Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a sovereign state located in the western part of Southeast Asia. In 1989 the name of the country was changed in English from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar.
In total, 111 languages are spoken in the country, but the principal language is Myanmar (officially called Burmese). Other languages spoken are Shan, Kayin (Karen), Rakhine, Mon, Chin and Kachin, although in this article we’ll focus on Burmese.
Here we’ll introduce you to this country’s language, its structure, pronunciation, plus some helpful survival phrases for when you’re visiting! In the meantime, to apply for your travel pass to visit this fantastic country, go to our eVisa for Myanmar page.
- 1 What Is the Myanmar Language?
- 2 Where Is Burmese Spoken?
- 3 How to Learn Basic Myanmar Language
- 4 How to Say ‘Hello’ in Burmese
- 5 What Is a Burmese Greeting?
- 6 What Is ‘Thank You’ in Myanmar Language?
- 7 What Is ‘How Are You?’ in Burmese?
- 8 Other Useful Burmese Words and Phrases
- 9 Introduction to the Burmese Alphabet
- 10 Enjoy the Language of Burma on Your Trip!
What Is the Myanmar Language?
The Myanmar language, or Burmese, is a ‘Sino-Tibetan’ tongue, spoken by 32 million of the world’s inhabitants as a first language, and by a further 10 million as their second language.
In the main cities and towns in Burma, the population will speak the Myanmar tongue, whereas those living in the hills will use this as their second language.
Where Is Burmese Spoken?
Obviously, it is widely spoken within the country itself, although it’s also spoken in other parts of the world such as Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and even the USA.
Contact with other nations between the 16th and 19th centuries (such as Portugal, Holland, France and England) has influenced the speaking of Burmese. It has not, however, affected the written word, which differs significantly from colloquial spoken language.
How to Learn Basic Myanmar Language
According to teachers, basic Myanmar language is pretty straightforward to learn and, in general, pronunciation will follow the spelling of the word. However, like any other language, it does have its quirks.
Whilst some of the local population speak English, it is obviously wise when visiting this country to learn enough basic Myanmar words to be able to get around. This will help you to ask important questions and, of course, to politely communicate with your hosts.
There are plenty of options available to learn the basics of the Myanmar language. You could go for the option of learning directly from a Myanmar national if you can find one, or use an online course.
Alternatively, you could purchase a guidebook which has the commonly used words and phrases. These will include greetings, simple questions, plus useful vocabulary for essential services such as police, doctors, hospitals etc.
A fun way to learn relatively quickly is to use the Google Translate app, an interactive tool that you can download onto your smartphone – and it’s free!
Where to Learn Burmese/Myanmar Language
Learning at least basic Burmese or Myanmar terms before you travel will be a wonderful introduction to the country. A combination of hearing phonetic pronunciation ‘by ear’ and seeing the written alphabet in words and phrases will be valuable to you.
Picking up some survival terms will give you more confidence and make the trip more enjoyable. Audio courses for learning Burmese can be enjoyed at any time, anywhere, whether by compact disc or an app download. Walking, running, on a train or in the car, give you plenty of opportunities to pick up a variety of words.
There are also many online videos to learn available, for example on YouTube.
How to Say ‘Hello’ in Burmese
‘Hello’ should be one of the first words you learn! But which words you use depend a little on who you are saying ‘hello’ to.
‘Mingalaba’ is considered the most formal term, but many locals do not use it, and tend to say ‘neh kaun la’. If you use either of these, you will get a friendly response back!
What Is a Burmese Greeting?
A greeting in this country very much depends on the circumstances, whether it is for the first time, or whether you are using it on an interpersonal basis. Verbal greetings are often accompanied by clasping the hands together as if in prayer, or folded across the stomach with a slight bow. Acceptable phrases are:
- Twei ya da wan tha ba de: I am pleased to meet you
- Mingala nan ne khin ba: Good morning
- Kaun tho nei khin ba: Good afternoon
- Kaun tho nya nei khin ba: Good evening
A more formal greeting in Burmese is ‘Min-ga-la-ba shin’ (said by a woman) or ‘Min-ga-la-ba khin-bah’ (said by a man). Both sayings mean ‘hello’, but with a little more reverence. As in most Asian nations, respect is always shown to your elders, both in gestures and speech.
What Is ‘Thank You’ in Myanmar Language?
‘Cè-zù tin-ba-deh’ is the written form of ‘thank you’ in the Myanmar language. It’s pronounced as ‘kyay zuu tin bar tal’. If you know the name of the person, you simply add it on to the end of the phrase!
To say ‘thank you’ in Burmese less formally, you can use one of the following:
- Kyay zuu par
- Kyay zuu pal
- Kyay zuu naw
These phrases are more generally used when thanking a friend. Saying ‘thank you’ may seem a bit of a task, but you will easily slip into it after a day or so! If in doubt, always use the more formal version.
What Is ‘How Are You?’ in Burmese?
Asking ‘how are you?’ is a lot simpler than the phrases so far. ’Neh kaun lah’ is the accepted version throughout the country. If you wish to impress when somebody asks you this question, reply ‘neh kaun ba deh’ (‘I am well’), and they will be happy!
Other Useful Burmese Words and Phrases
Other useful words or phrases to learn before arrival would be:
- Sorry: Ngar taung pan par deh
- Welcome: Gyo so bar deh
- Thank you very much: Jay zu tin bar deh
- Excuse me: Jay zu pyu jouer
- My name is: Ngar nam mae ka [name] phit par deh
- No thank you: Ma yu tot bou. Jay zu bae
- Yes/No: Hoe tale/ma hoe bou
Some words and phrases mimic English – for instance ‘goodbye’ can be ‘tat tar’!
Introduction to the Burmese Alphabet
This particular alphabet contains 33 letters. Whilst the letters used are the same in both text and speech, the pronunciation and spelling of words and phrases varies from region to region.
It is important to remember that Burmese is a ‘tonal’ language, so pronunciation is key. There are 4 tones – low, high, creaky and checked, and these are formed by the part of the mouth or throat for emphasis.
When writing the alphabet, letters are formed by using strokes in a circular motion. As the Burmese language and writing are based on Brahmic scripts, the alphabet itself is arranged into groups of 5 consonants, called ‘wek byi’. There are 5 of these groups. The remaining 8 letters are grouped together and simply called ‘wek’.
For a more comprehensive understanding of the Burmese alphabet and to perfect the pronunciation and tonal inflections, you could listen to an online course on the subject. Understanding how words are formed will soon become much clearer.
Historical Changes to the Myanmar Alphabet
Whilst Burma and Myanmar are one and the same, the language has changed considerably over the centuries. The earliest alphabet formation known was back in the 11th century, but since then it has been considerably modified with the changing times.
Words have been written from left to right in both Burma’s and now Myanmar’s alphabet. Whilst script is formed in terms of the circular formation, frequently the alphabetic pronunciation is shown in brackets after the Myanmar text.
Enjoy the Language of Burma on Your Trip!
There is no doubt that the language of Burma is totally fascinating. Burmese may seem peculiar to many people, as it has a unique pitch, tone and is monosyllabic, unlike in many other countries. Most words in the Burmese language are a single syllable.
The order of words and the construction of sentences is all but unique compared to other countries – it goes subject, object and then the verb. So, is it easy to learn Burmese with this kind of unusual format? Yes, many people believe it is quite straightforward once you grasp the initial novelties.
The Burmese language can be quite quirky. There are no surnames! Rhyming names are frequently used by doubling up the same word, such as ‘La-La’ or ‘Mo-Mo’. There are even phrases that relate to the size or gender of the person (‘u nghe’ is frequently used and means ‘big boy’!)
If you decide to learn the Burma/Myanmar language it will certainly stand you in good stead to visit this wonderful country. It takes getting used to at first, but once you have learned the word sequence it should be plain sailing.