Myanmar Language & Grammar Overview
Scholars have long noted the similarities between the Burmese Language and
Tibetan language. For example, Tibetan consonants such as
ka, kha, ga, nga, cha, ja, nya, ta, tha, da, na, pa, pha, ba, ma, wa, zha, za, ya, ra, la, sha,
sa, ha, etc. sound
remarkably similar to the Burmese consonants. The origin of the Burmese script, Pyu, and Mon of ancient
Myanmar and Tibet alphabet can be traced back to Brahmi script of ancient India,
which was first seen in 500 BCE and spread throughout India by 300 CE in the reign of King Asoka. The Tibetan-Burmese
language classification is a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages spoken from Tibet to the Malay Peninsula,
and also referred to as Tibeto-Burman Languages.
Literary Vs. Colloquial
Burmese spoken language is different from the literary form. Myanmar literary language
has more expressive power compared to bland spoken words, but the sequence in the sentence structure basically remains the same.
Burmese verbs kri1-ya2 do not change tense like in English. Instead, verb-suffix words are appended to show the past tense, present tense, and future tense.
Burmese Verbs are categorized by three types of sentence constructions and also by the following three characteristics:
- pyu1 chin3 - action (does/do)
- pfyit chin3 - occurrence (be/is/are/am)
- shi1 chin3 - presence (is at/has/have)
Similarly, the same verb words are used for both plural and singular forms to say: "He does something" and "They do something."
It is possible to construct Burmese sentences without a verb. Example:
kja1-nau2 - I (pronoun, male term)
hsa1-ya2-woon2 - doctor (noun)
ba2 - ending polite word. (particle)
kja1-nau2 hsa1-ya2-woon2 ba2 -- I am a doctor.
Note: The last word ba2 in the above sentence is not a verb. It is
classified as a particle in Myanmar grammar.
Particles & Postpositional Markers
Myanmar grammar has a number of suffixes and ending words called wi1-but
(postpositional markers) and
Those suffix and ending words are placed after a noun or a pronoun to show subject or object, and after a verb to show tense or mood.
Sometimes, they can modify the adjective into verb.
The basic word order of the Burmese Language does NOT NECESSARILY fall into subject-object-verb
format. Just like in English, you can either say: "The boy kicks the ball,"
(where "the boy" is the subject, "kick" the verb and "ball" the object) or "The ball was kicked by the boy."
It deploys various ending words which have no English equivalent.
Together with particles, those postpositional markers, also used as ending words, play an important part of the Myanmar language
thwa3 - to go (verb)
dau1 - about to (particle for emphasis)
meare2 - will (postpositional marker to show tense)
nau2 - ending word. (particle for feeling tone)
thi1 - to know (verb)
byi2 - has reached certain condition (postpositional marker)
la3 - question ending word (particle)
thu2 - he (pronoun)
hmun2 - right; correct (adjective)
deare2 - affirmative ending word (postpositional marker, not a verb in Burmese grammar.)
In the last example, the ending word IS NOT a verb, but it modifies the adjective into the word
hmun2 deare2, which is considered as a verb
of pfyit-chin3-pya1 kri1-ya2 (verb clause that shows occurrence) type.
Although deare2 seems to correspond with the
verb "is", it cannot be used consistently as "is" in some other sentence constructions.
hote deare2 -- Yes!
It must be stressed that Burmese equivalent of "be/is/are/am" like deare2
are not verbs but post-positional markers, and they form verb clauses only in combination with verbs such as "go", "eat", "come", or
adjectives such as "white", "wrong", "hungry".
Similarly, ending particle words such as ba2
when combined with nouns like "doctor", "man", "Buddhist", become equivalent to English "be/is/are/am" something or someone.
In some other sentence constructions, they cannot be translated as English "be/is/are/am", and this can be confusing to non-native learners of Myanmar grammar.
As for pronouns nun2-za3, there are many ways to say you and I in Burmese. Wrong choice of the pronoun "you" and "I" will offend people. Family terms like "brother", "sister", "son", and "daughter" are commonly used among strangers to address to each others. There are four types of Burmese Pronouns:
- Personal Pronouns -- "I", "You", "He", "She", "It", etc..
- Referential pronouns -- "this","that", "above-mentioned", etc..
- Question Words -- "what", "who", "where" in reference to the noun.
- Quantitative Pronouns -- "one person", "three cups", "four items", "some", "few", "all", "half", etc..
Burmese Adjectives na2-ma1 wi1-thay2-tha1-na1 are classified into four groups:
- Qualitative -- words that describe the quality of the noun. E.g.,
"rich" man, "far away" place.
- Referential -- words that make reference to or point to something. E.g., "this" road, "that" road, "other" methods.
- Numbers -- words that describe "how many" of something, "what position" in the ordered list, and
unspecified numbers. E.g., "ten" people, "21st." birthday, "some" people.
- Question Words -- words that ask for "how many", "how", "which", "how much", and "what" with
clearly stated noun in the question. Without the noun, the same question words are classified as pronouns. E.g.,
"What kind of food do you like?" as opposed to "What kind do you like?"
Burmese Adverbs kri1-ya2 wi1-thay2-tha1-na1 are classified into five groups:
- "How" part of human actions -- gestures, manner, facial expressions, and behavior. E.g.,
"arrogantly", "sluggishly", "truthfully", "respectfully".
- Conditions of things and situations -- E.g., "in disarray", "in disorder", "definitely".
- "When" part of action words -- E.g., "early", "often", "immediately".
- Interrogative adverbs -- "when", "how".
- Words that show extent, size or magnitude -- "few", "many", "very".
There are eight ways to categorize Burmese Nouns "nun2" : four by construction, and four by meaning:
- Combination; Compound |
E.g., sa2-oat hsine2 (book + shop) -- bookshop.
It is possible to combine words other than nouns. E.g., (sa3 + thout + hsine2) = (eat+drink+shop) = restaurant.
- Original; Innate |
E.g., khway3 -- dog.
- Qualitative |
E.g., htu3-choon2 hmu1 -- the quality of being outstanding. This word is formed by the verb htu3-choon2 meaning "be outstanding" modified into a noun by the suffix particle hmu1.
- Verb Modifications |
E.g., ku2-nyi2-hmu1 -- help. The particle hmu1 modifies the verb ku2-nyi2 (to help) into a noun "help". This is unlike English where "help" can be either a verb or a noun.
- Individual Names |
E.g., Yangon, Shwedagon, Aung San.
- Common Terms |
E.g., dog, city, cow, book
- Psychological; Abstract |
E.g., courage, love, faith
- Conglomeration |
E.g., a-si3-a-yone3 -- union, league.
Singular & Plural Terms
Unlike in English where most people will have to look up the dictionary for the plural of "octopus", Burmese plural words ba1-hu1-woot in most cases simply add a suffix word dway2 to the noun in the colloquial language and mya3 in the literary form. Those suffix words are classified as particles.
Burmese language has several conjunctions known as thun2-bun2-da1
Those conjunctions in colloquial forms are slightly different from their literary counterparts. Conjunctions are more often used in
literary forms with long sentences. Examples:
- hlyin2 -- if (literary)
- hso2 yin2 -- if (colloquial)
- dtho1-ma1-hote -- or else (literary)
- hto1-joun1 -- therefore (literary)
- dtho1-ya2-dwin2 -- however (literary)
- hto1-pyin2 -- moreover (literary)
- yan2 -- in order to; so as to (literary)
- pfo1 -- for (colloquial)
- dtha1-keare1-tho1 -- as if (literary)
- leare3 -- also (colloquial/literary))
- la1-goun3 -- as well (literary)
- neare1 -- with (colloquial)
- hnin1 -- with (literary)
- dtha2-ma1-ka1 -- not only... but also (literary)
- yway1 -- and; while; because (literary)
- a-beare2-joun1-hso2-dthau2 -- the reason is that (literary)
- dthau3-joun1 -- due to the fact that (literary)
- lo1 -- because (colloquial)
- say2-ga2-mu2 -- nevertheless (literary)