White Boy Learning Burmese

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

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:


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


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:


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


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


8 thoughts on “Escaping the Pronoun Maze

  1. I have been learning Burmese for about a year… in my spare time. We have many Burmese refugees in our area, and I want to be able to communicate with them. My reading is improving and I have some basic conversation skills. However, I really need help with using the most common conjunctives, so that I can build bigger sentences. Is there a chance you could post a video addressing this?

  2. Hi Tyler, a couple of years ago I saw a YouTube video where you converse in Burmese with a Burmese lady, and I remember thinking, “Damn, he’s good!” I remember being particularly impressed by your use of hesitation and “buffer” phrases. It makes your Burmese sound more natural.

    Yeah, I’m not a fan of the Zawgyi font either. It’s not fully Unicode compliant and it does seem to break webpages sometimes. I want to try and use the true Unicode fonts, the ones that are used in the Myanmar Wikipedia, but I haven’t been motivated to try them out since everyone is still stuck with Zawgyi and very few want to change. Kind of a shame really, since true Unicode Burmese fonts are now officially supported in Windows 8.

    As a Burmese person who is not a linguist, let me offer my thoughts on your post from an intuitive point of view.

    As you’ve probably figured out by now, မင္းေလး is almost exclusively used in song lyrics as a 2nd-person pronoun to refer to a love interest. It’s one of those pronouns such as အသင္ and ကၽြႏု္ပ္ which are never used in spoken conversation. I think a Burmese person would react to that the same way a native English speaker would react to being told “thou art beautiful”. မင္းေလးကလွတယ္ sounds straight out of a stereotypical Burmese love song. However, that is irrelevant. What is relevant is, of course, whether or not you scored. If you scored, then all this discussion about grammar should be thrown out the window, and မင္းေလးကလွတယ္ should be added to our standard repertoire of pickup lines.

    On ကိုယ္
    I can see how this one can be tricky. The only situations I can think of where this is used as a explicit first person pronoun are:

    (a) When a male is informally conversing with a younger male. In this case, ကိုယ္ is an informal way of referring to oneself that is age and authority-neutral, unlike အစ္ကို or ဦး which implies that the speaker is older

    (b) When a male is conversing with a love interest or spouse, similar to how it’s used in the screenshot.

    (c) As a gender-neutral, indefinite pronoun, very similar in feeling to the English “one”. For example: ကိုယ့္သီလ ကိုယ္ေစာင့္ထိန္းဖို႔လိုတယ္ (one needs to maintain one’s moral integrity), ကိုယ္ေျပာမိတဲ့စကားတစ္ခြန္း မွားသြားတယ္ (I said something wrong), ကိုယ္လိုခ်င္တိုင္း မရဘူး (one cannot always get what one wants), သူက ကိုယ့္အတြက္ပဲကိုယ္ စဥ္းစားတတ္တဲ့ လူမ်ဳိး (he/she’s the kind of person who only thinks for him/herself).

    There are definitely some anomalies where the usage of ကိုယ္ doesn’t fit quite snugly into either of these cases, and as such, ကိုယ္ is one of those pronouns that aren’t necessary for conversation and might be better avoided if you’re unsure.

    On ခင္ဗ်ား
    Wow, I don’t usually think about my own language, and upon reflection, I see that ခင္ဗ်ား can be both very polite and formal and rather rude and informal!

    ခင္ဗ်ား as a pronoun is definitely quite informal. Anyone who told you it’s a formal pronoun must’ve been playing a prank. I only see myself using it when addressing old familiar friends with whom I would be comfortable slapping each others’ backs. Some use it to address people substantially younger. Use it in any other situation, and it shows you’re annoyed. When I hear ခင္ဗ်ား being used between people who are not friends, I anticipate a heated argument. In Burmese movies, repeated exchanges of ခင္ဗ်ား between two men are often followed by fisticuffs.

    On the other hand, ခင္ဗ်ား / ခင္ဗ်ာ / ခင္ဗ် is also used as what I believe is called a copula in linguistics. It is a very formal and polite copula used by males. For example, in increasing order of politeness: ဟုတ္ကဲ့ > ဟုတ္ကဲ့ပါ > ဟုတ္ကဲ့ပါခင္ဗ်ား။ Also, ရိွပါတယ္ခင္ဗ်ား။ သိပါတယ္ခင္ဗ်ား။ I usually hear this being used by people aged 40 or above when speaking to clients, elderly people, or people of rather high importance.

    Another usage of ခင္ဗ်ား / ခင္ဗ်ာ / ဗ်ာ is in response to a hail. When someone hails you, “Hey, Ko Win Hein”, you probably respond ဟုတ္ကဲ့, but you can also respond with ဟုတ္ကဲ့ခင္ဗ်ား / ဟုတ္ကဲ့ခင္ဗ်ာ / ဟုတ္ကဲ့ခင္ဗ် / ခင္ဗ်ာ / ခင္ဗ် / ဗ်ာ. In my opinion, a regular ဟုတ္ကဲ့ is by far the most common response a person of your age would give in general. Maybe if you were attending an event where you know lots of corporate executives or government officials are attending, you might want to say ဟုတ္ကဲ့ခင္ဗ်ား more often. A danger is that you might approach one of them and accidentally use it as a pronoun, saying ခင္ဗ်ားနာမည္ ဘယ္လိုေခၚသလဲ which would make people gasp and stare.

    I hope this has helped! Congratulations on learning all those languages – that’s one hell of a feat!

  3. မဂၤလာပါရွင္
    အကို႕ရဲ႕ ဗြီဒီယိုဖိုင္ကို ၾကည္႕ၿပီး ညီမတို႕ၿမန္မာစကားကုိ ေၿပာတတ္လို႕ဝမ္းသာမိပါတယ္
    အကို ၿမန္မာစကားေၿပာတာလဲအရမ္းပီပါတယ္
    အကိုနဲ႕လဲ မိတ္ေဆြ သူငယ္ခ်ငး္ၿဖစ္ခ်င္ပါတယ္

    Hello Nice to meet you
    I am myanmar and I saw your video in youtube .
    Your very clever man your accent is very good . May i be friend with you .
    Thanks alot …

  4. If you want to friend with me , you can contant this account name .


    Your welcome

  5. whiteboylearningburmese ဆိုတဲ့ နာမည္နဲ႔ Facebook Account ကိုလဲ ရွာမေတြ႔ဘူး။ Facebook link ေလးကို ေသေသခ်ာခ်ာေရးေပးထားေစခ်င္ပါတယ္။ ကြ်န္မရဲ႕ blog မွာ ကုိဝင္းဟိန္းရဲ႕ ဒီ site ကို Add ထားေပးပါတယ္။

  6. Hey there, your video caught my attention when I was trying to learn my “supposedly native tongue”. I feel so motivated watching a totally un-Asian person speaking my native tongue. My father is from Myanmar and my mum’s a Malaysian Chinese. I grew up in Malaysia and so my dad didn’t teach me Burmese. Now I feel like I need to learn Burmese to be able to relate to him and understand him as a father. I just need to know HOW did you even start? How long it take you to learn Burmese? And hopefully get some encouragement too.

    You’re planning to be a polyglot, I see. Amazing man. God bless you.

  7. ဆက္ၾကိဳးစားပါ။ အရမ္း ခ်ီးက်ဳးပါတယ္။ ဆရာၾကီး ယုုဒသာန္လိုု မျဖစ္ဘူး လိုု႕ ဘယ္သူ ေျပာနိုုင္မလဲ ။

  8. can I comment? test

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