History of the Burmese Language

What is Burmese?

The Burmese language is the official language of Myanmar (formally known as Burma). It is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family tree. In 2007, it was spoken as a first language by 33 million people, most of which were the Bamar (Burman) peoples and their related ethnic groups, and as a second language by around 10 million ethnic minorities in Myanmar and its neighbouring countries.

The evolution of Burmese

The ancient forms of Burmese include Old Burmese and Middle Burmese. Old Burmese dates back to the 11th and 16th century (the time between the Pagan and Ava dynasties), while Middle Burmese is from the 16th to the 18th century (Toungoo to early Konbaung dynasties). Modern Burmese has been around since the mid-18th century with word order, grammatical structure and vocabulary remaining almost the same except for some lexical content.

Old Burmese

Old Burmese is believed to derive from the 11th and 12th century stone inscriptions of Pagan, with the earliest evidence of the Burmese alphabet in 1035. As Old Mon held linguistic prestige in the Pagan era, Old Burmese borrowed vast amounts of vocabulary from Pali via the Mon Language. We can see these through loanwords such as the Burmese word for ‘to worship’, ပူဇော် (pūjo), instead of ပူဇာ (pūjā), which it would be in original Pali orthography.

Middle Burmese

The transition to Middle Burmese in the 16th century saw phonological changes as well as orthography. From the 1500s, there was a substantial increase in the population’s literacy rate, which meant that more and more laymen were scribing and ensuring the proliferation of Burmese literature. It was at this time that the Burmese script began using cursive-style circular letters typically used in palm-leaf manuscripts, instead of the traditional square block-form letters used in the earlier Old Burmese period.

Modern Burmese

Modern Burmese emerged in the mid-18 century at a time when the male literacy rate in Burma was at around 50%. This allowed for the wide circulation of legal and religious texts in the Burmese language, which was not available before. In particular, the presence of Burmese in Buddhist monasteries was a major factor in the language's uniformity.

The expansion of Burmese into Lower Burma coincided with the evolution of Modern Burmese. In the mid-1700s, Mon, which is an Austroasiatic language, dominated Lower Burma and was spoken by the Mon people who lived in the region. The shift from Mon to Burmese was sped up by the fall of the Mon-speaking Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom in 1757, which was later replaced with the Burmese-speaking Konbaung Dynasty. By 1830, around 90% of the Lower Burmese population identified themselves as Burmese-speaking Bamars. The language shift was down to a combination of population displacement, voluntary changes in self-identification among Mon-Burmese populations, and intermarriage.

Read more about Burmese in our November issue...