The Burmese language serves as the official language of Myanmar, formally known as Burma.
Thanks to its coastal location, Myanmar early on served as an important point of convergence for ships from around the world. Early outside contact with India, Sri Lanka and the West means that the Burmese have long been exposed to a variety of influences that have affected the development of Myanmar’s cultures, religions and languages.
Classification and Early History of the Burmese Language
The Burmese language is classified as a member of the Tibeto-Burman group of languages, part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It is believed that the first humans settled in Myanmar approximately 11,000 years ago. In 1969 employees from the country’s Department of Archaeology discovered a number of cave paintings and stone tools in the country.
The earliest known sample of an independent Burmese language text dates from the mid-11th century. Written in an alphabet derived from the ancient Pali language of India, the text is an example of the Old Burmese language from which the modern Burmese language we know today evolved.
The Pyu People of Early Myanmar
One of the earliest known civilizations in the area was that of the Pyu, a civilization of peoples who established a number of city-kingdoms in the area of modern-day Myanmar from the 1st century BC to the 9th century CE.
Evidence of the Pyu’s success can be found in Chinese historical records, which note that the Pyu at one point had control of more than 18 kingdoms. It is believed that the Pyu spoke some form of the old Tibeto-Burman languages that modern Burmese would evolve from.
The Kingdom of Pagan: Unification of Myanmar’s People
The power of the Pyu was challenged by the rising power of the Burmans, whose capital city of Pagan emerged as a prominent power in the country around the mid-9th century. When the Pyu were effectively conquered by raids of the Nanzhao kingdom of China, the door for supreme power in Myanmar was left open to the Burmans.
In 1044 a new king, Anawrahta, ascended the Pagan throne and undertook a process of unification. Thanks to Anawrahta’s powerful reign, Myanmar was united in a single kingdom – with Pagan at the center – by the mid-11th century. The dynasty established by Anawrahta was to be the longest-surviving dynasty in Myanmar’s history, remaining strong well into the 13th century when the threat of Mongol invasion led to a decline in Burmese power.
Myanmar After the Kingdom of Pagan
After the decline of the Kingdom of Pagan, a secession of kingdoms established dominant dynastic rule throughout Burma. The first Ava Kingdom dominated the country from circa 1364 to 1527, while the previously disempowered Mon kingdom reestablished power in the south of the country.
Around 1531, the Toungoo dynasty became a dominant power that was later challenged by the rise of the second Ava dynasty in 1613. A number of other dynasties vied for power in Burma until the advent of British colonial power began in 1885.
British Colonial Power in Burma
Conflict between Burma’s natives and British colonials had been occurring for years before the British officially took power of the country.
In 1885, the British declared war on Burma for the third time, resulting in the third Anglo-Burmese war – a battle that would last less than two weeks and that ended with the effective British takeover of Myanmar. Following their victory, the British annexed northern Burma as a colony and named the entire country as an official province of British India.
Colonial Influence in Burma
During the period of colonial rule, English served as the official language of Burma; however, the Burmese language remained intact as the language of everyday use, and schools continued to teach both the English and Burmese languages.
Another result of British colonialism was the birth of a new, unified sense of nationalism among Burma’s people. A new generation of leaders arose as young Burmese profited from the colonial education system, often going to study abroad in India or London and then returning to their home country.
In addition to pushing for national reforms, many young leaders advocated for Myanmar’s separation from India in order to preserve a distinct Burmese identity. This dream was eventually realized in 1937 when the British government divided Burma from India and gave the country its own constitution. Burma, however, remained in British control.
On January 4, 1948, Burma gained independence from British colonial power, becoming an independent republic with a new constitution and leadership. After independence, English lost its status as the official language of the country. It was still taught in schools until 1962, at which point a military coup in Burma resulted in a socialist takeover of the government.
The new socialist government that took power after the coup established a new program of government in hopes of transforming Burma into a fully socialist state. The military-controlled Burma Socialist Programme Party took control of the country, established a new constitution and nationalized the majority of Burma’s land, commerce and industry.
Problems After Independence
Political turmoil in Burma and conflict regarding its status in the international community has continued to the present day. Protests for democratic reforms in 2007 resulted in a harsh military response from the State Peace and Development Council, Myanmar’s military-led government. This drew critical attention from the international community.
The SPDC subsequently approved a new constitution that could be ratified by a public referendum in May 2008, after which the SPDC promised it would hold elections. However, the referendum process was interrupted by a natural disaster when a cyclone hit Myanmar’s coast in 2008, and the military-controlled SPDC remains in power to this day.
Burmese Language Today
Modern Burmese is the official language of Myanmar and is spoken by the majority of the Burmese population as either a native or second language. There are an estimated 52 million Burmese language speakers in the world today, most of them concentrated in the countries of Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Burmese Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Bama, Bamachaka, Myen, Myanmar
Language Family: Sino-Tibetan, Tibeto-Burman, Lolo-Burmese, Burmish, Southern
Official Language of: Burma
Spoken by Approximately 32,302,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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