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



Use Facebook in Burmese, fellow white people!

Ok, so Facebook is about 95% translated into Burmese.  We’re still waiting on that last 5% but it’s gone up 1% since last night, so the team has been working very hard!  However, dear white people, when it does finally come out in Burmese…



Poetry Translation [BUR –> ENG]: #2 Oh, Lover

[DOWNLOAD UNICODE PDF HERE] (Right-Click –> Save-As…)

Well, today my mother and I had to put two of our beloved cats (RIP Bear and Cinnamon) down (ျမန္မာလို: ဒီေန႔ ကၽြန္ေတာ့္ေမေမ နဲ႔ ကၽြန္ေတာ္တို႔က ျမတ္ႏိုးတဲ့ေၾကာင္ႏွစ္ေကာင္ကို မနာက်င္ေစဘဲ သက္ေတာင့္သက္သာေသေစရန္ လုပ္ရခဲ့တယ္။).  So, to take my mind off of them, I’ve decided it’s time to translate another poem.  This one was written by a young poet named သဲသဲေလး who has a blog here: http://myanmarlovepoem.blogspot.com/ The title is called “ခ်စ္သူရယ္” (Eng: Oh, Lover).  As always, I’ll provide first an interlinear version, a literal English version, and an English rendering. Continue reading


Poetry Translation [BUR –> ENG]: #1 From The Bosom of A Lover

[DOWNLOAD UNICODE PDF HERE] (Right-Click –> Save As…)

Hello All! I would like to try something new today, which is translating a simple Burmese poem into English. I may make this a regular habit, as I figure this flowery Burmese would be good for my practice. First, I will display the Burmese poem with the interlinear English, render a literal English translation, and then create a more “poetic” English version. The poem for today is called “ခ်စ္သူ့ရင္ခြင္”(Lit: The Lover’s Bosom) and I can’t exactly credit the author, but I “borrowed” the post from this blog: http://mgwinsoe.blogspot.com/2008/09/blog-post_08.html Continue reading


You Wanna Learn Burmese, Too?


So, it’s Summer and I have no more excuses as to why I haven’t posted anything (in English or Burmese), and while I’m getting annoyed by how much English I’m using, this post is dedicated to you, my beloved Westerners, English-speakers, Asian-o-philes, Whities, etc.

So, I recently e-mailed a guy who is studying Chinese in China (lucky!) and had told me that he’s considered learning Burmese.  Not a strange request in these times.  This is what I told him: Continue reading

1 Comment

Font Update!

Hello everyone!  So…  If you’ve gone to the page where I posted the link to the font, I have an announcement to make… THERE IS A BETTER FONT AVAILABLE THAT I’VE BEEN USING AND TOTALLY DIDN’T REALIZE THAT I’VE LINKED YOU ALL TO AN OLDER AND CRUMMIER FONT! Ok, now that my Caps-lock rant is done, let me say that after this post, I will update the font page to take you to a direct link to that font file (no viruses, I swear) and you all will be able to see a better rendering of the font.



What is English to Me…

So, this may come as a surprise to everyone, but I don’t think very highly of English.  I’ll never forget what one of my professors said in class, because I’ve felt the same way the whole life and have never found the words to express the emotion.

Although English is my mother-tongue, I did not choose to speak in English.  It was forced upon me by my culture, whether I wanted to speak it, or not. Continue reading