Burmese (Myanmar)

Language

Myanmar has four main language families: Sino-TibetanTai–KadaiAustro-Asiatic, and Indo-European. Sino-Tibetan languages are the most spoken and include Burmese, Karen, Kachin, Chin, and Chinese. SLPs in the Pacific Northwest will most likely be serving students and clients who speak Karen, Chin, and Burmese. However,  most of the students and clients will not speak Burmese as a first language.

Burmese

Burmese is the official language of Burma spoken by 32 million as a first language and 10 million as a second language (in ethnic minority cultures and neighboring countries Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore). Burmese is the native language of the ethnic majority population the Bamar, related to sub-ethnic groups of the Bamar, and to some ethnic minorities like the Mon. It is a member of the Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burman language family.

Burmese language has been greatly influenced by the language Pali of Theravada Buddhism, Mon language, and English. Many words become “loanwords” or are spoken alongside of traditional Burmese. Since the end of British rule, Myanmar government has replaced many English words by coining new words or neologisms. 

Consonants


Bilabial

Dental

Alveolar

Post alveolar
and palatal

Velar and
labiovelar

Glottal

Placeless

Nasal

m̥    m

n̥    n

ɲ̥      ɲ

ŋ̊     ŋ


ɴ

Stop/affricate

pʰ p b

tʰ t d

tɕʰ tɕ dʑ

kʰ k ɡ

ʔ


Fricative


θ (ð)1

sʰ s z

ʃ


h


Approximant


(ɹ)2

j

w (w̥)3


Lateral


l̥    l


  • /ð/ is uncommon
  • /w/ is rare, used only in foreign words
  • /ɹ/ is used only in place names that have retained in Pali or Sanskrit pronunciations
  • In some compound words, the phoneme /dʑ/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can shift to a /j/ sound.
  • The phonemes /p, pʰ, b, t, tʰ, d/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can become /m/ in compound words.
  • In many Burmese verbs, pre-aspiration and post-aspiration distinguishes the causative and non-causative forms of verbs, whereby the aspirated initial consonant indicates active voice or a transitive verb, while an unaspirated initial consonant indicates passive voice or an intransitive verb

Vowels


Monophthongs

Diphthongs

Front

Back

Front off glide

Back off glide

Close

i

u



Close-mid

e

o

ei

ou

Mid

ə



Open-mid

ɛ

ɔ



Open


a

ai

au

Monophthongs /e/, /o/, /ə/, and /ɔ/, only occur in open syllables.

Diphthongs /ei/, /ou/, /ai/, and /au/ occur only in closed syllables.

Tones

Burmese is a tonal language; therefore, the phonemic contrasts can be made on the premise of the tone of a vowel. For Burmese, phonemic contrasts involve not only pitch, but also phonation, intensity, duration, and vowel quality.  There are four contrastive tones in Burmese: 

Tone

Symbol
(shown on a)

Description

Low

à

Normal phonation, medium duration, low intensity, low (often slightly rising) pitch

High

á

Sometimes slightly breathy, relatively long, high intensity, high pitch; often with a fall before a pause

Creaky

tense or creaky phonation (sometimes with lax glottal stop), medium duration, high intensity, high (often slightly falling) pitch

Checked

Centralized vowel quality, final glottal stop, short duration, high pitch (in citation; can vary in context)

  • For syllables ending with /N/, the tone is excluded.
  • Many linguists only classify two real tones: high (applied to words that end with a stop or check, high-rising pitch) and ordinary (unchecked and non-glottal words, with falling or lower pitch). 

Syllable Structure

Syllabic structure of Burmese is C(G)V((V)C).  It consists of consonant optionally followed by a glide, and the rime consists of a monophthong alone, a monophthong with a consonant, or a diphthong with a consonant. /ʔ/ and /ɴ/ are the only consonants to end in a coda.

Alphabet

Burmese alphabet has 33 letters and 12 vowels and is written from left to right. Between words there are no spaces, but there are usually spaces between clauses. Letters and diacritics are circular and all letters have a natural vowel. There are six consonant groups and tone markings and vowel changes are written in diacritics surrounding the letters.

Grammar

  • Burmese word order is subject-object-verb and is monosyllabic.
  • Sentence structure defines syntactical relationships and verbs are not conjugated.  Burmese does not contain adjectives; instead the verb carries the meaning (e.g. “to be X”).
  • Adjectives are combined with the noun.
  • Comparatives are usually ordered.
  • Superlatives are indicated with the prefix.
  • Numbers follow the noun they modify.
  • Burmese makes prominent usage of particles, which indicates level of respect, tense, and mood.
  • Reduplication is prevalent in Burmese to make meaning stronger or weaker or to indicate plurality.
  • Verbs: Verbs are almost always suffixed with at least one particle that tells the listening information about tense, intention, politeness, mood, etc. Verbs are conjugated differently than most European languages; instead the root of the Burmese verb always remains unchanged.  It also does not have to agree to subject, person, number, or gender.
  • Nouns: Nouns are pluralized by suffixing the particle and the particle is also suffixed to modify the known. Plural suffixes are not used when the noun is quantified. Burmese does not have masculine or feminine nouns, but makes a difference between sexes by means of suffix particles.
  • Numerical classifiers: Burmese, like their neighboring languages Thai, Bengali, and Chinese, uses numerical classifiers when nouns are quantified. An English equivalent is an expression such as “two slices of bread.” The word order for quantified words is: quantified noun + numeral adjective + classifier, except in round numbers that end in zero where the quantified noun goes after the classifier.