Posts Tagged ‘Burma’


May 4, 2018

Some years ago, when I was still writing well reasoned, carefully researched essays (unlike the freewheeling blog posts that I compose nowadays), I wrote one (in fact, my very last such effort) about the various uses to which the letter H has been put in different languages that use the Latin alphabet.

With regard to English, I wrote that “the H in ah (and hah), eh (and feh, meh), and uh (and huh) … indicates that the vowel is different from what it would have been without the H.” But I was not specific; what I meant was that ah stands for /ɑ/ or /ɑ:/, eh for /ɛ/, and uh for /ə/or  /ə:/. Thus ah is often used to represent the typical non-rhotic pronunciation of ar (e.g. dahling), and uh for that of er, ir or ur (e.g. Suh for Sir).

I also wrote the following:

Word-final –ah is also found in English, especially in words from Middle Eastern or South Asian languages (for example mullah, hookah, purdah, verandah), originally intended to indicate that this vowel is to be pronounced /ɑ/ rather than neutralized to /ə/, though the effect has generally been lost.

Indeed, in word-final –ah the H is usually ignored; for example, Sara and Sarah, Hanna and Hannah are considered to be different spellings of the same name. (Endings in -iah are an exception: Maria and Mariah are pronounced differently.)

There are a couple of exceptions: the words hurrah and huzzah are indeed pronounced with a stressed final /ɑ:/. Perhaps these examples were in the minds of those who, in the early 19th century, first wrote about the country to the east of India, which they spelled Burmah in order to represent the native pronunciation /bə’mɑ/ (“buh-mah“). But it didn’t work: readers disregarded the h, and the (non-rhotic) English came to call the country “buh-muh”. Eventually the h was dropped from the spelling; according to Google Ngrams, Burma overtook Burmah in the 1870s.

Nowadays /bə’mɑ/* officially designates the name, not of the country, but of its majority ethnic group, also known (in English) as Burmese. But the country’s authorities resorted to a different trick in order to preserve the original pronunciation: rather than an h, they put an r at the end, seemingly knowing that English-speakers are more likely to stress a two-syllable word on the second syllable if there is a consonant letter (even if silent) at the end, and so the spelling now is Bamar.

In order to differentiate the name of the country from that of its majority ethnic group (and thus to acknowledge the presence of other ethnicities, such as the Karen, Shan and others), they chose an alternative form, pronounced /mjə’mɑ/, for which they chose(on the same principle)  the spelling Myanmar, with the representing the semivowel /j/, as it often does in English. But it doesn’t usually do so in this setting, with the result that most English-speaking readers interpret it as the vowel /i/ (“ee“) and the word thus gains a third syllable. With trisyllabic words ending in a consonant letter, the overwhelming tendency (as I have discussed) is to stress them on the first syllable, resulting in what is now the most common pronunciation in anglophone media: /’miənmɑ(r)/.

So much for trying to represent native pronunciation in English.


*I can’t show the Burmese writing, the price I’m paying for sticking with Windows 7.