Language in Early Burma

By Marc Miyake, Beyond Boundaries Research Assistant

This month the seminar series took a break from its usual Indological focus and turned to Burma at the eastern edge of the Indic world.


Photograph by Tetsuya Kitahata, distributed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

It is an unspoken assumption in the modern world that there is a strong correlation between countries and languages. Of course there are well-known cases in the Western world such as Canada and Belgium (one country with two major languages) or Germany and Austria (one language in two countries), but awareness of linguistic diversity outside the Western world is low. The average person assumes Burmese is the only language in Burma. A more informed person might have heard of the states of Burma and be aware of the major languages of Burma: e.g., Mon in Mon State, Shan in Shan State, etc. Some might even know that those languages are sometimes not even related to Burmese. Mon is related to Khmer and Shan to Thai. But even those languages are but a fraction of the 118 languages spoken in Burma today. And there may have been even more languages spoken there in the past.

The best known of those lost languages was Pyu, spoken in the first millennium CE in what is now Upper Burma and surviving only in the form of inscriptions. The name Pyu is Burmese; the Pyu autonym is not attested in the extant Pyu corpus, though Chinese historical records tell us they called themselves something like 突羅朱 dwot la tsyu in Middle Chinese transcription. Gordon Luce equated that transcription with Old Mon tircul ‘Pyu’. But no similar name has ever been found in Pyu itself.

The seminar began with an introduction by Nathan Hill on the decipherment of Pyu by Arlo Griffiths of EFEO, Julian K. Wheatley, and myself, and on his own project, the reconstruction of Proto-Burmish, the ancestor of one branch of the vast Trans-Himalayan (a.k.a. Sino-Tibetan) family.

Of course, the most famous Burmish language is Burmese, which has a largely unexplored internal diversity. Patrick McCormick gave an overview of that diversity in his talk on Burmese dialectology. Trained as both a historian and as a linguist, McCormick is not only interested in the phonetic mechanics of languages but what languages can tell us about their speakers’ histories. McCormick is not confined by traditional family tree models of language. For instance, although the Karen languages and their neighbor Burmese are in distant branches of the Trans-Himalayan family, McCormick sees the possibility of Karen influence in the Tavoyan dialect which has Karen-like traits such as the presence of glottalized consonants and the attenuation of nasalized vowels.

Hideo Sawada introduced the northern branch of the Burmish languages which are spoken in southern China as well as Burma. Some Northern Burmish languages retain a set of glottalized consonants lost in Burmese, a Southern Burmish language: e.g., they have both glottalized p’- ts’- t’- k’- and aspirated pʰ- tsʰ- tʰ- kʰ- corresponding to Burmese aspirated pʰ- sʰ- tʰ- kʰ-. They also retain final consonants lost in Burmese. Although these languages have considerable historical value, they have small numbers of speakers, one (Hpon) is nearly extinct, and some remain undescribed: e.g., Maingtha, spoken by a Shan tribe despite the fact that the Shan language is not Burmish or even Trans-Himalayan. Cases like Maingtha underscore the potential disconnect between ethnicity and language.

Tilman Frasch brought the seminar full circle back to Pyu, which he hypothesizes was the source of Old Burmese terminology for agriculture, land use, and irrigation. Frasch posited a scenario in which Burmese speakers arrived in Burma which was not terra rasa: the Pyu had already been there for centuries. The newcomers learned agricultural technology and the words needed for it from the locals. There is no doubt that Pyu is a substrate of Burmese: i.e., a language that influenced a dominant intruding language which, in this case, ultimately replaced it. There is also no doubt that Burmese has borrowings from Pyu: e.g., Written Burmese ပြည် praññ ‘country, royal city’ from Pyu pringh. (One Burmese pronunciation of the spelling praññ is pyi as in the name of the Burmese capital Nay Pyi Taw.) The first Burmese speakers in Burma did not come from an urban civilization like that of the Pyu, so it would be natural for them to borrow a word for ‘city’ – a word that is the name of Pyay, a city near the ruins of the Pyu city now known as Śrī Kṣetra. (Pyay is another modern Burmese pronunciation of Written Burmese praññ.) It would similarly also be natural for early Burmese speakers to adopt local words for agriculture.

The trouble is that no specifically agricultural terms have been identified in the Pyu corpus so far. The inscriptions contain only about 1,700 distinct syllables which may or may not be monosyllabic words. It is thus certain that only a fraction of the Pyu lexicon has been preserved in stone and metal. Only a fraction of that fraction is currently understood. There are syllables in Pyu that sound like Old Burmese agricultural words, but it is not yet clear whether they are coincidental soundalikes or the sources of those words. Frasch’s hypothesis needs to be tested by seeing if Pyu texts make sense if the soundalikes are provisionally glossed as if they were agricultural terms.

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