Update: 2012-11-17 04:59 PM +0630


Burmese Grammar 1899

The sounds of letters


by U Kyaw Tun (UKT), Tun Institute of Learning, http://www.tuninst.net
From Burmese Grammar and Grammatical Analysis by A. W. Lonsdale, Education Department, Burma, British Burma Press, Rangoon, 1899. Copied by UKT and staff of TIL . Start: 2008 Aug.

indx-E4MS.htm | Top

Contents of this page
The sounds of letters
a. Vowels - ch03-1.htm
b. Consonants - ch03-2.htm

UKT: The most active articulator is the tongue, followed by the velar and the lips. Movement of the jaw can also affect the pronunciation. The inactive articulators are parts of the roof of the mouth from the hard palate to the upper teeth.

Author's footnotes

UKT notes  -- note the author's Pali transcriptions: is used in place of ā , e.g., Pli for Pāli .
I am showing Lonsdale's transcriptions within Alt0171-Al0187: ..., e.g. (without slanting the character within)
diphthong grapheme phoneme Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH)

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Chapter III
The sounds of letters

UKT: The Latin alphabet with which the European languages are written is not a phonetic script. And therefore English words in English-Latin are pronounced haphazardly. To show how English words are pronounced, artificial scripts have been invented amongst which the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA is the most successful. However, Myanmar and all other scripts descended from the Asoka script, which is now called the Brahmi, are phonetic scripts. And thus, a Burmese word written in Myanmar script can be pronounced as it is spelled, and you will be understood. However, since there are different dialects and regional idiolects in Myanmar, your pronunciation may appear "non-Burmese" to the man-on-the-street in cities like Yangon and Mandalay. Yours will probably be dubbed the Arakanese or Rakhine dialect - the dialect spoken on the west coast of Myanmar. Few in Myanmar knows that in addition to the Rakhine state where the Rakhine dialect is spoken, there are other places in Myanmar such as the Yaw region where Burmese is still spoken in its pure form.

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a. Vowels

UKT:  Remember the the bracket convention: <...> English words; {...} Burmese words; [...] or /.../ IPA transcription. Lonsdale does not use any convention. Remember also that IPA is font specific, and thus [a] and [ɑ] are different, however Romabama is not font-specific and Myanmars should pronounce the words according to the way Burmese is generally spoken.
   The Vowels are:

The transcription given above are Lonsdale's. Differentiate them from Romabama which are shown within {...}. In the following, Lonsdale is describing the vowels in terms of the position of the tongue body with respect to the mouth cavity.
   Thus an "open vowel" such as [a] {a} is a vowel produced with the tongue in its lowest position, and the air stream is passing through the most open space. A "close vowel such as [i] {i} is produced with the tongue in its highest position, and the air stream is passing through a narrow region (between the tongue and the roof of the mouth).
   A "front vowel" such as [i] {i} is produced with the middle of the tongue body towards the front of the mouth, and a "back vowel" such as [ɑ] {au} is produced with the tongue body towards the back of the mouth.
   A "round vowel" such as [u] is produced with the lips in a rounded shape, and an "unrounded vowel" such as [i] is produced with the lips in the spread shape.
   The pronunciation of a vowel in a syllable without a coda consonant is different from the pronunciation of the same vowel in a syllable with a coda consonant. We use the description "free vowel" (lax vowel) and "checked vowel" (tense vowel) to differentiate the two pronunciations.
   Before quantitative measurements of formants (from the measured frequencies of the sound waves) can be made, the "position" of a vowel in a specific language such as Burmese is made through personal observations by human beings trained in phonetics (phoneticians), and therefore the description is very subjective. In spite of the phonetic training, a human being is still subject to limitations imposed by the SapirWhorf hypothesis (SWH). Therefore, when a Western phonetician insists that Burmese language has " diphthongs", his statement should be doubted. My observation is: Burmese has few and possibly no diphthongs. I think the problem had persisted from the days when linguists did not differentiate between grapheme and phoneme. (I am expecting response from my peers. -- 081020)
   "A tendency to pronounce all tense mid vowels as diphthongs is one of the most noticeable accent features of English-speakers trying to speak other languages." -- Properties of Consonants and Vowels, Kevin Russell, Linguistics Department, University of Manitoba.
   The problem of pronunciation of the vowels is not to be underestimated. When the problem of "short" and "long" vowels was brought to the attention of Gautama Buddha by Sanskrit speakers, the Buddha (my conclusion: Magadhi-speaker : Magadhi was a Tibeto-Burmese language) had to lay down a Viniya Rule. The incident is mentioned in the Cullavagga, V. 33. 1. The Buddha, further stated:

"Bhikkhus, you are not allowed to express the Buddha's words in Sanskrit. Those who act contrarily will be considered as having committed the offence of Dukkata {doak~ka.Ta.}." 

Anujānāmi bhikkhave sakāya niruttiyā buddhavacanaṃ pariyāpunituṃ

   Pix on the right shows the four classes of society in the time of Gautama Buddha. Buddha belonged to the ruling class (shown with a long bow on the shoulder), and the Brahmin (standing next to the ruler). The Brahmins, the Sanskrit speakers, were very conscious of the pronunciation of words in reciting the religious texts.]. See the Language Problem of Primitive Buddhism by Chi Hisen-lin, Journal of the Burma Research Society, XLIII, i, June 1960. The paper is available online http://www.chibs.edu.tw/publication/LunCong/004/69_90.htm (download 070806).

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{a.} [UKT: pitch-register #1 - described as the creak]. This has the sound of the short open <a> as heard in the first syllable of <papa>; also in <adore>. It is represented by a in this work.

{a} [UKT: pitch-register #2 - described as the modal or "normal"]. This is long and open, and is pronounced like <a> in <ah> . It is represented by .

{I.} is pronounced like the regular short sound of <i> as heard in <pig>, and is represented by i.

{I} - This is the long sound of {I.}, and may be transliterated by <> as in <pier>, <machine> also in <bee>.

{U.} - [UKT- this is a different grapheme from {a.}. However, the two aksharas are still printed (and type-written) the same as .] This has the sound of <u> when pronounced like that of short <oo>, as heard in <push>. It is represented by <u>.

{U} - This has the long sound of {U.}, being pronounced like <u > as heard in <Lu >, <rue>; also in <pooh>. It is represented by <>.

UKT: The English <u> is one of most troublesome vowels for Burmese speakers learning ESL (English as a Second Language). As a child I have wondered why is <put> pronounced one way as /pʊt/ and <but> another as /bʌt/. Though we may not know the reason why, at least we should be able to represent the pronunciations unequivocally? In Burmese-Myanmar the spellings are different and there is no confusion. Yet when we write Romabama, the problem from English resurfaced, which necessitates us to adopt {} for /ʌ/ : thus we can write {pwat} for <put> and {bt} for <but>.

{] has the power of <e> in <eh>, Bey [= <a> in <mate>, <paper>]. It is represented by e.

UKT: The pronunciation of <e> is also difficult for Burmese ESL student, who is too familiar with the pronunciations of <be> and <me>.

{:} - The sound of this is equivalent to that of <e> as pronounced in <there> or <held>. It is also heard in <air>, <bear>, <care>. It is represented by .

{AU:} - This has the sound of <aw>, in <awful>.

{AU} - This is pronounced, like <au> in <audacity> with a rising inflexion of the voice. [{p010end}]

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19. There are two other letters which may be placed with the vowels, viz. {} and {on}.

{} is the combination of the vowels {a.}, {I.} and {U.} and has the sound of long < > as heard in <oh>, <Leo >, <opaque>. The circle above and the line below {a.} stand for {I.} and {U.} respectively. The student will learn more about them further on.

{on} is a combination of the nasal {n} and the vowel {U.}, and has the sound of < > as heard in <only> with the accent removed to the second syllable. {} is a triphthong {ti.tha.ra.}, being a blend of three vowel sounds, and {on} may be considered a diphthong {dwi.tha.ra.}.

UKT: Chapter III has to be subdivided into smaller files to make the display faster. Para 20 is on the next file: ch03-2.htm .

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Author's footnotes


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UKT notes


From: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diphthong#English 081008

In phonetics, a diphthong (also gliding vowel) (from Greek δίφθογγος, "diphthongos", literally "with two sounds" or "with two tones") is a contour vowel that is, a unitary vowel that changes quality during its pronunciation, or "glides", with a smooth movement of the tongue from one articulation to another, as in the English words eye, boy, and cow. This contrasts with "pure" vowels, or monophthongs, where the tongue is held still, as in the English word papa.[1]

UKT: Myanmars (myself included before I learned Phonetics) cannot pronounce the English word <cow> correctly. Most of us do not realized that it is a diphthong.

Diphthongs often form when separate vowels are run together in rapid speech. However, there are also unitary diphthongs, as in the English examples above, which are heard by listeners as single vowel sounds (phonemes). [2]

In the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), pure vowels are transcribed with one letter, as in English "sum" [sʌm]. Diphthongs are transcribed with two letters, as in English "eye" [aɪ̯] or "same" [seɪ̯m]. The two vowel symbols are chosen to represent the beginning and ending positions of the tongue, though this can be only approximate. The diacritic <  ̯> is placed under the less prominent component to show that it is part of a diphthong rather than a separate vowel, though it is sometimes left off in languages such as English, where there is not likely to be any confusion. (That is, in precise transcription, [ai] represents two vowels in hiatus, as found for example in Hawaiian and Japanese, or in the English word "nave", not a diphthong as in English "knives").

UKT: I have been looking for a name of this diacritic which shows that it is a part of the diphthong. The only one I can find so far (as of today 081020) is from MS Windows Character Map: Combining Inverted Breve Below with the Unicode U032F. Here I am placing it under Schwa: [ ə̯ ].

It has been the common experience of Burmese speaking Myanmars in the United States (I was included way back in the late 1950s) to find that no one understands them when they say "Please check the oil" to the service station attendant. Little do we realized that when we pronounce "oil", it sounded "wine" to them. In fact the best we can articulate is {weing} (pronounced as monophthong with the coda as [ŋ] and not [n]) which sounded very similar to "wine". Based on our common experience, I maintain that there are no diphthongs or gliding vowels in Burmese. What Lonsdale and most of the phoneticians about the so-called diphthongs and triphthongs are from the way the graphemes are written and not how the phonemes are pronounced.

Go back diphthong-note-b

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From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grapheme 081020

In typography, a grapheme is the fundamental unit in written language. Graphemes include alphabetic letters, Chinese characters, numerals, punctuation marks, and all the individual symbols of any of the world's writing systems.

In a phonemic orthography, a grapheme corresponds to one phoneme. In spelling systems that are non-phonemic  such as the spellings used most widely for written English  multiple graphemes may represent a single phoneme. These are called digraphs (two graphemes for a single phoneme) and trigraphs (three graphemes). For example, the word ship contains four graphemes (s, h, i, and p) but only three phonemes, because sh is a digraph.

UKT: Sanskrit or Devanagari (in which Sanskrit is written) is described as an abugida. Similarly, the Asoka script now dubbed Brahmi, the parent of Devanagari, is an abugida. Therefore, Pali-Myanmar and Burmese-Myanmar must be described as abugidas. The Wikipedia article on phonemic orthography http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonemic_orthography 081020 gives:
   "Scripts with a good grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence include those of ... Sanskrit, ... and Spanish. Most constructed languages such as Esperanto and Lojban have phonemic orthographies.
   "As dialects of the English language vary significantly, it would be difficult to create a phonemic orthography that encompassed all of them. However, it is fairly easy to create one based on a standard accent such as Received Pronunciation. ... In order to maintain a phonemic orthography such a system would need periodic updating, ... "

Though I have come across the above Wikipedia article only lately, I have been using the idea expressed in it in creating Romabama since the closing years of the last century.

Different glyphs can represent the same grapheme, meaning they are allographs. For example, the minuscule [lower case] letter a can be seen in two variants, with a hook at the top <a>, and without <ɑ>. Not all glyphs are graphemes in the phonological sense; for example the logogram ampersand (&) represents the Latin word et (English and), which contains two phonemes.

Go back grapheme-note-b

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Excerpt from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoneme 081020

In human language, a phoneme is the smallest posited structural unit that distinguishes meaning. Phonemes are not the physical segments themselves, but, in theoretical terms, cognitive abstractions or categorizations of them.

An example of a phoneme is the /t/ sound in the words tip, stand, water, and cat. (In transcription, phonemes are placed between slashes, as here.) These instances of /t/ are considered to fall under the same sound category despite the fact that in each word they are pronounced somewhat differently. The difference may not even be audible to native speakers, or the audible differences not perceived. That is, a phoneme may encompass several recognizably different speech sounds, called phones. In our example, the /t/ in tip is aspirated, [tʰ] [UKT: equivalent to {hta.}], while the /t/ in stand is not, [t] [UKT: equivalent to {ta.}]. (In transcription, speech sounds that are not phonemes are placed in brackets, as here.) In many languages, such as Korean and Spanish, these phones are different phonemes: For example, /tol/ is "stone" in Korean, whereas /tʰol/ is "grain of rice". In Spanish, there is no aspirated [tʰ], but the phone in American English writer is similar to the Spanish r /ɾ/ and contrasts with Spanish /t/.

Phones that belong to the same phoneme, such as [t] and [tʰ] for English /t/, are called allophones. A common test to determine whether two phones are allophones or separate phonemes relies on finding minimal pairs: words that differ by only the phones in question. For example, the words tip and dip illustrate that [t] and [d] are separate phonemes, /t/ and /d/, in English, whereas the lack of such a contrast in Korean ( /tʰata/ is pronounced [tʰada], for example) indicates that in this language they are allophones of a phoneme /t/.

In sign languages, the basic elements of gesture and location were formerly called cheremes (or cheiremes), but general usage changed to phoneme. Tonic phonemes are sometimes called tonemes, and timing phonemes chronemes.

Some linguists (such as Roman Jakobson, Morris Halle, and Noam Chomsky) consider phonemes to be further decomposable into features, such features being the true minimal constituents of language. Features overlap each other in time, as do suprasegmental phonemes in oral language and many phonemes in sign languages. Features could be designated as acoustic (Jakobson) or articulatory (Halle & Chomsky) in nature.

UKT: More in the original article.

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Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (SWH)

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sapir-Whorf_Hypothesis 081009

In linguistics, the SapirWhorf hypothesis (SWH) (also known as the "linguistic relativity hypothesis") postulates a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it. Although known as the SapirWhorf hypothesis, it was an underlying axiom of linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir and his colleague and student Benjamin Whorf.

The hypothesis postulates that a particular language's nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers: that different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of perfectly representing the world with language, because it implies that the mechanisms of any language condition the thoughts of its speaker community. The hypothesis emerges in strong and weak formulations.

(UKT: Whorf was a chemical engineer by training.)

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End of TIL file