BURMA/MYANMAR.

Via frequent commenter (and recent visitor) Kattullus, this BBC News article: “Should it be Burma or Myanmar?” They point out (as I always find myself doing) that Myanmar is the name imposed by the junta and Burma is preferred by democracy activists like Aung San Suu Kyi, and say:

It’s general practice at the BBC to refer to the country as Burma, and the BBC News website says this is because most of its audience is familiar with that name rather than Myanmar. The same goes for Rangoon, people in general are more familiar with this name than Yangon.

Which is eminently sensible, and my practice as well; I will never understand why so many people are so eager to fall in line with the “official” nomenclature. Anyway, there’s some interesting background on the two names, with this quote from “anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics”: “There’s a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government.”
Also, I got word from Grant Barrett that A Way With Words is back. Congratulations, Martha and Grant!

Comments

  1. I’ve always called it “Burma” for the political reasons they mention, but am relieved to read that “‘There’s not a really strong call from the democracy movement saying you should not call it Myanmar [...]‘”; one less thing to worry about, I guess.

  2. Also, via Jack English, the CBC recently changed its style from “Burma, also known as Myanmar” to “Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.”

  3. I will never understand why so many people are so eager to fall in line with the “official” nomenclature.
    It’s just the usual need to appear au fait and at the cutting edge, ugye? A straightforward kind of neophilia.

  4. The most important point, I think (not a problem for the BBC) is to remember that both “Burma” and “Myanmar” are to be pronounced non-rhotically only.
    Except when talking about Burma-Shave, of course. (“DOES YOUR BEARD / BEGIN TO SCRATCH? / DON’T REACH FOR LIGHTER / TORCH / OR MATCH / BEHIND YOU DO NOT BURN / YOUR ITCHES / BUT USE THE SHAVE / THE NAME OF WHICH IS / BURMA-SHAVE”)

  5. Paul Clapham says:

    I’m pretty sure I heard “Burma, also known as Myanmar” on the CBC news today.

  6. Apparently (and I’m inclined to trust Gritchka on such matters), the two names ought to be indistinguishable on the radio.
    Anyway, I’m fairly sure I heard the newsreader on CBC Radio 1 say “Myanmar, formerly known as Burma” on the first reference to the country, but “Burma” in all subsequent references.

  7. In Chinese Burma has been called Mian-dian for quite a long time, possibly forever. Not exatcly Myan-mar, but the same root.
    We’re really talking about nationalism and formal arrangements in international relations, but I don’t think that it’s at all true that this is some phony issue dreamed up by despots.
    I would be very happy to call Greece Hellas, too.

  8. Burma all the way. It’s always been called that in English, and the Burmese government has no business telling me what I should call their country.
    Otherwise, where would the madness end? China insisting we call them zhong-guo? Germany insisting on Deutchland in all languages? Switzerland insisting on some hyper-hyphenated name that combines their names in all official languages?

  9. Older dictionaries, like this have “မ္ရမ္‌မာ commonly pron. ဗမာ,” whereas SEAlang has entries for both ဗမာ and မ္ရန္‌မာ. Is that because the vernacular didn’t used to be written at all?

  10. michael farris says:

    “The most important point, I think (not a problem for the BBC) is to remember that both “Burma” and “Myanmar” are to be pronounced non-rhotically only.”
    Now that’s goin’ a little too far. If they’re gonna write r’s then I’m a’ gonna pronounce ‘em’ dadgummit. Down with non-rhotic imperialistic spelling conventions!
    Actually according to one source in Burmese, Bama is essentially the ‘same’ word as Myanma(a?) the symplification of myan to ba- being a pretty straightforward process (in Burmese at least, the phonology of which was pretty daunting and confusing when I looked at it).

  11. How about Beijing/Peking then? Pusan/Busan? Sri Lanka/Ceylon? I spent some time teaching in Japan and the Japanese use the ‘older’ pronunciations/labels for countries which lead to confusion. (One of the best comments a student ever gave me – ‘if you call it Beijing now, do you call it Beijing Duck?)
    The Japanese also tried to use the origin language’s pronunciation, so Paris sounds more like ‘Pa-ree’ and Rome is ‘Roma’ and so on.
    To me it makes more sense to fall in line with what the country calls itself, regardless of its political affiliation/orientation (though I bristle at the military junta in Myanamar and think that the international community could be doing more) though I recognize to follow through with this, it would require a major re-labeling of our maps.

  12. John and thedarkcanuck: You seem to be under the impression that “Burma” is some kind of foreign import. It’s the local name, the exact same word as “Myanmar” but in a colloquial form. It is the normal way people in Burma refer to their country (except that I believe the pronunciation is more like ba-MAH).

  13. If Beijing is the truly correct transliteration, how did Wades-Giles get it so wrong with Peking, etc? Or would it take a book to explain?

  14. Yes, it’s Burma not “Myanmar”. Burma is what everyone who’s actually won an election in the country has called it. We shouldn’t pander to the whims of dictatorships, especially not the Burmese junta. Remember when Ne Win woke up one morning in the 80s and decided to change the country’s currency, the kyat, from decimal to base 9?

  15. Paul…Afaik, the Peking transliteration long predates Wade-Giles. It’s been a while since I’ve studied this, but the sound -j used to sound like -k (perhaps moreso along the coasts). I’m unclear about the bei/pe shift, but it was still evident in the early 1900s when Beijing was Peiping (or Beiping in pinyin – Northern Peace).

  16. The “shift” of p to b just represents two strategies for representing an unaspirated p.
    And Burma is actually CLOSER to the local name than Myanmar, at least when you take into account how anglophones (especially Americans) inevitably pronounce it.

  17. The “shift” of p to b just represents two strategies for representing an unaspirated p.
    And Burma is actually CLOSER to the local name than Myanmar, at least when you take into account how anglophones (especially Americans) inevitably pronounce it.

  18. I got so irritated at listening to Jim Lehrer on the PBS NewsHour call the country Me-and-Mar that I sent him an email citing an academic source explaining the etymology and usage (a passage I blogged a good while back). I’ll post the email on my blog. I don’t know if my email had any effect, but I see now that are just saying ‘also called Burma’ (or ‘also called Me-and-Mar’ when Burma is cited first.
    Key-oh-do is another usage that irritates me, and Beijing with a French j. I guess I’ve gotten used to Toe-key-oh.

  19. To my knowledge there are four transliteration systems commonly used in the West for Chinese place names: Pinyin, Wade-Giles (which has more than one form), the Post Office system (forget the actual name of the system — it gives us Chungking and Peking), and a weird continental system (Tsingtao: a lot of XIXc scholarship is offputting because the transcriptions are so weird.). There are also some ad hoc exceptions (Canton) and dialect transcriptions (Swatow).
    In short, a total mess.
    I first learned with the Yale transcription, which uses R for retroflexes, and I still prefer it. But no one whatsoever uses. (It is a non-rhotic R.)

  20. “BBC News website says this is because most of its audience is familiar with that name rather than Myanmar.” That’s a transparent lie, of course: not that people are more familiar with the old name – no doubt true – but that that’s the reason that the BBC uses it. Otherwise it would use Peking, Bombay and so on. The brazenness of the lie is quite striking and rather insulting.

  21. Free Burma!
    International Bloggers’ Day for Burma on the 4th of October
    International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.
    http://www.free-burma.org

  22. Joel, if you think “Me-and-Mar” is annoying, I’ve heard “My-and-Mar” more than once.

  23. Mad,
    Gee, I guess I’ve been blessed not to have heard the My-and-Mar version so far. Now I’m waiting for some newsreader to pronounce Kyoto as Coyoto.
    Joel

  24. I call it Burma because that’s what I’ve grown up with, and because that’s what Monty Python calls it:
    “BURMA!” “What’d you say Burma for?” “I panicked.”
    But honestly, the country’s getting pretty crazy, isn’t it, what with the new “capital” and assorted dorkiness?

  25. Don’t forget Comet Hyakutake.

  26. I’m way out of my depth on the issue of Burmese orthography, but from what I understand, written Burmese and spoken Burmese are in a diglossic relationship perhaps akin to that between Classical Arabic and the rich diversity of contemporary colloquial Arabic, or between Classical Chinese and modern spoken Chinese languages and dialects. Written Chinese underwent drastic reforms during the early 20th century to reflect modern spoken Mandarin, but Burmese still awaits such orthographic reforms. So people may write Burmese as it was spoken 1000 years ago (e.g., Mran-ma) but pronounce the same words the way they have turned out after 1000 years of sound change (e.g., Bam-ma), even writing millennium-old grammatical elements that are now archaic or obsolete in the spoken language. It would be as if all English speakers shared no writing system except a Runic version of Anglo-Saxon.

  27. In Japanese, of course, the shift is somewhat more noticeable, from BIRUMA to MYANMAA. Where would BIRUMA come from? German?

  28. Bathrobe: It would have come from either Dutch or Portuguese, sometime before Meiji. (Dutch seems more likely.)

  29. Michael Farris says:

    What’s wrong with Mee-and-mar (assuming there’s no n and that it’s roughly [mij@nma:r] ? English doesn’t have a m+y as an acceptable initial cluster (AFAIK) and Mia (plus n) seems to be close enough.

  30. michael farris says:

    “assuming there’s no n”
    that should read “assuming there’s no d”
    And yes, mj- can occur in ‘muse’ but the distribution of [Qju]* is a little anomolous in modern English. And I still can’t think of any [mja-] initials in English so I thing ['mij@nma:r] is perfectly close enough even as I agree that ['maj@nma:r] would be ghastly.
    But I still say Burma so …
    Q = any consonant

  31. michael farris says:

    “assuming there’s no n”
    that should read “assuming there’s no d”
    And yes, mj- can occur in ‘muse’ but the distribution of [Qju]* is a little anomolous in modern English. And I still can’t think of any [mja-] initials in English so I thing ['mij@nma:r] is perfectly close enough even as I agree that ['maj@nma:r] would be ghastly.
    But I still say Burma so …
    Q = any consonant

  32. Michael,
    Well, there’s a difference between breaking up the unfamiliar cluster and stressing the extra vowel. It would be as if English speakers said KEE-yowtow for Kyoto, or as if Japanese speakers said SU-toppu for stop.

  33. michael farris says:

    Hmmm I find [mi'a:nma:r] to be pretty awkward and [mijan'ma:r] only slightly less so.
    Given the particular arrangement of consonants and vowels, the initial stress is the easiest way to say it for me followed by final stress though that makes it sound too much like a small fishing village in Chile (and not pronouncing the final r is really not an option for me).

  34. Actually, I have heard some people pronounce it “KEE-yowtow”.
    But back to the main topic, I don’t know anything about Burma/Myanmar/Me and Mar/that poor totalitarian regime in south Asia , but I can only relate through the Indian “problem”:
    namely, most people in India who aren’t some pedant and/or nut refer to Mumbai as Bombay… and if I remember right, it’s still Madras and not Chennai. Thank god because that could just cause chaos in the canned-sauce market.
    Though I think they DO say Kolkata. or perhaps the name was never “changed” and we just transcribed it poorly in English in the first place. Confusing stuff.

  35. Folquerto says:

    Michael Farris en Joe know exactly what’s the matter with Burma and Myanmar. Myanmar has been the spelling in Burmese script of what the Britisch heard and wrote as Burma or Birma and what sounded as what nowadays also is written Bamaa in the Burmese script. Which script is not difficult, in principle. Bamaa is written with three signs: ba + ma + long a. I used this spelling myself on the protective covers of my two Burmese manuscripts, after I tried to learn the language and found out what Joe explains and I wisely postponed the matter. There is only one thing needed to know this, go to Burmese language sites.

  36. Then of course there’s the perennial matter of Panjab versus Punjab, mentioned in dispatches way back in 2004.

  37. michael farris says:

    “is written Bamaa in the Burmese script. Which script is not difficult, in principle”
    In principle is the important thing here, in practice, Burmese script has totally defeated my (admittedly not persistent) efforts to learn it. Recognizing the differences in the relentless line of minimally distinct oooo’s marching across the page is easier said than done (for me).
    The phonology is also pretty daunting. I’ve read a couple of supposed phonological analyses-guides that seem to be written for completely different languages altogether (and trying to reconcile them was beyond what effort I extended toward that end). I assume this was due to dialect differences since which dialect is considered standard has changed in the last century or so (give or take a couple of decades).

  38. michael farris says:

    “the perennial matter of Panjab versus Punjab”
    which reminds me of Bulgaria. Most european languages have a [u] in the name, but the English heavy schwa pronunciation (the first syllable rhyming with ‘dull’) is actually closer to the way Bulgarians say it.

  39. Todd,
    I have just been to Madras/Chennai and every single local referred to the city as Chennai. Not even “formerly known as Madras”. Bombay/Mumbai depended on the assumptions they happened to make about the foreigner they were talking to, but I definitely heard more Mumbais.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    Key-oh-do is another usage that irritates me, and Beijing with a French j. I guess I’ve gotten used to Toe-key-oh.

    In German, the spellings Tokio and Kioto are considered normal. So are Kenia and Ruanda. Result? People go around believing all those words really have three syllables. Grmpf.
    Myanmar always keeps its y, but the TV news speakers give it three syllables, too…
    And this brings me to the real oddity. German for “Burma” is Birma. Are we looking at the fact that ur and ir are pronounced the same in English?
    —————–
    Peking: I’ve read that comes from the Cantonese pronunciation Bakging (I forgot the tones).
    —————–
    B vs P: The sound in question is not an unaspirated [p] (a fortis), it’s a voiceless [b] (a lenis). That’s a pet peeve of mine because most southeastern German dialects, including mine and Austrian Standard German, use that alone as a phonemic distinction. Anyway, Mandarin distinguishes unaspirated from (very strongly) aspirated plosives and affricates, and all of them are voiceless in all environments*; Pinyin goes with economy (b, d, g, z, j, zh vs p, t, k, c, q, ch), but Wade-Giles went to great lengths to emphasize that all are voiceless and used p, t, k, ts, ch, ch vs p’, t’, k’, ts’, ch’, ch’.
    * Well, yeah, the unaspirated affricates consist of a voiceless stop and a voiced fricative release for some speakers…
    Perhaps unsurprisingly, people kept dropping the apostrophes, as has happened above to Peip’ing. (For example, the transcriptions of the subway stations in T’ai-pei/Taibei are simply unreadable.) This has been perhaps the most important factor in the demise of Wade-Giles.
    [Test if the superscript tag is allowed: 1]

  41. David Marjanović says:

    Test failed.
    And Wade-Giles insisted on hyphens between syllables, which I forgot in the first example: Pei-p’ing. This pointless feature is surely another reason for the demise of Wade-Giles.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons.

    No disrespect meant, but… I’m sure the generals in Naypidaw are already quivering in their boots… um… I think the word “support” is misleading.
    ——————–
    I knew I had forgotten to adress something else! “Peking” is not Wade-Giles. The Wade-Giles version was Pei-ching.

  43. The idea thta Peking is from Cantonese is a strangely persisent one, but I don’t believe it is true.
    The ‘k’ in Peking is the same as that in Yangtze-Kiang, Sinkiang, Nanking, etc. It’s an intra-Mandarin dialect issue, not a matter of Cantonese influence. (I’ve seen references to the late survival of the ‘k’ (actually a ‘g’) in Mandarin dialects, but not sure how to hunt them down at the moment).

  44. …and Beijing with a French j.
    Right! As discussed chez LH before. Its endemic in Australia, even among stupid Australian journalists reporting from Beijing itself. How we who are sensitive to these things look forward with dread to saturation coverage of the Olympics!
    With luck, our next prime minister will be Kevin Rudd, who speaks standard putonghua Chinese fluently, and did so with Hu himself, at the recent APEC meetings.
    Ironic that the “j” should be pronounced with a sound that very few native speakers of putonghua are capable of producing. But I have heard some visiting Chinese trying to do so, in order to accommodate our pronunciation – which is nothing but a stone-deaf attempt to get theirs right!

  45. michael farris says:

    “I’ve seen references to the late survival of the ‘k’ (actually a ‘g’) in Mandarin dialects, but not sure how to hunt them down at the moment”
    I read somewhere (here?) that an earlier version of Pinyin used the spelling gi- instead of ji- which gives Beiging, which is more visually in line with how other Chinese languages would be romanized.

  46. A few things:
    When I went to Burma/Myanmar, the locals I spoke to there pronounced it “MEE-ann-marr” (while speaking English to me).
    I read in the Lonely Planet guidebook (which may well be wrong, as Lonely Planet guidebooks often are on many things) that the British coined the term “Burma” after the Bamar people who comprise the ethnic majority, but that “Myanmar” is a local term that refers to the entire territory, and that the government favors the latter term because they want to appear to include the various minorities as being important to the country. That would seem to conflict with the explanation given in the newspapers, that “Burma” and “Myanmar” are just different pronunciations of the different root word – has anyone here seriously looked into this?

  47. LP was wrong. Burma (pronounced ba-ma) is the local name, a colloquial form of the word whose official form is Myanmar (pronounced myan-ma). The official form has nothing to do with “including the minorities.”

  48. Today is Hangul Proclamation Day. So add Korean to the list.
    The very common Sino-Korean surname is spelled 이 and sometimes 리. That ends up as I, Yi, Yee, Li, Lee, Ri, Ree, Rhee, Rhie, … Again due to variable native pronunciation and Romanization scheme.
    Like Wade-Giles, McCune-Reischauer uses an apostrophe to represent aspiration and it keeps getting lost in transcription.
    Stops distinguish lenis, fortis strongly aspirated and fortis unaspirated. Lenis is predictably voiced between vowels and after nasals, just as stops are predictably aspirated in English and Standard German based on the surrounding phonetic environment. l / ɾ is similarly determined.
    Given all the features that native speakers apply, I imagine it’s sometimes hard to say definitively which mistakes make you unintelligible (getting voicing wrong) and which just make you sound foreign (like a native French speaker’s failure to aspirate). Plus the speech organs make the features not really independent. It seems plausible that listeners could adjust their criteria without changing the native pronunciation in any way. If voiced / unvoiced and aspirated / unaspirated are just VOT time windows, what is normal could be widened.

  49. David Marjanović says:

    (I’ve seen references to the late survival of the ‘k’ (actually a ‘g’) in Mandarin dialects, but not sure how to hunt them down at the moment).

    In some it survives to the present, says Wikipedia (somewhere).

    Stops distinguish lenis, fortis strongly aspirated and fortis unaspirated. Lenis is predictably voiced between vowels and after nasals, just as stops are predictably aspirated in English and Standard German based on the surrounding phonetic environment.

    What Ladefoged ended up calling “fortis” in Korean is something completely unique. Judging from the sound files I’ve found online, it doesn’t sound like anything I would ever have imagined. Wikipedia calls it “stiff voice”, IIRC.
    BTW, aspiration is not done in southern German, standard or not. Austrian TV/radio newsreaders don’t aspirate, and I haven’t caught any Swiss ones doing it either. I was taught aspiration at school in the first English lessons, complete with tricks that you can put out a candle by saying an aspirated consonant to it or make a sheet of paper flap into horizontal if you hold it in front of your mouth and pronounce an aspirated consonant. And I never even noticed the rule that the English fortes are not aspirated behind /s/ because aspiration as a whole is a foreign concept to me! I had to read about it, and then I had to get an explanation of this seemingly completely arbitrary rule (the fricative is supposed to suck the air out, so none is left for aspiration). I’ve also caught myself forgetting to aspirate while speaking Mandarin in China. (I don’t know if I was understood.) Occasionally I (still!) forget it in English, too, though there that’s less dangerous.

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