Failing words in Myanmar

« previous post | next post »

Thomas Fuller, "Those Who Would Remake Myanmar Find That Words Fail Them", NYT 7/19/2015:

It’s the dawn of democracy in Myanmar. If only the Burmese had their own word for it.  As this former dictatorship opens to the world, language is a stumbling block.  

For half a century, Myanmar was so cut off from the outside world that people were jailed for owning an unauthorized fax machine. As the rest of the world was hurtling into the information age, the strict censorship of publications, limited access to global media and creaking connections to the Internet stunted the evolution of the Burmese language, leaving it without many words that are elsewhere deemed essential parts of the modern political and technical vocabulary.

For example, there's democracy:

The English word democracy was subsumed into the Burmese language decades ago — it is pronounced dee-mock-rah-SEE — but for many Burmese it remains a foreign and somewhat abstract concept.

Of course, English borrowed democracy around 1500 from Middle French democracie, and the French borrowed it in their turn from post-classical Latin democratia, which in turn borrowed it from ancient Greek δημοκρατία. And Myanmar is far from the only place in the world where democracy "remains a foreign and somewhat abstract concept".

And then there's computer:

Younger Burmese are growing up exposed to modern technology and foreign concepts, creating a gulf of vocabulary between generations.

A 21-year-old developer who creates apps for Android phones, Daw Ei Myat Noe Khin, says her job is bewildering for some members of her family.

“When I talk about my work to my mother and her friends, I can’t explain it in Burmese,” she said.

“There is no word in Burmese for developer, so I used the English word programmer,” she said. “If they don’t understand programmer, I say, ‘It’s what is inside your phone and makes it work.’ ”

“They say, ‘Oh, it’s something to do with computers!’ ”

And they say it using the English word.

There is no Burmese word for computer. Or phone, for that matter.

As this example illustrates, the whole discussion is not about vocabulary items, but about concepts. Ryan Weller, who sent in a link to the article, observed that

It's a classic "no word for X" article, asserting that one of the challenges in reforming Burma is that there are no "native" Burmese words for things like "computer" or "democracy." In my experience working with Burmese refugees, they understand perfectly well what a "computer" is despite the word's foreign origin.

Indeed, the Japanese seem to have managed the modern world pretty well, despite having borrowed the English word コンピューター (konpyuutaa = "computer") and made up a word for telephone out of Chinese parts (電話 denwa = diàn huà), which the Chinese took back in their turn. Not that computer and telephone are anglo-saxon words to start with…

All in all, a worthy addition to our "'No word for X' archive".


  1. LKM said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 9:45 am

    People use the English word "computer" even in many languages that do technically have a "native" equivalent (e.g. German, which actually has multiple different German words for computer, but everybody just says computer anyway).

  2. Tom S. Fox said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 10:28 am

    Since when is a programmer something in your phone that makes it work?

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

    The lack of historical perspective is particularly glaring with the "fax machine" example, since Burma was almost halfway through the referenced period of isolation before fax machines became ubiquitous in the U.S. (the office where I worked from 1987 to 1989 never had one, although there was presumably some tipping point, as with cable tv or microwave ovens, where a majority of AmEng speakers knew what they were even if they didn't have personal access to one).* The comparison you'd want would be a not-so-isolated neighboring country, such as Thailand. At what point, if ever, did a majority of Thai-speakers (including rural peasants as well as city office-workers) know the standard Thai word/phrase for "fax machine"?

    *Perhaps a reference to earlier period-appropriate communications technology like teletype machines would have been lost on the younger NYT readers?

  4. michael farris said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 12:40 pm

    "Japanese …. borrowed … the Chinese word 電話 (denwa" = diàn huà, "telephone").

    Maybe my memory's faulty, but I thought that denwa was a Japanese neologism which was then borrowed by Chinese (and from there to Korean and Vietnamese).

    [(myl) You're right about the sequence, which is rather like the way that Modern Greek got τηλέφωνο. I've corrected the passage accordingly.]

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

    A 21-year-old developer who creates apps for Android phones, Daw Ei Myat Noe Khin, says her job is bewildering for some members of her family.

    Is Fuller under the impression that this does not happen to English-speaking tech workers in the US and UK?

  6. BZ said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 3:41 pm

    I find the opposite to be true for isolated countries. In the Soviet days, there was a native word for computer, program, etc. As the Soviet Union opened up and then fell apart, English words (sometimes russified or slangified) became more and more common, even outside the technical fields. I don't recall hearing the Russian word for tornado (smerch) used in the media for a long time. (Of course "tornado" is not originally English either).

  7. Jonathan D said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 6:21 pm

    J. W. Brewer, the fax machine reference wasn't about the words used. The idea that you could be arrested for having one is significant quite apart from how many people would have heard of one otherwise.

  8. ThomasH said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

    "As this example illustrates, the whole discussion is not about vocabulary items, but about concepts."

    I'd say it's just the reverse: it's all about vocabulary.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

    The timing issue is the same, i.e. treating something that happened fairly late in the relevant time period as emblematic of the period as a whole. The approximate half-century of Burmese isolation from the outside world presumably started with the 1962 coup. A few minutes' googling suggests that the first high-profile prosecution for illegal fax-machine possession was in 1996 (that of James Nichol or Nichols, who then died in prison). Indeed, wikipedia asserts that "The Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act (1933), enacted by the British government in colonial times, makes it an offence to have in possession any wireless telegraphy apparatus without permission. The act was amended in 1995/96 by the junta to include fax machines and computers."

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 7:12 pm

    In fairness to the British colonial regime in Burma, it is to this day against the law in the U.K. proper to watch television without a license from the government. The licenses are very freely available (the practical goal of the law is not to unduly limit access to television, but rather to generate revenue from the mandatory license fees that can be used to fund the BBC), but the principle is still rather unsettling if you are used to a more American worldview.

  11. Wei said,

    July 20, 2015 @ 10:36 pm

    The same phenomenon can be observed in my hometown where people speak a Sinitic topolect; they usually switch to mandarin Chinese for referring to a certain new-fangled concepts, not that there isn't a way to transfer the novel words phonetically into our mother tongue; simply because it feels more natural.

  12. anonymous coward said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 3:22 am

    > I don't recall hearing the Russian word for tornado (smerch) used in the media for a long time.

    The North American "tornado" and the Russian "smerch" are different phenomena, and thus have different names. (Or at least that's how it is perceived by Russians.)

  13. Bloix said,

    July 21, 2015 @ 10:55 am

    "Democracy" and "computer" seem to belong to different categories of words. Finding a word for computer would seem to be as easy as finding a word for airplane or telephone. You can fight over whether it should be a loan-word or a calque but that's about it.

    "Democracy" is tougher.

  14. maidhc said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 1:56 am

    I don't see that it would be that hard to come up with a word for democracy. The Greeks did it, after all: people + rule. They did it so well that most Europeans just copied them. We could have done it for ourselves in English. Maybe something like "folkmight". In Irish you have daonlathas, in Breton you have gweriniezh.

    It seems to me that most languages would have enough basic elements to concoct a word, if they didn't want to adopt a foreign word.

    I think what the article is trying to say, in a confused sort of way, is that Burma has no tradition of democratic institutions. That may indeed be a problem, but I'm sure the Burmese are quite capable of coming up with names for whatever structures they develop.

    Seventy years ago English had no words to describe computer technology, yet we've managed to get by in the years since then.

  15. ohwilleke said,

    July 22, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

    FWIW, I am much more interested in concepts that English has no (single, native) word for that are found in other languages, than visa versa.

    For example, I loved discovering in high school that French and Spanish have a preposition that means "the house of" ("chez" in French), that English lacks.

    Political or social science or technical terms from other languages, which usually come in groups of related words and concepts, are particularly interesting. For instance, the weak degree to which terms of legal professional categories translate is quite interesting.

  16. Rubrick said,

    July 23, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

    I'd be happy enough if the rest of the world could just agree on a word for Burma.

RSS feed for comments on this post