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  • The Naturalization of Indic Loan-Words into Burmese: Adoption and Lexical Transformation
  • Nathan Waxman (bio) and Soe Tun Aung (bio)

The incorporation and assimilation into both the literary and colloquial registers of Burmese of Indic (i.e. Pali and Sanskrit) loan-words is one of the most conspicuous features of this Tibeto-Burmese language.

The profound impact on the Burmese language and its literature of the Pali inheritance, in particular, has been detailed in prior studies, including Hla Pe’s extensive but explicitly non-inclusive examination of Pali loan-words and their phonological adoption into Burmese, Okell’s study of the impact of Pali grammar, syntax and vocabulary on the interlinear translations of Pali texts constituting Nissaya Burmese, and Okell and Allott’s compilation of Burmese grammatical forms, which systematically reviews, inter alia, the impact of Pali morphological and grammatical elements on Burmese particles.

This very preliminary study targets loan-words from Sanskrit and Pali, the two great Indian classical languages, both of which were media for transmission of an immense corpus of religious, philosophical and, not infrequently, mundanely administrative lexical material from India to Myanmar. Perhaps it is not surprising that this corpus of material would leave an indelible mark on Burmese, the national lingua franca of Myanmar. [End Page 259]

This article will focus on a very small sampling of Sanskrit and Pali words that have gained inclusion into the lexicon of contemporary colloquial Burmese; specifically a selection of those Indic loan-words which manifest some measure of semantic transformation, from their technical sense in the lexicon of their Indian homeland to their current colloquial employment in Burmese. While we identify several distinct modes of lexical transformation in the adoption into Burmese, the Sanskrit or Pali words that we discuss do not justify our offering a programmatic or systemic hypothesis as to the patterning of the adoption of the words. Indeed, the forces behind change in meaning may be more the result of chance than of a scientifically discoverable theory of lexical transformation. Moreover, we must caution that our investigation is confined to the current lexicon, in part a reflection of the relatively recent utilization of Burmese, as opposed to Pali, in formal writing. Finally, it is important to emphasize that our focus will be on the current colloquial Burmese meaning of Pali or Sanskrit words, adopted into the Burmese lexicon. There is no doubt that the many thousands of monastic and secular scholars of Pali and, to a far lesser extent, Sanskrit, throughout Myanmar, are fully cognizant of the full range of meaning associated with the Indic predecessors of the Burmese words discussed.

Finally, we note that our discussion of the adoption and transformation of select Pali and Sanskrit loan-words into Burmese will not address the more recent lexical in heritance from modern Indian languages. Thus, while the colloquial lexicon is replete with such Indian words of non-Indic ancestry such as /chiˊ ti:/, Tamil chettyar, “money lender,” /bi di/, Bengali “cheroot” or /bi. laˊ/, Hindi wilayat, “Britain,” these words, acquired through colonial occupation, migration or cross-border trade, have generally not undergone the lexical transformation or modification characterizing the more archaic acquisitions gained through more than a millennium of Hindu and Buddhist, [End Page 260] Mahayana as well as Theravada, cultural connection with India.1

Admittedly, the Indic contribution to Burmese has at times been overstated.2 Even as meticulously researched a reference source as the Myanmar English Dictionary (MED) contains a fair number of false attributions of Indic origin, for example, /a lu:/ “potato,” is referred to Sanskrit. To its credit, the Myanmar-Myanmar Dictionary (MMD), published like the MED by the Myanmar Language Commission, correctly derives /a lu:/ from Persian, by way of Hindi. Other disyllabic words, which superficially appear but may well not be, of Indic origin are attributed by the MED to Pali, for example, /kjei: zu:/, “benefit or gratitude” is linked with Pali kataññutā, Sanskrit kṛtajnatā—literally, “the state of knowing what has been done (for him).” The semantic connection in this etymology seems plausible, but the phonological relationship appears dubious.

While the Indic contribution to Burmese is often attributed largely to abstract realms such as metaphysics, astrology...


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pp. 259-290
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