The mysterious Yale Burma embarrassment

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Ben Zimmer just sent an update to a thread that started with a series of posts on the mobilization of American linguists during WWII:

"A tale of two societies", 3/1/2007
"Linguistics in 1940", 3/11/2007
"The Intensive Language Program", 3/20/2007
"The Chinese episode", 3/21/2007
"The Burmese Story", 3/22/2007

 J. Milton Cowan's account of the Burmese Story (from American Linguistics in Peace and at War) ends with the following passage:

Things went well for about a month then one day Franklin Edgerton turned up in our office looking very embarrassed. He said that Alamon had not been entirely frank about his sources of income, and although he rather enjoyed the atmosphere at Yale and Spotty was happy and well-adjusted, he was losing money on the deal. It seems he had been running a little numbers racket in lower Manhattan. Our work was so far along and the problem of getting a replacement so great that we finally settled for doubling his salary. The unwritten history of Burmese linguistics is loaded. Alamon's successor, the other Burmese-sounding name on the Roster, gave rise to an embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University which was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved. But enough for Burmese.

In my 2007 post, I continued

No, I'm sorry, that's NOT enough for Burmese — we need to know more about the "embarrassment of the Yale linguists and the University" than that it "was as funny to outsiders as it was painful for those involved"! I mean, like, what happened? Alas, "Uncle Miltie" Cowan is dead and gone, so I can't write to him and expect an answer. So if you know, please tell me.

Language Hat resonated to the mystery ("An Embarrassment of Linguists", 4/14/2007), and it came up again in the comments on his 10/27/2008 post "Farewell to the Typewriter Man", where Ben Zimmer wrote

I’ve got a lead on the Burmese Indiscretion — will report when I’ve got more info.

And in Ben's email this morning:  "Fourteen years later, LH and his commenters demanded answers! I returned to my notes and left a long comment with the results of my research, though I never did figure out what the embarrassing incident was."

The comment is interesting as well as long (995 words) — you should read the whole thing.

Language Hat replied "Well, I guess that’s the best we’re going to do, and it will have to remain a Mystery."

But what a great starting point for a detective novel!

Update 8/23/2022 — Laura Morland, Hans Adler, Chris Button, J.W. Brewer, and David Steinberg have provided interesting and insightful comments on the history of the mystery.

But pursuing my (entirely fictional) idea of a mystery-novel plot, let me suggest that the immediate aftermath of the "embarrassment of Yale linguists and the University" should be an unexpected and mysterious (if fictional) death.

Keep in mind that this is 1942, and the list of possible Burmese consultants had been provided by U.S. Military Intelligence from a classified list:

Nobody knew where to find any native speakers of Burmese and the files of the Alien Registration Act were classified. The Department of Immigration and Naturalization said there were no Burmese legally in the country at the time. There were supposed to be some sailors who'd jumped ship in New York and San Francisco but they hadn't caught up with them yet.

Mortimer sent me to the Pentagon to see a young fellow in G-2 (Military Intelligence), Major Dean Rusk, a name not so well-known in those days, but known to Mortimer. I described the non-existence of known Burmans and why we wanted some. He volunteered to see what could be done with the roster of Alien Registration. He phoned our office the same afternoon, saying that he had over a hundred names and he'd call back as soon as he could have them decoded.

So the whole enterprise would have been of interest to Axis intelligence organizations.

We also have an organized-crime connection, since the first Burmese-sounding name on the list turned out to have been running numbers in NYC, to which we can add the historical role of Myanmar in the opium trade.

And perhaps those threads are all distractions, and the key to the crime turns out to be the mysterious academic embarrassment?



  1. Laura Morland said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 4:30 am

    My money's on "U Hpu of Mogok,” being the source of the embarrassment, since "Cornyn says in the introduction to his “Outline of Burmese Grammar” [that he] was a Burmese informant at Yale 'for a few hours'." Not to mention that *his* successor is featured on Cornyn's wikipage, and therefore, by implication, was an honorable man.

    Perhaps there's somone yet alive with at least secondhand knowledge of this intriguing story?

  2. Hans Adler said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 5:57 am

    I agree with Laura Morland and would like to add my speculation the U Hpu of Mogok's contract was terminated so quickly because he wasn't actually a Burmese speaker at all. According to Wikipedia, Mogok is a multiethnic and multilingual place. It would be particularly funny/embarrassing, for example, if despite his name he spoke only Nepali and nobody had bothered to ask him about his language before he was hired.

  3. Chris Button said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 6:56 am

    The answer seems to be here:,33009,778058-1,00.html

    It seems the embarrassment and (articulatory) pain perhaps came from the teaching methods employed by Shwe Waing under the instructions of Cornyn.

    Technically Shwe Waing is no teacher but a guide through the jungle of Burmese vocables. Every morning for an hour he produces them as ordered by Yale's William S. Cornyn, a Hnguistician (not a linguist, or talker of particular languages, but a student of the universal nature of all languages). Cornyn explains to the soldiers how to use their speech organs to reproduce even the most baffling of the Shwe Waing sound effects. He gives his students the meanings of a few words, shows them how to get grammar piecemeal by building it up from the speech forms they are using.

    Each afternoon the boys have two hours with Shwe Waing, who is forbidden to theorize or explain. He just makes noises along lines laid down by Cornyn. The students talk back. If the back talk rings false, Shwe Waing calls for repetition until it sounds right to a Burmese ear. He can explain new words in terms of those already learned. The boys make careful notes of all sound effects in a phonetic alphabet, study them aloud in barrack dormitories, on the street, at meals. Bit by bit, somewhat as Burmese children do, but with the best of technical help, these fighting men master spoken Burmese. Later they can study the alphabet, learn to read.

    I think “hnguistician” is supposed to say “linguistician” ( a word that really should be revived as distinct from “linguist”, which now serves for both)

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 8:06 am

    The trick here is that there were supposedly only two names "on the Roster" that sounded (to the Americans who knew no Burmese …) like they might plausibly be L1 Burmese speakers. So presumably as between U Hpu and Shwe Waing, one was the other name (other than Tung Alamon) on the "Roster" and the other was someone located by the Yale folks by some other means. The story about the "Roster" (which was mostly stuffed with WASPy sounding surnames likely borne by missionary kids etc. who had been born in Burma) also indicated that it was believed that there were some Burmese sailors in the U.S. who had jumped ship and not yet gotten into the government's database and Shwe Waing's background as described in Ben Zimmer's recent post seems to fit that, FWIW.

  5. David Steinberg said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 8:22 am

    I knew Bill Cornyn in 1957 or so. I went up to his home in New Haven, and we were together for a week in the Chin Hills about 1961 when he had a grant to go to Burma.

    Bill told me the story of his searching for a speaker of Burmese, and finally finding one who jumped ship at Ellis Island. I was told the irony of this was that the Burmese spoke with an Arakan accent, and Bill's first U.S. army text on Burmese reflects this to some degree, or so I am told by Burmese. All this was in my days with The Asia Foundation first in New York and then in Rangoon (followed by Hong Kong, Seoul, and Washington). I liked Bill–he was one of three or four people of the East Coast interested in Burma. I came into Burmese studies after Chinese.
    David I. Steinberg
    Distinguished professor of Asian Studies Emeritus
    Georgetown University

  6. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 9:06 am

    aka Burma shave

  7. KevinM said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 12:21 pm

    @ML "But what a great starting point for a detective novel!" Or ending point:
    Watson: "But there was no embarrassing incident described."
    Holmes: "That was the embarrassing incident."

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 1:33 pm

    Thanks for all the great comments! I do like the theory that U Hpu was hired strictly on the basis of having a "Burmese-sounding name" and was relieved of his duties when it was discovered he wasn't a native Burmese speaker. That would absolve Shwe Waing of causing any embarrassment, assuming he was hired immediately thereafter. (I don't think the pedagogical techniques of Cornyn and Shwe Waing as described in Time and Fortune were the source of embarrassment, as Chris B suggests. Bloomfield's letter to Col. Beukema has nothing but praise for Shwe Waing's work in the classroom, and they were desperate to keep him on.)

  9. Chris Button said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 3:11 pm

    @ Ben Zimmer

    Yes, and to be clear, I didn’t mean to imply that the teaching was bad, but just that it was perhaps different from the usual.

    Regarding U Hpu, the introduction to the grammar describes him as a “Burman” along with the other speakers. In contemporary use (and I can’t see why it would have been different when the grammar was written), that clearly distinguishes him from other “Burmese” people who may be Burman, Karen, Shan, Chin, Mon, etc… It sounds like U Hpu was just a busy man who could only spare a few hours.

    @ David Steinberg

    I believe we met about a decade ago. It’s nice to hear from you here, and I hope you are doing well!

  10. Chris Button said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 3:22 pm

    Actually, to David Steinberg’s comment, if Shwe Waing was Arakanese (Rakhine), then he would not have been Burman.

    Although, at least from a linguistic perspective, that would not have been much of a problem since Arakanese is mutually intelligible with Burmese, and he could have adjusted as appropriate.

  11. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 3:25 pm

    Chris B: I see now that U Hpu is thanked in a 1943 article by Cornyn and Raven I. McDavid in Studies in Linguistics ("Causatives in Burmese") and again in a 1945 article by McDavid in SiL (Burmese Phonemics"). In the latter, McDavid says U Hpu supplied "some additional Upper Burma (UB) forms." So perhaps he was a native speaker after all — but there must have been some other source of embarrassment rather than him simply being too busy!

  12. Stephen Hart said,

    August 23, 2022 @ 4:03 pm

    Chris Button said:
    "It seems the embarrassment and (articulatory) pain perhaps came from the teaching methods employed by Shwe Waing under the instructions of Cornyn."

    From the description, these teaching methods seem to resemble the teaching methods I experienced at the Defense Language Institute and in the Peace Corps.

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