Myanmar’s Gifts to English

Ewan Cameron argues for the validity of ‘Myanma English’ in a global world.  

Simply put, Myanma English is a variety of English with a Myanma flavour. Though perhaps not as distinct as Indian English, American English or British English, conceptually, it is no different. When languages interact with cultures, they produce, quite spontaneously, new and idiomatic ways of communicating.

Myanma English mostly expresses itself through the rich addition of new vocabulary to the English language. Words taken from Burmese such as chinlone, hluttaw, thanaka, saya, sayama, thakin, anyeint, pwe, zat, nat, longyi, thamein, paso, gaungbaung, padauk, kantkaw, and anar, regularly pepper English conversations in Myanmar. There are also idiosyncratic uses of traditional English words to describe cultural objects: linecar, sidecar, tea money, fancy shop. There are also a few noticeable grammatical idioms, such as the use of the word “ever” as an adjective of frequency, synonymous with “always”.

While it may seem trivial, in what follows, I want to argue that recognising the existence and validity of Myanma English is important for cultural recognition in a global world as well as for individuals’ sense of self. Rather than see it as a deficient model, English speakers locally and internationally can not only expand their vocabulary, but promote globalisation as a system owned by the many, not the few.

Braj Kahru, in his circles of English model, described three concentric circles of English: the Inner, which were the traditional bases of English such as the USA and UK; the Outer, which were countries with a historical and institutional relationship with English such as India, Bangladesh, Kenya, and the Expanding, which were countries with no previous relationship with English. Kachru wrote that the Inner circle, with regards to English language conventions, was “norm-providing”, while the Outer and Expanding circles were “norm-developing” and “norm-dependent”. Robert Phillipson, in his 1992 book Linguistic Imperialism, was more explicitly political, arguing that countries from the imperial Centres used the English Language Teaching industry as a means to maintain economic and cultural dominance.

Both of these models argue that the definition of “correct English” is controlled by the countries of the Centre, predominantly the USA and the UK. The next question might be whether it should be like this. There are a few words of Myanma origin in Centre dictionaries, but should writers in Myanmar contexts wait for them to add more before they can use the words in more formal contexts? While it might seem logical that the rules of English are defined by the countries which the language comes from, such a view neglects the fact that English in the current era is unlike all other languages in that it has staked a claim to being the first truly global language.

If English is a necessary part of globalisation and international communication, then it can no longer “belong” exclusively to a few countries. Equal participation in globalisation means cultures must not only have the tools of communication but also the ability to use them on one’s own terms.

We can already see pushback when cities reject the anglicised names of the colonial era. A similar issue is the trend in English language classes, especially in Asia, for learners to adopt an “English name”. So in Myanmar, for example, Thiha, Moe and Hnin might adopt classroom names of John, Lucy and Emma. Writer Moe Thet War notes that this may come across as a “a false notion of ‘West is best’”, but also says that many students are starting to reject English names, using their agency to assert Burmese space within global cultures.

Generally, Myanma English comes into existence through pragmatic communication. Why spend time translating something when you can say a word that both parties know? Other times it is simply a word that cannot be translated:

“I recounted the story to William, and when I was unsure how to translate the word Nga Ye Pan, I felt like hitting myself on the head. But when I explained in detail, William understood what I was saying and nodding his head several times, muttered in his fractured accent the words “Nga Ye Pan” over and over again.” Khin Hnin Yu 1959 (English translation)



Illustration credit: Aung Soe Min

Alternatively, certain words may appear to have simple translations, but the Myanma variant is retained. For example, there is a restaurant in Sanchaung named “Shwe Apple”. If the owners had wanted to simply transliterate from Burmese, they would have called it “Shwe Pandhi”, But this was a conscious decision to write in English, but use “Shwe” instead of “Golden”, as the former has a deeper cultural resonance.

Mostly though, Myanma English appears to manifest more regularly in spoken language than in the written word. In writing, longer deliberation over word choices can be made, which can lead to deference to imagined Centre norms.

In literature, since the British colonial era, both local and foreign authors have produced a steady stream of English language novels and other fictional works set in Myanmar. The experiences of colonialism and the Second World War launched many a paperback novel set in Burma written by British writers, the most famous being George Orwell’s Burmese Days.

Local writers were published in long-running Burmese magazines such as the Guardian, which for most of the latter half of the twentieth century printed English language poetry and short stories. English language readers have also been treated to translations of Burmese literary greats such as Ludu U Hla, Ma Ma Lay and Khin Hnin Yu. And in the 21stcentury, there is an emerging generation of English language writers such as Y.M.V. Han, San Lin Tun and the writers for bilingual journals such as the Yangon Literary magazine or Pansodan Art and Culture Journal, not to mention the growing number of local journalists writing with their own authentic voices in English.

Yet sometimes English in Myanmar seems to err on the side of caution, often with an overabundance of italicisation and inline footnotes, which can be jarring to the reader. The use of italics for foreign words is sometimes seen as a positive expression of culture and sometimes as something that defamiliarizes the familiar. But when does a word stop being foreign? Both the English translation of Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay’s intimate portrayal of cultural discord, “Not Out Of Hate”, and Y.M.V. Han’s wonderful biography of Tinsa Maw-Naing, “A Burmese Heart”, opt to give explanatory footnotes for common words such as longyi, gaungbaung, Bamar and Ko. There is a case to be made for providing readers new to a Myanma context with helpful cultural notes, but by intertwining it with the source text, rather than adding these notes as an appendix, the effect can be one of ‘othering’ Burmese culture, positioning it as always something to be discovered rather than standing on its own merits.

The undoubted sayargyi, or master, of world Englishes in fiction is Amitav Ghosh, whose novels offer perhaps the best example of how the expansive landscape of English variants can be used to rich effect. From The Glass Palace, set in Mandalay and Ratnagiri, to the Ibis Trilogy, which spans Asia, Ghosh gives each character a unique English voice, locating them in time and space. While we may be at first unfamiliar with the bedazzling English of the Mandalay tea sayars, the British imperials and the Rohingya lascars, Ghosh’s commitment to English variety is a sumptuous banquet of language for readers. Consider the following, from Sea of Poppies: “This was no Baltimore – this was a jungle here, with biscobras in the grass and wanderoos in the trees. If he, Zachary, wasn’t to be diddled and taken for a flat, he would have to learn to gubbow the natives with a word or two of the zubben…the flash lingo of the East.”

In Myanmar, there are examples of authentic Myanma English in print too. For example, Ma Thanegi’s prison journal “Nor Iron Bars a Cage”, features the descriptive line “I was thanakha’d for the day, my red lipstick in place”.

Another question we might ask is how much of Myanma English should be retained when it is used outside of Myanmar contexts, in foreign media for example. In the interests of intelligibility, we wouldn’t expect international media to write in the language of Yangon, but when it comes Myanma English words that don’t have English equivalents, some correspondents seem insistent on rejecting words from the country.

Take for instance, the use of “Myanmarese” or even “Myanmese” in some journalism. Creativity is to be applauded, but there is already a word to use as an adjective: Myanma (or Myanmar). In the country, people will use Myanma/Myanmar as an adjective, or will use the word “Burmese”, depending on their preference. I, and I expect most people, have never heard anyone ever say Myanmarese. Foreign correspondents also like to add an extra syllable to the word Myanmar, perhaps thrown off by a word beginning with “my”; But if you can pronounce mewling with two syllables, then it’s not hard to do the same for Myanmar.

In the future, more tensions may arise when it comes to cultural exports such as food, which is often a bridge between languages. However, with uneven globalisation, some have more power to name than others. For example, in the Japanese dish “katsu curry”, katsu refers to a cutlet. Yet some western chefs serve a curry without cutlets but still call it katsu. MiMi Aye, a Burmese food writer, has drawn attention to these issues, noting that it’s like comparing an omelette to an egg sandwich. It may seem trivial to some, but writing that “It’s not arcane just because it’s ‘“ethnic’”, she highlights that all cultures should have an equal opportunity to participate in globalisation. Myanma cuisine has not yet reached the global status as Thai or Indian, but when it does, owning English in the sense of being a recognised authority on naming things from your own culture, will be a key factor in preventing global restaurant chains from serving “Lapet thoke” made from ground courgettes or Shan Tohu made from custard.

Importantly though, we must recognise that Myanma English is not the same as a centralised English of the state. The English stemming from Bamar centres of Naypyitaw and Yangon is not always the same as those from other regions, particularly when it comes to marginalised ethnic groups.

In Myanmar contexts, English often follows Burmese conventions; both the British and the Burmese used to refer to the Pa-O as “Taungthu”, a word meaning hill peoples, which was read as a pejorative by the Pa-O who managed to successfully campaign against it in the 1940s. Other shifts have taken place more recently. In the last few years, thanks in part to the film “Kayan Beauties”, the group formally known by the Burmese-derived word “Padaung” are now more commonly known by the endonymic Kayan in English language writing. But still, controversies remain and language choice, in both Burmese and English, remains a political act, not least in the case of the Rohingya, where the mere mention of the endonym has become a source of bitter contention.

When it comes to the authority to name in English, we can sometimes see that while Myanmar is often on the periphery globally, within the country, there are power relations that see a Bamar Centre having more in-country authority to name than others. For example, the term Karen is often used by people from that ethnic group, but the Bamar approved “Kayin” seems to take precedence in many journals and publications. Festivals such as the Kachin Manau are sometimes spelt “Manaw” in English. Terms such as Kachinland, used to describe a cultural expanse encompassing regions of Myanmar, India and China, or Kawthoolei, the Karen homeland, are also often rejected by English language writers as they don’t conform to the state-centric geographies of the 21st century.

Just as the term “World Englishes” has gained academic currency, it would also be valid to similarly recognise “Myanma Englishes”, the plural form highlighting the heterogeneous and overlapping nature of language. Mandy Sadan, in her historical and anthropological study of Kachinland, Being and Becoming Kachin, suggests that for cultures on the assumed periphery or interstitial areas, the metaphor of the fractal (or Mandelbrot) offers us a clear framework for cultural study. Fractals are geometric shapes in which “complexity does not simplify when we change the scale” and thus with this lens we are able to perceive cultures on their own terms, rather than always in relation to more dominant Centres. Applying a fractal lens to Englishes around the world, we might posit that expressions of creativity in English are valid in any culture no matter how established or widespread English is within it.

I don’t claim to be an authority on the specifics of Myanma Englishes, nor to submit definitive spellings or to resolve once and all for debates on the country’s name. Someone else may see a more distinct line between different cultures and opt for “Burmese English” instead. This essay is simply to highlight that there are unique things about the English spoken and used in a Myanmar context, and that recognising this is a necessary step in local English users becoming creative owners of the language, just as people across the world have done.  

Creativity and the ability to represent culture authentically are functions of language that are essential to our personal well-being. The beauty of Myanma Englishes comes not only from forging pathways for these creative needs but also for giving new words, and thus new ways for everyone to express themselves.

Ewan Cameron is a teacher and writer living in Myanmar. He currently works for the Kachinland School of Arts and Sciences, part of the Humanity Institute.