Burmese phonology

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The phonology of Burmese is fairly typical of a Southeast Asian language, involving phonemic tone or register, a contrast between major and minor syllables, and strict limitations on consonant clusters.


Burmese has 34 consonant phonemes. Stops and affricates make a three-way contrast with voiced, voiceless, and voiceless aspirated. A two-way voicing contrast is also present with nasals and all approximants except for /j/.[1][2]

Consonant phonemes[3]
Bilabial Dental Alveolar Post-al.
Velar Laryngeal
Nasal voiced m n ɲ ŋ
voiceless ɲ̊ ŋ̊
Stop Voiced b d ɡ
plain p t k ʔ
aspirated tʃʰ
Fricative voiced ð z
voiceless θ1 s ʃ
aspirated 2 h
Approximant voiced l j3 w
voiceless ʍ4

Phonetic notes:

^1 ⟨သ⟩, which was */s/ in Pali and OB, but was shifted forward by the shift of ⟨စ⟩ */ts/→/s/, is often transliterated as ⟨s⟩ and transcribed /θ/ in MSB but its actual pronunciation is closer to /ɾ̪ʰ~ɾ̪θ~tθ̆/, a dental flap, often accompanied by aspiration or a slight dental fricative, although it can also be voiced.[citation needed] It has a short release generated by moving the tongue back sharply from an interdental position, and will sound to English speakers like a short dental fricative combined with elements of a tap or stop. /ð/ is the voiced allophone of ⟨သ⟩ and is not itself a phoneme.
^2 /sʰ/ is a complex phoneme to define. It is a reflex of the earlier /tʃʰ/ and then /tsʰ/ consonants. It is still distinguished from /s/ although it is not so much aspirated as pronounced breathy, and imparts a slight breathy quality to the following vowel[citation needed] making [s̤] a more accurate transcription.
^3 /j/ is often realised as [ʝ], particularly word initially.[citation needed]
^4 /ʍ/ is rare, having disappeared from modern Burmese, except in transcriptions of foreign names and a handful of native words.

An additional rare /ɹ/ occurs,[citation needed] but this only appears in toponyms and personal names that have retained Sanskrit or Pali pronunciations (such as Amarapura, pronounced [àməɹa̰pùɹa̰] and in English-derived words. Historically, /ɹ/ became /j/ in Burmese, and is usually replaced by /j/ in Pāli loanwords, e.g. ရဟန္တာ ra.hanta [jəhàɴdà] ('monk'), ရာဇ raja. [jàza̰] ('king'). Occasionally it is replaced with /l/ (e.g., တိရစ္ဆာန် ti.rac hcan 'animal'), pronounced [təɹeɪʔ sʰàɴ] or [təleɪʔ sʰàɴ].

Medials and palatalisation[edit]

Burmese permits the palatalisation of certain consonants. Besides [u̯], which is often erroneously treated as a medial [w] (see vowels)[clarification needed], Burmese only permits the palatal medial. This is derived from Old Burmese */-j-/ */-l-/ and */-ɹ-/, and is, therefore, reflected in various ways in different dialects. In MSB orthography, two spellings exist for the medial (demonstrated on the consonant ⟨က⟩ /k/), one reflecting an original /-j-/ (⟨ကျ⟩ - /kj/), and one an original /-ɹ-/ (⟨ကြ⟩ - /kɹ/). Official government romanistion still reflects this fact, as Myanmar, in official romanistion is rendered mran-ma.

The letter ⟨လ⟩ represents /l/ in initial position, but as a medial, it has completely merged with /j/ and /ɹ/. In OB inscriptions, this medial could be rendered with a subscript or "stacked" ⟨လ⟩ as in ⟨က္လ⟩, a practice still used in the rare dialects, such as Tavoyan/Dawe where medial /l/ is still pronounced distinctly. Although the palatalisation of the labials is simple /m pʰ p b/[mʲ pç pʲ bʲ], and the velar nasal predictably palatalises into a palatal nasal /ŋ/[n̠ʲ]. The palatalisation of /l/ leads, ostensibly to [lʲ]; however, it often causes vowel raising or breaking, and may remain unchanged before /i/. The velar stops /kʰ k ɡ/ palatalise into [tʃʰ tʃ dʒ]}}.

The alveolars /n tʰ t d/ and historical palatals /n̠ʲ sʰ s z/ cannot be followed by medials except in loan words, but even this is rare. Indeed, the letter *jʰ ⟨ဈ⟩ [z, sʰ] is almost indistinguishable from the s+y sequence ⟨စျ⟩ and many combinations of alveolar+medial will render poorly in certain font sets which were not designed to handle non-native combined graphs.

The homorganic nasal and glottal stop[edit]

Only two consonants can occur word finally in native vocabulary:[4] the homorganic or placeless nasal, and the homorganic or glottal stop. These bear some similarities to the Japanese moraic n, ン and sokuon っ.

The glottal stop /ʔ/ is the realisation of all four possible final consonants: ပ် /p/ တ် /t/ စ် /s/ က် /k/ and the retroflex ဋ် /ʈ/ found in loan words. It has the effect of shortening the vowel and precluding it from bearing tone. This itself is often referred to as the "checked" or "entering" tone, following Chinese nomenclature. It can be realised as a geminate of a following stop, although this is purely allophonic and optional as the difference between the sequence /VʔtV/ and /VtːV/ is only in the catch, and thus barely audible. The primary indicator of this final is the impact on the vowel.

The final nasal /N/, (not to be confused with the standard IPA symbol /ɴ/, see below), is the value of the four native final nasals: မ် /m/ န် /n/ ဉ် /n̠ʲ/ င် /ŋ/ as well as the retroflex ဏ /ɳ/ and nasalisation mark anusvara demonstrated here above ka (က → ကံ ). It does not, however, apply to ည် which is never realised as a nasal, but rather as an open front vowel [iː] [eː] or [ɛː]. The final nasal is usually realised as nasalisation of the vowel. It may also allophonically appear as a homorganic nasal before stops. For example, in /mòʊɴdáɪɴ/ "storm", which is pronounced [mõ̀ũndã́ĩ].

It must be noted that the proper phonemic transcription is /N/, which is a non-standard, but widely used IPA symbol for a homorganic nasal, similarly to /Q/, the common symbol for a homorganic obstruent. There is an increasing tendency across many linguistic media (Wikipedia included) to substitute the IPA symbol [ɴ] (small majuscule n) which is the symbol for the uvular nasal, a sound which does not exist in Burmese. This is largely due to the rarity of /ɴ/ across languages and the fact that the use of a small majuscule makes transcription easier to read. Note that other languages with homorganic nasals, such as Japanese, also use intermittent /ɴ/ in transcription. Nevertheless, the use of ⟨ɴ⟩ in Burmese transcription, though common and easy to read, is incorrect.

Series of stops[edit]

Burmese orthography is based on Brahmic script and can perfectly transcribe words from Pali, an Indic language. As a result, Burmese script uses far more symbols than Burmese needs for its phonemic inventory. Besides the set of retroflex consonants ဌ /ʈʰ/ ဋ /ʈ/ ဍ /ɖ/ ဎ /ɖʰ/ ဏ /ɳ/ ဠ /ɭ/ which are pronounced as alveolar in Burmese. All stops come in sets of four: voiceless aspirated, voiceless, voiced, and voiced aspirated or murmured. The first set ဖ /pʰ/ ထ /tʰ/ ဆ /sʰ/ ခ /kʰ/ and second set ပ /p/ တ /t/ စ /s/ က /k/ are commonly used in Burmese. The voiced set ဗ /b/ ဒ /d/ ဇ /z/ ဂ /g/ are used in Burmese but sparingly. They are frequently seen in loans from Pali. It may be possible to say that they exist only in loans; however, some of the words they appear in are so old and deeply integrated into the language that the three-way voicing/aspiration distinction can still be said to be an important part of the language. The final set ဘ /bʰ/ ဓ /dʰ/ ဈ /zʰ/ ဃ /gʰ/ are exceedingly rare. They are generally pronounced as voiced [b d z g] or, when following a syllable final stop, aspirated [pʰ tʰ sʰ kʰ]. The most common by far is ဘ used in the negative indicative verb particle ဘူး bhú [búː] or [pʰúː], and also in some common loans. Indeed, ဘ can be said to be the "default" spelling of /b/ in Burmese for loans and ဗ is restricted to older loans.

Burmese voicing sandhi[edit]

Burmese exhibits voicing sandhi. Traditionally, Burmese has voiced voiceless unaspirated stops into voiced stops, which at first, was allophonic. However, due to the influx of phonemeic voiced stops from loan words, and owing to the extension of sandhi to voiceless aspirated stops as well – a feature which does not affect more conservative dialects – sandhi has become an important part of Burmese phonology and word building. In brief, the following shifts can occur in MSB:

  • /kʰ, k//ɡ/
  • /tʃʰ, tʃ//dʒ/
  • /sʰ, s//z/
  • /tʰ, t//d/
  • /pʰ, p//b/

Additionally ⟨သ⟩ can become voiced under the same conditions, however this is purely allophonic since the voiced [ɾ̪~ð̆~d̪̆] phone does not exist in any other context.

Sandhi can occur in two environments. In the first environment, consonants become voiced between vowels or after nasals. This is similar to rendaku in Japanese.[5] This Therefore, can affect any consonant except the first consonant of the phrase or a consonant preceded by a stop.

e.g. "hot water": [jèbù] ရေပူ/jè/ + /pù/

The second environment occurs around reduced syllables (see reduction for more). When a syllable becomes reduced, the vowel and any final consonants are reduced to a short schwa [ə̆]. Reduction cannot occur in the final syllable of a word. When a syllable becomes reduced, if both the consonant preceding and following the schwa – i.e. the consonant of the reduced syllable and the consonant of the following syllable – are stops, then both will be voiced:[5]

e.g. "promise": [ɡədḭ] ကတိ/ka̰/ + /tḭ/

In some compound works, the phoneme /dʒ/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can shift to a /j/ sound:

e.g. "blouse" (အင်္ကျီ angkyi): [èɪɴí][èɪɴjí].

The phonemes /p, pʰ, b, t, tʰ, d/, when following the nasalized final /ɴ/, can become /m/ in compound words:

e.g. "to consult" တိုင်ပင်: [tàɪɴ pɪ̀ɴ][tàɪɴ mɪ̀ɴ]
e.g. "to apologize" တောင်းပန်: [táʊɴ pàɴ][táʊɴ màɴ]
e.g. "airplane" လေယာဉ်ပျံ: [lèi jɪ̀ɴ pjàɴ][lèɪɴ mjàɴ]

Aspiration and devoicing[edit]

Although Burmese natively contrasts unaspirated and aspirated stops, there is an additional devoicing/aspirating feature. In OB, h- or a syllable beginning with /h/ could be prefixed to roots, merging over time with the consonant of the following syllable. In the case of the unaspirated stops, these are replaced with the aspirated letter, however words beginning with မ /m/ န /n/ ည /n̠ʲ/ င /ŋ/ လ /l/ ရ /j/ ယ /j/ ဝ /w/ use a subscript diacritic called ha-to to indicate devoicing: မှ နှ ညှ ငှ လှ ရှ ယှ ဝှ /m̥ n̥ n̠̊ʲ ŋ̊ l̥ ʃ ʃ ʍ/, although as noted above, [ʍ] is incredibly rare. Devoicing in Burmese is not strong, particularly not on nasals. The sequence /n̥a/ is pronounced closer to [n̤a̤] than [n̥na] and is more noticeable in its tone raising effects.

In many Burmese verbs, pre-aspiration and post-aspiration distinguishes the causative and non-causative forms of verbs, where the aspirated initial consonant indicates active voice or a transitive verb, while an unaspirated initial consonant indicates passive voice or an intransitive verb:[6]

e.g. "to cook" [tʃʰɛʔ], ချက် vs. "to be cooked" [ɛʔ], ကျက်
e.g. "to loosen" [jè], ဖြေ vs. "to be loosened" [pjè], ပြေ
e.g. "to elevate" [jɪɴ], မြှင့် vs. "to be elevated" [mjɪɴ], မြင့်


The vowels of Burmese are:

Vowel phonemes[7][3][8]
Front Central Back
oral nasal oral nasal oral nasal
Close i ĩ u ũ
Close-mid e (ə) (o)
Open-mid (ɛ) ɔ
Open a ã

In addition to the above monophthongs, Burmese also has nasal and oral diphthongs: /ai/ /au/ /ei/ /ou/ /ãĩ/ /ãũ/ /ẽĩ/ /õũ/.[9][3] There is debate on the phonemicity of some of the above vowels. For example, Chang (2003) argues that {{IPA|[ɛ] is an allophone of /e/ in closed syllables (those with a syllable coda) and [ə] is a reduced allophone of other vowels.[10] The monophthongs /e/, /o/, /ə/, and /ɔ/ occur only in open syllables (those without a syllable coda); the diphthongs /ai/, and /au/ occur only in closed syllables. [ə] only occurs in a minor syllable, and is the only vowel that is permitted in a minor syllable (see below).

The close vowels /i/ and /u/ and the close portions of the diphthongs are somewhat mid-centralized ([ɪ, ʊ]) in closed syllables, i.e. before /ɴ/ and /ʔ/. Thus နှစ် /n̥iʔ/ ('two') is phonetically [n̥ɪʔ] and ကြောင် /tʃàuɴ/ ('cat') is phonetically [tʃàʊɴ].

Although this analysis is (more or less) correct from a purely phonetic point of view, it hides the diachronic nature of Burmese vowel development and mergers, and obfuscates the reasoning behind Burmese orthography.

Vowels in open syllables[edit]

Synchronically, there can be said to be a total of 10 vowels in Modern Standard Burmese (MSB) open syllables: /a/ /u̯a/ /ɛ/ /u̯ɛ/ /e/ /u̯e/ /i/ /ɔ/ /o/ /u/. Although the vowels /u̯a/ /u̯ɛ/ /u̯e/ are commonly treated as medial-vowel sequences, reducing the vowel inventory of MSB in open syllables from 10 to 7, the behaviour of /u̯a/ /u̯ɛ/ /u̯e/ is unlike that of glide-vowel combinations (See the section on glides below for a more complete explanation).

Diachronically, however, all of the MSB open syllable vowels are derived from Old Burmese (OB) open syllables or diphthongs. The four vowels of OB were */a/ */i/ */o/ */u/. Early in the development of Burmese */o/ broke to form */u̯a/. Additionally, any vowel could be followed by either of two glides: */j/ and */w/. The diphthongs which result from these glides were considered to be closed syllables in OB and as such, could not be followed by any other consonant. However, in MSB, all OB diphthongs have become monophthongs and are thus phonetically viewed as open syllables.

The following table shows the origins of MBS open vowels. The IPA is followed by the phoneme demonstrated in Burmese script on the consonant ⟨ပ⟩ /p/ showing (top to bottom) creaky tone, low tone, and high tone.

Outcomes of OB vowel + final combinations (Open Syllables)
OB final OB vowel
*a *o *i *u
/a/ /u̯a/ ပွ /i/ ပိ /u/ ပု
ပါ ပွါ ပီ ပူ
ပါး ပွါး ပီး ပူး
*y /ɛ/ ပဲ့ /u̯ɛ/ ပွဲ့ /e/ ပေ့ /u̯e/ ပွေ့
ပယ် ပွယ် ပေ ပွေ
ပဲ ပွဲ ပေး ပွေး
*w /ɔ/ ပေါ့ /o/ ပို့
ပေါ် ပို
ပေါ ပိုး

From the table it is clear that the vowels /ɛ/ /u̯ɛ/ /e/ /u̯e/ /ɔ/ /o/ can only exist in open syllables in MSB (with some rare exceptions) as they derive from vowel+glide combinations.

The /j/ offglide results in the e-class vowels */aj/→/ɛ/, */ij/→/e/, */u̯aj/→/u̯ɛ/, */uj/→/u̯e/ respectively. Note the symmetry with the base vowel system: The closed vowels */i/ and */u/ create the mid-closed vowels /e/ and /u̯e/ while */a/ and */o/ create the mid-open vowels /ɛ/ and /u̯ɛ/. Similarly, the rounded on-glide is a result of a rounded base vowel */u/ or */o/.

Currently, the /w/ offglide is only believed to have existed in */aw/ and */uw/ resulting in the MSB o-class vowels /ɔ/ and /o/ respectively. The absence of */iw/ and */ow/ in reconstructions is something of a mystery, however it is possible that, by analogy with the /j/ offglide, */aw/ */iw/ */ow/ */uw/ all existed, resulting in pairs with or without the rounded on-glide: /ɔ/ /o/ /u̯ɔ/ /u̯o/ which later merged. This may explain why the Burmese orthography indicates the vowel /o/ with both the diacritics for both the /i/ and /u/ vowels and, previously, a following consonantal /w/.


MSB recognises 8 finals in native vocabulary which are all distinguished from their initial forms with the c-shaped superscript diacritic asat ⟨ ် ⟩ which for ease of reading, is omitted here: the stops: ပ /p/ တ /t/ စ /c/[11] က /k/ and the nasals: မ /m/ န /n/ ည / ဉ /ɲ/[12] င /ŋ/. All of the stops in final position are realised as a glottal stop /ʔ/ (or, potentially, a geminate of a following stop) which shortens the vowel and precludes it from bearing any tone.[13] All of the nasals on the other hand nasalise the vowel but are not pronounced as consonants unless there is a following nasal or stop. Syllables ending on nasals can bear any of the three tones, but rarely have tone 1 (short, high, creaky phonation).

Finals are broadly grouped into two sets: front and back finals. Front finals include the labial and alveolar finals -m -n and -p -t which are not distinguished in MSB, leading to mergers such as အိပ် (*/ip/ sleep) and အိတ် (*/it/ bag), both pronounced [ĕɪʔ]. In Tavoyan dialects however, the labial finals -m and -p often cause vowel breaking (*/un/ -> /ũː/, */um/ -> /ãʊ/). The back finals include the palatal finals -c and velar -k , although their uses are even more complex.

Current reconstruction holds that the OB vowel-offglide sequences – which today are /ɛ/ /u̯ɛ/ /e/ /u̯e/ /ɔ/ /o/ in MSB – counted as a closed syllables and thus could not be followed by a final. As a result, most closed syllables in MSB are built around the 4 basic vowels /a/ /i/ /u̯a/ /u/.

Vowels before labial and coronal finals[edit]

The 4 basic vowels /a/ /i/ /u̯a/ /u/ can all occur before the labial and coronal finals. In MSB before the -p and -t finals they are pronounced /æʔ/ /eɪʔ/ /u̯æʔ~ʊʔ/ /ɔʊʔ/ respectively. Similarly, before the -m and -n finals, vowels use the same qualities except that they are nasalised and are pronounced long by default[14] thus giving: /æ̃/ /ẽɪ/ /u̯æ̃~ʊ̃/ /ɔ̃ʊ/.

The variation between /ʊ̆ʔ/ /ʊ̃ː/ and /u̯æ̆ʔ/ /u̯æ̃ː/ is regional. North-central dialects in and around Mandalay tend to use the original opening diphthong while southern dialects in and around Yangon tend to use the monophthong. Both pronunciations are universally accepted and understood. In more conservative dialects /i/ /u/ and */o/ may not break, and thus remain /ĭʔ/ /ĩ/, /ŭʔ/ /ũ/, and /ɔ̆ʔ/ /ɔ̃/, additionally */an/ may move back, not forward, leaving /ɔ̃/ and not /æ̃/, but all of these features are considered non-standard.

Some exceptions do exist to this rule, however, as even in Yangon Burmese the word စွမ်း (*suám "power") is pronounced /su̯áːN/ while ဆွမ်း (*sʰuám "religious offering of food"), written with the same rime and tone, is pronounced /s(ʰ)ʊ́ːN/.

In Tavoyan dialects, labial finals are often distinguished from coronal finals by breaking and rounding vowels.

Vowels before dorsal finals[edit]

The velar finals ⟨က⟩ -k and ⟨င⟩ can follow the vowels /a/ and /u̯a/ giving အက် /ɐʔ/ အွက် /u̯æʔ/ အင် /ɪ̃/ အွင် /u̯ɪ̃/. The pronunciation of -ak is becoming /æʔ/ in Yangon Burmese, merging with -ap and -at. Older speakers will pronounce the vowel higher and as a front-central vowel in the [ɛ~ɜ] range. The fronting of *a before *ŋ to /ɪ/ is a distinctive feature of MSB, not shared by other varieties of Burmese. Rakhine/Arakhanese dialects shift the /a/ back before both the stop and nasal to become /ɔ̆ʔ/ /ɔ̃ː/. Tavoyan/Dawei dialects merge both the -ap -at -ak rimes (as is becoming common in Yangon) and also merge the -am -an -aŋ rimes allegedly resulting in /ăʔ/ /ãː/, although it is unclear whether these are truly [a] or [æ] as in MSB..

The palatal finals ⟨စ⟩ and ⟨ည / ဉ⟩ occur only with the inherent vowel /a/ and derive from OB *ik and *iŋ. The spelling reflects the shifts of *ik > *ac and *iŋ > aɲ. The final ⟨စ⟩ today is /ɪʔ/. The palatal final, however, has two forms. The form ⟨ဉ⟩ represents /ĩ/ (or /ãɪ/ in Rakhine dialects) as would be expected. The far more common ⟨ည⟩ however has lost its nasal characteristic and is realised variously as /ɛ/ (မည် /mɛ̀/ literary future/irrealis marker, written မယ် in colloquial language), /i/ (ပြည် /pʲì/ "country" pronounced as ပြီ "end, finish"), and less often /e/ (ရည် /jè/ "juice", pronounced identically to ရေ "water"). Tavoyan dialects restrict the pronunciation to /ɛ/ exclusively, while Rakhine dialects use /e/.

The rimes */aʊk/ (အောက်) */aʊŋ/ (အောင်) derive from OB *uk and *uŋ breaking to /aʊ/ before a velar final. The change in spelling reflects this sound shift and should not be taken to indicate an OB *awk *awŋ or *ɔk *ɔŋ sequence. In Tavoyan they are realised as /ɔ̆ʔ/ and /ɔ̃ː/ respectively.

The rimes (အိုက်) and (အိုင်) are somewhat problematic from a linguistic perspective. Written with the compound vowel diacritic for /o/ and pronounced /ăɪʔ/ and /ãɪ/ respectively, they are currently believed to represent either loans from foreign languages or from more conservative dialects of Burmese. They do not fit into the normal table of rimes and their shared orthography with the /o/ vowel is coincidental.

The closed syllable vowel inventory[edit]

Just as open syllables have ten vowels, so too do closed syllables: /æ/ /ɪ/ /ɛ~ɜ/ /u̯æ~ʊ/ /u̯ɛ/ /u̯ɪ/ /eɪ/ /oʊ/ /aɪ/ /aʊ/. It is worth noting that in Yangon MSB no vowel quality exists in both closed and open syllables, and that therefore nasalisation and the glottal stop cannot be said to be contrastive features in and of themselves. In fact, with the exception of tone (and its inherent length, intensity, and phonation) no supgrasegmental features can really be said to be phonemic.

Finals in loans[edit]

Following the breaking of *u to /aʊ/ before velars and the palatalisation of velars after *i, new vocabulary entered the language with sequences of /i/ or /u/ followed by a velar. Such words are written with the vowel ⟨အိ⟩ or ⟨အု⟩ and followed by the velar final, and are pronounced as though they ended on a labial or coronal final. Thus, လိင် /lèɪN/ "sex" is pronounced as လိမ် "to twist, cheat" and သုက် (semen) is pronounced exactly as သုပ် (salad) /ɾ̪ɔʊʔ/ (or /θɔʊʔ/ following conventional transcription).

In loan words, usually from Pali, လ /l/ ရ /ɹ~j/ ဝ /w/ သ /s/[15] are found but are silent and do not affect the vowel, which continues to behave as an open syllable vowel. Also from Pali are the retroflex finals ဋ /ʈ/ and ဏ /ɳ/ which merge with their alveolar counterparts.

The superscript diacritic ⟨ ံ ⟩ anusvara is a convention inherited from Pali. It is used across Brahmic scripts in homorganic nasal+plosive sequences as a shorthand for the nasal (which would ortherwise have to carry an asat or form a ligature with the following stop). In Burmese it continues this function as it is found not only in loaned vocabulary but also in native words e.g. သုံး /ɾ̪óʊːN/ (or /θóʊːN/) "three" or "to use" which derives from proto-Sino-Tibetan *g-sum.

The consonant ⟨ယ⟩ is also seen with an asat diacritic, but this is the standard spelling for the vowel /ɛ/ with tone 2 and is not viewed in any way as a final (although, as noted above, this is an etymologically accurate rendering of /ɛ/ which originated from the *ay sequence).

Finally, loaned vocabulary can also, uniquely, add a final after the vowel /e/. An example of this is the common Pali word မေတ္တာ mettā, from Sanskrit मैत्र maitra. This is exclusively used to transcribe an /e/ vowel in closed syllables in loans, but cannot occur in native vocabulary, although many such loans, particularly from Pali, may be centuries old.

Notes on glides[edit]

Note that, the vocalic onglide /u̯/ is usually transcribed both in phonetic transcription and in romanisation as /w/. This is due to the fact that, phonetically, it behaves as a medial, however, here the transcription /u̯/ is used to emphasise that it is a part of the vowel and not a true medial like /-j-/ (romanised -y-). /-j-/ is derived from OB */-j-/ */-l-/ and */-ɹ-/, and is, therefore, reflected in various ways in different dialects. In MSB orthography two spellings exist for the medial (demonstrated on the consonant က /k/), one reflecting an original /-j-/ (ကျ - ky), and one an original /-ɹ-/ (ကြ - kr) and official government romanistion still reflects this fact (Myanmar, in official romanistion is rendered mran-ma). However, in MSB, */ɹ/, for which there is also a unique initial letter ⟨ရ⟩, is pronounced /j/ in all instances (usually realised as [ʝ] initially) except in loan words. The letter for /l/ ⟨လ⟩ is still pronounced as /l/ in initial position, but as a medial, it has completely merged with /-j-/ and /-ɹ-/. In OB inscriptions this medial could be rendered with a subscript or “stacked” လ as in ⟨က္လ⟩, a practice still used in the rare dialects, such as Tavoyan/Dawe where the /-l-/ medial is still pronounced distinctly. These medials behave differently than the /u̯/ onglide in the following ways:

  • a medial */-j-/ */-l-/ */-ɹ-/ can be placed before the on-glide /u̯/, whereas two medials can never be used in the same syllable.
  • the use of /u̯/ is restricted by the vowel nucleus (only used with /a/ /ɛ/ /e/) and may in some cases drastically change the pronunciation of the vowel e.g. in Yangon /wa/ before a final becomes [ʊ], while /a/ before a final becomes [æ]. However, it cannot affect the pronunciation of the initial.
  • glides are restricted by the preceding initial, and often change its pronunciation. Bearing in mind that MSB does not reliably indicate the development of */-l-/, /m/ /pʰ/ /p/ /b/ can apparently be followed by any glide, in which case the glide becomes [ʲ]. Similarly /kʰ/ /k/ and /g/ can be followed by any glide, in which case the cluster becomes [tʃʰ] [tʃ] or [dʒ] respectively. /ŋ/ can be followed by /-ɹ-/ but not /-j-/ in which case the cluster becomes [ɲ], merging with the palatal nasal letter ⟨ည / ဉ⟩. And finally, /l/ can be followed by /-j-/ but not /-ɹ-/. It should be noted that this is rare and in Yangon MSB this represents the only case where the medial impacts the vowel, whereby the sequence လျာ */ljaː/ is realised [lea̯] and လျင် becomes *lyaŋ > lyiŋ becomes [lɪə̃]. Although there is a lot of variation in the pronunciation of these syllables. Tavoyan front vowels are frequently raised following /-j-/.

There is, at least in Yangon MSB, no difference between an initial /j/ /ɹ/ /w/ and a null initial with /-j-/ /-ɹ-/ /u̯/. This extends to a /w/ initial followed by a /u̯/ onglide. Therefore, in Yangon (and likely much of MSB) /wa/, /Øu̯a/, and /wu̯a/ are pronounced identically.


Burmese is a tonal language, which means phonemic contrasts can be made on the basis of the tone of a vowel. In Burmese, these contrasts involve not only pitch, but also phonation, intensity (loudness), duration, and vowel quality. However, some linguists consider Burmese a pitch-register language like Shanghainese.[16]

Like most East and South-East Asian languages (Notably Chinese), the Burmese tone system developed in the following way:

Syllables ending on a stop (-p, -t, -k) developed a unique tone, called checked or entering tone following Chinese nomenclature (入 rù). Other syllables (i.e. those ending on a nasal, a glide, or no final) are believed to have been able to end on an additional glottal stop /ʔ/ and/or be glottalised /ˀ/ or alternatively they could end on a fricative, likely either /s/ or /h/. The loss of these final glottal and fricative created the Burmese creaky and high tones respectively. Low tone is the result of syllables which had neither a glottal nor fricative ending.

In this way, The Burmese creaky, low, and high tones correspond to the Middle Chinese rising (上 shǎng), level (平 píng), and departing (去 qù) tones respectively, as well as the Vietnamese tone pairs of sắc & nặng, ngang & huyền, and hỏi & ngã respectively.

It should be noted that creaky tone and high tone both have distinctive phonations - creaky and breathy respectively. They are also notably shorter and longer than low tone respectively.

In the following table, the four tones are shown marked on the vowel /a/ as an example.

Tone Burmese Symbol
(shown on a)
Phonation Duration Intensity Pitch
Low နိမ့်သံ à normal medium low low, often slightly rising[8]
High တက်သံ á sometimes slightly breathy long high high, often with a fall before a pause[8]
Creaky သက်သံ tense or creaky, sometimes with lax glottal stop medium high high, often slightly falling[8]
Checked တိုင်သံ centralized vowel quality, final glottal stop short high high (in citation; can vary in context)[8]

For example, the following words are distinguished from each other only on the basis of tone:

  • Low ခါ /kʰà/ "shake"
  • High ခါး /kʰá/ "be bitter"
  • Creaky ခ /kʰ/ "to strike"
  • Checked ခတ် /kʰæʔ/ "to beat"

In syllables ending with /ɴ/, the checked tone is excluded:

  • Low /kʰæ̀ɴ/ "undergo"
  • High /kʰǽɴ/ "dry up"
  • Creaky /kʰæ̰ɴ/ "appoint"

As with many East and South-East Asian languages, the phonation of the initial consonant can trigger a tone split - which explains why pairs of tones in Vietnamese correspond with single Burmese tones, and why languages like Thai, Lao, and Cantonese have significantly more than 4 tones. Although this feature has been historically absent from Burmese, a tone split is underway currently. Sonorants with a ha-to (devoicing mark - see section on consonants) raise the tone of the following vowel. Customarily, this distinction is transcribed with the letter h in romanisation and is explicitly marked on the consonant in Burmese script e.g. မ (ma "woman") vs မှ (hma "from"). In earlier times this distinction was borne primarily on the consonant in the form of devoicing/murmuring, then later imparted a breathy quality to the vowel itself. More recently this has translated into a general tone raising, even in checked syllables (i.e. those ending on a stop -p -t -k) representing the first time tonal distinctions have occurred in such syllables e.g. မြောက် (*mruk /mʲaʊʔ/ "north") vs မြှောက် (*hmruk /m̤ʲá̤ʊʔ/ "to raise"). Consequently, Burmese can be described as having 8 tones. Note that this does not apply to devoiced r ရှ , y ယှ , or ly လျှ as this results in [ʃ] with no breathy phonation. In some dialects, for instance those around Inle Lake, devoiced l လှ results in a voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/, making tone raising unlikely.

Reduced syllables have the rime [ə̀], which is short and low. This is not considered to be a distinct tone, but rather the absence of distinct tone or rime all together.

In spoken Burmese, some linguists classify two real tones (there are four nominal tones transcribed in written Burmese), "high" (applied to words that terminate with a stop or check, high-rising pitch) and "ordinary" (unchecked and non-glottal words, with falling or lower pitch), with those tones encompassing a variety of pitches.[17] The "ordinary" tone consists of a range of pitches. Linguist L. F. Taylor concluded that "conversational rhythm and euphonic intonation possess importance" not found in related tonal languages and that "its tonal system is now in an advanced state of decay."[17][18]

Syllable structure[edit]

The syllable structure of Burmese is C(G)V((V)C), which is to say the onset consists of a consonant optionally followed by a glide, and the rime consists of a monophthong alone, a monophthong with a consonant, or a diphthong with a consonant. The only consonants that can stand in the coda are /ʔ/ and /ɴ/. Some representative words are:

  • CV /mè/ 'girl'
  • CVC /mɛʔ/ 'crave'
  • CGV /mjè/ 'earth'
  • CGVC /mjɛʔ/ 'eye'
  • CVVC /màʊɴ/ (term of address for young men)
  • CGVVC /mjáʊɴ/ 'ditch'

A minor syllable has some restrictions:

  • It contains /ə/ as its only vowel
  • It must be an open syllable (no coda consonant)
  • It cannot bear tone
  • It has only a simple (C) onset (no glide after the consonant)
  • It must not be the final syllable of the word

Some examples of words containing minor syllables:

  • /kʰə.loʊʔ/ 'knob'
  • /pə.lwè/ 'flute'
  • /θə.jɔ̀/ 'mock'
  • /kə.lɛʔ/ 'be wanton'
  • /tʰə.mə.jè/ 'rice-water'


  1. ^ Chang (2003), p. 5.
  2. ^ Win 1998.
  3. ^ a b c Chang (2008), p. 63.
  4. ^ Word-final consonants in loans are omitted entirely in speech.
  5. ^ a b Nishi (1998).
  6. ^ Yanson (2012), p. 17.
  7. ^ Chang (2003), p. 16, 38.
  8. ^ a b c d e Wheatley (1987).
  9. ^ Chang (2003), p. 16.
  10. ^ Chang (2003), p. 16, 19.
  11. ^ Note that ⟨စ⟩, here labeled “palatal” and transcribed as -c is pronounced /s/ initially in MSB but it is attested as an affricate /ts/ as recently as the 1800's and in earlier stages was likely /tʃ/ and before that /c/, mimicking the development of Latin ⟨C⟩ in the daughter Romance languages / k > c > tʃ (> ts > s (> θ)) /.
  12. ^ ⟨ည⟩ and ⟨ဉ⟩ behave much the same, except that ⟨ည⟩ is not itself pronounced, and has a broader range of effects on the vowel. It is indistinguishable from open syllable words. ⟨ဉ⟩ on the other hand nasalises the vowel like the other nasal finals and usually only has a single realisation.
  13. ^ This is itself sometimes referred to as the “checked tone” or “entering tone” following Chinese nomenclature.
  14. ^ Although Burmese vowel diacritics all have different default tones, the four vowels used before front finals all imply a short tone (tone 1) by default, which is promoted to tone 2, the long low and level or slightly rising tone before a nasal final.
  15. ^ ⟨သ⟩, which was */s/ in Pali and OB, but was shifted forward by the shift of ⟨စ⟩ */ts/→/s/, is often transliterated as ⟨s⟩ and transcribed /θ/ in MSB but its actual pronunciation is closer to /ɾ̪ʰ~ɾ̪θ~tθ̆/, a dental flap, often accompanied by aspiration or a slight dental fricative, although it can also be voiced. It has a short release generated by moving the tongue back sharply from an interdental position, and will sound to English speakers like a short dental fricative combined with elements of a tap or stop
  16. ^ Jones (1986), p. 135-136.
  17. ^ a b Taylor (1920).
  18. ^ Benedict (1948).


  • Benedict, Paul K. (Oct–Dec 1948). "Tonal Systems in Southeast Asia". Journal of the American Oriental Society. American Oriental Society. 68 (4): 184–191. doi:10.2307/595942. JSTOR 595942.
  • Chang, Charles Bond (2003). "High-Interest Loans": The Phonology of English Loanword Adaptation in Burmese (B.A. thesis). Harvard University. Retrieved 2011-05-24.
  • Chang, Charles Bond (2003). "High-Interest Loans": The Phonology of English Loanword Adaptation in Burmese (B.A. thesis). Harvard University. Retrieved 2011-05-24.
  • Chang, Charles Bond (2008), Bratkievich, A; Bruhn, D.; Campbell, A.M.; Escamilla, R.; Newbold, L; Rhodes, R. (eds.), "Phonetics vs. Phonology in Loanword Adaptation: Revisiting the Role of the Bilingual", Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics SOciety: General Session and Parasession on Information Structure, Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Linguistics Society
  • Nishi, Yoshio (1998). "The Development of Voicing Rules in Standard Burmese" (PDF). Bulletin of the National Museum of Ethnology. 国立民族学博物館. 23 (1): 253–260.[permanent dead link]
  • Taylor, L. F. (1920). "On the tones of certain languages of Burma". Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies. Cambridge University Press. 1 (4): 91–106. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00101685. JSTOR 607065.
  • Wheatley, Julian K. (1987). "Burmese". In B. Comrie (ed.) (ed.). Handbook of the world's major languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 834–54. ISBN 978-0-19-520521-3.CS1 maint: Extra text: editors list (link)
  • Win, Than Than (1998). Burmese-English Accent: Description, Causes, and Consequences (PhD thesis). Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University.
  • Yanson, Rudolf A. (2012). Nathan Hill (ed.). Aspiration in the Burmese Phonological System: A Diachronic Account. Medieval Tibeto-Burman Languages IV. BRILL. pp. 17–29. ISBN 978-90-04-23202-0.