Update: 2018-09-21 03:15 PM -0400


Transcription Systems:
Abugida-Akshara & Alphabet-Letter


by U Kyaw Tun (UKT) (M.S., I.P.S.T., USA), Daw Khin Wutyi, Daw Zinthiri Han and staff of Tun Institute of Learning (TIL). Not for sale. No copyright. Free for everyone. Prepared for students and staff of TIL  Research Station, Yangon, MYANMAR 
 - http://www.tuninst.net , www.romabama.blogspot.com


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Abugida-Akshara system of recording speech in script - different from Alphabet-Letter system
  Inherent vowel of the Akshara : Akshara means "unchanging"

Classification of consonants by columns


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What we mean by written language is simply a way of recording speech in script thousands of years before the invention of machine recording. Listen:
- ELScott-AuClair<)) (link chk 180920)

UKT 180920: The term "Abugida" is not well-known, but the term "Akshara" is quite well-known in the East. To the Westerners, it is only the "Alphabet" that matters. Even then the basic unit of the Alphabetic transcription system, the "Letter" is not well-defined. Many think the Alphabet and the Akshara are the same. Amid all these mess, I've come into the field of Linguistics trying to find an inter-transcription method between English and Burmese. After wallowing in the mire for decades, I came across the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which is quite efficient between the European languages.

It was all because of a face-losing incident on my part while I had to liaise between the Soviet-Russians and Burmese staff of the Chemistry Dept. of the Rangoon University in 1955-56 during an official visit. Because the "Russian interpreter" told me to my face that we the Burmese chemists are lagging completing our task. I snapped back at him for coming at the wrong time when we are fully occupied with our annual exams. Failing our exam duties would cost our jobs. He realised that I was offended and tried to apologise. He probably did not realized my understanding English, or his commanding of English was not sufficient.

I turned to my assistant and remarked in un-diplomatic Burmese language. What I did not know, but found out a few hours later that the "interpreter" was a professor of phonetics who was being helped in English to Burmese translation by U Aye Maung, professor of Burmese of the Rangoon University . He "interpreted" the Russian speech of the speaker the following day, at the closing ceremony, in perfect Burmese. He was echoing the Burmese voice of the Burmese professor using his knowledge of Phonetic without fully understanding the Burmese language! I, there and then decided to learn Phonetics to help me to translate between English and Burmese during my lectures. At that time the medium of instruction in Burmese universities was English, while most of students were native Burmese speakers with a small number of non-Burmese speakers.

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Abugida-Akshara system of recording speech in script :
different from Alphabet-Letter system

-- UKT 130828, 131119, 140327, 160110, 180723

See Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abugida 180920
"Abugida as a term in linguistics was proposed by Peter T. Daniels in his 1990 typology of writing systems."

Writing or editing a dictionary on Indic & Myanmar languages is a mess until one keeps in mind that there are different systems of writing. English uses Alphabet-Letter system, whereas Indic & Myanmar languages use Abugida-Akshara system. The target languages which we have in mind are primarily Sanskrit (Skt-Dev), Pali (Pal-Myan) and Bamah Burmese (Bur-Myan).

Note that Bamah is just one speech that uses the Myanmar akshara. For instance, Mon speech uses the same basic Myanmar script, in addition to others like Karen-Po, Karen-Sgaw, Pa'O, Shan, etc. Other akshara languages such as Bangla-Bengali (Ban-Ben) may be included later.

The two writing systems, the Abugida-Akshara and the Alphabet-Letter, are entirely different. In all akshara systems, you must differentiate between the speech {sa.ka:} or the acoustics of the language, and the script {sa} or the glyphs the marks you make on palm leaves or paper. To make a durable presentation, the marks are made on stone (inscriptions), or durable metals such as gold and silver. The marks are made by writing with a stylus or a pen. The marks are made more visible by rubbing in lamp-black into the scratches, or when a pen is used regular ink is employed.

Writing on palm leaves with a stylus is still practiced in Myanmarpr by astronomers-astrologers for each person giving the exact time of date, day and time of birth based on the Myanmar luni-solar calendar. Since, the date depends on a particular luni-solar calendar, which has seen changes during the long history of the country, the positions of the planets, and the asterisms are calculated and recorded. Do not forget that the Western calendar has been changed within our living memory, and changes to the dates of birth of historical persons, and historical events have to be specified in BC or AD. Similarly, the time-keeping devises have been changed and so when recording the "hour, minute, and second" of birth, the time-keeping system must be specified. The Western historians are only now beginning to realize the utility of such a system for keeping track of historical events which could be checked by modern day astronomy.

The basic unit of an Alphabet is a Letter which is mute, but the basic unit of an Abugida is an Akshara whether in speech or script is a syllable. And so the word {d~da}, loosely translated as 'Grammar', gives us the system of speech-sounds which has been extended to script.

The primary speech sounds we will concentrate on in an Abugida-Akshara system are the vowels {a.ra.} and the consonants {by:}.

vowel: {a.ra.} - MLC MED2006-490 ;
  सर sara 'short vowel', स्वर svara 'vowel' - SpkSkt

consonant: {by:} - MLC MED2006-317
  व्यञ्जन vyajana 'consonant' - SpkSkt

Vowels are of two kinds: the free vowel, and the bound vowel (bounded in a consonant when it is known  as the inherent vowel). For comparing different languages of BEPS, we will concentrate on the short vowel 1 blnk of cardinal vowels of the Daniel Jones.

Free vowels
front vowel
s: /a/ {a.} अ a:  / i / {i.} इ i
back vowels: /u/ {u.} उ u; /ɑ/ {au:} ओ o

Bound vowels in {ka.} क ka [shown as vowel-signs or diacritics]
front vowels: {ka.} क ka ; {ki.} कि ki
back vowels: {ku.} कु ku ; {kau:} को ko

The Abugida-Akshara writing system is described under the rubric Abugida. The term Abugida is a relatively new word introduced by Peter T. Daniels only in 1990.

Even now, Akshara system of writing is not well understood thanks to sources like Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abugida 130828 which does not mention the term "syllable" - the basic unit of the system.

I came across the different systems of writing in the website Ancient Scripts a long time ago. http://www.ancientscripts.com/  130828. Unfortunately, the format has been changed from the much simpler format which to me was more informative than the present one.

Though the basic unit of the Abugida-Akshara system is the syllable, there are difference in writing them. An importance difference between Skt-Dev and Bur-Myan vowels are in split-vowels. Skt-Dev has no split-vowels. An Indic script that has split-vowels is Bangla-Bengali.

English speakers might be surprised to know that Eng-Lat also has split-vowels in the so-called Magic-E, in which the coda-consonant is placed between the basic vowel and the ending-E, changing the pronunciation, e.g.

<kit> --> <kite>


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Inherent vowel of Akshara

- UKT 160909, 180723, 180826, 180920: We will deal with the Inherent vowel of the Akshara first, and then go the Nuclear vowel of the Syllable in another file.

Akshara {ak~hka.ra} simply means "unchanging". Now, what is "unchanging", when to the Buddhist the upholder of the Anatta Principle {a.nt~ta.} "everything is subject to change". It means we have to look deeper into meaning of {a.nt~ta.}. The Anatta Principle is about the Natural world of Time-Space continuum. It is a Principle of Nature.

We humans, and some animals can make sound {d~da.} with our vocal systems, and listen with our ears. The medium to convey the sound is the air between the speaker and the hearer.

For complete understanding between the speaker and hearer, we must have a convention - a one-to-one system of sound and meaning. And it must never change. It is what we mean by Akshara {ak~hka.ra}. Our Anatta Principle {a.nt~ta.} is not violated. Now, if you are someone who must have a god or goddess, Akshara {ak~hka.ra} is for you to worship. Some people would worship it as Vāc, and anthropomorphise it as Dvi such as Maar Sarasvati {ra~pa.ti m-tau}.

We will now extend our definition of meaningful human sound as speech and its representation script, with its smallest unit as the akshara. It must be sonic, and therefore must have a vowel. Thus, <ta> {ta.} /ta/ has an inherent vowel <a> /a/ in both Bur-Myan and Skt-Dev.

The inherent vowel of the Abugida-Akshara system can be killed with a Virama (viram) {a.t} 'vowel kiiller'.

The smallest unit of the Alphabet-Letter system, Letter, is mute. It has no inherent vowel. Thus the Myanmar Akshara {ta.} /ta/ can be changed into Georgian Letter თ /t/ by use of Virama {a.t}

{ta.} /ta/ + viram --> თ /t/


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Classification of consonants by columns

UKT 180908:

Remember, the consonants are described by their POA (Points of Articulation), placed as rows in the form of 7x5 matrix. The rows have been identified as: velar, palatal, retroflex, dental, palatal, and approximants. I'm now finding that can be grouped into 3 groups, voiceless (vl), voiced (vd), and nasals (true- & semi-):

Vowels are all produced in throat. Note that each consonantal-akshara has an inherent vowel, which is designated as {-a}: e.g. {ka.}. In the word CV produced as, e.g.,

{ka.} + [{ka.}+ Viram (aka vowel killer}] --> {kak}

The change in human sound changes the meaning: {ka.} "v. to dance" has been changed to {kak} "n. domino". This is not so in English, where 'stress' is used to indicate the meaning.


The nuclear-vowel is the most important part of the syllable. The nucleus taken together with the coda is known as the rime. In Eng-Lat, there can be many consonants in the onset and also in the coda: C1C2(VC3C4). However, in Bur-Myan there can be only one consonant (killed) in the coda. In recent years there have been attempts to introduce more than one killed consonant in the coda for foreign loan-words.

See: English phonetics and proceed to English consonants and vowels
- Eng-phon-indx.htm > con-vow.htm (link chk 180727)

See also: English Phonetics and Phonology, Glossary (A Little Encyclopedia of Phonetics), by Peter Roach, 2009, in TIL HD-PDF and SD-PDF libraries:
- PRoach-Glossary<> / Bkp<> (link chk 180727)

UKT160909: My hypothesis on gender of nouns - I will be studying Pali with this hypothesis in mind.

Why has there to be sexist terms for nouns in a language? Can't we go by the sound of the syllable? Pali is a unique language in which all syllables end in vowels. When a disyllabic word is required, two syllables are conjoined either as vertical conjunct or horizontal conjunct.

In Pali, there are no syllables ending with a killed consonant   under a virama. Pali syllables can be classified by their vowel ends. The canonical structure of the syllable is always CV, and not CV as in Skt-Deva. I will describe the syllable that end in vowel /a/ {a. - a}-pair as an a-ender (masculine - male), that ending in /i/ {i. - i}-pair as i-ender (feminine - female). Note: /a/ & /i/, the front vowels are the most contrastive pair in a language. However there bound to be exceptions.

I realized that I will have to build up my Pali vocabulary before I attempt to study Pali grammar. The source of my choice is a dictionary such as The Student's Pali-English Dictionary by Maung Tin (U Pe Maung Tin), 1920.
- UPMT-PaliDict<> / bkp<> (link chk 160910)

The vowel o as described in Pali-Latin is a back mid vowel. Though in the 3-dimensional vowel given below, the back vowels /u/ /o/ /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ are spread out below, they are quite close. In fact the vowels /o/ /ɔ/ and /ɑ/, are so close that they can be mistaken for one another.


  Formants can be used to differentiate the vowels such as {o} and {au:}.

UKT 180830: BEPS and MLC transliterations for these two vowels are different. I'll not give the MLC transliterations to avoid confusion.

See How sound is produced and heard in Human voice, Phonetics and Phonology
- HV-indx.htm  (link chk 180830)

When I told him that in Romabama, the transliteration for is {o}, he said "that's how a man on the street {lm:pau-ka. lu} would do it." And he is right! It is usual for male Burmese friends of the same age to address each other using the prefix {ko} (such as how I address him -- {ko htwan: tn.}). If I were to write to him in English, I would address him as Ko Tun Tint. The explanation for how this confusion had come about is on the way the English vowels /o/ and /ɑ/ are generally pronounced. The first three formants for /o/ and /ɑ/ are quite similar, and when we pronounce {au:} or {AU:}, foreigners might heard it as /o/. But to us, they sound as /ɑ/, and hence the Romabama transcription is {au:}.

Though the syllable is the basic unit of the Abugida-Akshara system to which Bur-Myan, Mon-Myan, Pal-Myan, and Pal-Lanka, nobody seems to be paying much importance to it. We do not even have a dedicated term for it. I have no choice but to define it and others for use in BEPS.

Now that we have come across the vowel (sonant) and the consonant (co-sonant) which is mute by itself unless it is coupled to a vowel or sonant, we will use them to build up syllables from which we can proceed to words.

Bur-Myan language has a very simple grammar. It can afford to be simple - without tense, gender, number and inflexion - because it uses a class of suffixes known as {wi.bt} to build up words.

These suffixes are named "Nominalizers" by Andrew Simpson in his The Grammaticalization of Nominalizers in Burmese, 2008
-- BurMyan-indx.htm > Normalizer.htm (link chk 170309)
Downloaded paper in TIL HD-PDF and SD-PDF libraries
- ASimpson-NormalizerBurmese<> / Bkp<> (link chk 180801)

UKT 180830: It is obvious that a foreigner like Andrew Simpson, should not get involve in a language unless he knows the cultural usage. For instance, he does not even know that the Bur-Myan name "Win Win" is a female name, he has used "U Win Win", with the male honorific prefix "U". Moreover, some of his examples are culturally insensitive, e.g. The shopkeeper saw the children stealing the cigarettes.. Otherwise, his work is commendable.


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