White Boy Learning Burmese

The journey of an average white guy trying to learn a non-Indo-European language


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Escaping the Pronoun Maze

Greetings, readers.  It has been a while.  Between school, family, a job that I had for a while, free time that I dedicated to other things, and actual study of Burmese, I have neglected all of you (and this blog) for over six months now, and I am truly sorry.  To make it up to you all, I am going to use my undergraduate brain to discuss a topic inspired by an individual who spoke with me on Facebook about Burmese Pronouns.  The conversation went a little like this:

Dude:  Hello, Ko Win Hein!

KWH:  Hello, Dude!

Dude:  Can you tell me the best pronoun to use when talking to a girl?

KWH:  Well…  It depends on a few things, like her age in comparison to yours, how long you’ve known her, how close you two actually are, what she wishes to be called, and the social context.  Why?

Dude:  Well, I wanted to tell her that she’s beautiful and I said “မင္းေလးကလွတယ္” and she acted really surprised.

KWH:  I imagine so!

Dude:  What do you mean?

KWH:  Long story, I’ll explain later.

Here is where I explain:

We anglos, especially ignorant, monolingual, culturally-ignorant ones are stuck in a maze.  A long, complicated, and winding maze which we were forced to start running in about First grade when we learned the word “Pronoun.”  That’s right, we are running around in a “Pronoun Maze” and I will now give a definition for it:

The winding never-ending cycle of thought that pronouns must always fall into a systematic category of Person, Singularity/Plurality, and sometimes Honorification/Reverence.

I will give an account of my own experience.  When I first sought out to learn Burmese, there was a young lady I knew whose father had a B.A. in Burmese Language, whose brain I thought I could pick in giving me pronoun names.  I figured it would be simple enough, like filling out a table.  I would start off with the same mental blank table that students are instructed to use in foreign languages classes in school for pronouns that looks a bit like this:

pronoun_maze_img1

So, in my head and through a bit of reading in Burmese, I found that I could make a table somewhat like this:

pronoun_maze_img2

The problem is, I knew that the pronouns listed there for 1st and 2nd are considered quite rude (from R.F. Andrew St. John, Hon, M.A.’s grammar), and I also learned to use these pronouns from Gene Mesher’s horrible inadequate barely acceptable mediocre book “Burmese for Beginners” by Paiboon Publishing:

pronoun_maze_img3

But later, I learned there was more to it than that.  I would watch music videos and see weird-butt pronouns like this:

pronoun_maze_img4

This one REALLY threw me off because ကုိယ္ (part of ကိုယ္ခႏၶာ) means “body” and I read from two difference sources that it could mean either the 1st Person in a poetic sense (like in this song) or the 2nd Person (example: Christians refer to God in 2nd Person with the word ကိုယ္ေတာ္.

So, the big question was, how many pronouns are there really and how do I know which ones to use at which time?!  The answer to the first question is “as many as you can think of” and the answer to the second is “you will never know.”  There are different variations of different pronouns.  For example, ခင္ဗ်ား can also be ခင္ဗ်ာ or ဗ်ား or ဗ် depending on different situations. I’m sure if you’d be willing to do a search here in the blog, you’ll find posts written by me where I used ခင္ဗ်ား having learned that it is the most-formal of all pronouns that a man can use to address someone, and was told that it sounds rude. My mind was blown.

So, what does one do in this situation? Assume the fetal position and rock backwards and forwards in the corner? Absolutely not! The solution to escape the Pronoun Maze is to take out your metaphorical hedge clippers, and simply cut through the edge of the maze, never to return again. I will give you a few tips:

  • In Burmese, names can be used in place of pronouns.  Even in first-person.
  • It is perfectly acceptable to ask a person how they wish to be called.  Just like substitute teachers in the West ask if a student has a certain nickname that they prefer.
  • If you feel like you have the upper-hand, you may start addressing yourself in a certain way when talking to someone to passively cue them as to how you should be addressed, and they will most likely do the same to you.
  • Most Burmese people upon meeting a foreigner will ask the foreigner’s age as to determine whether or not to call them from a younger or older perspective.
  • If you are a boy and a girl feels close to you in a weird sibling sense (upgrade from the frendzone?), they will call you ေမာင္ေလး if you are younger and အစ္ကို if you are older.
  • If you are a girl, you will always address younger girls as ညီမ and older girls as အစ္မ and boys will do the same in comparison of your relationship to them.
  • It’s not as hard as you think it is.

I’ve reiterated my point in the last bullet to show that once the Pronoun Maze is escaped, the whole game becomes much easier and this problem becomes a distant memory.  Thanks for reading and do ask any questions in the comments, which I WILL answer.  I have been trying to avoid writing a lot of Burmese because this WordPress seems to have trouble when I switch between fonts.  Hopefully <spoiler>if I ever get my own server</spoiler> this will be a lot simpler.

Ko Win Hein