S'gaw Karen language

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Karen language
ကညီကျိာ်, K'nyaw
Native toMyanmar, Thailand
RegionKaren State, Eastern Myanmar, Western Thailand
Native speakers
(1.5 million cited 1983–2011)[1]
Myanmar script
S'gaw Karen Script
(Karen alphabet)
Latin script
Karen Braille
Official status
Official language in
Recognised minority
language in
Language codes
ISO 639-2kar
ISO 639-3ksw – inclusive code
Individual codes:
ksw – S'gaw
jkp – Paku
jkm – Mopwa
wea – Wewaw
Karen languages map.svg
Karen languages
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Sgaw Karen or Sgaw Kayin, commonly known as Karen is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken by the Sgaw Karen people of Myanmar and Thailand. A Karenic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family, Sgaw Karen is spoken by over a million people in Tanintharyi Region, Ayeyarwady Region, Yangon Region, and Bago Region in Myanmar, and about 200,000 in northern and western Thailand along the border near Kayin State. It is written using the S'gaw Karen alphabet, derived from the Burmese script although a Latin-based script is also in use among the Sgaw Karen in northwestern Thailand.[3]

Various divergent dialects are sometimes seen as separate languages: Paku in the northeast, Mopwa (Mobwa) in the northwest, Wewew, and Monnepwa.[4]


The Sgaw, commonly known as the Karen language belongs to the Karenic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. The Sgaw language has been used as the official language in the Karen National Union (KNU) organization who have waged a war against the Burmese government since early 1949. A Bible translation was published in 1853.

Distribution and varieties[edit]

S'gaw is spoken in Ayeyarwady delta area, in the Ayeyarwady, Bago, Kayin, and Rangon Regions. S’gaw speakers are frequently interspersed with Pwo Karen speakers.

S'gaw dialects are:

  • Eastern dialect of S’gaw Karen (Pa’an)
  • Southern dialect of Western Kayah (Dawei)
  • Delta dialect of S’gaw Karen

Paku is spoken in:[1]

Paku dialects are Shwe Kyin, Mawchi, Kyauk Gyi, Bawgali, the names of which are based on villages.

Mobwa is spoken in 9 villages at the western foot of the Thandaung Mountains in Thandaung township, Kayin State.[1] There are also some in Taungoo township, Bago Region.

Mobwa dialects are Palaychi (Southern Mobwa) and Dermuha (Southern Mobwa).


The Sgaw Karen language has at least 3 dialects. They are mutually intelligible to each other however there may be words that sound unfamiliar to one another.

  • Northern dialect - also known as southern dialect of Kayah State is the Sgaw dialect that does not have the th sound in their language or dialect. They replace the southern and eastern dialects th with s. For example: while the southern and eastern would say moe tha boe, the northern dialect would say moe sa boe. This dialect used the Roman alphabet for their writing system.
  • Southern dialect and Eastern (Pa'an) dialect - these two dialects are very similar but there may be words that each may not understand due to regional location which allowed the dialects to grow apart. These two dialect used the Myanmar script as their writing system.
  • There are also different accents in the Karen language.


The following displays the phonological features of present S'gaw Karen:[5]


Labial Dental Alveolar Palato-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive voiceless p t k ʔ
voiced b d
Affricate voiceless
aspirated tʃʰ
Fricative voiceless θ s ʃ x h
voiced ɣ ɦ
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Approximant central w ɹ j
lateral l
  • An aspirated fricative [] may be present among different accents and dialects.[5]


Front Central Back
High i ɨ u
High-mid e o
Mid ə
Low-mid ɛ ɔ
Low a
  • A high back vowel sound [ɯ] in free alteration with /ɨ/, was also present among different accents and dialects.

Alphabet (Burmese script)[edit]

The Karen alphabet consist of 25 consonants, 9 vowels, 5 tones and 5 medials. The Karen alphabet was derived from the Burmese scriptas created by the help of the English missionaries around the early 1860s.[citation needed] The Karen alphabet was created for the purpose of translating the Bible into the Karen language. Karen script is written from left to right and requires no spaces between words, although modern writing usually contains spaces after each clause to enhance readability.

Grouped consonants
k (kaˀ)

kh (kʰaˀ)

gh (ɣ)

x (x)

ng (ŋ)

s (s)

hs ()

sh (ʃ)

ny (ɲ)

t (t)

hṭ ()

d (d)

n (n)

p (p)

hp ()

b (b)

m (m)

y (ʝ)

r (r)

l (l)

w (w)

th (θ)

h (h)

vowel holder (ʔ)

ahh (ɦ)
  • က has a sound intermediate between k and g; as in g for good
  • is the aspirate of က. It is pronounced like kh as heard in the word camp.
  • has no analogue in the European languages.
  • is pronounced like ch in the German bach, or the Scottish loch.
  • is pronounced like ng as heard in sing
  • has a sound intermediate between s and z.
  • is the aspirate of . It has the sound of ssh, as heard in the phrase hiss him.
  • ရှ is pronounced like sh as heard in shell
  • is pronounced like ñ as heard in cañon
  • has a sound intermediate between t and d; say t without air coming out
  • is the aspirate of . It is pronounced like ht as heard in the word hot
  • is pronounced like d as heard in day
  • is pronounced like n as heard in net
  • has a sound intermediate between b and p; say p without air coming out
  • is pronounced like p as heard in pool
  • is pronounced like b in ball
  • is pronounced like m as heard in mall
  • is pronounced like y as heard in backyard
  • is pronounced like r as heard in room
  • is pronounced like l as heard in school
  • is pronounced like w as heard in wonderful
  • is pronounced like th as heard in thin
  • is pronounced like h as heard in house
  • as a consonant, has no sound of its own; it is a mere stem to which vowel signs are attached. Vowel carrier
  • is pronounced as a ɦ sound. See: breathy-voiced glottal approximant


Vowels can never stand alone and if a word starts with a vowel syllable, use the vowel carrier "အ" which is silent in order to write words that start with vowel.


ah (a)

ee (i)

uh (ɨ)

u (ɯ)

oo (u)

ae or ay (e)

eh (ɛ)

oh (o)

aw (ɔ)
  • - a in quota
  • အါ - a in father
  • အံ - i in mean
  • အၢ - German ö in Göthe
  • အု - German ü in Glück and Korean Hangul character "ㅡ"
  • အူ - u in rule, oo in moon
  • အ့ - a in rate
  • အဲ - e in met
  • အိ - o in note
  • အီ - aw in raw


In Sgaw Karen, every syllable consists of a vowel, either alone, or preceded by a single or double consonant. A syllable always ends in a vowel. Every syllable may be pronounced in six different tones of voice, the meaning varying according to the tone in which it is pronounced.

Tones Description
ၢ်(အၢသံ) is pronounced with a heavy falling inflection
ာ်(အးသံ) is pronounced abruptly, at a low pitch
း(ဖျၢၣ်ဆံး) is pronounced abruptly at an ordinary pitch
ၣ်(ဟးသံ) is pronounced with a falling circumflex inflection
ၤ(က့ၣ်ဖိ) is pronounced with a prolonged

even tone

  • Where no tone is marked, the syllable is pronounced with a rising inflection.

Double consonants[edit]

When one consonant follows another with no vowel sound intervening, the second consonant is represented by a symbol, which is joined to the character representing the first consonant.

Medials S'gaw Karen
ှ (hg)
ၠ (y)
ြ (r)
ျ (l)
ွ (w)

The examples of writing the Karen alphabet are:

  • + ခံ, pronounced /ki/
  • + + လံး, pronounced /li/
  • က + +ကၠိ, pronounced /kʝo/
  • က + + + ၣ်ကျိၣ်, pronounced /klo/


Ken Manson (2009) proposed a Karen tone box to help understand Karenic tonal diversity and classify Karenic languages.[6] It is similar to William Gedney's Tai tone box (see Proto-Tai language#Tones). The tone box contains diagnostic words for use during field elicitation.

Karen tone box (Manson 2009)[6]
*A *B *B′ *C
1 (III)

Water [*tʰi]
Branch [*pʰaŋ]
Flower [*pʰɔ]
Chicken [*sʰan]
Sleep [*m̥i]
Die [*tʰi]

4 (VI)

Star [*sʰa]
Leaf [*l̥a]
Fingernail [*m̥i]
Fire [*m̥e]
Give [*pʰe]
Bitter [*kʰa]

7 (Va)

Bone [*kʰri]
Child [*pʰo]
Right [*tʰwe]
Spicy [*hɛ]
Take [*pʰi]
Pus [*pʰi/mi]

10 (VIII)

Sky [*m̥oʔ]
Iron [*tʰaʔ]
Pig [*tʰɔʔ]
Skin/bark [*pʰeʔ]
Shoot [v] [*kʰaʔ]
Dark [*kʰeʔ/kʰuʔ]

2 (II)

Silver [*rɔn]
Ginger [*ʔeŋ]
Rabbit [*tɛ]
Navel [*te]
Spear [*pan]
White [*pwa]

5 (VIa)

Egg [*ti]
Cheek [*pu]
Liver [*sɨn]
Eat [*ʔam]
Left [*se]
Be at, exist [*ʔɔ]

8 (V)

Paddy [*pɨ]
Blow/howl [*ʔu]
Head [*klo]
Hand [*su]
Breathe [*sa]
Many [*ʔa]

11 (VIIIa)

Alcohol [*siʔ]
Wing [*teʔ]
Heart [*saʔ]
Call/shout [*kaʔ]
Near [*pɔʔ]

3 (I)

Nest [*bwe]
Tongue [*ble]
Person [*bra]
Name [*min]
Drunk [*mun]
Red [*le]

6 (IV)

Sun [*mɤ]
Stone [*loŋ]
Snake [*ru]
Arrow [*bla]
Old [humans] [*bra]
Hot [*go]

6 (IV)

Sun [*mɤ]
Stone [*loŋ]
Snake [*ru]
Arrow [*bla]
Old [humans] [*bra]
Hot [*go]

12 (VII)

Monkey [*zoʔ]
Eye/face [*meʔ]
Brain [*nɔʔ]
Intestines [*breʔ]
Rib [*rɤʔ]
Deep [*jɔʔ]

Alphabet (Latin script)[edit]

The Karen Latin alphabet has 24 consonants, 9 vowels and 5 tones. The tones are written with alphabetic letters.[citation needed]


Letter K k HK hk G g Q q NG ng C c HS hs NY ny T t HT ht D d N n
Letter P p HP hp B b M m Y y R r L l W w S s H h EH eh AH ah
  • K match with the English word guard
  • HK match with the English word car
  • G does not have a sound similar to the European language but match with the other Karen alphabet of [clarification needed]
  • Q match with the German word bach
  • NG match with the English word young
  • C match with the English ch
  • HS have the same sound as S
  • NY match with the Spanish letter ñ
  • T have similar sound with English d but say it without air coming out
  • HT match with the English word tool
  • D have the same sound as English d
  • N match with English N
  • P have similar sound to English p but say it without air coming out
  • HP match with English p
  • B match with English b
  • M match with English m
  • Y match with English y
  • R match with English r
  • L match with English l
  • W match with English w
  • S match with English s; same sound as HS
  • H match with English h
  • EH has no analogue in the European languages
  • AH has no analogue in the European languages


Vowels A a E e I i O o U u AI ai EI ei AU au OO oo
  • A match with the Italian a
  • E match with the English word rust; uh
  • I match with the Italian i
  • O match with the Spanish o
  • U match with the Korean romanization eu
  • AI match with the English word sell
  • EI match with the name Jay
  • AU match with the English word fault
  • OO match with the English word cool


Tones V v J j X x F f Z z
  • av or ă - high mid tone
  • aj or à - middle of the sound
  • ax or â - low tone; low voice in a short time
  • af or ä - high-pitched tone
  • az or ā - even tone



  1. ^ a b c Karen language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    S'gaw at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Paku at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Mopwa at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
    Wewaw at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Southern Karen". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ http://www.pakakoenyo.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4&Itemid=8
  4. ^ Christopher Beckwith, International Association for Tibetan Studies, 2002. Medieval Tibeto-Burman languages, p. 108.
  5. ^ a b Sarvestani, Karl (2018). Aspects of Sgaw Karen phonology and phonetics. State University of New York at Buffalo. pp. 49–70.
  6. ^ a b Manson, Ken. 2009. A prolegomena to reconstructing Proto-Karen. La Trobe Working Papers in Linguistics 12.

External links[edit]