Burmese inadequate for the modern world says the New York Times


The New York Times recently published an article about Myanmar’s transition into a more modern state. You can read the article here. The focus is on how the national language, Burmese, is an impediment to the country’s future. (The name of the language is based on “Burma”, the older English name for the country.) The article is full of fallacies, bad arguments, and misinformation that leaves us with the impression that Burmese is linguistically impoverished, and that the speakers of the language have no chance of making it in the modern world. Here’s the opening statement:

“As this former dictatorship opens to the world, language is a stumbling block.”

Burmese speakers have been unable to connect with people outside their own country, so they have had no chance to learn other languages. The same goes for the rest of the world who has had little opportunity or reason to learn Burmese. I imagine this is a common problem for minority languages around the world. There’s nothing special about the Burmese language that creates a “stumbling block”.

Or at least, that’s what I would say. The author of this article, Thomas Fuller, would rather you walk away with the idea that Burmese is uniquely weird and its speakers are linguistically disabled. He seems to have little idea how translation or linguistics works, and he presents mundane issues in language variation as insurmountable obstacles for Burmese speakers. There’s also some good old fashioned linguistic relativity thrown in too, letting us know that if the Burmese don’t have a word for something, they probably can’t think about it properly. I love that pseudoscience from the 1930s is still having some influence on journalists today.

“Limited access to global media and creaking connections to the Internet stunted the evolution of the Burmese language, leaving it without many words that are elsewhere deemed essential parts of the modern political and technical vocabulary”

Stunted the evolution of their language? That’s a little harsh. They had no need for words pertaining to gadgets and technology they cannot purchase or use. They have, I’m sure, a very rich collection of words for describing their life and their culture. It’s not a “stunted” language because it isn’t yet common for speakers to acquire Western technology. This is sort of like saying that Congolese languages of Central Africa are stunted for their lack of words referring to snow and ice. How will people speaking those languages ever be able take part in the discussion on global warming without words for “glacier”, “sea ice”, or “permafrost”?

This article has a very alarmist tone to it, like “oh my god what are those Burmese going to do? How will they survive?”. They’ll do the same thing everyone else did when they started to use computers: they’ll just make new words. There will be a period of time where multiple words for the same thing are in common use, and eventually one will stick and that’s what everyone will use. There’s even an official Myanmar Language Commission, and I’m certain that organization will eventually choose official Burmese words for various bits of technology, if they haven’t already (and these may or may not be the same words that everyday people have already decided to use).

Seriously, go look at the list of languages available for Microsoft Windows. There are many minority languages in there, like Cherokee, Irish, Hausa and Maori. Obviously those languages don’t have native words for concepts like “control panel”, “screen saver”, or “back up of the My Documents folder on the cloud”. And yet here we have a major operating system localized to these languages. Amazing. How ever will the Burmese do it? I guess they’re just doomed.

“The English word democracy was subsumed into the Burmese language decades ago — it is pronounced dee-mock-rah-SEE — but for many Burmese it remains a foreign and somewhat abstract concept. There are no native words for other common ideas like racism, federal or globalization.”

Here we have some confusion between words and concepts. The author seems to think that because the Burmese have a word that sounds like English “democracy”, they should understand the exact concept that English speakers attach to that word. Of course that won’t be the case. The connotations surrounding a word are built up by the culture that uses the word, and if other people, in other cultures, borrow the same sequence of sounds there is no reason they have to give it the same connotation, or even denotation.

As it is, the English word “democracy” is borrowed from Greek, and I really doubt that the concept it represents today is what the Ancient Greeks used it for. The Burmese can borrow the sound sequence [dəmakrəsi], but since they aren’t living in what Western English speakers call a “democracy” it’s unreasonable to expect them to use this word in the same way we do.

“Burmese has a far poorer political vocabulary than English,” said U Thant Myint-U, a historian who also serves as an adviser to the president. “At a time when everything is about the country’s political future, it’s a liability and a constraining factor.””

It’s true that some languages have richer sets of words for particular semantic fields. For example, Imonda, a Papuan language, has a set of 50+ noun classifiers that can give additional information about a noun. This includes really specific things like classifiers for “flat objects and clothing”, “objects wrapped lengthwise” and “round objects”. Many Northwest Caucasian languages have prefixes that give very detailed information about shape and physical orientation. Nivkh has extremely nuanced deictic system for describing exactly how far away something is.

However, it is almost certainly false that Burmese has a poor political vocabulary, because the country is not in anarchy. In the last century, it was ruled by the British, achieved independence, and then was taken under military control. Do you really think such political upheaval just happened, and no one had the words to describe it? I’m sure that most Burmese adults can articulate fairly well how their country is ruled, and give details about crime and punishment.

What I think that U Thant Myint-U means is that Burmese lacks direct equivalents of terms for Western-style governments. For example, there probably aren’t terms equivalent to “proportional representation”, “ballot initiative” or “plebiscite” because these aren’t typically the kinds of things permitted by totalitarian military regimes.

Again, words for these concepts, like words for technologies, will emerge naturally as the need arises in society. The Burmese aren’t incapable of understanding what democratic elections are, even if there is some difficulty in translating those words directly from English. Moreover, the focus on easy translation misses the point: no one has single-word conversations about topics like government and society. Discussions about social change are long and drawn out, and involve a lot of debate. People will try to explain themselves in many different ways. Eventually, speakers of a language will settle on terms that make sense in the context of their society.

It is absurd and patronizing to say that the lexicon of Burmese is a “liability” because it lacks the direct equivalent of certain English words. I think it’s also worth comparing the political vocabulary of an average Burmese person with an average English speaker. Just because words technically exist in English, it doesn’t mean that everyone is politically savvy.

Even the terms we use in English are not transferable between English-speaking countries. I’ve lived in Canada my entire life, so I use words like “Parliament”, “Prime Minister”, “prorogue”, and “minority government”. Americans have no idea what these terms mean, and they have words like “Congress”, “President”, “primary”, and “gubernatorial” which have no use in my political context.

“When foreign experts recommended that the government pass a computer privacy law, Burmese translators scratched their heads because there is no precise translation for privacy in Burmese. The very idea may not exist, possibly because there is little privacy in a society in which people traditionally lived and slept in common areas.”

Way to disparage the translators. Poor Burmese people with their weird language. They don’t have a precise translation, so it must mean they don’t understand the concept. Let’s not consider the alternative that Burmese might have an even more nuanced set of words than we do, making it hard to select an equivalent. It must because our superior English thoughts are more complex, and they have a more primitive language. They’re all oppressed, we’re all free. It’s simple.

And how does he think translation works? Does he think that all translation is direct and word for word? Almost anything you want to say in one language can be phrased in more than one way in another language, and it’s part of a translator’s job to consider all the options and pick the best one. They’re not failing if they have to “scratch their heads” and think about it. That’s how it goes. It’s not unique to Burmese and it’s not unique to political or technological vocabulary.

“Mr. Thant Myint-U, whose grandfather U Thant was the secretary general of the United Nations in the 1960s, says he has been in meetings between the president and foreigners where translation is done by some of the country’s top interpreters. “Ten percent is still lost in translation,” he said.

Vicky Bowman, a former British ambassador to Myanmar, says 10 percent is optimistic. “I would say it’s more like 30 percent to 50 percent,” she said.”

Everyone wants their language to be special, whether it’s awesomely special like English or awesomely handicapped like Burmese. These numbers are completely fabricated. More to the point, the article is making it seem as though 100% accurate translation is possible and maybe even the norm.

Perfect translation is impossible in all but the simplest cases, no matter which two languages you’re looking at, and even some very simple case are not easy. The chart below is a really good example. It shows how the concepts assigned to words in different languages line up (or don’t) with each other.

But let’s finally get some real data here. What is it about Burmese that makes it so hard to do this translation?

“The structure of the Burmese language, part of the Sino-Tibetan language family, varies considerably from English. Written Burmese has no spaces between words and is generally wordier than English.”

This is literally the only hard linguistic data provided in the entire article, and it’s totally useless.

Burmese has no spaces in writing. Why do we care? How is this relevant? How does this prevent them from understanding what a democracy is, or how to translate the word ‘privacy’? Written Chinese has no spaces either, and that country is an economic and technological powerhouse. The fact is only here to further that author’s attempt to paint Burmese as a primitive language. English speakers value good spelling and punctuation, and ridicule those who can’t follow the norms. Spaces between words in a basic principle of English writing that only an idiot wouldn’t be able to respect. So the fact that Burmese has no spaces must mean it’s a pretty backwards language.

What it means for Burmese to be “wordier” I’m really not sure. My guess is that it’s a reference to the fact that Burmese is, in technical terms, an “isolating” language. This means that it has few or no affixes (prefixes or suffixes). Essentially, every concept in Burmese is encoded by a single word.

The opposite of isolating is a “synthetic” language, where sentences often consist of a single root with numerous affixes glued on to it. Languages aren’t one or the other of these types – they fall on a continuum from highly synthetic (every word has at least one affix) to highly isolating (no words ever have affixes). English is in the middle of the scale, somewhat shifted toward the isolating end – prefixes and suffixes are only required on some words and only some of the time. Isolating languages, like Burmese, are actually pretty common throughout Asia, found in a number of unrelated language families.

This means that if you take a sentence of English and translate it into Burmese, you will almost always get more total words in Burmese because some of the English prefixes and suffixes are translated as independent words. There are some additional grammatical differences that can further increase the word count. For example, take the sentence:

3,000 people died

That has, in English, only 3 words, but there are also two other things to consider. The noun is in the plural, which is something we have to translate, and the verb is in the past tense. In Burmese this becomes (English transliteration here, not native writing):

lu u:re 3000 sehcum hkai kra sany

Literally, this means “people units 3000 die past plural sentence”. The fact that the noun is plural is indicated by the word ‘kra’. In English, the single word “people” inherently includes the meaning of plural. The past tense isn’t a suffix like English, it’s an independent word ‘hkrai’. The word ‘u:re’ is a measure-word, something that’s required anytime you count nouns in Burmese. This is a bit of grammar we don’t have in English, and it adds words to any sentence you translate with a numeral. It’s also an example of a way that Burmese could be considered more precise or complex than English, but this never gets mentioned in the NY Times article at all.

Calling Burmese “wordy” is just another way to disparage the language. Wordiness is not a positive attribute for English speakers. Especially not for language snobs who have been conditioned by Strunk and White to “omit needless words”. Who cares that the extra words are the result of normal grammatical processes, and that there are hundreds of human languages with similar isolating morphology. That’s too complicated. Better to go with the story that these are primitive people with an oppressed language, while we have a free and liberated English.

““They [Burmese speakers] say, ‘Oh, it’s something to do with computers!’ ”

And they say it using the English word.

There is no Burmese word for computer. Or phone, for that matter.”

This is the concluding paragraph of the article, and it really shows how the author fails to understand what a loanword is. This is really too bad, since the concept is central to whole article. Saying that Burmese has no word for ‘phone’ or ‘computer’ is a bit like saying that English has no word for ‘kangaroo’, ‘igloo’ or ‘kindergarten’ because these are borrowed from other languages. If we really wanted to push it, we could even say that English has no word for ‘phone’ either, because that’s a borrowing from Greek (the prefix ‘tele-‘ is also Greek). At some point, after a word gets borrowed, it becomes a native word, and it is silly to treat it like a borrowing anymore. The pronunciation of the words has shifted to match the borrowing languages, and it becomes integrated into the grammar.

English has borrowed a huge number of words from other sources, and we don’t treat English as though it’s an impoverished language. Rather, people tend to celebrate how easy it is for English to absorb vocabulary from other places. Why treat Burmese differently? How come Burmese sucks at being a language because it borrows words, while English is totally awesome for doing the same thing?

In fact, I found it highly suspicious that Burmese people could be employed as computer programmers, without having some native word for talking about these things. I hit up an online Burmese dictionary and wouldn’t you know it, the word “computer” appears in there. Huh. It’s almost like this New York Times article was written by someone who wants to push a narrative about crazy foreign languages, rather than a journalist who did some homework.

Burmese uses a writing system that is similar to an alphabet, so with the help of Omniglot I was able to work out roughly the pronunciation of the word. In Burmese writing, the word looks like this: ကွန်ပျူတာ (if that appears as little boxes to you on WordPress, try searching the dictionary directly).

It is pronounced something like ‘kanpyautar’ (not phonetic writing, obviously). Note how this is NOT the same as English. For one, the nasal consonant differs: in English it’s an /m/ but in Burmese it’s /n/. The vowels are also different. On top of that, Burmese is a tone language, so each of these syllables is assigned a tone (something I haven’t indicated here), which further changes the pronunciation from English.

So if there are differences in consonants, vowels, and pitch, is it really true that Burmese people are just using the English word? No, of course not. It’s clear that this word has become a full-on Burmese word of its own. The only difference between this and any other word is that we happen to know which language it was borrowed from originally.

While we’re at it, I should probably mention that English borrowed the root ‘compute’ from French, so maybe we should also say that English has no word for computer. That’s absurd, of course, because that borrowing happened almost 400 years ago, and the word has been further modified by an English suffix -er. Now, if that makes sense to you, apply the same logic to Burmese, but on a shorter time scale.

I wish that knowledge of linguistics was a little more common, especially among journalists. It would be great to one day read an article about foreign languages that doesn’t treat them so badly.

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10 Comments

Filed under Linguistics

10 responses to “Burmese inadequate for the modern world says the New York Times

  1. Thanks for such a powerfully argued article! Regards Thom.

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  2. I find it interesting that, with all the languages offered for Microsoft Windows, It’s not possible to use English. Only American ‘English’ is available.

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    • I don’t understand your comment. American English is a variety of English. Therefore Windows is available in English.

      Let me try your logic out: I can download Windows in Canadian French, so no French versions are available. Is that how it goes?

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      • Yes but I can’t get it in the language I use. Whether you call it a language or a variety isn’t important to me.

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      • What variety of English do you speak? And what version of Windows are you using? When I go into Control Panel in Windows 8, I can see 16 dialects of English available. Surely at least one of these is close enough to yours.

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      • It seems to be changing with WIndows 8. I am sure WIndows 7 used American spelling without offering choices. Microsoft Office still uses US spelling.

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      • On older systems, yes, I recall that this was a problem. My first language is Canadian English, and I’ve had to teach more than one word-processor how to spell “colour”, “honour”, “neighbour” etc. It’s nice to see these improvements, and more recognition of dialects.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved your take on this. Totally agree with you, ‘language is inadequate’ headlines are often either wrong or overly simplistic.

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  4. I think you’re being a bit harsh about the article. If you really scrutinize it, some of its claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. But it is a fact that languages can lack proper ways to express certain theoretical concepts belonging to other cultures, which may make it harder to explain such concepts to the masses. “Rule of law” and “democracy” may be such concepts in the case of Burma. But I also agree that in the long run words will be invented.

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    • I don’t see how this is too harsh. As you admit, the article’s claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. Should we just let that go? Should people be able to make any random claims they want, without pushback? The NYT isn’t a tumblr blog – it’s a respected publication that ought to know better.

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