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The languages of Edo

Today it is Tokyo but once, many lifetimes ago, the same city was Edo, the imperial capital of Japan. Amidst the marks of modernity – the skyscrapers, the flyovers and the neon signs – are hidden hints of a world many think are lost, but which are just waiting for the eagle-eyed to discover.

Together with Satoko Hirakawa, my walking tours guide, I stand upon the Nihonbashi Bridge, looking in the direction of Mount Fuji. High-rise buildings now obscure the view, but as an ancient milestone by our side shows, this was once point zero on the map. In Europe, they say all roads lead to Rome; here in Japan, it was Edo that was the central hub of the wheel. The calligraphy, cut into dark grey granite, was still crystal clear despite the centuries that had passed since its carving. The characters, sharp yet elegant in their form, simply stated the most important cities in Japan, and the distances to get there. Nihonbashi Bridge was the gateway into and out of Edo, and this stone marked how far travellers still had to go on their journey, or how far they had come.

Tokyo has not forgotten its past. In the backstreet alleys, and amidst the temple gardens and shrines, the Edo period (1603–1868), the heyday of the samurai, comes to life.

The Warrior Class

The samurai were the warrior clans of medieval Japan, immortalised in literature and in art. Living in accordance with strictly-regulated codes and dressed in distinctive costumes, the samurai enthralled all those who heard about them and their stories about travelling around the world. In the Edo period, the samurai were predominantly civil servants and courtiers, as it was a relatively peaceful time. Court life centred on Edo’s imperial palace, Edo Castle, in the central part of modern Tokyo. Here in the vast, walled complex with a moat, among the imposing stone towers and guardhouses, they refined the high culture for which Japan is renowned.

(Read more on the Japanese language and the ways of the Samurai in the full story available in print. Subscribe to our magazine here)




Asian Languages on the Verge of Falling Out Of Use




The numbers of S’aoch people were decimated under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975 to 1979 and had a policy of executing any S’aoch who dared to speak in their native tongue. In 2010, only 10 elderly members of the S’aoch indigenous minority living in their village outside their traditional land still spoke this language.


Mednyj Aleut


Also known as Copper Island Aleut, Mednyj Aleut is a moribund mixed language originally spoken on Mednyj Island, off the coast of Kamchatka. However, that population was moved to Bering Island in 1970. It is characterised by fusing Russian and Aleut. The first speakers were children who had one parent of each descent. The language they created and passed on is mostly similar to Aleut, but with Russian verb endings and many Russian words mixed in the vocabulary. As of the early 2000s, there were only five fluent speakers left.


(Read and find out more languages that are on the verge of extinction from the full story available in print. Subscribe to our magazine here)




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, mí 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.


(Read more on Burma and its various different tribes and languages from the full story available in print. Subscribe to our magazine via here)




DMZ: The Great Divide



Korean is the official language of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with many small local dialects (mal, saturi or bang’eon). Worldwide, approximately, 80 million people speak Korean.

In both island-states, the standard language is derived from the Seoul dialect in practice, and both standards remain largely intelligible. In both island-states, the standard language is derived from the Seoul dialect in practice, and both standards remain largely intelligible.


A heartthrob male lead stares intensely into his doe-eyed beauty, whispers a sweet sarang-hae-yo
and leans in for a kiss. All over the world, viewers have stayed glued to their cable TV, swooning and bawling over the dramas that have become distinctly Korean – the epitome of 21st-century soap opera. Hallyu (the Korean wave) has revolutionised pop culture: sarang-hae-yo has come to embody the sincerest ‘I love you’ and Korean itself has come to be the new language of courtship in the East.

Korean is an isolated language with no genealogical roots to other languages. Contemporary Korean, which has evolved over the centuries from Old Korean through Middle Korean, boasts approximately 80 million fluent speakers today. The Korean language used to be pegged to the Chinese script and only the elite had the time to learn it. In 1443, King Sejong the Great created the Hangeul alphabet to encourage literacy among the masses. Hangeul’s original name was Hunmin Jeongeum, which literally translates as ‘the correct sounds for the instruction of the people’.

Though the language is greatly popularised by the media, there are still several Korean phrases that are unique to their cultural context. Your average Korean-to-English dictionary would tell you that 정 (jeong), for example, means ‘affection’. But rather than a simplistic form of affection, it encompasses compassion, community and empathy. 정 is a kind of affection that you show even to your enemy, a bond shared between all humans.

(Read more on the two Korean cultures and Hangul from the full story available in print. Subscribe to our magazine via here)



The Sounds of Southeast Asia


2000 speakers 

Who exactly are the Peranakans? Many people are unsure as to the precise lineage and heritage of this group of people, but if you dig deep into their history, you’ll find that they are a fascinating hybrid of various Eastern cultures, topped with a sprinkle of Western ways.

According to legend, in 1459, the emperor of China presented a princess, Hang Li Po, to the Sultan of Malacca. The nobles and servants who were travelling with the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina (Chinese Hill) and eventually grew into a class of Straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakans.

As the years went by, many Chinese immigrants settled in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. There, they adopted some of the local customs while retaining some of their own. They also picked up the local languages of those places.

When the British set up trading ports in Singapore and Penang, the Peranakans were invited to relocate there as well. As the Peranakans knew how to speak English in addition to the various local languages, many served as middlemen between the British and the locals, especially when business and trade were involved.

Most Peranakans are of Hokkien descent. However, there are also a sizeable number with Teochew and Cantonese origins. Over time, they created their own creole dialect of Malay, Baba Malay.

The Peranakan dialect is more or less Malay but with a generous dose of Hokkien in between. But sadly, it is mostly only spoken by the older generation today. For the younger generation of Peranakans, English is the main medium of communication.

In actual fact, the dialect is fast heading towards extinction. This is partially due to government policies of the respective countries. In Singapore, Peranakans are classified as ethnic Chinese, many of whom learn Mandarin. In Malaysia, the government enforces the learning of Standard Malay in schools. Thus the young are not given much opportunity to comprehensively study or practice Baba Malay.

Like Malay, Baba Malay is written using the Roman alphabet. The difference lies in the inclusion of hokkien words. In Hokkien provinces in China, Hokkien is written with Chinese characters whereas in Baba Malay, the Hokkien words are phonetically translated into Roman letters.


(Read more on the other Southeast Asian languages from the full story available in print. Subscribe to our magazine here)



Traditional Mosuo Relationships

They sound like customs that belong to a forgotten culture of an ancient community. The people do not traditionally marry, but engage uninhibitedly in consensual relationships with different and often multiple partners, as desired by each party, from the age of 13. The concept of love fidelity, in the sense that we might be accustomed to in modern-day society, does not exist. Little value is attached to the notion of possession or exclusivity, and even less to the idea of shared finances, property, and responsibilities, as each partner normally remains socially and economically a part of his or her own maternal family. In addition, the concepts of ‘husband’ and ‘father’ are traditionally not a part of the Mosuo social structure. As such, children who are born of these relationships are fully accepted as members of their maternal family and brought up collectively by its members.

But these are traditions that still exist, albeit somewhat precariously and incongruously, in a rare polyandrous matrilineal Tibeto-Burman community, called the Mosuo. Having a population of about 40,000, the group lives mainly in the remote high-altitude wetland basin area in the southwestern Yongning region, and in the surrounding mountainous areas.

One of the most studied ethnicities in China, the Mosuo (pronounced ‘mwo swo’), also known by other names, including [Yongning] Na and Moso), officially belongs to the Naxi ethnic group. Believed to have originated in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), the traditions of large matrilineal households and visiting sexual unions – popularly referred to as the ‘walking’ or ‘visiting’ marriage – are based both on the view that women, by virtue of their reproductive role, provide the core and continuation of the Mosuo household, and on a strong sense of sexual individuality. Sexuality is not considered negotiable or exchangeable in Mosuo society, but remains a purely sentimental or amorous matter, implying no mutual constraints. Societal norms see the man visiting his partner in her bedroom when the other members of her household have retired for the day, often spending the night with her, but leaving to return to his maternal home early the next morning.

(Read more on the Mosuo and their love traditions in the full story available in print. Subscribe to our magazine here)


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ASIAN GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE celebrates Asia in all its rich diversity, from its natural environment to its assortment of wildlife, cultures and scientific discoveries. Based in Singapore, the team has its fingers on the pulse of Asia, with its award-winning contributors scouring the region to bring powerful stories and images to you. Titles under Asian Geographic Magazines include its flagship title ASIAN Geographic, PASSPORT, JUNIOR, and its diving titles, Asian Diver and Scuba Diver.

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