Because of the recent catastrophe in the Irawaddy delta, the names of the country formerly known as Burma are in the news again. The same thing happened last fall, when the news was full of protest marches led by Buddhist monks ("Should it be Burma or Myanmar?", BBC News Magazine, 9/26/2008):
The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon. […]
The two words mean the same thing and one is derived from the other. Burmah, as it was spelt in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar.
They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics.
"There's a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government. [The name change] is a form of censorship."
If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use 'Myanmar', but speaking they use 'Burma', he says.
This reflects the regime's attempt to impose the notion that literary language is master, Mr Houtman says, but there is definitely a political background to it.
Richard Coates, a linguist at the University of Western England, says adopting the traditional, formal name is an attempt by the junta to break from the colonial past.
Leaving aside the notion that the local pronunciation is a "corruption", the BBC's discussion omits the most interesting part of the story, at least from an American point of view. They should have asked John Wells, whose discussion of the question I linked to at the time ("Myanmar is mama", 10/15/2007). And the explanations that I've heard and read this time around — yesterday on NPR, for example — again miss the key point. So here it is.
There is no 'r'!
Never was. Not in Burma and not in Myanmar. The 'r' is an orthographic imposition of post-rhotic British colonialists. As John explained:
In both Myanmar and Burma the English spellings assume a non-rhotic variety of English, in which the letter r before a consonant or finally serves merely to indicate a long vowel: [ˈmjænmɑː, ˈbɜːmə].
So any American who says the last syllable of Myanmar as [mɑːr] or pronounces Burma as [bɝːmə] is using a spelling pronunciation based on British, non-rhotic, spelling conventions.
When the Burmese opposition triumphs, as it must sooner or later, will they throw off the colonial yoke for real and name their nation "Baama"? It seems more likely that they'll take the post-post-colonial path, and revert to "Burma".
I note with sadness, by the way, that the OED fails us here. It's not surprising that Myanmar is missing, since the word was only forced into English in 1989; but the entry for Burma, in its entirety, is
In full Burma cheroot. A kind of cheroot manufactured in Burma and with a peculiar aroma.
Compare the elaborate and helpful etymology given for Mali:
[< the place name Mali, prob. < French Mali < Arabic Mālī (also in form Māllī (14th cent.)), prob. < Soninke *Malli < Manding *Mandeŋ, the name of the traditional Manding homeland (see MANDE n. and adj.). Cf. Fula Mali (Mɛli, Malel) the Mande people. The older form of the place name, Melli, is prob. < Italian Melli (1550 in Leo Africanus) < Arabic Māllī (perh. via Spanish or Maghribi Arabic *Mēllī ).]