Fun with pronunciation guides

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My fellow phonologist Geoff Nathan recently contributed a post to phonoloblog on the pronunciation of "Myanmar" by news readers. Another fellow phonologist, Darin Flynn, added a comment with a link to this post on TidBITS ("Your source for indispensable Apple and Macintosh news, reviews, tips, and commentary since 1990"), pointing out that Mac OS X's Dictionary program (featuring the New Oxford American Dictionary) lists the pronunciation of "Myanmar" as "Burma":

Incidentally: all images in this post are from my own copy of Dictionary, version 1.02 (© 2005), running on Mac OS X "Tiger" (version 10.4.11). The TidBITS sources are from a newer version of Mac OS X ("Leopard", version 10.5.2), which appears to include a newer version of Dictionary (but possibly with the same New Oxford American content).

TidBITS correctly notes in an update that the suggested pronunciation offered by Dictionary changes depending on the preference settings. The default setting (on my copy) is "US English (IPA)":

The suggested pronunciation is still "Burma" under the "UK English (IPA)" setting:

But it changes to "Myanmar" under the "US English (Diacritical)" setting:

So far, this is what TidBITS had already noted. But we here at Language Log like to dig a little bit deeper for our readers. To that end, I looked up "Burma" under all three pronunciation guide settings. The results, presented in the same order as above:

I do wonder about the difference between the first ("US English (IPA)") and second ("UK English (IPA)") settings, but I won't speculate.


  1. Rubrick said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 7:35 pm

    Hm, Apple computers? Must be a Cupertino.

  2. Stentor said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

    I also note that they haven't updated the text of the definition to reflect the fact that the same folks who changed the official name from Burma to Myanmar also renamed (re-transliterated?) "Rangoon" to "Yangon," and moved the capital from there to Naypyidaw.

  3. DaveJC said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 9:00 pm

    hmmm. They also seem to have forgotten that Rangoon is now Yangon and that the capital is now Naypyidaw anyway.

  4. Geoff Nathan said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 10:29 pm

    And, of course, this brings to mind the old joke about the (stereotypical) immigrant struggling with English spelling and finally committing suicide after seeing a newspaper headline saying

    New opera pronounced success.


    (Thank you, thank you…)

  5. Sili said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 6:55 am

    But of course there's still /ɾ/ (or /ɹ/, /r/, /ʀ/ or /ʁ/) in there.

  6. Sili said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 6:59 am

    *still NO

    Bleedin' Hartmann-Skitt-McKean.

  7. Richard said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

    I read a while back (but can't find a link right now) about people changing the IPA in wikipedia articles to read insults. It looks like they've taken it to the next level.

  8. TootsNYC said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    This reminds me of that convention,

    "I don't want to mention names, but his initials are Bill Clinton" (where the person's name is used instead of the initials)


    that was a success–spelled f a i l u r e. (where the letters spell out a complete opposite or a snarky comment)

    or "where success is spelled m o n e y.

    I guess it's the "I'll substitute another meaning in here to force you into accepting my point" vibe.

  9. Prolific Programmer said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

    I can verify that the same issues exist in OS X 10.5.3's

  10. DKwan said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

    Same here. I'm using 10.5.2. I see this:

    My•an•mar |myänˈmär; ˌmīˌänˈmär|

  11. DKwan said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

    Oops sorry, I meant I DON'T see this issue.

  12. DKwan said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

    *sigh* Nevermind. I was using US English dictionary. Sorry for the triple useless post.

  13. Butch said,

    June 6, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

    I get a chuckle when I listen to a public radio station that carries the BBC late nights, but with NPR news on the hour. NPR gives a story using the name Myanmar, then BBC gives the same story except using the name Burma. Makes you think they are talking about two different places– maybe the BBC usage is a relic of the old empire days?

  14. codeman38 said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 1:51 am

    For what it's worth, the "US English (IPA)" option has another really serious bug that still remains uncorrected. Look up any word that's supposed to contain the /æ/ phoneme, like "bad" or "cat".

    (For those without access to a Mac, the /æ/ is misrendered as /ø/. No, really; here's a screenshot.)

  15. Julien Moe said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

    As a linguist whose mother tongue is also Burmese, I'd like to point out that the word "Myanmar" is pronounced as 'mjanmar'. There is no stress on any syllables. r at the end is silent. Myan means fast and mar means strong. If you are Burmese, you are fast and strong. It's a metaphor. Burma is an English word for Myanmar.

  16. Julien Moe said,

    June 7, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

    Being a linguist whose other tongue is Burmese, I'd like to reiterate the fact that Myanmar is pronounced [ mjan ma ] . Myan means fast and mar means strong. It is a metaphor for a fast and strong nation or nationality. Burma is an English name given to Myanmar by the British. I reckon I have been helpful.

  17. Les S. Moore said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

    Julien Moe said, 'Being a linguist whose other tongue is Burmese…'

    What's the adjective form in English, 'Myanmarese'?

  18. JJG said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 5:23 am

    RE Butch's conjecture "maybe the BBC usage is a relic of the old empire days?"

    I believe the BBC obligingly used the 'new' name Myanmar for years, but reverted to "Burma" a few days into the recent cyclone crisis.

    Some listeners objected that in usign "Myanmar" the Beeb was pandering to a whim of the illegitimate military regime. Or, maybe they decided not enough people knew where Myanmar was.

    I don't know the background or the reasons, but I'm sure it is not a careless colonial hangover.

  19. Mrs. Nesbitt said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 6:32 am

    Why did you say Myanmar? I panicked.

  20. Ray Broms said,

    June 9, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

    Just to belabor the point. Every media person I have heard pronounces Myanmar as Meeeeanmar. If it is closer to :mmm yan mar, let's try to get them to say it. If I were from the country I would be protesting. At any rate "my" as a syllable in English can not be pronounced: meeeeeeee. But, if that is the pronunciation we should change the spelling to: Meanmar or Mianmar both of which could be pronounced: meeeeeanmar. I am not a linguist but I have studied enough Greek and Latin as well as English to know that something is not right here. Linguists please reply. Thanks, Ray.

  21. Les S. Moore said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 4:49 am

    Linguists please reply. Thanks, Ray.

    Forget it, Ray. They never answer when you need them, not unless you know some jargon. When you don't need one anymore, then three come at once.

  22. language hat said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 9:38 am

    Being a linguist whose other tongue is Burmese, I'd like to reiterate the fact that Myanmar is pronounced [ mjan ma ] . Myan means fast and mar means strong. It is a metaphor for a fast and strong nation or nationality. Burma is an English name given to Myanmar by the British. I reckon I have been helpful.

    Not really. Burma is not "an English name given to Myanmar by the British," it is the Burmese name [bama] rendered with the usual superfluous British -r-. Bama is simply the Burmese colloquial equivalent of Sanksrit(izing) Myanma. And you are giving a folk etymology of Myanma.

  23. language hat said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 9:41 am

    Every media person I have heard pronounces Myanmar as Meeeeanmar.

    They are wrong.

    If it is closer to :mmm yan mar, let's try to get them to say it.

    How would you suggest we do that? (It's two syllables: myan-mah; the my- cluster isn't easy for English speakers, but it's not that hard either.)

  24. marie-lucie said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

    I think the my- cluster is perceived as hard because it comes at the beginning of a word. I don't think English speakers have trouble pronouncing the word "bohemian" or the name "Charmian".

  25. Jonathan said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 1:40 am

    I'm confused by the comments of the linguist whose [m]other tongue is Burmese and who posted twice. I had read that the spelling "Burma" represented the COLLOQUIAL Burmeese pronunciation of the country's name, while "Myanmar" represented the LITERARY Burmese pronunciation. That doesn't seem the same as a name imposed by the British. Who is right?

  26. language hat said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 10:23 am

    The latter, and if the person who claims their mother tongue is Burmese is actually a linguist, I'll eat one of my many hats.

  27. Joe Kissell said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

    What a delightfully weird moment of career crossover I've just experienced! I am the person who originally wrote the article for TidBITS about Mac OS X's dictionary issue. Long before I started writing about computers for a living, I had a degree in linguistics, and I've been a Language Log fan for some time. Thanks so much for the mention.

  28. Ken Brown said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 11:26 am

    "it is the Burmese name [bama] rendered with the usual superfluous British -r-"

    Nothing superfluous about it! It tells us English how to say the vowel. In our orthography the character "r" in that position is a standard way of representing a vowel :-)

    What is superfluous is the Scots and the Americans insisting on putting that weird consonant that we can't say into a word that doesn't have it – just as they do into "weird" and "word" and "superfluous"!

  29. mia said,

    June 27, 2008 @ 4:30 am

    Les S. Moore said, What's the adjective form in English, 'Myanmarese'?

    not a linguist so i can't help with the IPA bits, or offer much help culturally… adjective is usually "burmese" though i don't think there's a consensus on myanmarese vs burmese, even among the locals.

  30. Julien Moe said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 4:35 am

    The adjective form in English should be "Myanma" wihout the 'r' or "Myanmese". But that's my assumption. I do not know if the authorities of the English language agree with me.

  31. Julien Moe said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 5:54 am

    Language Hat! The word 'linguist' has two definitions. 1. a specialist in linguistics. 2. a person who is skilled in several languages; polyglot.

    I am the latter. I am skilled in Burmese, English, Thai, French and Spanish.

  32. Ethan said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 5:54 pm

    I totally agree with Julien Moe.
    'Burma' is the noun and the adjective is 'Burmese' and 'Myanmar' is
    the noun and its adjective should be "Myanmese". Swallow it. Case closed!

  33. Jon said,

    November 13, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

    Two names, one country. Both Myanmar and Burma are old names. The current government of Burma/Myanmar wants other countries to change to Myanmar. They have some good reasons (e.g. the Burmese are one of many ethnic groups in the country, so Myanmar is the more inclusive name). However, there are two roadblocks: 1) The regime is a military dictatorship that was voted out in the last free elections. Therefore, the U.S.A. government (and the British one, too, apparently) don't want to accede to the request; 2) There are many names for other countries in English that have absolutely no relation to the indigenous name. English is our language, we get to decide what to call a country. We don't call China "Zhong Guo."

    Myanmar is a difficult word for English speakers because at the beginning of English words "my-" is always rhymes with 'eye'. My, myocardial, etc. Of course, it is actually a consonant cluster, found in the English word 'mew' which is not pronounced the same as 'moo'. Next the 'n' only changes the vowel from the one in 'blob' to the one in 'can' (using American vowel sounds here), and the 'n' itself is not pronounced. Then the last syllable is pronounce 'ma', like the first syllable of 'mama'. This fits in fine with the default British pronunciation, but in American English final r's are sounded fully (so in the word 'terror' in American English, both the medial and final r's are pronounced the same, but differ in British pronunciation.)

    The spelling is what leads to pronunciation problems, but it is a pretty good spelling. Since the first two letters are a consonant cluster the use of 'y' is good. However, as stated, 'my-' to English speakers rhymes with eye. The final r is difficult because it is silent, but British and American English differ in how words are pronounced that end in '-ar': Americans sound out the r, as I mentioned above; Brits don't, but add an r to words that end in 'a' (British 'terra' often sounds like US 'terror'). So, whether you include the final r or not, someone is going to say it wrong.

    For Americans, mee an mah is probably as close an approximation that can reasonably be expected. For that, Mianma or Mianmah would be good spellings. In Britain, Mianmar, would lead to the same approximation.

    This is just my two cents, as an American linguist, who has studied Burmese (for far too long!) and has lived in Burma for a few years. I choose to use Burma, not for any political reasons, but just because most people are more familiar with that name. Sorry to be so long winded.

  34. mgphyo said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 12:28 am

    Umm….Sry to dig up an old thread, but I'm also a native burmese speaker and I can't help but feel that language hat might be correct on this one. My Burmese-Burmese dictionary published by the official Myanmar Language Commission actually gives TWO pronunciations for the word spelled "myan ma" ျမန္မာ, one of which is "ba ma" ဗမာ. This might be their implicit recognition that the "ba ma" sound is frequently written "myan ma".

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