A Myanmar Tapestry of Traditions, Cultures and Languages

“This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.”

– Rudyard Kipling in Letters from the East

Known as Myanmar in present day, the country has a rich tapestry of traditions, cultures and tribes dating back 13,000 years.

Myanmar or Burma? The confusion begins here. Myanmar is recognised in most countries and in the United Nations (UN), but not in the United Kingdom. As Myanmar’s former colonial rulers, the UK has refused to acknowledge the ruling legitimacy of the Myanmar military regime. Hence, they still say ‘Burma’.

Myanmar is closely connected to her neighbouring countries: Thailand in the East, India in the West, Malaysia in the South, China in the North-East and Tibet in the North. Its topography consists of mountains, valleys, streams, rivers and wetlands.

Bamar (Burman)

The Bamar people, known also as the Burmese, arrived in the eastern Himalayas in the 8th or 9th century. History tells of the first Burmese man who arrived on Myanmar soil with the Royal Prince Abhiraja, who was trying to escape political troubles. Today, the Burmese make up 68 percent of the population. Similar to other big Myanmarese ethnic groups, the Bamar have different subgroups.

The Languages of Myanmar

Burmese, a Sino-Tibetan language of the Tibeto-Burman group, is spoken by about 32 million people as their first language, and by up to 15 million more as a second language. It is the national language of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, where it is the main language of education, communication, media and administration, as well as inter-ethnic communication.

Burmese has a recorded history going back to the 11th century, when it began to replace Mon as the literary language of the Bagan kingdom. Burmese literature has flourished since then, resulting in a large body of classical and modern texts, the latter covering all genres. Burmese occurs in two varieties, literary (or formal) and spoken (or colloquial), which diverge in terms of lexicon and grammatical markers.

The formal language is influenced by the Pali grammatical tradition through translations of Buddhist texts, making more consistent use of grammatical words. Colloquial Burmese is divided into a number of local dialects or variants, which exhibit differences in pronunciation, lexicon and sentence structure. These differences can often be seen as a result of intense contact with neighbouring languages, such as Mon in the case of southern Burmese.

Burmese has a number of words and constructions that are not easily translated into other languages. One example is the verb mí, which means, ‘catch or be caught, be affected by something’. In combination with another verb, means ‘do something without intention, without knowing that one was not supposed to do it, or without knowing the consequences’. It is commonly used to deny one’s responsibility for what one has done.


Check out Asian Geographic's Languages of Asia Issue 5/2016 for more information about Burmese, as well as many other languages and dialects in Asia.


Article by Amanda Yap



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