A Note on the Development of the Burmese Language

အရင်က ဖွဲ့တည်ရာမဂ္ဂဇင်းမှာလည်းထည့်ဖူးတယ်၊ ဘာမီဖီကေးရှင်းဆိုဒ်မှာလည်း တင်ဖူးတယ်။ အရင်က ဆိုဒ်မှာ လင့်ခ်ပဲ ညွှန်းခဲ့တယ်။ ခုတော့ ဖတ်ရအောင်ရော သိမ်းထားရအောင်ပါပြန်တင်ပေးလိုက်တယ်။ ၁၉၁၁ ကနေ ၁၉၄၁ အထိ ထွက်ခဲ့တဲ့ Journal of the Burma Research Society အတွဲ ၁ ကနေ ၃၁ အထိကို ဒေါ်လာ ၁,၃၀၀ နဲ့ ရောင်းမယ်လို့ အွန်လိုင်းမှာ ကြော်ညာထားတာ တွေ့လိုက်သေးတယ်။ (သင်ကာ)

By U Pe Maung Tin

Journal of Burma Research Society (JBRS)

Vol. 14, 1951

photo from myanmariso.com

photo from myanmarisp.com

It is a happy sign for the future of the Burmese language that it is seriously grappling with the task of shaping itself into an adequate vehicle for the expression of modern Western ideas. In the course of their administration of the country, the English have found it necessary to impart these ideas to the people through the medium of Burmese as well as of English. Thus all government publications in Burmese (made of course with native assistance), are essays in modernized Burmese. But the new terms and expressions which these essays have introduced, will remain more or less stranded as petrified curiosities, until they happen to flow with the stream of the language and pass through the whirlpool of popular usage. The problem, however, is receiving national attention; and native writers, roused by the awakening of the national spirit, are finding suitable terms for the new ideas imported from the West.

A similar problem presented itself when earliest writers, in the days of th kings of Pagan, were adapting the language to the needs of Buddhist thought, embedded in that highly metaphysical language, the Pali. Through the efforts of generations of writers the language has now attained a standard of efficiency, by which it can enter into the subtlest discussions of Buddhist philosophy either as independent contributions or as literal translations from the Pali. This achievement is all the more remarkable when we think of the difficulty, which English scholars, having access to the whole realm of Western philosophy, experience in translating the same Buddhist texts. A language which has moulded itself to the requirements of philosophical thought will, in so far as mental philosophy is more abstruse than physical science, be found equal to the needs of modern scientific thought. And there is no reason why, when it has assimilated Buddhist philosophical terms from Pali, it should not assimilate scientific terms from the English, which, be it noted, is a descendant of the family to which Pali belongs.

But there is a prior claim on our attention. Whatever its origin the language has its traditions which must be studied and respected, if it is to develop along proper lines. For the history of any language will show that newly-coined words and expressions, which do not obey the laws of phonology, are not likely to be permanently adopted into the language. Our first task then is to study Burmese from the philological point of view. A philological knowledge of Burmese is necessary not only for the sake of Burmese itself, but also for a comparative study of Burmese and other language, with which it is known to be connected. There are, for instance, many words which are common to Burmese and Talaing. Not until we know the oldest forms of these words in both languages and find out their phonological values, shall we be in a position to discover which language has given them to the other, or whether both language have taken them from an earlier common source.

Now the philological study of a language must begin with the earliest extant texts. Putting aside hypothetical considerations, we may regard the inscriptions of the Pagan period as among the earliest Burmese texts we have. A critical edition of these inscriptions (such as is being undertaken in the Epigraphia Birmanica) is urgently needed in order that we may find out the philological changes, which operate in them and through them in the later texts also. It would not only be a valuable contribution to Burmese history, but would provide the lexicographer with many a rare word and phrase current before the great poets began to write. Again it would to philological studies just that starting-point, the lack of which is mainly responsible for or present amazing ignorance.

There are also other branches of the Burmese literature which have been unduly neglected. From the language standpoint works in Burmese on technical subjects, such as astrology, medicine, architecture and so on, are as important as the inscriptions. Without discussing, for the present, the scientific value of their contents, we may say at once that they need to be studied for their technical vocabulary and phraseology, which will help us considerable in our work of finding suitable words and phrase in dealing with modern scientific works. A scholarly edition of such works in Burmese is therefore an urgent necessity.

When we have explored the whole range of the language and have compiled a dictionary worthy of itself (such as the Oxford Dictionary is for the English we shall not only be guided by its history but be able to draw on its resources in our work of shaping it for modern requirements. Many an old word will come to be revived, with a new meaning if need be; and many new terms formed out of old associations will come to be coined in consonance with the laws of phonology; while poets and artists will add beauty to the life of the language by creating works of art and style out of the materials gathered.
U Pe Maung Tin

Scanned and maintained by Win Tint, Librarian, Meiktila University, 2006

Typing by Existence Magazine, 2008

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0 responses to “A Note on the Development of the Burmese Language

  1. If you are using standard-compatible fonts, you will be able to use this dictionary, http://burmese.sealang.net

    Have fun!

  2. ma pann

    Thank you.