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Classification: Tibeto-Burman, Lolo-Burmese, Burmish. A few minor languages of Yunnan and northern Myanmar are closely related to Burmese, especially Lhao Vo (or Maru) and Zaiwa (or Atsi).

Overview. Burmese has the largest number of speakers among the Tibeto-Burman languages and, along with Tibetan, has the longest written record. The Burmese settled in the lowlands of Burma drained by the Irrawaddy River and emerged in history with the kingdom of Pagan in the 9th century. They fell under the spell of Indian culture and Buddhism, transmitted by the Mon and Pyu peoples, which left a deep imprint in the Burmese lexicon and were the source of its script.

    Burmese is a tonal language and has a complex consonantal system. It has little or no inflectional morphology and grammatical functions are carried out mainly by particles and word order.

Distribution. Burmese is spoken in Myanmar (formerly Burma), especially in the plains of the centre and south drained by the Irrawaddy River. Burmese expatriates are found in small communities in Asia and around the world. One of the largest lives in Bangladesh.

    Myanmar is a multilingual country where up to one-hundred languages are spoken by ethnic minorities. From the numerical viewpoint the most important are Mon and Karen in the south and southeast, Shan in the east and north, and Kachin in the north. Kachin and Karen belong to Tibeto-Burman, Shan to Tai-Kadai, and Mon to Austroasiatic. Besides, there are many smaller minority languages, found mostly in mountainous regions.

Speakers. About 35 million people in Myanmar speak Burmese as a first language (2/3 of the population). There are also about 10 million or more second language speakers in the country. In Bangladesh live an additional 300,000 speakers.

Status. Burmese is the official language of Myanmar. It is the mother tongue of the Burman ethnic majority, who constitute about two-thirds of the country’s population. The rest speaks several dozen languages belonging to Tibeto-Burman and other families.

Varieties. Burmese has a colloquial style used in spoken informal contexts and a literary style used in official formal settings. Besides, it has several dialects: Standard Burmese based on the speech of the lower valleys of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, Arakanese in the south-west, Tavoyan in the south-east, Intha around Inle Lake, and Danu in the Shan state.


1100-1500. Old Burmese: attested by stone inscriptions and fragments of palm-leaf manuscripts written in ink, it has considerable phonetic differences with the modern language but lesser ones at the grammatical level.

1500-1700. Middle Burmese: certain pairs of sounds merged giving rise to some confusion in spelling. These, plus other sound changes, created a gap between the literary and the spoken language.

1700-present. Modern Burmese: differences between literary and spoken Burmese tend to diminish and the script has been stabilized. 

Oldest Documents

-The earliest attestation of Burmese is the twelfth-century Rajakumar inscription (1112 CE), found close to Myazedi Pagoda, recording the offering of a gold Buddha image. It is written in four languages: Pali, Burmese, Mon and Pyu.

-Other early stone inscriptions, belonging to the Pagan and Ava periods and dating from the 12th-14th centuries.


Word structure: Most native Burmese words are sesquisyllabic. A reduced or minor syllable is followed by a major or full syllable. Some words have two minor syllables, instead of one, prefixed to a major one. Minor syllables are toneless, have only an initial consonant and a vowel realized as schwa. The structure of major syllables is C1(w/y)V (C2). In them, phonological contrasts are concentrated in the initial consonant (C1) and the vowel (V). The only possible medial consonants are the glides w and y, and the only possible final consonants are a nasal or the glottal stop. Neither initial nor final consonant clusters are possible. Each major syllable has one of four possible tones.

Vowels (8): Seven vowels are found in major syllables, while in minor syllables all vowels tend to schwa (ə).


Burmese has four diphthongs (ei, ai, au,  ou), which are always followed by a nasal or the glottal stop.

Consonants (30-33): Burmese has three series of stops and affricates: voiceless unaspirated, voiceless aspirated and voiced. It also has a full set of voiceless nasals, that are relatively rare in the world’s languages.


*sounds between brackets are of marginal use.

*[r] is rare and is only used in place names that have preserved Sanskrit or Pali pronunciations.

*[ʍ] is the voiceless counterpart of [w].

*[ɬ] is a voiceless lateral.

Tones: Like many Southeast Asian languages, Burmese is tonal. The tonal contrasts involve not only differences in pitch and vowel length but also differences in voice quality (clear, breathy or creaky). The presence or absence of a glottal stop at the end of a syllable is considered to be part of the tonal system. Burmese has four tones:

1) low: long, low, clear voice.

2) high: long, high, sometimes breathy voice.

3) creaky: short, high, creaky voice (pronounced with tension or constriction in the throat).

4) checked: very short, mid-high, clear voice with final glottal stop (which shortens the duration of the vowel).

Script and Orthography

Burmese is written from left to right in an alphabetic script derived, ultimately, from the Brāhmī alphabet of India that is the ancestor of all Indic scripts and of several Southeast Asian ones. Transmission of the script was indirect: Brāhmī → a southern Indian script → Mon script → Burmese. The Burmese script is also used to write other languages of Myanmar, like Shan and Karen.

    The Burmese alphabet has 33 consonants which represent not only native sounds but also retroflex and voiced aspirated sounds found only in Indic loanwords, like those of Sanskrit and Pali origin. A consonant sign without any added vowel has an inherent vowel a; to represent other vowels, vowel signs are added before, after, above or below consonant signs. The arrangement of the alphabet reflects that of its Indian models. Below each character figures its most common transliteration, and its phonetic equivalent in the International Phonetic Alphabet between square brackets.

Low tone is unmarked. High tone is marked with a visarga (similar to a colon) in the script and with a grave accent in transliteration. Creaky tone is marked with a subscript dot in the script and by an acute accent in transliteration Checked tone is indicated by a hook and is transliterated with an apostrophe.

*the affricates [tʃ], [tʃʰ], [dʒ] are usually written ky, khy and gy, respectively.

*the palatal fricative [ʃ] is transliterated sh.

*the voiced palatal nasal [ɲ] is transliterated ny.

*the voiced velar nasal [ŋ] is transliterated ng.

*the voiceless nasals are distinguished from the voiced ones in writing by adding an h: hm, hn, hny, hng.

*the voiceless lateral and glide are distinguished from the voiced ones in writing by adding an h: hl, hw.


Burmese is an isolating language with little or no inflectional morphology. Words are not inflected for person, number, gender, case, tense, aspect or mood. Grammatical functions are carried out mainly by particles and word order. Prefixation, reduplication and compounding serve to derive new words from preexisting ones (derivational morphology).

  1. a)Noun

There is no grammatical gender. When natural gender has to be specified, - (female) might be added after the noun e.g. yáhàŋ ('monk'), yáhàŋ-má ('nun'). Plurality may be indicated by the general plural markers -te or -, or by the more formal marker -myà which usually has a restrictive sense: lu ('man'), lu-te ('people'), lu-myà ('a certain number of people').

When context is insufficient, syntactical relations may be expressed by particles following the noun, like ha (subject), (contrasted subject, agent, topic, source), ko (object or goal), hma (location), nɛ́ (instrument, company, manner), yɛ́/kɛ ́ (possession), (cause), p'ó (purpose).

Burmese, like many of the languages of mainland Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia, requires classifiers when nouns are modified by a number. They encompass several broad semantic and conceptual groups like: monks (), ordinary people (yauʔ), animals (kaun), clothes (t'ɛ), sacred objects (s'u), round things (lòun), etc. Numeral and classifier follow the quantified noun in an appositional relationship.

Nouns are easily formed from verbs by prefixation and/or partial reduplication. Nominal compounds are commonplace.

  1. b)Pronoun

For the first and second persons there are a variety of pronouns marking degrees of politeness and familiarity. Except for the first person and second person pronouns ŋa and nin, Burmese pronouns derive from nouns. Kinship terms, titles, and names can function also as pronouns, like s'əya ('teacher') or meisʔ'we ('friend'). Deictic pronouns distinguish proximal and distal: di ('this, these, here'), ho ('that, those, there'). The interrogative pronouns are bɛθu ('who?') and bago ('what?'). Pronouns can be made plural by the addition of the suffix -.

  1. c)Verb

New verbs are created by compounding and not, like nouns, by affixation or reduplication. The verbal phrase often consists of one or more head-verbs followed by auxiliary verbs, particles and markers. Person, number and voice are not indicated. There are no real passives. Aspect (more than tense) is expressed by postpositional particles like:

  1. : imperfective (incomplete action)

  2. gɛ, kɛ́: perfective  (complete action)

  3. ne: progressive (ongoing action)

  4. pyi: inceptive  (beginning of an action)

Mood is also conveyed by postpositional particles:

  1. pa: polite imperative

  2. chiŋ: desiderative

  3. ta' /hnain: potential

  4. : necessitative

  5. yiŋ: conditional

The negative marker is mɛ; an interrogative marker is la.

  1. d) Word Order

In Burmese, the verb and its modifiers occupy the final position in the clause, with nominals and other complements before it. The order of elements before the verb is in principle free though it is affected by topicalisation (the topic tends to be mentioned first). Within the noun phrase, the order of constituents is, primarily, modifier before modified: demonstratives precede their head, so do genitive phrases and other nominal modifiers, as well as most relative clauses. There is neither agreement between constituents nor concord within them.


    Mon, an Austroasiatic language of southern Myanmar, influenced Burmese vocabulary in the early period acting also as a nexus with Indian culture. A number of Sanskrit loanwords were adopted through the intermediation of Mon. The spread of Theravada Buddhism in the country made Pali an even greater source of new lexical material, particularly in the domains of religion, philosophy and high culture.

    Myanmar was under British colonial rule between 1886-1948 and English lent many words to Burmese; some of them were later replaced by native or Indic forms but new ones appeared in the fields of science and technology, politics and business. English loanwords are sometimes combined with Burmese words in compounds to coin new technical vocabulary.

Basic Vocabulary

As there is no standard transliteration for Burmese and as there is considerable disagreement between spelling and pronunciation, we give below the vocabulary in the International Phonetic Alphabet notation):

one: tiʔ

two: n̥iʔ

three: θòuŋ

four: lèi

five: ŋà

six: ʧʰaʊʔ

seven: kʰú n̥iʔ

eight: ʃiʔ

nine: kò

ten: sʰe

hundred: ya

father: əpha

mother: əmei

older brother: əko

younger brother: ɲi (of male), maʊ̃ (of female)

older sister: əmá

younger sister: n̥əma (of male), ɲimá (of female)

son: θà

daughter: θamì

head: gàʊ̃

eye: myeʔ

leg/foot: ʧʰi

heart: n̥əlòʊ̃

tongue: ʃa

Key Literary Works

  1. 1523    Kogan Pyo (Pyo in Nine Sections). Shin Ratthasara

  2. The pyo genre adapts Pali stories about the previous lives of Buddha (jataka) to a Burmese setting and to ornate Burmese verse, with a didactic and moral goal. The Kogan pyo, based on the Hattipala Jataka, tells about the four sons of a brahmin who refused to succeed to the throne of a childless king. The king argues with them against renouncing the world, stressing the affection between father and son and the possibility of a virtuous worldly life.

  1. 1784   Ya-ma Yagan (Yagan about Rama). U To

  2. Yagan are narrative poems based on Indian or Mon materials. This one is the most famous Burmese versions of the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, though left incomplete because of the author's death.

1829-32   Hman-nam Ya-zawin-daw-gyi (Chronicle of the Palace of Mirrors). Several authors

  1. Commissioned by King Bagyidaw (1819-1838), it is the voluminous official history of the Burmese kings based on previous chronicles which, besides factual material, contains many mythical and legendary stories. It is named after the hall where the scholars met. It covers Burmese history until 1821 being continued by a second chronicle compiled in 1867-69.

  1. 1914    Shwei-pyi-zo. U Lat

  2. Set in conservative Mandalay and more modern Rangoon, the novel (named after its protagonist) contrasts a vanishing old world of good-manners and propriety with a new less polite and insensitive world created by British colonization.

1934-41   Khitsan Ponbyin (Experimental Tales). Theippan Maung Wa

  1. Unsentimental and humorous tales and sketches about ordinary events, many of them based on the author's own experiences. Their style and content marked a new direction in Burmese literature.

  1. 1955    Mone Ywa Mahu (Not Out of Hate). Ma Ma Lay (U Sei Tin)

  2. Is the first Burmese novel to be translated into English. Set in 1930s Burma, its subject is the confrontation of Eastern and Western values epitomized in a disparate married couple. Way Way is twenty years younger than his anglophile husband, U Saw Han, who works as an agent for a British trading company. U Saw Han has a paternalistic attitude towards his young wife that becomes oppressive, ignoring his feelings and aspirations as the British colonial masters ignore those of their Burmese subjects.

  1. 1958    Asheika Neiwunthwetthie Bama (As Sure as the Sun Rises in the East). Thein Hpei Myint

  2. The title of this long novel is taken from a line in the national anthem. It follows the life of a young student from 1936-42, during the anti-colonial struggles against the British and the Japanese, depicting many characters belonging to all classes of society and giving a flavor of the political atmosphere at the time.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. - 'Burmese'. J. K. Wheatley. In The Sino-Tibetan Languages, 195-207. G. Thurgood & R. J. LaPolla (eds). Routledge (2003).

  2. -'Burmese'. J. Watkins. In Concise Encyclopedia of the Languages of the World, 170-175. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  3. -A Reference Grammar of Colloquial Burmese (2 vols). J. Okell. Oxford University Press (1969).

  4. -An Introduction to the Burmese Writing System. D. H. Roop. Yale University Press (1972).

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