Update: 2007-02-10 11:05 PM -0500



Burmese Written Language in Roman Script


U Kyaw Tun, M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A.), Deep River, Ontario, Canada. Not for sale. No copyright. Free for everyone. Prepared for students of TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR .

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Pali-Myanmar vowels
Burmese-Myanmar vowels
Table of Myanmar vowels
Extended Burmese-Myanmar vowels - vowels ending in {athut}
Vowel groups
Non-vowel signs
Vowel length
Dot above
Vowel Suppression Sign

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Pali-Myanmar vowels

Let us remind ourselves, whenever we are talking about the vowels and consonants, what we are talking about. Are we talking about the human speech, or how that speech is "recorded" in script? We must remind ourselves that the human speech can be recorded only recently -- electronically -- and we have no way of knowing how a historical person, such as Gottama Buddha, had spoken thousands of years ago. Since the human speech, or the ability to produce the human speech which every newborn is equipped, is universal, the number of vowels and consonants for all human spoken languages must be almost the same. This idea has come into the field of Linguistics thanks to the work of Noam Chomsky.

It is only when we are talking about how the human speech is recorded in script, do we find a difference in the number of vowels and consonants.

Since there are only 8 vowel-letters in Pali-Myanmar compared to 13 of Burmese-Myanmar, we will consider the Pali-Myanmar as an introduction to the latter.

That there are 8 vowels is from An Elementary Pali Course, Ven. Narada Thera, by Buddha Dhamma Association, Inc. (Sri Lanka)  www.buddhanet.net. My references on Pali-Latin (or the so-called International Pali) are from the above, PTS Pali-English Dictionary and Childers Dictionary of Pali Language.

At one time, no distinction was made between an alphabet and an abugida (or akshara), and the terminology of Narada belonged to that period. Now, we do make a distinction: a letter or character of an alphabet is not a syllable and cannot be pronounced, whereas an akshara or a  character of an abugida, being a syllable, can be pronounced. Here, it is important to remember that English-Latin uses an alphabet, whereas Burmese-Myanmar uses an abugida. However, the distinction between an alphabet and an abugida becomes unimportant in the case of vowels: a vowel character is always pronounceable in both alphabet and abugida.

I had wondered why the Burmese-Myanmar {au} is represented by [o] in Pali-Latin, until I looked into the way the English-Latin <o> is pronounced. The following is from DJPD16 p.373

Pronouncing the English-Latin letter <O>

p373. The vowel letter <o> has several pronunciations. The two most predictable strong pronunciations linked to spelling are:
a monophthongal pronunciation, sometimes described as 'short' in British English /ɒ (US) ɑː ɔː/ and
a diphthongal pronunciation, sometimes described as 'long' /əʊ (US) oʊ/.

In the monophthongal pronunciation, the <o> is generally followed by a consonant which closes the syllable, or a double consonant before another vowel, e.g.:

vowel-sound /ɒ/ (US) /ɑː ɔː/ - monophthongal (short pronunciation in Brit. Engl.)
  <cod>  /kɒd/  (US)  /kɑːd/
  <robbing> /ˈrɒb.ɪŋ/  (US)  /ˈrɑːbɪŋ/

It is important to note that the /ɒ/ corresponding to Burmese-Myanmar {au} is considered to be monophthongal by DJPD16. Its corresponding vowel {au:} in Burmese-Myanmar is written as a split vowel . One of the Indian languages that has split vowels for {au:} and {au} is Bengali-Bengali: ো  (U09CB Bengali vowel-sign [O] and  ৌ (U09CC Bengali vowel-sign [Au]).

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Burmese-Myanmar vowels

The basic and public-school presentations

According to Myanmar Thudda, volumes 1 to 5 (in Burmese), Text-book Committee, Basic Education, Ministry of Education, Myanmar, ca. 1986, there are two different ways of presenting Burmese-Myanmar vowel-letters: the basic {ahkr-hkn} and the public-school syllabus {thing-ro:} In the first presentation there are 11 vowel-letters, and in the second 12. If you are to include both these presentations, you will have to say that there are 13 vowel-letters.

All abugidas derived from Asoka script (or Brahmi) including Burmese-Myanmar and Pali-Myanmar, present the vowels {thara.} (Pali-Latin: sara) in two ways: vowel-letters and the vowel-signs. Vowel letters and vowel signs are sometimes referred to as independent vowel letters and dependent vowel signs, e.g. in the Unicode Standard, Version 4.0, Chapter 09, Unicode Consortium, http://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode4.0.0/ch09.pdf .

Table of Myanmar vowels

The vowel-signs are used with consonant-letters to generate syllables. Thus, {AU:} is a vowel-letter, and to generate a syllable from {ka.} with the {AU:} sound, we use the vowel-sign . The vowel-sign has no sound of its own, and unless you put in a consonant (or the vowel {a.}), it is mute. Though, it is written as a split vowel-sign, and is not a diphthong made of two vowel-signs: {} and {a}. Some scholars are of the opinion that it is a diphthong. See Burmese Language, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_language , or the downloaded file (of course, with my comments) in the TIL library.

It is interesting to note that Bengali has two split vowels corresponding {au:} and {au} -- ো (U09CB) [o] and ৌ (U09CC) [au]. This should be contrasted to Telugu vowel-signs [o] ొ (U0C4A) and [au]  ౌ (U0C4C). [Unfortunately, at the time of writing this file, I don't have any Bengali or Telugu speakers who know the corresponding scripts, to consult.]. The reason, that I have chosen Telugu to give as example is because Burmese-Myanmar script is believed by some to have been derived from Mon-Myanmar script which had been borrowed from a south Indian script, most probably Telugu.

All the consonant-letters (including {a.}) of the Burmese-Myanmar akshara matrix can generate syllables with the vowel-signs. The resultant syllables can be extended further by adding the vowel length signs:

short  - usually inserting an {auk-mris} which can be best described as a "dot-below",
normal -
usually no special diacritical mark included, and
long - usually followed by {wus~sa} or {wus~sa.pauk} which looks exactly the same as 'colon' (:).  It is known as visagar in Sanskrit-Devanagari.

An interesting vowel-sign to produce the vowels is the {th:th:ting} which can be best described as "dot-above" which produces nasals without either "n" or "m" colouring.

The overall study of Burmese-Myanmar vowels would bring out one very important point. Burmese-Myanmar  vowels are pure vowels. What the non-Burmese speakers would call "tone-marks" to shorten and lengthen the vowels are intrinsic parts of the vowels themselves and are included the respective glyphs. Each vowel is actually a family of three vowels (short-length, normal-length, and long-length). Romabama vowels are presented based on this model and not on vowel-arrangement as given in the Table of Myanmar vowels.

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Extended Burmese-Myanmar vowels
-- Vowels ending in killed-consonants

Romabama, the (almost) one-to-one transliteration, is essentially Burmese speech in Latin script. The effective unit of Burmese-Myanmar is the orthographic syllable, consisting of a consonant and vowel (CV) core and, optionally, one or more preceding consonants. The canonical structure of Burmese-Myanmar syllable is (((C)C)C)V without a coda. However, Romabama uses the structure CV, where is a killed-consonant. For syllables with the killed-consonant, the rhyme or rime is more important than the vowel, and this chapter on the Burmese-Myanmar vowel is actually about the rhyme.

How to represent the rime in Romabama has been a pain in the neck for me for a long time, until I realised that the killed consonant influence the peak vowel. This makes the choice of V in Romabama arbitrary, but generally is based on the pronunciation (transcription) given in the Myanmar English Dictionary (MEDict).

Vowels ending in killed {ka.}-group:
   {ak}   /|e'|/ -- {kak} /|ke'|/ -- MEDict013
Vowels ending in killed {sa.}-group:
   {is}   /|i'|/ -- {is} /|i'|/ -- MEDict625
Vowels ending in killed {ta.}-group:
   {at} or {ut} (tentative)
Vowels ending in killed {pa.}-group:
   {up} (tentative)

Now, lets look at the vowel that has been extended by use of {athut}. It is the inherent vowel, with its elusive vowel-sign simply represented by a "dash" in the Table of Myanmar vowels. Now, it is logical to ask, if it is possible to extend other vowels (and vowel-signs). The answer is yes. Examples:

Extending {a}

with {ra.thut}
{mr} /|man|/ - n. doctrine of evil. -- MEDict359

Extending {}

with {ta.thut}
{hkt} /|khi'|/ - n. 1. extent; domain. 2. age (as in "stone age") -- MEDict064

Extending {o}

with {la.thut}
{bol} /|bou|/ - n. 1. commander of a hundred men.  -- MEDict315

with {wa.thut}
{pa.ol.} /|paou.|/ - n. Pa-o: name of one of the ethnic groups of the
   Union of Myanmar, speaking a Tibet-Myanmar language. -- MEDict254

Note the place of {auk-mis} (dot-below) in {pa.ol.}. The place is before the {wa.thut}. You will also note that, extending the vowels with killed a-wag consonants does not affect the pronunciation, and the tendency has been to drop the {athut} completely. Thus, there were more {wa.thut} signs in my parents' days, and you might still see some of them on stone inscriptions in monasteries and pagodas as in {nat-lu tha-Du. hkau-s thauw}, meaning "May gods and humans acclaim well-done."

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Non-vowel signs

1. {auk-mris} -- dot below
2. {athut} (virama) -- the flag
3. {wus~sa.} (visarga) -- the colon

Note: {th:th:ting} -- dot above, is not a non-vowel sign (by my definition), because it can take on a consonantal-akshara and change it into a nasal.

A non-vowel sign (my definition) is the one that can augment a vowel sign, but which is incapable of taking on a consonant by itself. A  vowel sign, on the other hand, is a sign that can take up a consonant to form another syllable. In the above table, you will notice that {a} becomes {a:} by adding a non-vowel sign known as {wus~sa.} (visarga), which looks like a 'colon'.

Another non-vowel sign is {auk-mris}, which is what has been called "dot-below".  (Contrast with Devanagari nukta).

The non-vowel signs {auk-mris} and {wus~sa.} cannot take on a akshara by themselves. Thus, and are not allowed.

The consonant-aksharas in scripts derived from Brahmi have an inherent vowel resembling a short English <a>. Under certain circumstances, this inherent vowel has to be removed or "killed". The sign used is known as {athut} in Burmese-Myanmar or virama in Sanskrit-Devanagari. In this text (e.g. CV) the (Latin capital letter C with cedilla) stands for a killed consonant. The sign looks like a little flag or {tn-hkun}, . This should be contrasted to Devanagari virama sign: ् (U094D).

{th:th:ting}, , can take on a consonant by itself and is a true vowel sign. And therefore, it is not a non-vowel sign. See dot-above and dot-below in my notes.

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Vowel length

Burmese-Myanmar vowels can be extended by tone or length marks: short, normal, and long. To a Burmese-Myanmar speaker, the most conspicuous difference is the way these sounds are produced. The short tone is produced in the front part of the mouth, with normal mouth opening and expanding little energy. The long tone is produced at the back of the mouth, with the widest mouth opening using much energy: you can feel the vocal cords vibrating. The normal tone is produced somewhere and somewhat in the middle.

I have already given a brief introduction to these marks or signs. The question arise whether we should classify these signs just tone marks or not. In the English script, the vowel tones are not explicitly written down. As an example, in the English words <car> and <carbon>, there are no tone and/or stress marks, unless we get ourselves involved in phonemics:

{ka:} (MLC transcript /|ka:|/ -- <car> /kɑːʳ (US) kɑːr/
{ka-bwun} (MLC transcript /|ka bun|/ -- <carbon> /'kɑː.bən (US) kɑːr-/.
Note: my choice of the above examples, is rather unsatisfactory, since both the British and US pronunciations involve a shade of /{au:}/ sound. Please refer to the vowel trapezoid given above, and you will see that /ɑː/ is close to {au:}.

However in Burmese-Myanmar, these two words transliterated from English are written {ka:} and {ka-bwun}, respectively. In the first Burmese-Myanmar word, the vowel in <car> is long as is shown by {wus~sa.}-sign (visarga), whereas the vowel in the second word is of normal length. Therefore it is legitimate to treat {a.} {a} {a:} as separate vowels and not one vowel as you would treat them in English-Latin.

All the Burmese-vowels, can be extended by the use of {auk-mris} and {wus~sa.}.

Of course, as in all languages, be prepared to find exceptions. The following are two exceptions: notice the use of {} (killed-{ya.} for the middle length in the first case.

{.} {} {:}
{au.} {au} {au:}

According to U Tun Tint, at one time, {.} {} {:}, had been written as .

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Dot above 

{th:th:ting} -- dot above.
Contrast this to {auk-mris} -- dot below.
See UKT note on dot-above and dot-below

Almost all Burmese-Myanmar consonants can take on {th:th:ting} (anunāsika, also called 'chandrabindu') producing a syllable that sounds very similar to phonemic /ʌn/ or /n/ rhyming with the English word <run>. With consonant {ka.} the syllable produced is {kn} (meaning: fate). This word sounds like {kan} (meaning: to kick), {kaN} (meaning: nil) and {kam} (meaning: nil).

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Vowel Suppression Sign (Virama)

See Also "Killed" Consonants in con02.htm.

Burmese-Myanmar, together with Brahmi-derived scripts, employs a vowel omission (suppression, kill) sign known as {athut} (Sanskrit: virama, Hindi: hal or halant). It is used to "kill" the inherent vowel a. present in the consonant-akshara. Since I have been saying about the virama in many places in this work, the following be a repeat of what I have said before.

Burmese-Myanmar script, as well as Devanagari, are abugidas -- a cross between syllabic writing systems and alphabetic writing systems. The effective unit of these writing systems is the orthographic syllable, consisting of a consonant and vowel (CV) core and, optionally, one or more preceding consonants, with a canonical structure of (((C)C)C)V. " -- http://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode4.0.0/ch10.pdf

In the section on Devanagari conjunct (con01.htm), it has been pointed out the virama may be hidden (for example when two consonants are ligated). However, it is always visible in the coda, e.g. {kan} where n is the killed consonant. Note {kan} is written in CV form.

When a killed consonant appears in the coda, it is probably more fitting to treat it (i.e. the killed consonant) not as a separate entity, but as part of the vowel preceding it. In other words, for syllables of the form CV, it is the rhyme or rime (V) that is more important than the vowel (V) alone.

From DJPD16 p458.
In the phonological analysis of the syllable, this is a way of referring to the vowel in the middle of the syllable forming its 'peak' plus any sounds following the peak within the syllable (the CODA).
   Examples for English:
In the word <spoon> the rhyme (or rime) is /uːn/, in <tea> it is /iː/ and in <strengths> it is /eŋθs/ or /eŋkθs/.


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UKT notes

   An abugida, also called an alphasyllabary, is a writing system wherein the basic symbols represent a consonant plus an unmarked vowel. When a different vowel is wanted, a diacritic or some other modification is made to the sign. The sign used to indicate the vowel is dropped is called a virama, or a " vowel killer".
   The word "abugida" comes from the first few signs of the Ethiopic Amharic script, which is an example of an abugida. Devanagari is another abugida, used in India.
   From: http://www.everything2.org/index.pl?node=abugida -- For hyper-links in this note to work go on-line.
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Chomsky, Noam . Born 1928 1. American linguist who revolutionized the study of language with his theory of generative grammar, set forth in Syntactic Structures (1957). -- AHTD
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The following is a direct quotation from DJPD16 p105 - Info panel 17

coda: The end of a syllable, which is said to be made up of an ONSET, a peak and a coda. The peak and the coda constitute the RHYME (or RIME) of the syllable.
   Examples for English
English allows up to four consonants to occur in the coda, so the total number of possible codas in English is very large -- several hundred in fact, e.g.:
  <sick>  /sɪk/
  <six>  /sɪks/
  <sixth>  /sɪksθ/
  <sixths>  /sɪksθs/
The central part of a syllable is almost always a vowel, and if the syllable contains nothing after the vowel it is said to have no coda ('zero coda'), e.g.
  <bough>  /baʊ/
  <buy>  /baɪ/
In other languages
Some languages (e.g. Japanese) have no codas in any syllables.

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dependent vowels
The dependent vowels or vowel signs serve as the common manner of writing non-inherent vowels and are generally referred to as {tha.ra. thin~k-ta.}. The dependent vowels do not stand alone; rather, they are visibly depicted in combination with a base consonant letter, or a consonant cluster. They may have a dependent vowel applied to it to indicate the vowel quality of the syllable, when it is different from the inherent vowel. Explicit appearance of a dependent vowel in a syllable overrides the inherent vowel of a single consonant letter.
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dot-above and dot-below
UKT: These two signs are described by various names, and when I tried to relate them to Devanagari, I ran into problems.

{naig~ga.hait} (MLC transcript) /|nei'ga̱hei'|/)
n. ortho superscripted dot used in combination with the {a.}, {i.}, {u.} vowels to effect {n} /|an|/, {in} /|ein|/, {on} /|oun|/ sounds. Also {th:th:ting} (Pal: {naig~ga.hi.ta.}) -- MEDict 233

{th:th:ting) (MLC transcritpt) /|thei: dhei: tin|/
n. ortho. superscripted dot placed on a letter to produce the {n} /|an|/, {in} /|ein|/, () {on} /|oun|/ sounds. -- MEDict 500

n. ortho. name of the symbol; subscripted dot employed to produce a checked tone. -- Myan-Engl-Dict. p620.

I was not sure to what Myanmar diacritic  Anusvara do correspond until I came across an unequivocal statement in Wikipedia:

" In the Burmese alphabet, the anusvara is represented as a dot underneath a nasalised final to indicate a creaky tone (with a shortened vowel)." -- Wikipedia

The term "creaky tone" (Wikipedia) is the same as "checked tone" (MLC)

Anunaasika (anunāsika), also called 'chandrabindu' ("moon and dot"), is a dot on top of a breve above a letter (मँ), used as a diacritic in Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan languages written in Devanagari script to represent vowel nasalization. When transliterated, it is represented with a tilde above the letter ( ~ ). -- Wikipedia

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independent vowels
The independent vowels or vowel letters are known as {tha.ra. ak~hka.ra}, and they stand on their own. The writing system treats independent vowels as orthographic CV syllables in which the consonant is null.
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The following is a direct quotation from DJPD16 p458 - Info panel 62

p.458. In the phonological analysis of the syllable, this is a way of referring to the vowel in the middle of the syllable forming its 'peak' plus any sounds following the peak within the syllable (the CODA).

Examples for English

In the word <spoon> the rhyme (or rime) is /uːn/, in <tea> it is /iː/ and in <strengths> it is /eŋθs/ or /eŋkθs/.


The spelling <rhyme> also refers to a pair of lines that end with the same sequence of sounds in verse. If we examine the sound sequences that must match each other, we find that these consist of the vowel and any final consonants of the last syllable: thus <moon> and <June> rhyme, and the initial consonants of these two words are not important (of course, we do find longer-running rhymes than this in verse, e.g. <ability> rhyming with <senility>).

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-- n. Orth. postscripted double dot; the symbol placed after the vowels or after a devowalised consonant to produce the extra long, heavy, falling tone. Also, {rh.ka.pauk}, {rh.hsi:}, {wi.thiz~za.ni}, {wus~sa.nhis-loan:pauk} -- Myan-English-Dict. p480
-- ः (U0903) DEVANAGARI SIGN VISARGA -- The Unicode Standard, Version 4.0, Codes Charts: South Asian scripts (from PDF Version), Unicode Consortium, Copyright 1991-2003 Unicode, Inc. http://www.unicode.org/charts/
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