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Overview. Karen languages are spoken by one of the largest minority groups in Myanmar and Thailand which includes several million people settled along the border regions between the two countries. They belong to the Tibeto-Burman family but being in the southern and eastern periphery of the Tibeto-Burman area they have been influenced by Mon-Khmer and Tai-Kadai families. They share many features with other languages of mainland Southeast Asia, like tones and predominance of monosyllabic words, lack of gender, number and case marking, use of numeral classifiers, preference for aspect over tense, and serial verbs. One striking difference with other members of Tibeto-Burman is that in Karen languages the verb is placed before the object instead of in final position.

Distribution. Karen languages are spoken along the Myanmar-Thailand border, following a north-south axis, starting in southwest Shan state and continuing into Kayah and Kayin states to end in the isthmus of Kra. Karen-speaking communities extend westwards into the Irrawaddy Delta, and eastwards up to Lampang and Chiang Rai provinces of Thailand.

External Classification. Sino-Tibetan, Tibeto-Burman, Karen. Karen languages constitute an independent branch within the Tibeto-Burman family.

Internal Classification. Karen languages are divided into four groups:

  1. 1)Northern: includes Pa-o, spoken in southwestern Shan, Kayin, and Kayan states by may be 0.6-0.7 million people.

  1. 2)Central: Kayah Li (Karenni), with perhaps 180,000, is spoken in most of Kayah State, in Kayin state and a few adjoining areas of Thailand. Other, minor, central languages are Brè or Bwe (around 15,000), Yintale (less than 1,000), Palaychi and Mopwa (4,000 for both).

  1. 3)Southern: Sgaw, with perhaps 2 million speakers, is spoken in the Irrawaddy Delta, Kayin state and NW Thailand. Pwo is spoken in Western Thailand, Kayin state, Mon state, Tenasserim Division, and Irrawaddy Delta by about 1,4 million people.

  1. 4.Unclassified: Padaung (Kayan) with around 150,000 speakers in Kayin, Kayah and south Shan states.

Speakers: around 4,5 million in total of which about 10 % in Thailand.


  1. Phonology

  2. -Karen languages are predominantly monosyllabic and most syllables begin with a consonant and end in a vowel. Consonant clusters may occur in initial position.

  1. -Consonant systems show a three-way contrast in stops and affricates: voiceless unaspirated (p, t, k, ʔ), voiceless aspirated (ph, th, kh) and voiced (b, d). Some have labial and dental implosives.

  1. -Karen languages are tonal. Tone systems typically have 3- and 4-way contrasts  based not only on pitch but also in differences in voice quality (clear, breathy, creaky).

  1. Morphosyntax

  2. -Compounding is the main way of word formation in Kayah Li while affixing is marginal. In Pwo affixing and reduplication are also productive.

  1. -There are three types of nouns: common nouns and pronouns, classifiers and localizers. Classifiers are required when using numerals and other quantifiers. The usual order for classifier constructions is noun-quantifier-classifier. Localizers convey spatial relations which in other languages are determined by prepositions.

  1. -Nouns are not marked for gender, number or case but are modified by both preposed and postposed items. Nominal modifiers precede the noun while verbal modifiers (that may be a clause with multiple elements) follow it. Demonstratives and stative verbs ('to be big', 'to be beautiful', etc), that behave like adjectives, also follow the noun.

  1. -Verbs are not inflected. Person and number are expressed by subject pronouns and nouns. Verbs can have pre-verbal and post-verbal particles attached. Particles before a verb indicate causation, obligation, irrealis and negation. Particles after a verb may express modality and direction. There is preference for aspect over tense. Serial verbs are commonplace; they consist of two juxtaposed verbs that signal consecutive actions.

  1. -The basic Karen sentence type is verb-medial. Its word order is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) instead of the Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) order of other Tibeto–Burman members. This difference is due to Karen’s contact with SVO Mon-Khmer and Tai-Kadai. In spite of their particular word order, Karen languages, like other Tibeto-Burman ones, employ genitive-noun order. Particles at the end of the sentence may be used for negation, interrogation, and modality.


Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa-o have writing systems derived from, and similar to, the Burmese script. Kayah Li uses an alphabet created ad hoc in 1962.


Karen languages have many cultural terms adopted from Burmese as well as loanwords from Mon and Thai.

Numerals (tones are not shown)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Sino-Tibetan Languages. G. Thurgood & R. J. LaPolla (eds). Routledge (2003).

  2. -Sino-Tibetan: A Conspectus. P. K. Benedict. Cambridge University Press (1972).

  3. -Karen Linguistic Studies. R. B. Jones. University of California Press (1961).

  4. -'Karen Languages'. D. B. Solnit. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 581-582. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  5. -Eastern Kayah Li: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. D. Solnit. University of Hawaii Press (1997).

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