Highlights and challenges of the Burmese language
By United Language Group
Myanmar (also known as Burma) is located in Southeast Asia and is approximately the size of Texas. Burmese, the official language of Myanmar, is spoken by approximately 32 million as a first language and as a second language by 10 million; particularly ethnic minorities in Burma and those in neighboring countries such as Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand.
The country of Myanmar has a cornucopia of languages. In addition to the large number of Burmese speakers in the country, more than one hundred other languages are spoken there, including Shan, Karen and Kachin. Not to mention several Burmese dialects that vary slightly by region.
Burmese is a tonal, pitch-register and syllable-timed language. It’s largely monosyllabic and uses analytic language, with a subject–object–verb word order. You can hear some common greetings used by Burmese people in this short video.
The Burmese alphabet consists of 33 letters and 12 vowels, and is written from left to right. It requires no spaces between words, although modern Burmese writing usually contains spaces after each clause to enhance readability.
The Burmese language is classified into two categories, formal and colloquial. The formal is used in literary works, official publications, radio broadcasts, and formal speeches. The colloquial is used in daily conversation and is spoken. Recently, the use of the colloquial, spoken form has been appearing in written contexts. For example, it can be seen in many television news broadcasts, comics, and commercial publications.
Which form of the language should you use? It depends on context and audience. That’s why when translating materials for the people of Myanmar it is essential to work with an in-region Burmese language translator who can help determine which tone and dialect is appropriate for your particular content.
Once you know what version of Burmese you’re going to use for your project, it is important to consider other elements of cultural relevance for Burmese speakers. For example, while British colonial rule introduced Western elements of culture to Burma, the culture is primarily Buddhist and Bamar (the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar).
For tips on how to ensure the intended message reflects a deep understanding of the audience and culture read our guide “Transcreation: The Next Step Beyond Traditional Translation”.
P.S. If you’re looking for more information about Burmese kittens (they are adorable!) you can find that here.
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