Lost Footsteps
Lost Footsteps

11th Century

Loan words in Burmese language

မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရန်

Burmese (Myanma) is a Tibeto-Burman language. This means that Burmese, Tibetan, and the other languages in this family are likely descended from a common ancestral language, spoken thousands of years ago. An older form of Burmese was first reduced to writing in the 11th century using a script from south India.

Burmese is part of the Burmese-Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family. Yi – spoken by over ten million people, mainly in southwestern China – is very close to Burmese in both structure and vocabulary. For example, in Yi, the numbers 1-5 are cyp, nyip, suo, ly, nge (in modern Burmese tit, hnit, thone, lay, nga). Many, if not most, common words are clearly related, for example the words for bitter (ka) (Burmese hka), pain (na) (Burmese na), buy (wai) (Burmese wai), goat (si) (Burmese seik), and far (wi) (Burmese way).

Burmese is more distantly related to Tibetan. It’s easy to find many words that are similar, like the words for I (nga) (Burmese nga), you (nyid) (Burmese nyi), fire (me) (Burmese mi), salt (swa) (Burmese sa), hand (lag) (Burmese let), moon (zla) (Burmese la). Burmese is also linked to archaic Chinese, spoken around 3,000 years ago along the Yellow River. More will be posted soon on how the Burmese language came to be spoken in present-day Myanmar.

By the 11th century Burmese was also influenced by unrelated languages, in particular the Indo-European languages of India and the Austroasiatic language old Mon (different but related to modern Mon). It may also have been influenced by Pyu, but it’s difficult to know for sure, as the Pyu language (also a Tibeto-Burman language) is only partly understood.

Sanskrit and Pali were the main Indian languages from which Burmese borrowed a great number of words. Pali influenced the structure of the language as well.

Sanskrit words borrowed into old Burmese include punya (merit) (Burmese hpon) acharya (teacher) (Burmese saya), kavya (poem) (Burmese kabya), and tala (palm) (Burmese htan)

Burmese today includes hundreds of Pali words as well. Many are linked to Buddhism like bawa (incarnation) and metta (compassion); or to government like nayaka (leader) or thana (place); or are abstract ideas like rasa (taste) or anagat (the future).

Some Pali words entered Burmese via old Mon, for example puja (worship, pujaw in old Mon, puzaw in Burmese).

Some Pali words changed their meaning in Burmese, for example jati and varna, both of which in India have meanings tied to the caste system but in Burmese do not. Other Pali words that have slightly different meanings in Burmese include satti (Burmese thatti, meaning brave rather than ability as in Pali), adhika (in Burmese usually meaning central as rather than additional as in Pali).

 Many Pali words have been used in modern times to describe new inventions, for example ratha (chariot) together with the Burmese mi (fire) for train (mi-yahta).

By the 11th century there were also substantive borrowings from old Mon which was the prestige language of the country together with Sanskrit and Pali. These included many words related to the sea (which the ancient Burmans would never have seen before), like knu (shellfish), khetam (crab) and bley (pearl); architectural terms like kna (pavillion); terms for status such as kalaw (wife of an official); occupational terms like sma (expert) and many words related to government including cnat (system) and dap (army) (in Burmese tat, as in Tatmadaw).

From at least the 11th century lots of other words also came into Burmese from many other languages around the world. Some were from Indian languages but not Sanskrit and Pali, like sakra (sugar), which may have come from one of several Indian languages, gom (wheat) from Bengali, and palli from Tamil (meaning school but in Burmese mosque)

From the Portugese, who first arrived in the 1500s we have the words for pão (bread) and pe for foot as a unit of measurement. From Dutch we have the word for snaphaan (gun), first used in the 1600s. From Arabic, Burmese has borrowed many words like arak (spirits) and alam (flag). From Chinese, we have words like pai (playing cards), from Persian we have chang (harp), and from all the way in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, from the language of the Guarani people, we have nana (the 'excellent fruit' or pineapple) which came to Myanmar via the French (ananas). From Tai languages like Thai and Shan, we have khao-soi (noodles) and nam-pla (fish sauce) and other, mainly food related words. And from Malay we have many fruits, like mangis (mangosteen) and durian. The words for plate (pinggan) comes from Malay but ultimately from Persian meaning bowl.

English is of course the biggest source of new words in modern times, and include words that are no longer used in England itself, like bioscope, or that have slightly changed meanings, like side-car.

There are also dozens of borrowed words from modern Indian languages like Hindi, borrowed during British rule when millions of Indians lived in this country. They include words for many everyday objects imported during that time, such as punkah (fan) or kainchi (scissors); words for food, such as aloo (potatoes), masala, and gobi (cauliflower); things to do with the marketplace, like paise (money); new clothes like lungi; and new occupations, like mali (gardener), durwan (guard), and dhobi (washerman).

Burmese like many other languages has for more than a thousand years been enriched by its contacts with cultures from around the world.

(Illustration by Pinky Htut Aung)

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