Update: 2012-11-27 04:37 AM +0630


Romabama on Typewriter


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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Origin of words - commonality between Burmese and Pali
Burmese-Myanmar language and script
Asoka script or Brahmi and Myanmar akshara

UKT notes
abugida alphabet Myanmar English Dictionary (MEDict) Representing the "killed" {a.} Sanskrit-Devanagari

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Language, the local one, has always been important for a people, and even the Gautama Buddha {gau:ta.ma. boad~Da.} had to step in to settle the language problem:


-- Cullavagga, V. 33. 1

After coming back from the 1995 Myanmar Independence Day reception held in Ottawa, hosted by our family friends Ambassador Dr. Kyaw Win and his wife Daw Kyi Kyi, it dawned on me that I should embark on a program to write e-mails for people who could speak Burmese. Since I had already written a system - Burmese for Foreign Friends - which  could be easily adapted for this purpose, I started writing to my Burmese friends on the Internet. The following were parts of the various emails which I had sent out:

Meit sway hkin bya:

Burmese speaking people on the Internet should be able to email in Burmese. As a temporary measure it would be appropriate to develop a Burmese-Roman script which we would be able to type out using the English keyboard.

I've been trying to come up with a system similar to Malay. In fact I've been trying to do something like this off and on for the last fifty years or so -- since I was in my teens using my father's typewriter -- that was before Burmese typewriters came into use. However, if I were to transliterate based on English system of pronunciation, soon I got into irresolvable difficulties. Why do the English pronounce PUT one way and BUT differently? I think we should use some French way of pronunciation which is more consistent with the spelling.

My system which I'm trying to perfect is based on the Burmese way of spelling - not on the Burmese way of pronunciation. So my first rule is to write down the letters of the alphabet with vowels points or points to differentiate the stress. The first 3 letters of the Burmese alphabet: ka. / hka. / ga. /. The dot following ka. is to indicate the stress and is not "full stop" or "period". Can you decipher the following?

ka. / ka / ka: // hka. / hka / hka: // ga. / ga / ga: // gna.  / gna / gna: //
sa. / sa / sa: // hsa. / hsa / hsa: // za. / za / za:// nga. / nga / nga: //
ta. / ta / ta: // hta. / hta / hta: // da. / da / da: // na. / na / na: //
pa. / pa / pa: // hpa. / hpa / hpa: // ba. / ba / ba: // ma. / ma / ma: /
ya. / ya / ya: // ra. / ra / ra: // la. / la / la: // wa. / wa / wa: // tha. / tha / tha: //
aa. / aa / aa: //

Quite a few responses came back all written in Romabama!

UKT: Please note that when I wrote the above email, I did not know the difference between an alphabet and an abugida. I have been going over the following pages over and over again, and have incorporated new findings (at least new to me) and ideas. And you will find many inconsistencies, my oversight, the leftovers from previous versions.

After launching Romabama on the Internet in 1995, and getting encouragements from places as far away as Sweden, I began to develop it further. And, in order to come across uncommon spellings and usages in Burmese-Myanmar, I embarked in 2005, on a project on medicinal plants of Myanmar. I am in the process of developing a database, Myanmar Medicinal Plants DataBase (MMPDB):  http://www.tuninst.net/MyanMedPlants/indx-DB.htm 080801. In the process, I came to see the possibility of using Burmese-Myanmar (and Romabama) as a phonemic script to introduce International Phonetic Script (IPA) to the Burmese-Myanmar speakers, and in some ways to help them learn English-Latin. In the following files, whenever you come across /{...}/, please note that Romabama is being used as a phonemic script and its spelling is not necessarily correct.

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Origin of words - commonality between Burmese and Pali

{byoap~pat} - n. origin or derivation of words;
  etymology (Pali: {byoap~pa.ti}) -- MEDict317

UKT regret: My position on the pronunciation of a very common word, the word for 'education' has been changed from time to time as my understanding of the subject has changed.
   Before 061217: Burmese-Myanmar has incorporated many Pali-Myanmar words such as {pa.a} (MLC transcript: /|pjin nja|/ MEDict 249 - notice the /j/ which stands for {ya.ping.}). In such words, {a.kri:} behaves as if it were a horizontal conjunct of two {a.l:}, and because of this, I have been writing as {pi~a}. That was before 061217, and before I delved into killed consonants in the coda.
   From 061217 to 080317: Since then, I am finding that {pi~a} is not satisfactory, and have been trying to find a suitable peak vowel for the syllable {pi} . The use of MLC transcription with the /j/ sound would bring in more problems. And therefore, I am changing the spelling, tentatively, to  {pa.a}, noting that when r2 consonants are involved, there is the {ya.ping.} sound.
   From 080317: I feel that I should look more closely into the pronunciation of {a.} in IPA and then in English. IPA representation of  {a.} is the sound of palatal nasal [ ɲ ]. Notice how the character is written: it reminds me of an elephant, with the "left hook" looking like the "trunk of an elephant". Since {a.} belongs to row 2, the {sa.}-{hsa.} row, and the word for 'elephant' is {hsing} [ ɲɪŋ ], this should serve as a mnemonic for Burmese-Myanmar speakers.
   Palatal nasal [ ɲ ] is not common in English. One example that I have found is: <onion> [ˈʌɲən] -- Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palatal_nasal 080317. However, DJPD16-380 gives /'ʌn.jən/. The word <onion> /'ʌn.jən/ is a disyllabic word, and the <y> sound of <ny> may be considered to have moved into the next segment. (I am waiting for reaction from my peers.)

In the following pages, I will be referring to MLC's Burmese-English Dictionary. The dictionary gives the MLC transliteration and the origin of many Burmese-Myanmar words. See Romabama vowels (this link will take you to a different page, from which you may not be able to come back to the present page).

One of my questions is: how close was Burmese to Pali. Did Burmese originated in areas east of present day Myanmar or in areas west? Is it really true that the group of people speaking Burmese migrated into Myanmar from areas of China? Is it possible that they migrated from India? Or, is it possible that the Burmese-speaking people had developed independently in areas of Pondaung?  I do not expect to get definite answers, but a comparison of words of Burmese to Pali should throw some light on my question.

UKT note: The discovery of pre-human remains at the turn of the century in areas of Pondaung shows that this area had been inhabited by pre-humans. This in turn suggests that humans must have lived in this area even in prehistoric times. Humans, being humans, must have spoken a language. And the theories of migrations, particularly those of the migration routes should be questioned. See http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/10/991015080116.htm 080318.

Since Burmese-Myanmar and Pali-Myanmar scripts do not use white-spaces to separate the one word from another, we (more specifically, I) have no way of knowing whether a group of syllables form a word, or is just a group of separate monosyllabic words. A case is to consider is the word {n} /|njan|/.

{n} /|njan|/ (1) - v. be noisy. -- MEDict157
{n} /|njan|/ (2) - v. archaic be silent. -- MEDict157
{hsait-n} /|hsei' njan|/ - v. archaic be silent; be still. -- MEDict143

See Romabama Rule 3 (Extended Latin alphabet) on diacritics and other signs for the introduction of {n} for {::ting} for

We find a curious case of word-meaning development in {n} /|njan|/ which has an archaic meaning in {tau:kri: hsait-n} v. be silent -- MEDict 157. My question is: why does {n} have such contradictory meanings over the years. Or, is it a case of mis-interpretation by MEDict? Is it possible that  {hsait-an} is a single disyllabic word? In that case giving {n} as "be silent" is wrong. Whatever the case may be, Burmese-Myanmar writers should be taking care of white spaces to separate one word from the next. A case for my peers in Myanmar Language Commission (MLC), the publisher of MEDict, to consider.

I spoke (on Christmas Day of 2006) to my good friend U Tun Tint (retired editor, now advisor to MLC) about this problem and have pointed out the importance of white-spaces. One of his responses is that Burmese language has been described as a monosyllabic language, and that every syllable (even in a "disyllabic" word) has a meaning of its own -- as claimed by Sanskrit-Devanagari writers. I pointed out to him that it is probably true in writing Myanmar script, and, in writing Devanagari script. However, when we need to transcript Burmese-Myanmar to English-Latin for international use, we do need white-spaces. This point, my good friend accepts.

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Burmese-Myanmar language and script

The Burmese-Myanmar script is an abugida, not an alphabet. And the Burmese-Myanmar writing system is a phonemic system whereas English-Latin writing system is not. To bring some relationship between the way a Western language such as English was spoken and the way in which it was written, a phonetic script known as the International Phonetic script (IPA) was invented just less than 200 years ago. At present the word "language" means the spoken form, and the word "script" means the written form.

It is probable that even before the various scripts were invented, the ancient Asian phoneticians had a devised a system to standardise the various human sounds by pinpointing the places in the mouth (and perhaps in the voice-box) where the sound had originated. For example, in case of consonants, the places of articulation (POA) are given as shown in the diagram on the left.

The smallest unit of sound (and its written form) is known as the {ak~hka.ra} or akshara.

The names of the POA used by the Eastern linguists, and those of their contemporaries in the West (IPA) differ. Remember, the 'gutterals' are velars, and the 'cerebrals' are retroflexes. Moreover, the Eastern linguists count the POA starting from the interior of the mouth toward the lips:

{wag}-aksharas ({wag} means groupable)
1. Gutterals, {ka.}-group, velars
2. Palatals, {ca.}/{sa.}-group, palatals
3. Cerebrals, {Ta.}-group, retroflexes
4. Dentals, {ta.}-group, alveolars and dentals
5. Labials, {pa.}-group, labials

c1 and c2 are voiceless (vl.); c3 and c4 are voiced (vd.). and c5 are nasals (vd. nasals).

{a.wag}-aksharas (non-groupable) are mostly fricatives and approximants. Three sounds belonging to this that are of interest to me are, IPA [θ], [s] and [ ʃ ]. How are they represented in Burmese-Myanmar, English-Latin, and Hindi-Devanagari. Starting from English-Latin the language that has been studied more extensively than the other two, we see that [θ] is realised in the English word <thin> /θɪn/. ([θ] is the vl. form, whereas [] is the vd. form. [] is realised in the English word <that> /t/)

A direct quote from: http://www.unicode.org/versions/Unicode4.0.0/ch10.pdf

"The Myanmar script is used to write Burmese, the majority language of Myanmar (formerly called Burma). Variations and extensions of the script are used to write other languages of the region, such as Shan and Mon, as well as Pali and Sanskrit. The Myanmar script was formerly known as the Burmese script, but the term "Myanmar" is now preferred.

"The Myanmar writing system derives from a Brahmi-related script borrowed from South India in about the eighth century for the Mon language. The first inscription in the Myanmar script dates from the eleventh century and uses an alphabet almost identical to that of the Mon inscriptions. Aside from rounding of the originally square characters, this script has remained largely unchanged to the present. It is said that the rounder forms were developed to permit writing on palm leaves without tearing the writing surface of the leaf.

"Because of its Brahmi origins, the Myanmar script shares the structural features of its Indic relatives: consonant symbols include an inherent "a" vowel; various signs are attached to a consonant to indicate a different vowel; ligatures and conjuncts are used to indicate consonant clusters; and the overall writing direction is left to right. Thus, despite great differences in appearance and detail, the Myanmar script follows the same basic principles as, for example, Devanagari."

Before proceeding further, I must reiterate that Language is the spoken form and that and Script is the written form. In the country of Myanmar, the script we use to write the spoken word is the Myanmar script. The majority of the population, write their speech - the Burmese speech - in Myanmar script. Similarly, the Karens, the Mons, the Shans and few other minority ethnic groups write their speech in Myanmar script. Thus, when I write "Burmese-Myanmar", it is not a redundancy, but a necessity.

The same can be said of the Devanagari script. Hindi and Sanskrit are written in Devanagari. Thus we can say Hindi-Devanagari, and Sanskrit-Devanagari.

Burmese-Myanmar script is phonemically very similar to Hindi-Devanagari. This is due to the fact that both Devanagari and Myanmar are descended from a script found on the stone pillars of the Emperor Asoka, who reigned in the area where Gautama Buddha was born about 250 years before. The language of the Buddha and Asoka was known as Magadhi which was later known as Pali. Pali is the sacred language of the Theravada Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the population in Myanmar.

Though we have no vocal recordings of the Buddha's words, if only we can glean from the script the information about the phonemic principles used, we would be able to guess the way the Buddha had spoken. This question is very dear to my heart as to many Buddhists the world over.

Therefore, I am interested in the earliest script that was found on stone pillars on the Indian subcontinent. That script was found on Asoka pillars, and so the script should be rightly called the Asoka script. However, due to various historical events, the script is now known as the Brahmi, or the script developed by the Brahmans. We should note that the Brahmans were in the employ of Asoka as scribes and secretaries, and the question remains who was the person responsible for developing the script: the employer or the employee.

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The Asoka script or Brahmi
and Myanmar akshara

The first recorded script in areas south of the Himalayas is now known as the Brahmi. It was clearly built on phonological principles, and unlike the alphabet, is a syllabic script and it should be rightly called an alpha-syllabic script. Devanagari and Myanmar, among others, are believed to have been descended from it. Such scripts are now known technically as abugidas. On the right is shown, the first five aksharas of both the Asoka script and Myanmar. We notice that at least three of the five characters are quite similar.

A remarkable aspect of the Myanmar script is the roundness of the characters. It is said that "the rounder forms were developed to permit writing on palm leaves without tearing the writing surface of the leaf". However, my study of the magico-religious nature of the aksharas has shown that the roundness was probably based on the belief in runes. If you pronounce the aksharas as {sa. Da. ba. wa.}, it gives you a right-handed rune with its own magical powers. However, if you pronounce it in the opposite way, {wa. ba. Da. sa.}, it gives you a left-handed rune, which is also believed to be equally powerful but in the opposite way. This reminds me of the left-handed Swastika of the Nazis which is different from the right-handed Swastika -- the religious symbol of the ancient Indo-Aryans. The aksharas within the rune are all based on the "circle" which in itself has its own magico-religious significance similar in nature to the pentagrams of the what is now called witchcraft. You should also note the the "Star of David" is also a religious symbol. For a short introduction into the Burmese belief in runes, see Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism, by Dr. Htin Aung, Religious Affairs Dept. Press, Burma, 1981. The book was available online http://web.ukonline.co.uk/buddhism/, however, it is no longer available.

Before we leave the short account of the roundness of the Myanmar akshara and the belief in runes, here is some more about the Circle. Imagine yourself sitting on the ground, and with your extended right hand, touch the ground to make a mark. Turning yourself clockwise slowly, without raising your hand that is touching the ground, you can make a perfect circle. This circle, with you "inside", is supposed to give you protection against what are known as "astral" forces. These practices known as {s: hkya.} (MEDict121) were done by the ancients, and secretly still by quite a large majority in Myanmar, if not physically, mentally. Such as episode is mentioned in the Myanmar version of Ramayana, where Rama placed Thita (Sita) inside such a circle before he went out to hunt the golden deer, the guise put on Gambi the sister of Ravana, the demon king.

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UKT notes


Everything2.org http://www.everything2.org/index.pl?node=abugida 080317
Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abugida 080317
Ancient Scripts www.ancientscripts.com/ethiopic.html 080318

From Everything2
UKT: [{...}] are my additions. {...} -- Romabama word.

An abugida, also called an alphasyllabary, is a writing system wherein the basic symbols represent a consonant plus an unmarked vowel [{the inherent vowel, similar to English short <a>.}]. 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" {a.t}].
   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.

..., the term abugida, like alphabet and abjad, is a kind of acronym of the names of the first few symbols in one of the writing systems it refers to. All three terms reflect the order of symbols found in a single family of scripts, those of the Semitic languages and Greek; so in this sense all three terms are cognate or at least closely parallel formations.
   Other names that have been used for abugida include neosyllabary, pseudo-alphabet, and semisyllabary, according to The World's Written Languages edited by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 4). Daniels argues that these terms wrongly make the abugida seem derivative of a syllabary or alphabet.

From Wikipedia

An abugida (from Geez bugida ) [{ is a segmental writing system in which each letter (basic character) represents a consonant accompanied by a specific vowel [{inherent vowel, similar to English short <a>.}]; other vowels are indicated by modification of the consonant sign, either by means of diacritics or through a change in the form of the consonant. In some abugidas, the absence of a vowel is indicated overtly. About half the writing systems in the world, including the extensive Brahmic system used for most Indo-Aryan languages, are abugidas.

The following is from Ancient Script  www.ancientscripts.com/ethiopic.html 080318
" The elegant Ethiopic script is another interesting story in the family tree of Proto-Sinaitic script. Ethiopic is an offshoot of the South Arabian script, as shown by similarities in the forms of the letters, and in the order of the letters. In fact, the earliest inscriptions in Ethiopia were in the South Arabian script. However, by around the 4th century CE, a new feature was developed that distinguished it from South Arabian. Vowels were "written" by adding strokes to the consonant following somewhat regular patterns. In a way, this is very similar to Brahmi-derived scripts. Some scholars have in fact proposed that Ethiopic's vowel marking system was originated from Indian influence, but it is equally likely that the system was developed in situ especially since many other Semitic scripts were already experimenting with marking vowels.
   "Another feature that distinguishes Ethiopic from other Proto-Sinaitic-derived scripts is that it is written from left to right rather than right to left in Hebrew and Arabic. Ethiopic originally followed the right-to-left convention of Semitic scripts, but it switched to a left-to-right direction under influence from Greek. [{Why not from India? My theory is that the Indian Ocean with very regular trade winds was being crisscrossed since the time of the Pyramids.}]
   "The Ethiopic script was used for the liturgical language Ge'ez as well as modern languages like Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia), Tigre, Tigrinya, and other languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The "Classic" Ethiopic script was tailored for the Ge'ez language, and so many new signs have been derived for modern languages."

History and Literature, (contd. from Wiki article)
Ge'ez literature is dominated by the [{Christian}] Bible including the Deuterocanon. Most of its important works are also the literature of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which include Christian liturgy (service books, prayers, hymns), Lives of Saints, and Patristic literature. This religious orientation of Ge'ez literature was a result of traditional education being the responsibility of priests and monks. "The Church thus constituted the custodian of the nation's culture", notes Richard Pankhurst, and describes the traditional education as follows:

Traditional education was largely biblical. It began with the learning of the alphabet, or more properly, syllabary... The student's second grade comprised the memorization of the first chapter of the first Epistle General of St. John in Geez. The study of writing would probably also begin at this time, and particularly in more modern times some arithmetic might be added. In the third stage the Acts of the Apostles were studied, while certain prayers were also learnt, and writing and arithmetic continued. ... The fourth stage began with the study of the Psalms of David and was considered an important landmark in a child's education, being celebrated by the parents with a feast to which the teacher, father confessor, relatives and neighbours were invited. A boy who had reached this stage would moreover usually be able to write, and might act as a letter writer.

However works of history and chronography, ecclesiastical and civil law, philology, medicine, and letters were also written in Ge'ez.

The Ethiopian collection in the British Library comprises some 800 manuscripts dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, notably including magical and divinatory scrolls, and illuminated manuscripts of the 16th to 17th centuries. It was initiated by a donation of 74 codices by the Church of England Missionary Society in the 1830s and 1840s, and substantially expanded by 349 codices, taken by the British from the Tewodros II's capital at Magdala in the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia [{timeline in Myanmar: the reign of King Mindon (1853-1878}].

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- n. 1. The letters of a language, arranged in the order fixed by custom. 2. A system of characters or symbols representing sounds or things. 3. The basic or elementary principles; rudiments. [Middle English alphabete from Latin alphabētum from Greek alphabētosalpha alpha; See alpha b ēta beta; See beta ] -- AHTD

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Myanmar English Dictionary (MEDict)

by MLC (Myanmar Language Commission), 1993, pp 635
Please remember, that the present work is not a dictionary. Whenever you come across a dictionary meaning attributed to MEDict, there is a strong possibility that it is my interpretation of the original entry in the MEDict. And if there were a mistake, it is mine.

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Representing the "killed" {a.} in Romabama

Representing {ky} with the peak-vowel [] has never been easy for me. The fact that the peak vowel is a checked vowel does not help me either. A checked vowel is a vowel followed by a consonant, and in this case it is <> which has no equivalent in English. This means, I will have to choose the Romabama vowel arbitrarily. The pronunciation given by MLC is also not very helpful: {ky} is given as /[kji]/ (MEDict034) exactly the same as {kyi} /[kji]/ (MEDict028). Therefore, as a first approximation, I will consider the killed {a} to have no role in pronunciation other than to modify the preceding vowel in the rime {} (no equivalent in English).

According to DJPD16-009, "Pronouncing the letters AE", "The vowel digraph is a fairly low-frequency spelling. ... When not followed by <r>, the pronunciation is usually one of /iː/, /ɪ/ or /e/, the latter being most common in American-English pronunciation..." This makes me conclude that its pronunciation would be close to Burmese-Myanmar {i}. Thus, Romabama will transcribe: {ky} /kji/. -- UKT 080317

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From: Introduction Why Study Sanskrit, Introduction,  http://acharya.iitm.ac.in/sanskrit/why_sans.php 080318
UKT: The website, Acharya, has a disclaimer on the page: "The Views expressed here are specific to the Samskritapriyah group and the Samskrit Education Society. IIT Madras, has only made available the web pages as a courtesy to the group."

Sanskrit is a Scientist's paradise
"Sanskrit, the vocabulary of which is derived from root syllables, is ideal for coining new scientific and technological terms. The need to borrow words or special scientific terms does not arise."

The letters of Sanskrit
"Sanskrit comprises fifty one letters or aksharas. In other languages, we refer to the letters of the alphabet of the language. We know that the word alphabet is derived from the names of the first two letters of Greek. The term alphabet has no other meaning except to denote the set of letters in the language. 
   "In contrast, the word "akshara" in Sanskrit denotes something fundamental and significant. One of the direct meanings of the word is that it denotes the set of letters of Sanskrit from the first to the last. The word also means that the sound of the letter does not ever get destroyed and thus signifies the eternal quality of the sound of the letters. The consequence of this meaning is that the sound of a word is essentially the sounds of the aksharas in the word, a concept which will help simplify text to speech applications with computers. 
   "There are two aspects of non destruction in the above explanation. The first one refers to the phonetic characteristics of the language, i.e., in any word, the aksharas retain their sound. The second aspect of non destruction, amazingly, is that the aksharas retain their individual meanings as well! To give an example, the word "guru" consisting of the aksharas "gu" and "ru" stands for a teacher -- one who dispels darkness (ignorance) of the the mind (person). "gu" means darkness and "ru" means the act of removal.
   ... ... ...
   "The popular Sanskrit language is based on root syllables and words. Unlike the other languages of the world, every word in Sanskrit is derived from a root. It is a well accepted fact that all Indo-European languages have a common origin. On the basis of the above mentioned fact that all the words of Sanskrit are traceable to specific roots, a feature not seen in other languages, one can presume that Sanskrit is most certainly the origin." 

UKT: Curiously, all the three official publications of MLC, MOrtho, MEDict and MMDict do not list {gu.ru.}. They listed only {gu}, e.g.,

/|gu|/ - n. 1. cave. 2. cave-shrine. 3. tomb. [Pali, {gu.ha}] -- MEDict085

The following is from {pa-Li. aBi.Daan-hkyoap} by {l-ti paN~i.ta.} U Maung Gyi: (in Burmese-Myanmar)

{gu.ru.} - n. teacher. -- p200.

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