Suu Kyi, the actress Michelle Yeoh said, “"I'm going to run my head into the wall!" - written Burmese characters are like little dolls running around. [Source: Subhatra Bhumiprabhas, Aree Chaisatien, The Nation February 2, 2012]

Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “One would think that in a police state it would be quite easy to find a police station, but earlier that day I had been having trouble accomplishing even that. Most of my difficulties stemmed from the fact that all the government offices in Katha were signposted in Burmese only. I had brought along a Burmese phrase book and attempted to read signage by comparing them with Burmese script in the book. But to my untrained eye the letters of the Burmese alphabet, a seemingly random parade of Os and Cs and wide, lazy Ss, looked almost identical. (An American diplomat who was learning to read and write Burmese once remarked to me that the endeavor was “like trying to read a bowl of Cheerios.”) [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]

Burmese Cuss Words, Insults and Proverbs

Being compared to a dog is a great insult. The ultimate display of contempt is spiyting, either really doing it or making the sound “twee.”

Burmese cuss words (Burmese swearing and English Translation; 1) Bec mon chu: Kiss my ass; 2) Dong: Dick; 3) Lee: Penis; 4) Jo: Penis; 5) Lo: Fuck; 6) Lain: Sex; 7) Southbaht: Vagina; 8) Pathema: Prostitute; 9) Chi: Shit; 10) Maylo: Motherfucker; 11) Sow Maylo: Stupid motherfucker; 12) Quey Ma Tha: Son of a bitch; 13) Co May Co Loo: Fuck your own mother; 14) Nga Lee Soat: Suck My Cock. [Source: Myinsults.com]

Some Burmese Proverbs: 1) 1 day 1 yard. Bagan won't move. 2) A diligent person will soon prosper. 3) A genuine ruby wont sink and disappear in mud. 4) A good character is real beauty that never fades. 5) A hero only appears once the tiger is dead. 6) A ship-load of fish gets spoiled, because of 1 spoiled fish. 7) A stitch in time saves nine. 8) A stupid act entails doing the work twice over. 9) Alertness and courage are life's shield. 10) . An woman is not honored, even if she has 10 brothers. [Source: Special Dictionary special-dictionary.com/proverbs <>]

11) Anyone can fancy his bed as a palace. 12) Be deligent when there's time. 13) Before the bending arm straighten, or before the straighten arm bends. 14) Beware of a man's shadow and a bee's sting. 15) Bone in chicken, relatives in man. 16) Calling out for mother, only when you stumble. 17) Collect the water while it rains. 18) Do use a needle in time, or you might need an axe later. 19) Don't be a sling bag. 20) Don't use up your arrows before you go to battle. <>

21) Even if the truth is buried for centuries, it will eventually come out and thrive. 22) Excessive talk is sure to include errors. 23) Fidelity in a king, promise in men. 24) Fisherman near fisherman. Hunter near hunter. 25) Forgetting the cow, when going out to plough. 26) Harrow before the cow. 27) If there are too many teachers or leaders with different ideas, the follower will not do nothing and learn nothing. 28) If you like what you are doing, nothing is too far and no job is too hard. The person who makes an error should be taught, and not made fun of. A good character is more valuable than gold. 29) If you really want honesty, then don't ask questions you don't really want the answer to. 30) If you take big paces you leave big spaces. <>

Origin of Burmese Language and Script

The earliest known examples of writing in Burma were found at Srikshetra and employ an alphabet that is derived from those used in South India. Two inscribed gold plates and a manuscript inscribed on twenty gold leaves were found in the Bawbawgyi stupa that have been dated to the second half of the 5th century. A stone slab bearing a Pali inscription recites in verse excerpts from Buddhist texts (the Mangala Sutta, the Ratna Sutta, and the Mora Sutta) and can be dated epigraphically to the 6th or 7th century. Numerous inscribed votive tablets of clay depicting figures of the Budddha have been uncovered. Interestingly, almost all the inscribed materials relate to Theravada Buddhism, although there are images extant from other Buddhist sects as well as other religions. =

The Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu entered the Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan in the 2nd century B.C., and went on to found city states throughout the Irrawaddy valley. The Pyu were the earliest inhabitants of Burma of whom records are extant. The latest scholarship, though yet not settled, suggests that the Pyu script, based on the Indian Brahmi script, may have been the source of the Burmese script. [Source: Wikipedia +]

It wasn’t until 1911 that the Pyu language could be read. This was the result of the translation of the Myazedi Inscription, the Burmese “rosetta” stone. This quadrilingual inscription, written in the Pyu, Mon, Burmese, and Pali languages, was erected before the (Buddhist) Myinkaba Kubyauk-gyi Temple at Pagan in 1113 AD. That this Pagan inscription was written in Pyu in the 12th century suggests that although Pyu culture had declined in the 9th century due to invasions from the North by the Chinese and had been subsequently absorbed by the Burmese, the Pyu had continued as an important presence for over three centuries after the Chinese invasions. However, little is heard or known of the Pyu after the 12th century. =

The Pyu language was a Tibeto-Burman language, related to Old Burmese. But it apparently co-existed with Sanskrit and Pali as the court language. The Chinese records state that the 35 musicians that accompanied the Pyu embassy to the Tang court in 800–802 played music and sang in the Fan (Sanskrit) language. Many of the important inscriptions were written in Sanskrit and/or Pali, alongside the Pyu script. The Pyu sites have yielded a wide variety of Indian scripts from King Ashoka's edicts written in north Indian Brahmi and Tamil Brahmi, both dated to the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C., to the Gupta script and Kannada script dated to the 4th to 6th centuries A.D. +

Burmese Script and Language in Pagan

The primary language of the ruling class of Pagan was Burmese, a Tibeto-Burman language related to both the Pyu language and the language of the ruling class of Nanzhao. But the spread of the language to the masses lagged the founding of the Pagan Empire by 75 to 150 years. In the early Pagan era, both Pyu and Mon were lingua francas of the Irrawaddy valley. Pyu was the dominant language of Upper Burma while Mon was sufficiently prestigious for Pagan rulers to employ the language frequently for inscriptions and perhaps court usages. Inscriptional evidence indicates that Burmese became the lingua franca of the kingdom only in the early 12th century, and perhaps the late 12th century when the use of Pyu and Mon in official usage declined. Mon continued to flourish in Lower Burma but Pyu as a language had died out by the early 13th century. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Another important development in Burmese history and Burmese language was the rise of Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. The use of Sanskrit, which had been prevalent in the Pyu realm and in the early Pagan era, declined after Anawrahta's conversion to Theravada Buddhism. +

The spread of Burmese language was accompanied by that of the Burmese script. The script was developed from either the Mon script or the Pyu script. Mainstream scholarship holds that the Burmese script was developed from the Mon script in 1058, a year after Anawrahta's conquest of the Thaton Kingdom. But recent research by Aung-Thwin argues that the Burmese script may instead have been derived from the Pyu script in the 10th century, and that the Burmese script was the parent of the Burma Mon script. He argues that the Mon script found in Burma was sufficiently different from the older Mon script found in the Mon homelands of Dvaravati or Haripunjaya (in present-day Thailand) with no archaeological evidence to prove any linkage between the two. On the other hand, Aung-Thwin continues, the latest archaeological evidence dates the Burmese script 58 to 109 years ahead of the Burma Mon script. The earliest Burma Mon script (at Prome) is dated to 1093 while the earliest Burmese script (the copper-gilt umbrella inscription of the Mahabodhi Temple) is dated to 1035. Indeed, if a recast 18th century copy of an original stone inscription is permissible as evidence, the Burmese script had already been in use at least since A.D. 984. +

Palm Leave Inscriptions

Ancient Myanmars wrote their records on slabs of sandstone or bronze, gold plate, palm leaves and parabaik or writing tablet made of paper, cloth or metal in the form of accordion folds. Palm-leaf inscriptions are usually made on corypha palm leaf with stylus. Palm-leaf inscriptions are made on corypha palm leaf or on toddy palm leaf which is more common. Scholars believed that the earliest use of palm-leaf inscriptions was begun by Pyus of Srikestra. Religion, astronomy, astrology, medicine, history, legal code of Dhammathat, poetry, literary records were mostly written on palm leaves.[Source: Myanmar Travel Information **]

Every palm leaf has one punched hole on either end called Palin Bauk. For systematic safe keeping palm leaves are stacked on two bamboo rods called Palin Tai which run through the punched holes. Then the bundle of palm-leaf writings is bound with two wooden blades called Kyan the wooden blades are colored in black, red or gilded as desired. Then, the bundle of palm-leaf inscriptions is wrapped up in two layers of cloth. **

The inner layer is usually cotton and the outer one is silk or velvet. The bundles of palm-leaf inscriptions are then wrapped up in bamboo-ribbed roll of cloth called Sar Palwe. The wrapped up manuscript bundles are kept in large-teak case called Sar Taik which means manuscripts box. Nowadays. many people are no longer familiar with palm-leaf manuscripts or parabaik. The preservation of these manuscripts is a national duty so that the posterity may enjoy our cultural heritage.

Names in Myanmar

The Burmese do not have surnames. Each person has his or her own individual name. Daw is an honorific, or title of respect for a woman. U is a title of titles of respect for men.

A Myanmar has no family name. A woman has her own name and retains it even after marriage. A child is normally named according to the day of the week he (or she) was born. whereby each day of the week is denoted by certain letters of the Myanmar alphabet. For example. Monday is denoted by the names Kyaw.Khin. Kyin. etc; Thuesday by San. Su. Nyi. etc. Another way to name a child is based on his (or her) date of birth. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information **]

A person is usually addressed according to his age. For older people. their names are pre-fixed with U (pronouced Oo) and Daw and are the equivalents of Mr and Ms respectively. A young adult is addressed by the Honorifics Ko (for males) and Ma (for females). A child is referred to as Maung and Ma for males and females respectively. Example: Khin Myat. a departmental manager. could be addressed as U Khin Myat by his colleagues but as Ko Khin Myat or Maung Khin Myat by monks and elders.Maha Thray Sithu. Sithu. Thiri Pyan Chi. Wunna Kyaw Htin. and Naing-ngat Gon-yi titles are civil awards conferred on individuals normally government servants for distinguished service. **

The Burmese scholar Maung Ba Kaung wrote in her blog: ““Do you mean to say,” asked one of the scholars, “that you have no last name according to your father?” On my replying in the negative all the scholars looked at me in astonishment, and in a question which I shall not easily forget, they asked “No last name? How do you trace the root of your ancestors?” The question stunned me at that time. I could give no perfect answer, for the traditional custom I was so used to, without thinking too much about my family roots after my grandmother passed away when I was still a little boy. [Source: Maung Ba Kaung, bakaung.blogspot July 14, 2008]

A few years later, after witnessing different cultural practices around the world, I realized that the Burmese custom of naming is fairly unique. It symbolizes the combination of the particular virtue for a person and astrological calculation of the day of the week that the person was born based on Burmese lunar calendar year.

Burmese Naming System

Maung Ba Kaung wrote in her blog: “I was born at home on Saturday, at 10 in the morning. A few days later, acquainted astrologer of my mother from the village, made Zar Tar and inscribed my name, Tun Ba Kaung, on it. At least that is how I know the time I was born, according to my Zar Tar record. When I am educated enough able to understand the information written in Zar Tar, it becomes my precious treasure as possession of traditional value that belongs to me from my infancy. Zar Tar is a stack of palm leaves smeared with residual oil and folded into a handy packet. It is an old-fashioned birth certificate, declare the name of newly born baby, usually prepare by monks and astrologers, by going through complex calculation of the location of stars, sun, and the date and time of the birth of new baby. [Source: Maung Ba Kaung, bakaung.blogspot July 14, 2008]

The choices of name are of tremendously importance to the people of Myanmar. The name may represent the virtue of longevity, wealthiness, healthiness, the great love of dedication to admire one, the dream and hope of parents upon their child, the sign of magnificent and significant events, and so on. Some may even have great length of story behind their names. The same practice, to certain extent, of giving name to the people applies the way of giving name to the places, nothing associate with Zar Tar preparation, but rather built monument, tombstone, or a symbol instead, historical information passed down generation to generation. We are only able to study the origin of a few surviving historical renowned-names, while the rest of the names of places remain mystery, and furthermore some are even twisted from the original meaning over the period of time.

Naturally, parents want to do everything the best for their child, begin with great care of choosing an appropriate name, putting their grand hope in the name of baby and in the faith upon their child becoming a decent person in the future. It is the faith that the meaning and syllable of given name have an effect upon the wheel of fortune to the owner of the name. Sometimes people of surrounding could give some nick names to a person aside from given name. Generally, nick names are cadenced, rhythmic, sometime offensive to a person, a pet name might even be given by friends, but the phenomenon of calling a friend or to someone else by nick name is not a strange custom in Myanmar society.

Choosing a Burmese Name

Maung Ba Kaung wrote in her blog: “Myanmar names could be chosen from various types of form; some choose only one single word name, and since four words names are no longer uncommon, but still two words or three words names are mostly preferable by typical Myanmar families. In general, one single word could be one syllable, but there are still a lot of outstanding single words composed into more than one syllable with beautiful meanings. For example, Single words with one syllable are Thant, Win,Tun,...etc; Single words with two syllables are Nanda, Oakar, Ohmar,…etc. [Source: Maung Ba Kaung, bakaung.blogspot July 14, 2008]

Basically the first syllable represents the day of the week that the person was born. Therefore, one could easily find out which day of the week that the person was born just by knowing the name in majority. For example, The first syllable, Tun, of the name “Tun Ba Kaung” represents Saturday born.

There are 33 alphabets in Myanmar language. From astrological stand point of view, certain set of alphabets can be categorized into seven days of the week. Each day of the week can be represented with Myanmar zodiac sign: 1) Monday born- Tiger; 2) Tuesday born- Lion, Myanmar Mythical Creature; 3) Wednesday born in the morning and afteroon - Elephant without a tusk; 4) Wednesday born in the evening- Elephant with a tusk; 5) Thursday born - Mouse; 6) Friday born - Guinea Pig; 7) Saturday born - Dragon, Myanmar Mythical Creature; 8) Sunday born - Garuda Bird, Myanmar Mythical Creature, Ga Lone. See Weekdays Under Holidays and Festivals

A few words from Myanmar names (Myanmar name, English meanings: 1) aye: cool; 2) aung: succeed; 3) hlaing: plenty; 4) hla: beautiful; 5) kyi: clear; 6) khin: friendly; 7) maung: brother; 8) tun: succeed; 9) win: winning; 10) thant clean.

Honorific and Names and Expressions of Respect

Maung Ba Kaung wrote in her blog: “Expression of respect is also a matter of utmost importance to address the name of Myanmar people. One can be addressed with an appropriate honorific salutation before the given name depends on the level of age, degree of relationship, and gender. It will be considered impolite way of calling someone’s name in a direct manner of speaking. [Source: Maung Ba Kaung, bakaung.blogspot July 14, 2008]

To address younger ones and peers before their names: 1) “Ko” is used as a masculine form. “Ma” is used as a feminine and formal form. 2) “Maung” is used as a masculine formal form

To address elder ones before their names: 1) “U” or “Oo” is used as a masculine and formal form. 2) “Daw” is used as a feminine and formal form. It is likely one can be addressed formally with “U” or “Daw” before the given name after the age of 30.

The followings are family terms: 1) Brother – A Ko; 2) Sister – Nyi Ma, Hna Ma (younger sister); ) A Ma (older sister); 3) Uncle – Oo Lay (younger brother of Mother or Father); 4) Oo Gyi (older brother of Mother or Father); 5) Aunty – Daw Lay (younger sister of Mother or Father); ) Daw Gyi (older sister of Mother or Father); 6) Grandfather – A Pho; 7) Grandmother – A Phwar. But family terms are not limited to be used only for the family members. In Myanmar custom, calling to a stranger with an appropriate term of “brother”, “sister”, “uncle”,”aunty”,”grandfather”,”grandmother” is a common practice.

Myanmar women are, unlike other cultures in Western, traditionally granted a privilege, taking a pride of freedom in which they don’t have to change their names when they get married. It never happens into the consciousness of Myanmar people, as a matter of fact, that it is a necessary custom to follow.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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