Burmese language

The Burmese language (Burmese: မြန်မာဘာသာ, MLCTS: mranmabhasa, IPA: [mjəmà bàðà]) is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken in Myanmar where it is an official language and the language of the Bamar people, the country's principal ethnic group. Although the Constitution of Myanmar officially recognizes the English name of the language as the Myanmar language,[4] most English speakers continue to refer to the language as Burmese, after Burma, the older name for Myanmar. In 2007, it was spoken as a first language by 33 million, primarily the Bamar (Burman) people and related ethnic groups, and as a second language by 10 million, particularly ethnic minorities in Myanmar and neighboring countries.

Myanmar language
မြန်မာစာ (written Burmese)
မြန်မာစကား (spoken Burmese)
[mjəmà zəɡá]
Native toMyanmar
Native speakers
33 million (2007)[1]
Second language: 10 million (no date)[2]
Early forms
Burmese alphabet
Burmese Braille
Official status
Official language in
Regulated byMyanmar Language Commission
Language codes
ISO 639-1my
ISO 639-2bur (B)
mya (T)
ISO 639-3mya – inclusive code
Individual codes:
int  Intha
tvn  Tavoyan dialects
tco  Taungyo dialects
rki  Rakhine language ("Rakhine")
rmz  Marma ("မြန်မာ")

Burmese is a tonal, pitch-register, and syllable-timed language,[5] largely monosyllabic and analytic, with a subject–object–verb word order. It is a member of the Lolo-Burmese grouping of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Burmese alphabet is ultimately descended from a Brahmic script, either Kadamba or Pallava.


Burmese belongs to the Southern Burmish branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages. Burmese is the most widely spoken of the non-Sinitic [6] Burmese was the fifth of the Sino-Tibetan languages to develop a writing system, after Chinese characters, the Pyu script, the Tibetan alphabet and the Tangut script.[7]


The majority of Burmese speakers, who live throughout the Irrawaddy River Valley, use a number of largely similar dialects, while a minority speak non-standard dialects found in the peripheral areas of the country. These dialects include:

Arakanese (Rakhine) in Rakhine State and Marma in Bangladesh are also sometimes considered dialects of Burmese and sometimes as separate languages.

Despite vocabulary and pronunciation differences, there is mutual intelligibility among Burmese dialects, as for the most part, they share the same four tones, consonant clusters and the use of the Burmese script. However, several dialects substantially differ in Burmese with respect to vocabulary, lexical particles, and rhymes.

Irrawaddy River valley

The standard dialect of Burmese (the Mandalay-Yangon dialect continuum) comes from the Irrawaddy River valley. Regional differences between speakers from Upper Burma (e.g., Mandalay dialect), called anya tha အညာသား, and speakers from Lower Burma (e.g., Yangon dialect), called auk tha အောက်သား, occur in vocabulary choice, not in pronunciation. Minor pronunciation differences do exist within the Irrawaddy River valley. For instance, for the term ဆွမ်း "food offering [to a monk]", Lower Burmese speakers use [sʰʊ́ɴ] instead of [sʰwáɴ], which is the pronunciation used in Upper Burma.

The standard dialect is represented by the Yangon dialect because of the modern city's media influence and economic clout. In the past, the Mandalay dialect represented standard Burmese. The most noticeable feature of the Mandalay dialect is its use of the first person pronoun ကျွန်တော် kya.nau [tɕənɔ] by both men and women, whereas in Yangon, the said pronoun is used only by male speakers while ကျွန်မ kya.ma. [tɕəma̰] is used by female speakers. Moreover, with regard to kinship terminology, Upper Burmese speakers differentiate the maternal and paternal sides of a family whereas Lower Burmese speakers do not.

Spread of Burmese in Lower Burma

Spoken Burmese is remarkably uniform among Burmese speakers,[8] particularly those living in the Irrawaddy valley, who all use variants of Standard Burmese. The first major reason for the uniformity is the traditional Buddhist monastic education system, which encouraged education and uniformity in language throughout the Upper Irrawaddy valley, the traditional homeland of the Bamar people.

According to the 1891 British census conducted five years after the annexation of the entire country, Konbaung Burma had an "unusually high male literacy" rate where 62.5% of age 25 and over in Upper Burma could read and write. The figure would have been much higher if non-Bamars (e.g., Chins, Kachins, etc.) were excluded. For the whole country, the literacy rate was 49% for men and 5.5% for women.[9]

The migration of Burmese speakers of Bamar descent to Lower Burma is relatively recent. As late as the mid-1700s, the Austroasiatic language Mon was the principal language of Lower Burma and the Mon people who inhabited it. After the Burmese-speaking Konbaung Dynasty's victory over the Mon-speaking Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom in 1757, the shift to Burmese began in Lower Burma. By 1830, an estimated 90% of the population in the region identified themselves as Bamar (and, as such, Burmese speakers) due to the influx from Upper Burma, assimilation, and intermarriage.[10] In the British colonial era, British incentives, particularly geared toward rice production, as well as political instability in Upper Burma, accelerated this migration[11].

Outside the Irrawaddy basin

More distinctive non-standard varieties emerge as one moves farther away from the Irrawaddy River valley toward peripheral areas of the country. These varieties include the Yaw, Palaw, Myeik (Merguese), Tavoyan and Intha dialects. Despite substantial vocabulary and pronunciation differences, there is mutual intelligibility among most Burmese dialects. Dialects in Tanintharyi Region, including Palaw, Merguese, and Tavoyan, are especially conservative in comparison to Standard Burmese. The Tavoyan and Intha dialects have preserved the /l/ medial, which is otherwise only found in Old Burmese inscriptions. They also often reduce the intensity of the glottal stop. Myeik has 250,000 speakers[12] while Tavoyan has 400,000.

The most pronounced feature of the Arakanese language of Rakhine State is its retention of the [ɹ] sound, which has become [j] in standard Burmese. Moreover, Arakanese features a variety of vowel differences, including the merger of the [e] and [i] vowels. Hence, a word like "blood" သွေး is pronounced [θwé] in standard Burmese and [θwí] in Arakanese.


Burmese is a diglossic language with two distinguishable registers (or diglossic varieties):[13]

  1. Literary High (H) form[14] (မြန်မာစာ mranma ca): the high variety (formal and written), used in literature (formal writing), newspapers, radio broadcasts, and formal speeches
  2. Spoken Low (L) form[14] (မြန်မာစကား mranma ca.ka:): the low variety (informal and spoken), used in daily conversation, television, comics and literature (informal writing)

The literary form of Burmese retains archaic and conservative grammatical structures and modifiers (including particles, markers and pronouns) no longer used in the colloquial form.[13] In most cases, the corresponding grammatical markers in the literary and spoken forms are totally unrelated to each other.[15] Examples of this phenomenon include the following lexical items:

  • "this" (pronoun): HIGH iLOW ဒီ di
  • "that" (pronoun): HIGH ထို htuiLOW ဟို hui
  • "at" (postposition): HIGH hnai. [n̥aɪʔ]LOW မှာ hma [m̥à]
  • plural (marker): HIGH များ mya:LOW တွေ twe
  • possessive (marker): HIGH i.LOW ရဲ့ re.
  • "and" (conjunction): HIGH နှင့် hnang.LOW နဲ့ ne.
  • "if" (conjunction): HIGH လျှင် hlyangLOW ရင် rang

Historically the literary register was preferred for written Burmese on the grounds that "the spoken style lacks gravity, authority, dignity". In the mid-1960s some Burmese writers spearheaded efforts to abandon the literary form, asserting that the spoken vernacular form ought to be used.[16][17] Some Burmese linguists such as Minn Latt, a Czech academic, proposed moving away from the high form of Burmese altogether.[18] Although the literary form is heavily used in written contexts (literary and scholarly works, radio news broadcasts, and novels), the recent trend has been to accommodate the spoken form in informal written contexts.[19] Nowadays, television news broadcasts, comics, and commercial publications use the spoken form or a combination of the spoken and simpler, less ornate formal forms.[13]

The following sample sentence reveals that differences between literary and spoken Burmese mostly occur in grammatical particles:

"When the 8888 Uprising occurred, approximately 3,000 people died."
Gloss The Four Eights Uprisinghappenwhenpeoplemeasure word3,000approximatelydiepast tenseplural markersentence final

Spoken Burmese has politeness levels and honorifics that take the speaker's status and age in relation to the audience into account. The particle ပါ pa is frequently used after a verb to express politeness.[20] Moreover, Burmese pronouns relay varying degrees of deference or respect.[21] In many instances, polite speech (e.g., addressing teachers, officials, or elders) employs feudal-era third person pronouns or kinship terms in lieu of first and second person pronouns.[22][23] Furthermore, with regard to vocabulary choice, spoken Burmese clearly distinguishes the Buddhist clergy (monks) from the laity (householders), especially when speaking to or about bhikkhus (monks).[24] The following are examples of varying vocabulary used for Buddhist clergy and for laity :

  • "sleep" (verb): ကျိန်း kyin: [tɕẽ́ɪ̃] for monks vs. အိပ် ip [eɪʔ] for laity
  • "die" (verb): ပျံတော်မူ pyam tau mu [pjã̀ dɔ̀ mù] for monks vs. သေ se [θè] for laity


Burmese primarily has a monosyllabic received Sino-Tibetan vocabulary. Nonetheless, many words, especially loanwords from Indo-European languages like English, are polysyllabic, and others, from Mon, an Austroasiatic language, are sesquisyllabic.[25] Burmese loanwords are overwhelmingly in the form of nouns.[25]

Historically, Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, had a profound influence on Burmese vocabulary. Burmese has readily adopted words of Pali origin because of phonotactic similarities between two languages alongside the fact that the script used for Burmese can reproduce Pali spellings with complete accuracy.[26] Pali loanwords are often related to religion, government, arts, and science.[26]

Burmese loanwords from Pali primarily take four forms:

  1. Direct loan: direct import of Pali words with no alteration in orthography
    • "life": Pali ဇီဝ jiva → Burmese ဇီဝ jiva
  2. Abbreviated loan: import of Pali words with accompanied syllable reduction and alteration in orthography (usually by means of a placing a diacritic, called athat အသတ် (lit. "nonexistence") atop the last letter in the syllable to suppress the consonant's inherent vowel[27]
    • "karma": Pali ကမ္မ kamma → Burmese ကံ kam
    • "dawn": Pali အရု aruṇa → Burmese အရုဏ် arun
    • "merit": Pali ကုသ kusala → Burmese ကုသိုလ် kusuil
  3. Double loan: adoption of two different terms derived from the same Pali word[26]
    • Pali မာန māna → Burmese မာန [màna̰] ('arrogance') and မာန် [mã̀] ('pride')
  4. Hybrid loan (e.g., neologisms or calques): construction of compounds combining native Burmese words with Pali or combine Pali words:[28]
    • "airplane": လေယာဉ်ပျံ [lè jɪ̃̀ bjã̀], lit. "air machine fly", ← လေ (native Burmese, "air") + ယာဉ် (from Pali yana, "vehicle") + ပျံ (native Burmese word, "fly")[28]

Burmese has also adapted plenty of words from Mon, traditionally spoken by the Mon people, who until recently formed the majority in Lower Burma. Most Mon loanwords are so well assimilated that they are not distinguished as loanwords as Burmese and Mon were used interchangeably for several centuries in pre-colonial Burma.[29] Mon loans are often related to flora, fauna, administration, textiles, foods, boats, crafts, architecture and music.[19]

As a natural consequence of British rule in Burma, English has been another major source of vocabulary, especially with regard to technology, measurements and modern institutions. English loanwords tend to take one of three forms:

  1. Direct loan: adoption of an English word, adapted to the Burmese phonology[30]
    • "democracy": English democracy → Burmese ဒီမိုကရေစီ
  2. Neologism or calque: translation of an English word using native Burmese constituent words[31]
    • "human rights": English "human rights" → Burmese လူ့အခွင့်အရေး (လူ့ "human" + အခွင့်အရေး "rights")
  3. Hybrid loan: construction of compound words by native Burmese words to English words[32]
    • "to sign": ဆိုင်းထိုး [sʰã́ɪ̃ tʰó]ဆိုင်း (English, "sign") + ထိုး (native Burmese, "inscribe").

To a lesser extent, Burmese has also imported words from Sanskrit (religion), Hindi (food, administration, and shipping), and Chinese (games and food).[19] Burmese has also imported a handful of words from other European languages such as Portuguese.

Here is a sample of loan words found in Burmese:

  • suffering: ဒုက္ခ [doʊʔkʰa̰], from Pali dukkha
  • radio: ရေဒီယို [ɹèdìjò], from English "radio"
  • method: စနစ် [sənɪʔ], from Mon
  • eggroll: ကော်ပြန့် [kɔ̀pjã̰], from Hokkien 潤餅 (jūn-piáⁿ)
  • wife: ဇနီး [zəní], from Hindi jani
  • noodle: ခေါက်ဆွဲ [kʰaʊʔ sʰwɛ́], from Shan ၶဝ်ႈသွႆး [kʰāu sʰɔi]
  • foot (unit of measurement): ပေ [pè], from Portuguese
  • flag: အလံ [əlã̀], Arabic: علم ʿalam
  • storeroom: ဂိုဒေါင် [ɡòdã̀ʊ̃], from Malay gudang

Since the end of British rule, the Burmese government has attempted to limit usage of Western loans (especially from English) by coining new words (neologisms). For instance, for the word "television," Burmese publications are mandated to use the term ရုပ်မြင်သံကြား (lit. "see picture, hear sound") in lieu of တယ်လီဗီးရှင်း, a direct English transliteration.[33] Another example is the word "vehicle", which is officially ယာဉ် [jɪ̃̀] (derived from Pali) but ကား [ká] (from English car) in spoken Burmese. Some previously common English loanwords have fallen out of usage with the adoption of neologisms. An example is the word "university", formerly ယူနီဗာစတီ jùnìbàsətì], from English university, now တက္ကသိုလ် [teʔkəðò], a Pali-derived neologism recently created by the Burmese government and derived from the Pali spelling of Taxila (တက္ကသီလ Takkasīla), an ancient university town in modern-day Pakistan.[33]

Some words in Burmese may have many synonyms, each having certain usages, such as formal, literary, colloquial, and poetic. One example is the word "moon", which can be la̰ (native Tibeto-Burman), စန္ဒာ/စန်း [sã̀ndà]/[sã̀] (derivatives of Pali canda "moon"), or သော်တာ [θɔ̀ dà] (Sanskrit).[34]


The transcriptions in this section use the International Phonetic Alphabet.


The consonants of Burmese are as follows:

Consonant phonemes[35]
Bilabial Dental Alveolar Post-al.
Velar Laryngeal
Nasal voiced m n ɲ ŋ
voiceless ɲ̊ ŋ̊
Stop Voiced b d ɡ
plain p t k ʔ
aspirated tʃʰ
Fricative voiced ð z
voiceless θ s ʃ
aspirated h
Approximant voiced l j w
voiceless ʍ


The vowels of Burmese are:

Vowel phonemes
Monophthongs Diphthongs
Front Central Back Front offglide Back offglide
Close i u
Close-mid e ə o ei ou
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a ai au

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). /ə/ only occurs in a minor syllable, and is the only vowel that is permitted in a minor syllable (see below).

The close vowels /i/ and /u/ and the close portions of the diphthongs are somewhat mid-centralized ([ɪ, ʊ]) in closed syllables, i.e. before /ɴ/ and /ʔ/. Thus နှစ် /n̥iʔ/ "two" is phonetically [n̥ɪʔ] and ကြောင် /tɕàũ/ "cat" is phonetically [tɕàʊ̃].


Burmese is a tonal language, which means phonemic contrasts can be made on the basis of the tone of a vowel. In Burmese, these contrasts involve not only pitch, but also phonation, intensity (loudness), duration, and vowel quality. However, some linguists consider Burmese a pitch-register language like Shanghainese.[36]

There are four contrastive tones in Burmese. In the following table, the tones are shown marked on the vowel /a/ as an example.

(shown on a)
(shown on a)
Lowနိမ့်သံ[aː˧˧˦]ànormalmediumlowlow, often slightly rising[37]
Highတက်သံ[aː˥˥˦]ásometimes slightly breathylonghighhigh, often with a fall before a pause[37]
Creakyသက်သံ[aˀ˥˧]tense or creaky, sometimes with lax glottal stopmediumhighhigh, often slightly falling[37]
Checkedတိုင်သံ[ăʔ˥˧]centralized vowel quality, final glottal stopshorthighhigh (in citation; can vary in context)[37]

For example, the following words are distinguished from each other only on the basis of tone:

  • Low ခါ /kʰà/ "shake"
  • High ခါး /kʰá/ "be bitter"
  • Creaky ခ /kʰ/ "to wait upon; to attend on"
  • Checked ခတ် /kʰ/ "to beat; to strike"

In syllables ending with /ɰ̃/, the checked tone is excluded:

  • Low ခံ /kʰàɰ̃/ "undergo"
  • High ခန်း /kʰáɰ̃/ "dry up (usually a river)"
  • Creaky ခန့် /kʰɰ̃/ "appoint"

In 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.[38] The "ordinary" tone consists of a range of pitches. 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."[39][40]

Syllable structure

The syllable structure of Burmese is C(G)V((V)C), which is to say the onset consists of a 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. The only consonants that can stand in the coda are /ʔ/ and /ɴ/. Some representative words are:

  • CV မယ် /mɛ̀/ (title for young women)
  • CVC မက် /mɛʔ/ 'crave'
  • CGV မြေ /mjè/ 'earth'
  • CGVC မျက် /mjɛʔ/ 'eye'
  • CVVC မောင် /màʊɰ̃/ (term of address for young men)
  • CGVVC မြောင်း /mjáʊɰ̃/ 'ditch'

A minor syllable has some restrictions:

  • It contains /ə/ as its only vowel
  • It must be an open syllable (no coda consonant)
  • It cannot bear tone
  • It has only a simple (C) onset (no glide after the consonant)
  • It must not be the final syllable of the word

Some examples of words containing minor syllables:

  • ခလုတ် /kʰə.loʊʔ/ 'switch, button'
  • ပလွေ /pə.lwè/ 'flute'
  • သရော် /θə.jɔ̀/ 'mock'
  • ကလက် /kə.lɛʔ/ 'be wanton'
  • ထမင်းရည် /tʰə.mə.jè/ 'rice-water'


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. Characterized by its circular letters and diacritics, the script is an abugida, with all letters having an inherent vowel a. [a̰] or [ə]. The consonants are arranged into six consonant groups (called ဝဂ် based on articulation, like other Brahmi scripts. Tone markings and vowel modifications are written as diacritics placed to the left, right, top, and bottom of letters.[19]

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. Orthographic changes followed shifts in phonology (such as the merging of the [-l-] and [-ɹ-] medials) rather than transformations in Burmese grammatical structure and phonology, which has not changed much from Old Burmese to modern Burmese.[19] For example, during the Pagan era, the medial [-l-] ္လ was transcribed in writing, which has been replaced by medials [-j-] and [-ɹ-] in modern Burmese (e.g. "school" in old Burmese က္လောင် [klɔŋ]ကျောင်း [tɕã́ʊ̃] in modern Burmese).[41] Likewise written Burmese has preserved all nasalized finals [-n, -m, -ŋ], which have merged to [-ɴ] in spoken Burmese. (The exception is [-ɲ], which, in spoken Burmese, can be one of many open vowels [i, e, ɛ]. Likewise, other consonantal finals [-s, -p, -t, -k] have been reduced to [-ʔ]. Similar mergers are seen in other Sino-Tibetan languages like Shanghainese, and to a lesser extent, Cantonese.)

Written Burmese dates to the early Pagan period. The British colonial period scholars believed that the Burmese script was developed c. 1058 from the Mon script.[42] However, evidence shows that the Burmese script has been in use at least since 1035 (perhaps as early as 984) while the earliest Burma Mon script, which is different from the Thailand Mon script, dates to 1093.[43] The Burmese script may have been sourced from the Pyu script.[43] (Both Mon and Pyu scripts are derivatives of the Brahmi script.) Burmese orthography originally followed a square format but the cursive format took hold from the 17th century when popular writing led to the wider use of palm leaves and folded paper known as parabaiks ပုရပိုက်.[44] Much of the orthography in written Burmese today can be traced back to Middle Burmese. Standardized tone marking was not achieved until the 18th century. From the 19th century onward, orthographers created spellers to reform Burmese spelling, because ambiguities arose over spelling sounds that had been merged.[19] During British colonial rule, Burmese spelling was standardized through dictionaries and spellers. The latest spelling authority named the Myanma Salonpaung Thatpon Kyan မြန်မာ စာလုံးပေါင်း သတ်ပုံ ကျမ်း, was compiled in 1978 at the request of the Burmese government.[19]


The basic word order of the Burmese language is subject-object-verb. Pronouns in Burmese vary according to the gender and status of the audience. Burmese is monosyllabic (i.e., every word is a root to which a particle but not another word may be prefixed).[45] Sentence structure determines syntactical relations and verbs are not conjugated. Instead they have particles suffixed to them. For example, the verb "to eat," စား ca: [sà] is itself unchanged when modified.


Burmese does not have adjectives per se. Rather, it has verbs that carry the meaning "to be X", where X is an English adjective. These verbs can modify a noun by means of the grammatical particle တဲ့ tai. [dɛ̰] in colloquial Burmese (literary form: သော sau: [θɔ́], which is suffixed as follows:

Colloquial: ချောတဲ့လူ hkyau: tai. lu [tɕʰɔ́ dɛ̰ lù]
Formal: ချောသောလူ hkyau: so: lu
Gloss: "beautiful" + adjective particle + "person"

Adjectives may also form a compound with the noun (e.g. လူချော lu hkyau: [lù tɕʰɔ́] "person" + "be beautiful").

Comparatives are usually ordered: X + ထက်ပို htak pui [tʰeʔ pò] + adjective, where X is the object being compared to. Superlatives are indicated with the prefix a. [ʔə] + adjective + ဆုံး hcum: [zṍʊ̃].

Numerals follow the nouns they modify. Moreover, numerals follow several pronunciation rules that involve tone changes (low tone → creaky tone) and voicing shifts depending on the pronunciation of surrounding words. A more thorough explanation is found on Burmese numerals.


The roots of Burmese verbs are almost always suffixed with at least one particle which conveys such information as tense, intention, politeness, mood, etc. Many of these particles also have formal/literary and colloquial equivalents. In fact, the only time in which no particle is attached to a verb is in imperative commands.

The most commonly used verb particles and their usage are shown below with an example verb root စား ca: [sá] "to eat". Alone, the statement စား is imperative.

The suffix တယ် tai [dɛ̀] (literary form: သည် sany [ðì] can be viewed as a particle marking the present tense and/or a factual statement:

စားတယ် ca: tai [sá dɛ̀] "I eat"

The suffix ခဲ့ hkai. [ɡɛ̰] 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 emphasize 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:

စားခဲ့တယ် ca: hkai. tai [sá ɡɛ̰ dɛ̀] "I ate"

The particle နေ ne [nè] is used to denote an action in progression. It is equivalent to the English '-ing'"

စားနေတယ် ca: ne tai [sá nè dɛ̀] "I am eating"

This particle ပြီ pri [bjì], which is used when an action that had been expected to be performed by the subject is now finally being performed, has no equivalent in English. So in the above example, if someone had been expecting the subject to eat and the subject has finally started eating, the particle ပြီ is used as follows:

(စ)စားပြီ (ca.) ca: pri [(sə) sá bjì] "I am (now) eating"

The particle မယ် mai [mɛ̀] (literary form: မည် many [mjì] is used to indicate the future tense or an action which is yet to be performed:

စားမယ် ca: mai [sá mɛ̀] "I will eat"

The particle တော့ tau. [dɔ̰] is used when the action is about to be performed immediately when used in conjunction with မယ်. Therefore it could be termed as the "immediate future tense particle".

စားတော့မယ် ca: tau. mai [sá dɔ̰ mɛ̀] "I'm going to eat (straight-away)"

When တော့ is used alone, however, it is imperative:

စားတော့ ca: tau. [sá dɔ̰] "Eat (now)"

Verbs are negated by the particle ma. [mə], which is prefixed to the verb. Generally speaking, other particles are suffixed to that verb, along with .

The verb suffix particle နဲ့ nai. [nɛ̰] (literary form: နှင့် hnang. [n̥ɪ̰̃] indicates a command:

မစားနဲ့ ma.ca: nai. [məsá nɛ̰] "Don't eat"

The verb suffix particle ဘူး bhu: [bú] indicates a statement:

မစားဘူး ma.ca: bhu: [məsá bú] "[I] don't eat"


Nouns in Burmese are pluralized by suffixing the particle တွေ twe [dè] (or [tè] if the word ends in a glottal stop) in colloquial Burmese or များ mya: [mjà] in formal Burmese. The particle တို့ (tou. [to̰], which indicates a group of persons or things, is also suffixed to the modified noun. An example is below:

  • မြစ် mrac [mjɪʔ] "river"
  • မြစ်တွေ mrac twe [mjɪʔ tè] "rivers" (colloquial)
  • မြစ်များ mrac mya: [mjɪʔ mjá] "rivers" (formal)
  • မြစ်တို့ mrac tou: [mjɪʔ to̰] "rivers"

Plural suffixes are not used when the noun is quantified with a number.

"five children"

Although Burmese does not have grammatical gender (e.g. masculine or feminine nouns), a distinction is made between the sexes, especially in animals and plants, by means of suffix particles. Nouns are masculinized with the following particles: ထီး hti: [tʰí], hpa [pʰa̰], or ဖို hpui [pʰò], depending on the noun, and feminized with the particle ma. [ma̰]. Examples of usage are below:

  • ကြောင်ထီး kraung hti: [tɕã̀ʊ̃ tʰí] "male cat"
  • ကြောင်မ kraung ma. [tɕã̀ʊ̃ ma̰] "female cat"
  • ကြက်ဖ krak hpa. [tɕɛʔ pʰa̰] "rooster/cock"
  • ထန်းဖို htan: hpui [tʰã́ pʰò] "male toddy palm plant"

Numerical classifiers

Like its neighboring languages such as Thai, Bengali, and Chinese, Burmese uses numerical classifiers (also called measure words) when nouns are counted or quantified. This approximately equates to English expressions such as "two slices of bread" or "a cup of coffee". Classifiers are required when counting nouns, so ကလေး ၅ hka.le: nga: [kʰəlé ŋà] (lit. "child five") is incorrect, since the measure word for people ယောက် yauk [jaʊʔ] is missng; it needs to suffix the numeral.

The standard word order of quantified words is: quantified noun + numeral adjective + classifier, except in round numbers (numbers that end in zero), in which the word order is flipped, where the quantified noun precedes the classifier: quantified noun + classifier + numeral adjective. The only exception to this rule is the number 10, which follows the standard word order.

Measurements of time, such as "hour," နာရီ "day," ရက် or "month," do not require classifiers.

Below are some of the most commonly used classifiers in Burmese.

ယောက်yauk[jaʊʔ]for peopleUsed in informal context
ဦးu:[ʔú]for peopleUsed in formal context and also used for monks and nuns
ပါးpa:[bá]for peopleUsed exclusively for monks and nuns of the Buddhist order
ကောင်kaung[kã̀ʊ̃]for animals
ခုhku.[kʰṵ]general classifierUsed with almost all nouns except for animate objects
လုံးlum:[lṍʊ̃]for round objects
ပြားpra:[pjá]for flat objects
စုcu.[sṵ]for groupsCan be [zṵ].


The Burmese language makes prominent usage of particles (called ပစ္စည်း in Burmese), which are untranslatable words that are suffixed or prefixed to words to indicate the level of respect, grammatical tense, or mood. According to the Myanmar–English Dictionary (1993), there are 449 particles in the Burmese language. For example, စမ်း [sã́] is a grammatical particle used to indicate the imperative mood. While လုပ်ပါ ("work" + particle indicating politeness) does not indicate the imperative, လုပ်စမ်းပါ ("work" + particle indicating imperative mood + particle indicating politeness) does. Particles may be combined in some cases, especially those modifying verbs.

Some particles modify the word's part of speech. Among the most prominent of these is the particle Template:IPAy, which is prefixed to verbs and adjectives to form nouns or adverbs. For instance, the word ဝင် means "to enter," but combined with , it means "entrance" အဝင်. Moreover, in colloquial Burmese, there is a tendency to omit the second in words that follow the pattern + noun/adverb + + noun/adverb, like အဆောက်အအုံ, which is pronounced [əsʰaʊʔ ú] and formally pronounced [əsʰaʊʔ əõ̀ʊ̃].


Subject pronouns begin sentences, though the subject is generally omitted in the imperative forms and in conversation. Grammatically speaking, subject marker particles က [ɡa̰] in colloquial, သည် [θì] in formal) must be attached to the subject pronoun, although they are also generally omitted in conversation. Object pronouns must have an object marker particle ကို [ɡò] in colloquial, အား [á] in formal) attached immediately after the pronoun. Proper nouns are often substituted for pronouns. One's status in relation to the audience determines the pronouns used, with certain pronouns used for different audiences.

Polite pronouns are used to address elders, teachers and strangers, through the use of feudal-era third person pronouns in lieu of first and second person pronouns. In such situations, one refers to oneself in third person: ကျွန်တော် kya. nau [tɕənɔ̀] for men and ကျွန်မ kya. ma. [tɕəma̰] for women, both meaning "your servant", and refer to the addressee as မင်း min [mɪ̃́] "your highness", ခင်ဗျား khang bya: [kʰəmjá] "master, lord" (from Burmese သခင်ဘုရား, meaning 'lord master') or ရှင် hrang [ʃɪ̃̀] "ruler/master".[46] 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, ငါ nga [ŋà] "I/me" and နင် nang [nɪ̃̀] "you" may be used, although most speakers choose to use third person pronouns.[47] For example, an older person may use ဒေါ်လေး dau le: [dɔ̀ lé] "aunt" or ဦးလေး u: lei: [ʔú lé] "uncle" to refer to himself, while a younger person may use either သား sa: [θá] "son" or သမီး sa.mi: [θəmí] "daughter".

The basic pronouns are:

Person Singular Plural*
Informal Formal Informal Formal
First person ငါ
kywan to

kywan ma.
nga tui.
[ŋà do̰]
kywan to tui.
[tɕənɔ̀ do̰]

kywan ma. tui.
[tɕəma̰ do̰]
Second person နင်

khang bya:

nang tui.
[nɪ̃̀n do̰]
khang bya: tui.
[kʰəmjá do̰]

hrang tui.
[ʃɪ̃̀n do̰]
Third person သူ
(a.) sang
su tui.
[θù do̰]
sang tui.
[θɪ̃̀ do̰]
* The basic particle to indicate plurality is တို့ tui., colloquial ဒို့ dui..
Used by male speakers.
Used by female speakers.

Other pronouns are reserved for speaking with bhikkhus (Buddhist monks). When speaking to a bhikkhu, pronouns like ဘုန်းဘုန်း bhun: bhun: (from ဘုန်းကြီး phun: kri: "monk"), ဆရာတော် chara dau [sʰəjàdɔ̀] "royal teacher", and အရှင်ဘုရား a.hrang bhu.ra: [ʔəʃɪ̃̀ pʰəjá] "your lordship" are used depending on their status ဝါ. When referring to oneself, terms like တပည့်တော် ta. paey. tau "royal disciple" or ဒကာ da. ka [dəɡà], "donor" are used. When speaking to a monk, the following pronouns are used:

Person Singular
Informal Formal
First person တပည့်တော်
ta.paey. tau
da. ka
Second person ဘုန်းဘုန်း
bhun: bhun:
[pʰṍʊ̃ pʰṍʊ̃]

(u:) pasang:
[(ʔú) bəzín]
a.hrang bhu.ra:
[ʔəʃɪ̃̀ pʰəjá]

chara dau
The particle ma. is suffixed for women.
Typically reserved for the chief monk of a kyaung (monastery_.

In colloquial Burmese, possessive pronouns are contracted when the root pronoun itself is low toned. This does not occur in literary Burmese, which uses ၏ [ḭ] as postpositional marker for possessive case instead of ရဲ့ [jɛ̰]. Examples include the following:

  • ငါ [ŋà] "I" + ရဲ့ (postpositional marker for possessive case) = ငါ့ [ŋa̰] "my"
  • နင် [nɪ̃̀] "you" + ရဲ့ (postpositional marker for possessive case) = နင့် [nɪ̰̃] "your"
  • သူ [θù] "he, she" + ရဲ့ (postpositional marker for possessive case) = သူ့ [θṵ] "his, her"

The contraction also occurs in some low toned nouns, making them possessive nouns (e.g. အမေ့ or မြန်မာ့, "mother's" and "Myanmar's" respectively).

Kinship terms

Minor pronunciation differences do exist within regions of Irrawaddy valley. For example, the pronunciation [sʰʊ̃́] of ဆွမ်း "food offering [to a monk]" is preferred in Lower Burma, instead of [sʰwã́], which is preferred in Upper Burma. However, the most obvious difference between Upper Burmese and Lower Burmese is that Upper Burmese speech still differentiates maternal and paternal sides of a family:

Term Upper Burmese Lower Burmese Myeik dialect
  • Paternal aunt (older)
  • Paternal aunt (younger)
  • အရီးကြီး [ʔəjí dʑí] (or [jí dʑí]
  • အရီးလေး [ʔəjí lé] (or [jí lé]
  • ဒေါ်ကြီး [dɔ̀ dʑí] (or [tɕí tɕí]
  • ဒေါ်လေး [dɔ̀ lé]
  • မိကြီး [mḭ dʑí]
  • မိငယ် [mḭ ŋɛ̀]
  • Maternal aunt (older)
  • Maternal aunt (younger)
  • ဒေါ်ကြီး [dɔ̀ dʑí] (or [tɕí tɕí]
  • ဒေါ်လေး [dɔ̀ lé]
  • Paternal uncle (older)
  • Paternal uncle (younger)
  • ဘကြီး [ba̰ dʑí]
  • ဘလေး [ba̰ lé]1
  • ဘကြီး [ba̰ dʑí]
  • ဦးလေး [ʔú lé]
  • ဖကြီး [pʰa̰ dʑí]
  • ဖငယ် [pʰa̰ ŋɛ̀]
  • Maternal uncle (older)
  • Maternal uncle (younger)
  • ဦးကြီး [ʔú dʑí]
  • ဦးလေး [ʔú lé]

1 The youngest (paternal or maternal) aunt may be called ထွေးလေး [dwé lé], and the youngest paternal uncle ဘထွေး [ba̰ dwé].

In a testament to the power of media, the Yangon-based speech is gaining currency even in Upper Burma. Upper Burmese-specific usage, while historically and technically accurate, is increasingly viewed as , or at best regional speech. In fact, some usages are already considered strictly regional Upper Burmese speech, and are likely to die out. For example:

Term Upper Burmese Standard Burmese
  • Elder brother (to a male)
  • Elder brother (to a female)
  • နောင် [nã̀ʊ̃]
  • အစ်ကို [ʔəkò]
  • အစ်ကို [ʔəkò]
  • Younger brother (to a male)
  • Younger brother (to a female)
  • ညီ [ɲì]
  • မောင် [mã̀ʊ̃]
  • Elder sister (to a male)
  • Elder sister (to a female)
  • အစ်မ [ʔəma̰]
  • Younger sister (to a male)
  • Younger sister (to a female)
  • နှမ [n̥əma̰]
  • ညီမ [ɲì ma̰]
  • ညီမ [ɲì ma̰]

In general, the male-centric names of old Burmese for familial terms have been replaced in standard Burmese with formerly female-centric terms, which are now used by both sexes. One holdover is the use of ညီ (younger brother to a male) and မောင် (younger brother to a female). Terms like နောင် (elder brother to a male) and နှမ (younger sister to a male) now are used in standard Burmese only as part of compound words like ညီနောင် (brothers) or မောင်နှမ (brother and sister).


Reduplication is prevalent in Burmese and is used to intensify or weaken adjectives' meanings. For example, if ချော [tɕʰɔ́] "beautiful" is reduplicated, then the intensity of the adjective's meaning increases. Many Burmese words, especially adjectives with two syllables, such as လှပ [l̥a̰pa̰] "beautiful", when reduplicated (လှပလှလှပပ [l̥a̰l̥a̰ pa̰pa̰]) become adverbs. This is also true of some Burmese verbs and nouns (e.g. ခဏ "a moment" → ခဏခဏ "frequently"), which become adverbs when reduplicated.

Some nouns are also reduplicated to indicate plurality. For instance, ပြည် [pjì] "country", but when reduplicated to အပြည်ပြည် [əpjì pjì], it means "many countries," as in အပြည်ပြည်ဆိုင်ရာ [əpjì pjì sʰã̀ɪ̃ jà] "international". Another example is အမျိုး, which means "a kind," but the reduplicated form အမျိုးမျိုး means "multiple kinds."

A few measure words can also be reduplicated to indicate "one or the other":

  • ယောက် (measure word for people) → တစ်ယောက်ယောက် (someone)
  • ခု (measure word for things) → တစ်ခုခု (something)

Romanization and transcription

There is no official romanization 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 Pali-based transcription system in existence, MLC Transcription System which was devised by the Myanmar Language Commission (MLC). However, it only transcribes sounds in formal Burmese and is based on the Burmese alphabet 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 names. For instance, a Burmese personal name like ဝင်း [wɪ̃́] may be variously romanized as Win, Winn, Wyn, or Wynn, while ခိုင် [kʰã̀ɪ̃] may be romanized as Khaing, Khine, or Khain.

Computer fonts and standard keyboard layout

The Burmese script can be entered from a standard QWERTY keyboard, and is supported within the Unicode standard, meaning it can be read and written from most modern computers and smartphones.

Burmese has complex character rendering requirements, where tone markings and vowel modifications are noted using diacritics. These can be placed before consonants (as with ), above them (as with ) or even around them (as with ). These character clusters are built using multiple keystrokes. In particular, the inconsistent placement of diacritics as a feature of the language presents a conflict between an intuitive WYSIWYG typing approach, and a logical consonant-first storage approach.

Since its introduction in 2007, the most popular Burmese font, Zawgyi, has been near-ubiquitous in Myanmar. Linguist Justin Watkins argues that the ubiquitous use of Zawgyi harms Myanmar languages, including Burmese, by preventing efficient sorting, searching, processing and analyzing Myanmar text through flexible diacritic ordering.[48]

Zawgyi is not Unicode-compliant, but occupies the same code space as Unicode Myanmar font.[49] As it is not defined as a standard character encoding, Zawgyi is not built in to any major operating systems as standard. However, allow for its position as the de facto (but largely undocumented) standard within the country, telcos and major smartphone distributors (such as Huawei and Samsung) ship phones with Zawgyi font overwriting standard Unicode-compliant fonts, which are installed on most internationally distributed hardware.[50] Facebook also supports Zawgyi as an additional language encoding for their app and website.[51] As a result, almost all SMS alerts (including those from telcos to their customers), social media posts and other web resources may be incomprehensible on these devices without the custom Zawgyi font installed at the operating system level. These may include devices purchased overseas, or distributed by companies who do not customize software for the local market.

Keyboards which have a Zawgyi keyboard layout printed on them are the most commonly available for purchase domestically.

Until recently, Unicode compliant fonts have been more difficult to type than Zawgyi, as they have a stricter, less forgiving and arguably less intuitive method for ordering diacritics. However, intelligent input software such as Keymagic[52] and recent versions of smartphone soft-keyboards including Gboard and ttKeyboard[53] allow for more forgiving input sequences and Zawgyi keyboard layouts which produce Unicode-compliant text.

A number of Unicode-compliant Burmese fonts exist. The national standard keyboard layout is known as the Myanmar3 layout, and it was published along with the Myanmar3 Unicode font. The layout, developed by the Myanmar Unicode and NLP Research Center, has a smart input system to cover the complex structures of Burmese and related scripts.

In addition to the development of computer fonts and standard keyboard layout, there is still a lot of scope of research for the Burmese language, specifically for Natural Language Processing (NLP) areas like WordNet, Search Engine, development of parallel corpus for Burmese language as well as development of a formally standardized and dense domain-specific corpus of Burmese language.[54]


  1. Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
  2. Burmese at Ethnologue (15th ed., 2005)
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Southern Burmish". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2008), Chapter XV, Provision 450
  5. Chang 2003.
  6. Sinley 1993, p. 147.
  7. Bradley 1993, p. 147.
  8. Barron et al. 2007, p. 16-17.
  9. Lieberman 2003, p. 189.
  10. Lieberman 2003, p. 202-206.
  11. Adas, Michael (2011-04-20). The Burma Delta: Economic Development and Social Change on an Asian Rice Frontier, 1852–1941. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 67–77. ISBN 9780299283537.
  12. Burmese at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  13. Bradley 2010, p. 99.
  14. Bradley 1995, p. 140.
  15. Bradley 1996, p. 746.
  16. Herbert & Milner 1989, p. 5–21.
  17. Aung Bala 1981, p. 81–99.
  18. Aung Zaw 2010, p. 2.
  19. Herbert & Milner 1989.
  20. Hnin Tun & San San 2001, p. 39.
  21. Taw Sein Ko 1924, p. 68-70.
  22. Hnin Tun & San San 2001, p. 48-49.
  23. Hnin Tun & San San 2001, p. 26.
  24. Houtman 1990, p. 135-136.
  25. Wheatley 2013.
  26. Wheatley & Tun 1999, p. 64.
  27. UC 2012, p. 370.
  28. Wheatley & Tun 1999, p. 65.
  29. Wheatley & Tun 1999.
  30. Wheatley & Tun 1999, p. 81.
  31. Wheatley & Tun 1999, p. 67.
  32. Wheatley & Tun 1999, p. 94.
  33. Wheatley & Tun 1999, p. 68.
  34. MLC 1993.
  35. Chang (2003), p. 63.
  36. Jones 1986, p. 135-136.
  37. Wheatley 1987.
  38. Taylor 1920, p. 91–106.
  39. Taylor 1920.
  40. Benedict 1948, p. 184–191.
  41. Khin Min 1987.
  42. Harvey 1925, p. 307.
  43. Aung-Thwin 2005, p. 167–178, 197–200.
  44. Lieberman 2003, p. 136.
  45. Taw Sein Ko 1924, p. viii.
  46. Bradley 1993, p. 157–160.
  47. Bradley 1993.
  48. Watkins, Justin. "Why we should stop Zawgyi in its tracks. It harms others and ourselves. Use Unicode!" (PDF).
  49. "Myanmar Wikipedia – Font".
  50. Hotchkiss, Griffin (23 March 2016). "Battle of the fonts".
  51. "Facebook nods to Zawgyi and Unicode".
  52. "Keymagic Unicode Keyboard Input Customizer".
  53. "TTKeyboard – Myanmar Keyboard".
  54. Saini 2016, p. 8.


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