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language belonging to the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages (see Sino-Tibetan languagesSino-Tibetan languages,
family of languages spoken by over a billion people in central and SE Asia. This linguistic family is second only to the Indo-European stock in the number of its speakers.
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). It is spoken by about 30 million people in Myanmar, where it is both the principal and the official language. Burmese can be described as monosyllabic because root words generally consist of a single syllable. Context, word order, and the use of musical pitch or tones, of which Burmese has three, help to differentiate the meanings of the many homonyms. Syllables are often used in combination, thereby increasing the number of ideas that can be expressed. Burmese has its own alphabet, which is ultimately descended from an old script from S India. There is a great difference between the spoken and written forms of the language.


See J. Okell, Reference Grammar of Colloquial Burmese (1969); W. S. Cornyn, Spoken Burmese (1971).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a people numbering about 20 million (1970) that makes up most of the population of Burma. They speak Burmese, which became a written language in the 11th century. The Burmese comprise various ethnic groups: the Arakans, who live on the northwestern coast; the Toungoo of central Burma; and the Intha, who live an isolated life in their lake dwellings on the southeast shore of Inle Lake. Those Burmese who are religious are mostly Buddhists of the southern persuasion, but pre-Buddhist beliefs continue to exist throughout the land. Some of the Arakans are Muslims. There are some Christians among the Burmese. The principal occupations of the Burmese are agriculture (the major crop is rice), truck farming, horticulture, and fishing. Various sorts of handicrafts are practiced: spinning; weaving; carving in stone, wood, bone, and metal; and lacquer work. A great many Burmese work in oil fields and processing industries.

The ancestors of the Burmese moved over a long period of time from their ancient homeland, the southeastern region of the Tibetan highlands, to the land where they live today. The migration took place mainly from the eighth century through the middle of the ninth, although it continued into the 17th century. In Burma the new settlers encountered the original inhabitants of the country, the Mon (Talaing) people, who had created their own state and attained a high level of culture. For many centuries the Burmese and the Mons struggled for hegemony. Ultimately, most of the Mons were either annihilated or assimilated by the Burmese, who absorbed a significant amount of their culture, including their system of writing. Some of the Mons were ousted and moved east to an area which today is a part of Thailand. The immigration to Burma of a large number of Indians (primarily Bengalis) from the 18th to the 20th centuries has greatly influenced contemporary Burmese culture, especially that of the Arakans.


Narody lugo-Vostochnoi Azii. Moscow, 1966.
Birmanskii Soiuz: Sb. st. Moscow, 1958.
Chu Chih-ho. Birma. Moscow, 1958. (Translated from Chinese.)




the language of the Burmese people and the official language of Burma. It is spoken by about 20 million people (1970), and it is widely used by the ethnic minorities of Burma. The major dialects are northern, central, Tavoyan, and Arakanese. It is a Tibeto-Burmese language and belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages.

Burmese is an isolating language. Its total number of possible syllables is very limited and, as a rule, each syllable has lexical meaning. It has three tones, and its phonetic structure is based on 33 consonants and eight vowels. Compound words are formed by combining words or by the addition of derivational suffixes such as -chin, -hmu, and -che. For example, Owachin (“a walk”) is formed from Owa (“to go”). Derivational prefixation is represented by only the single productive prefix a-. For example, ahla (“beauty”) is derived from hla (“to be beautiful”). Some grammatical categories are indicated by affixes; others, by lexicosyntactic means. Number is indicated by the suffixes -do and -mya (noun plurals) and -cha (verb plurals). For example, lu (“a person”) becomes ludo (“people”); ein (“house”) becomes einmya (“houses”); Owadi (“he is going”) becomes Owachadi (“they are going”). Verbal aspects are shown by special suffixes such as ge, ne, and pyi; these suffixes are usually combined with the predicate indicators i and i (colloquial, de) when the action has been completed and mi (colloquial, me) when the action has not been completed. Specific time is expressed by lexical means, usually in conjunction with the suffixes indicating verbal aspect. Personal pronouns have various forms; for example, chundo (“I,” a man speaking about himself) and chama (“I,” a woman speaking about herself). Plural pronouns are formed by the addition of the plural suffix -do: chundodo (“we”). Often morphemes which have lexical meaning act as suffixes, in which case they lose their lexical significance. The Burmese language uses numerical classifiers. The syntactic significance of words is expressed by word order and special indicators which are placed after the words. Examples of the latter are hma, do, hnin; ein hma means “from home,” ein do, “on the way home,” and da hnin, “with a knife.” Postpositions are also used. A complex modifier precedes that which it modifies and requires a special attributive indicator. Predicates always occupy the final position in the sentence; other parts of the sentence are interchangeable according to their relationships to one another (semifixed word order).

The Burmese languages have a tradition of written literature which is many centuries old; the earliest literary monuments date from the 11th century. Burmese script is based on a South Indian script.


Maun Maun N’un, I. A. Orlova, E. V. Puzitskii, and I. M. Tagunova. Birmanskii iazyk. Moscow, 1963. (See bibliography.)
Cornyn, W. Outline of Burmese Grammar. Baltimore, 1944.
Stewart, J. A. Manual of Colloquial Burmese. London, 1955.
Okell, J. Reference Grammar of Colloquial Burmese Language. London, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the official language of Burma (Myanmar), belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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