The Permanent Committee on Geographical Names of the British government has a number of documents listed on its website, many of which are available online as pdf files; I’m looking forward to delving into “Algeria: Language and Toponymy. How politically driven language policies have impeded toponymic progress” (November 2003), “Language Evolution in Bosnia” (August 2006), and “Iran: Religion, Nationalism and Toponymy: The complex ongoing interconnections between Persian and Arabic” (June 2003), among others. But the one I want to focus on now is “An Introduction to the Toponymy of Burma” (October 2007; pdf, Google cache). It starts with an “Outline of Post-Independence History” and a description of the various ethnic groups, then continues to the languages:

The situation is in fact greatly complex, as is suggested by a linguistic survey begun in 1917, which identified 242 languages and dialects before it was abandoned as being beyond the capacity and resources of the administration to accomplish. About three-quarters of the population of Burma, that is to say some 40 million people, speak one of the Tibeto-Burman languages. These are mostly Burmans who speak Burmese, almost the only language spoken in much of the central plains. Native Burmans seldom speak any indigenous language other than Burmese, but many educated non-Burmans do speak Burmese as a second language, so Burmese can serve as a medium of communication away from the central plains also. Burmese exists in both a literary/ceremonial and in a colloquial form, the language itself being known as myanma (h)batha in the former but generally as bama (h)batha in the latter. This important distinction between myanma and bama is encountered again in the debate over the country name itself…
[The ruling SLORC in May 1989 established the Commission of Inquiry into the True Naming of Myanmar:] The effect of this committee’s work on toponyms within Burma is dealt with elsewhere in this paper (Section E). But the most internationally visible result of their work concerned the country name itself [changing “Burma” to “Myanmar”]. The claim behind this move was that words deriving from the noun “Burma” could only properly relate to the Burman ethnic group. In order properly to encompass the entire spectrum of ethnic groups within the country, the word “Myanmar” should be used. This argument is still used today by the SPDC authorities. However, the crucial element of this clause is to be found in the words “laws enacted in the English language”. Law 15/89 was openly directed at the English language specifically. It had no effect whatsoever on the Burmese language where, as has been noted at the end of paragraph 9 above, the word employed continued to be myanma in literary/ceremonial form and bama in colloquial form. And the law effectively disadvantaged non-Burman ethnic groups, who had become accustomed to forms of “Burma” denoting the whole country, but to whom myanma and its derivatives were totally alien words which were redolent only of the language of the dominant ethnic group.

Nice to see a government committee put things so plainly and straightforwardly. After that come sections on Toponyms within Burma, Population and Related Information, First- and Second-Order Administrative Divisions, and Name and Spelling Changes in Burma. And at the end is a nice map showing the major rivers and cities (including the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw). Well done, PCGN!


  1. Fascinating site, thanks.

  2. I was involved a few years back on a publication project that included a lot of historical place names and maps of Burmese sites. Man, what a hassle it was to get agreement between the editors and authors about how to render each name!

  3. I shudder to think.

  4. I want to be a ruling slorc when I grow up.

  5. The “Algeria: Language and Toponymy. How politically driven language policies have impeded toponymic progress” article is linguistically ill-informed and politically appallingly slanted. The author talks as if unaware that the “Arabic Language
    Generalisation Law” has not actually been enforced – and as if unaware of the millions of Algerians (including probably most non-Kabyle Berbers) who are much more literate in MSA than in French, and whose career prospects and access to the system are directly harmed by the continued dominance of French in bureaucracy and higher education. And an expert in toponymy ought to be able to avoid getting both the spelling and the definition of “Tamazight” wrong.
    The idea that “Arabic script cannot easily show the vowels e and o, nor the consonants g, ñ and v (all needed in Berber)” is wrong on multiple levels: the “e” is a schwa, equally found in Algerian Arabic and unambiguous if the other three vowels are written long; “g” is standardly written as qaf with three dots in Algerian placenames; there is no “o” or “ñ” in Berber (apart from Tuareg); and “v” is an allophone of “b” which the dominant Latin orthography for Kabyle doesn’t distinguish either. In reality, the French-based Latin orthography currently used for Algerian toponyms makes considerably fewer of Berber’s phonemic distinctions than Arabic script does, and the only major gap in Arabic script for Berber is one he doesn’t mention – the absence of a letter for emphatic ẓ.
    In toponymy, the dominance of “Roman script and a French orthography” leads to pronunciation errors even by Algerians; I’ve more than once heard Algerians not familiar with the area pronounce Tamanrasset [tamənṛasət] rather than [tamənγast].
    I hope the Burma article is better informed.

  6. I hadn’t gotten to that one yet—thanks for the warning (and for the tip on how to pronounce Tamanrasset).

  7. I’d like to add [tamənγast] to the Wikipedia article; do you have a reference I could cite?

  8. Not at the moment unfortunately – once I’m closer to SOAS library I’ll see about checking Foucauld’s dictionary.

  9. Thank you for your comments on the Algerian situation, Lameen. As a French person I had no idea that the r in Tamanrasset could never be a “rolled r”; in that case it would have been better written gh which is a more common spelling for the voiced velar fricative (as in Maghreb pronounced the Arabic way, not the French way).

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