Burmese dialects

Burmese dialects

There are a number of mutually intelligible Burmese dialects in the Burmese language, with a largely uniform standard dialect used by most Burmese speakers, who live throughout the Irrawaddy River valley and more distinctive non-standard dialects that emerge as one toward peripheral areas of the country. These dialects include Palaw, Beik/Myeik (Merguese), and Dawei (Tavoyan) in Taninthayi Division, Yaw in Magway Division, Intha and Danu in Shan State, Rakhine (Arakanese) in Rakhine State and Marma in Bangladesh. Despite vocabulary and pronunciation differences, there is mutual intelligibility among Burmese dialects, as for the most part, they share the same four tones, consonant clusters and the Burmese script. However, several dialects differ in Burmese with respect to vocabulary, lexical particles, and rhymes.


Standard dialects

Spoken Burmese is remarkably uniform among Burmese speakers,[1] particularly those living in the Irrawaddy River valley, who all use variants of Standard Burmese. The first major reason for the uniformity is the traditional Burmese Buddhist monastic education system, which encouraged education and uniformity in language throughout the Upper Irrawaddy valley, the traditional homeland of the Burmans. (According to the 1891 British census conducted five years after the annexation of the entire country, Konbaung Burma had an "unusually high male literacy" rate where 62.5% of age 25 and over in Upper Burma could read and write. The figure would have been much higher if non-Burmans (e.g., Chins, Kachins, etc.) were excluded. For the whole country, the literacy rate was 49% for males and 5.5% for females.)[2] Secondly, the spread of Burmese speakers (and of Burman ethnicity) in Lower Burma is relatively recent. As late as mid-18th century, Mon was the principal language of Lower Burma. After the Burmese-speaking Konbaung dynasty's victory over the Mon-speaking Restored Hanthawaddy Kingdom in 1757, the shift to Burmese language (and to Burman ethnicity) began throughout Lower Burma. By 1830, due to assimilation, the migration of Burmese speakers from north and intermarriage, it is estimated that about 90% of the population in the region identified themselves as Burman (and Burmese speakers).[3] In the British colonial era, British incentives, particularly geared toward rice production, as well as political instability in Upper Burma accelerated this migration.

Despite its Upper Burmese origins, the standard dialect of Burmese today comes from Yangon (Lower Burma), because of the largest city's media influence. It used to be that the speech from Mandalay (Upper Burma) represented standard Burmese. Most differences between Upper and Lower Burmese are in vocabulary usage, not in the accent or pronunciation. For example, the most noticeable feature of the Mandalay dialect is its use of the first person pronoun ကျွန်တော် (kya.nau [tɕənɔ]̀) for both males and females, whereas in Yangon, ကျွန်မ (kya.ma. [tɕəma̰]) is used by females.

Family terms

The most obvious difference between Upper Burmese and Lower Burmese is that Upper Burmese speech still differentiates maternal and paternal sides of a family:

Term Upper Burmese Lower Burmese Myeik dialect
  • Paternal aunt (older)
  • Paternal aunt (younger)
  • အရီးကြီး ([ʔəjí dʑí]) (or [jí dʑí])
  • အရီးလေး ([ʔəjí lé]) (or [jí lé])
  • ဒေါ်ကြီး ([dɔ̀ dʑí]) (or [tɕí tɕí])
  • ဒေါ်လေး ([dɔ̀ lé])
  • မိကြီး ([mḭ dʑí])
  • မိငယ် ([mḭ ŋɛ̀])
  • Maternal aunt (older)
  • Maternal aunt (younger)
  • ဒေါ်ကြီး ([dɔ̀ dʑí]) (or [tɕí tɕí])
  • ဒေါ်လေး ([dɔ̀ lé])1
  • Paternal uncle (older)
  • Paternal uncle (younger)
  • ဘကြီး ([ba̰ dʑí])
  • ဘလေး ([ba̰ lé])1
  • ဘကြီး ([ba̰ dʑí])
  • ဦးလေး ([ʔú lé])
  • ဖကြီး ([pʰa̰ dʑí])
  • ဖငယ် ([pʰa̰ ŋɛ̀])
  • Maternal uncle (older)
  • Maternal uncle (younger)
  • ဦးကြီး ([ʔú dʑí])
  • ဦးလေး ([ʔú lé])

1 The youngest (paternal or maternal) aunt may be called ထွေးလေး [dwé lé], and the youngest paternal uncle ဘထွေး [ba̰ dwé].

In a testament to the power of media, the Yangon-based speech is gaining currency even in Upper Burma. Upper Burmese-specific usage, while historically and technically accurate, is increasingly viewed as countrified speech, or at best regional speech. In fact, some usages are already considered strictly regional Upper Burmese speech, and are likely dying out. For example:

Term Upper Burmese Standard Burmese
  • Elder brother (to a male)
  • Elder brother (to a female)
  • နောင် ([nàuɴ])
  • ကို ([kò])
  • ကို ([kò])
  • Younger brother (to a male)
  • Younger brother (to a female)
  • ညီ ([ɲì])
  • မောင် ([màuɴ])
  • Elder sister (to a male)
  • Elder sister (to a female)
  • ([ma̰])
  • Younger sister (to a male)
  • Younger sister (to a female)
  • နှမ ([ɲəma̰])
  • ညီမ ([ɲì ma̰])
  • ညီမ ([ɲì ma̰])

In general, the male-centric names of old Burmese for familial terms have been replaced in standard Burmese with formerly female-centric terms, which are now used by both sexes. One holdover is the use of ညီ (younger brother to a male) and မောင် (younger brother to a female). Terms like နောင် (elder brother to a male) and နှမ (younger sister to a male) now are used in standard Burmese only as part of compound words like ညီနောင် (brothers) or မောင်နှမ (brother and sister).

Pronunciation differences

Minor pronunciation differences do exist within regions of Irrawaddy valley. Take the example of the pronunciation of ဆွမ်း ("food offering [to a monk]"): [sʰúɴ] is preferred in Lower Burma instead of [sʰwáɴ], which is preferred in Upper Burma.

Regional dialects

Arakanese (Rakhine)

Pronunciation IPA: [ɹəkʰàiɴzà] or IPA: [ɹəkʰàiɴ zəɡá]
Spoken in Burma, Bangladesh, India
Region Rakhine State of western Burma, Bandarban, Khagrachari, Patuakhali, and Barguna districts of Bangladesh, Tripura in India
Native speakers 2–3 million, all varieties  (date missing)
Language family
  • (Tibeto-Burman)
    • ...
      • Burmese
        • Arakanese
Language codes
ISO 639-3 variously:
rki – Rakhine
rmz – Marma
ybd – Yangbye
ccq – Chaungtha

The Arakanese dialect (also known as the Rakhine; Burmese: ရခိုင်ဘာသာ [ɹəkʰàiɴ bàðà], MLCTS: rakhuin bhasa) is spoken by 730,000 people in Burma's Rakhine State and an additional 35,000 in neighboring Bangladesh .[4] Rakhine proper can be divided into three varieties: Sittwe (about two thirds of speakers), Kyaukphyu and Thandwe.[5] A more divergent form, Ramree (Yangbye) was spoken by another 800,000 in 1983.[6] Including such divergent forms, the total number of Arakanese speakers is estimated to be 1.5 million[7] to 3 million in Burma,[8] about 200,000 in Bangladesh,[9][10] and 16,000 to 32,000 in India.[11]

Arakanese is especially prominent in its usage of the /r/ sound, which has merged to the /j/ sound in standard Burmese. Also, Arakanese has merged various vowel sounds like ([e]) vowel to ([i]). Hence, a word like "blood" is သွေး ([θwé]) in standard Burmese while it pronounced [θwí] in Arakanese. According to speakers of standard Burmese, Arakanese only has an intelligibility of seventy-five percent with Burmese.[12] Moreover, there is less voicing in Arakanese than in Standard Burmese, occurring only when the consonant is unaspirated.[5] Unlike in Burmese, voicing never shifts from [θ] to [ð].

Because Arakanese has preserved the /r/ sound, the /-r-/ medial (preserved only in writing in Standard Burmese with the diacritic ) is still distinguished in the following consonant clusters: /ɡr- kr- kʰr- ŋr- pr- pʰr- br- mr- m̥r- hr-/.

There are also significant vocabulary differences from Standard Burmese. Some are native words with no cognates in Standard Burmese, like "sarong" (လုံခြည် in Standard Burmese, တယော in Arakanese). Others are loan words from Bengali, English, and Hindi, not found in standard Burmese. An example is "hospital," which is called ဆေးရုံ in Standard Burmese, but is called သေပ်လှိုင် (pronounced [θeiʔ l̥àiɴ]/[ʃeiʔ l̥àiɴ]) in Arakanese, from English "sick lines." Other words simply have different meanings (e.g., "afternoon", ညစ in Arakanese and ညနေ in Standard Burmese). Moreover, some archaic words in Standard Burmese are preferred in Arakanese. An example is the first person pronoun, which is အကျွန် in Arakanese (not ကျွန်တော်, as in Standard Burmese).

The Arakanese dialect has a higher frequency of open vowels weakening to /ə/. An example is the word for "salary," (လခ) which is [la̰ɡa̰] in standard Burmese, but [ləkha̰] in Arakanese.

The following are consonantal, vowel and rhyme changes found in the Arakanese dialect:[5][13]

Written Burmese Standard Burmese Arakanese Notes
-စ် /-iʔ/ /-aiʔ/ e.g. စစ် ("genuine") and စိုက် ("plant") are both pronounced [saiʔ] in Arakanese
ိုက် /saiʔ/
-က် -ɛʔ -ɔʔ
-ဉ် /-iɴ/ /-aiɴ/ e.g. ဥယျာဉ် ("garden"), from Standard Burmese [ṵ jìɴ][wəjàiɴ].
Irregular rhyme, with various pronunciations.
In some words, it is /-ɛɴ/ (e.g. ဝိညာဉ် "soul", from Standard Burmese [wèiɴ ɲìɴ][wḭ ɲɛ̀ɴ]).
In a few words, it is /-i -e/ (e.g. ညှဉ်း "oppress", from Standard Burmese [ɲ̥íɴ][ɲ̥í, ɲ̥é]).
ိုင် /-aiɴ/
-င် /-iɴ/ /-ɔɴ/
-န် ွန် /-aɴ -uɴ/ ွန် is /-wɔɴ/
-ည် /-i, -e, -ɛ/ /-e/ A few exceptions are pronounced /-aiɴ/, like ကြည် ("clear"), pronounced [kràiɴ]
-ေ /-e/ /-i/ e.g. ချီ ("carry") and ချေ ("cancel") are pronounced [tɕʰì] and [tɕʰè] respectively in Standard Burmese, but merged to [tɕʰì] in Arakanese
-တ် ွတ် /-aʔ -uʔ/ /-aʔ/
ိန် /-eiɴ/ /-iɴ/
-ုန် /-ouɴ/ /-uɴ/
Nasal initial + -ီ
Nasal initial + -ေ
/-i/ /-eiɴ/ e.g. နီ ("red") is [nì] in Standard Burmese, but [nèiɴ] in Arakanese
In some words, the rhyme is unchanged from the standard rhyme (e.g. မြေ "land", usually pronounced [mrì], not [mrèiɴ], or အမိ "mother", usually pronounced [əmḭ], not [əmḛiɴ]
There are few exceptions where the nasal rhyme is /-eiɴ-/ even without a nasal initial (e.g. သီ "thread", from Standard Burmese [θì][θèiɴ]).
Nasal initial + -ု -ူ -ူး /-u/ /-ouɴ/ e.g. နု ("tender") is [nṵ] in Standard Burmese, but [no̰uɴ] in Arakanese
ွား /-wá/ /-ɔ́/ e.g. ဝါး ("bamboo") is [wá] in Standard Burmese, but [wɔ́] in Arakanese
ြွ /-w-/ /-rw-/ Occurs in some words (e.g. မြွေ ("snake") is [mwè] in Standard Burmese, but [mrwèiɴ] in Arakanese)
ရှ- /ʃ-/ /hr-/
ချ- /tɕʰ-/ /ʃ-/ Occasionally occurs (e.g. ချင် ("want") is [tɕʰìɴ] in Standard Burmese, but [ʃɔ̀ɴ]~[tɕʰɔ̀ɴ] in Arakanese)
တ-ရ- /t- d-/ /r-/ e.g. The present tense particle တယ် ([dɛ̀]) corresponds with ရယ် ([rɛ̀]) in Arakanese

e.g. The plural particle တို့ ([do̰]) corresponds with ရို့ ([ro̰]) in Arakanese

ရှ- ယှ- ယျှ- /ʃ-/ /h-/ Found in some words only
-ယ် ဲ -e
Written အမေက သင်္ကြန်ပွဲတွင် ဝတ်ရန် ထဘီ ရှစ်ထည် ပေးလိုက်ပါ ဆိုသည်။
Standard Burmese ʔəmè ɡa̰ ðədʒàɴ pwɛ́ dwìɴ wuʔ jàɴ tʰəmèiɴ ʃiʔ tʰɛ̀ pé laiʔ pà sʰò dɛ̀
Arakanese ʔəmì ɡa̰ θɔ́ɴkràɴ pwé hmà waʔ pʰo̰ dəjɔ̀ ʃaiʔ tʰè pí laʔ pà sʰò rì
Arakanese (written) အမိက သင်္ကြန်ပွဲမှာ ဝတ်ဖို့ တယော ရှစ်ထည် ပေးလတ်ပါ ဆိုရယ်။
English Mother says "Give me eight pasos for wearing during the Thingyan festival."
Open syllables weak = ə
full = i, e, ɛ, a, ɔ, o, u
Closed nasal = eiɴ, ɛɴ, aiɴ, auɴ, ɔɴ, ouɴ
stop = eiʔ, ɛʔ, aiʔ, auʔ, ɔʔ, ouʔ

Yaw dialect

The Yaw dialect is spoken by 20,000 people[14] near the Chin Hills in Magway Division, particularly in Gangaw District, which comprises Saw, Htilin, and Gangaw. The Yaw dialect is very similar to standard Burmese except for the following rhyme changes:[15]

Written Burmese Standard Burmese Yaw dialect Notes
-က် /-ɛʔ/ /-aʔ/
-င် /-iɴ/ /-aɴ/
ောက် /-auʔ/ /-oʔ/
-တ် -ပ် /-aʔ/ /-ɛʔ/
ွတ် /-uʔ/ /wɛʔ/ ဝတ် ([wùʔ] in Standard Burmese, [wɛʔ] in Yaw)
-န် -မ် /-aɴ/ /-ɛɴ/
-ွန် -မ် /-ùɴ/ /-wɛɴ/ ဝန် ([wùɴ] in Standard Burmese, [wɛ̀ɴ] in Yaw)
-ည် /-ɛ, -e, -i/ /-ɛ/

Taninthayi Division dialects

Dialects in Tanintharyi Division, including Myeik/Beik (Merguese) and Dawei (Tavoyan), are especially conservative in comparison to Standard Burmese. For instance, the Dawei dialect has preserved the /-l-/ medial, which is only found in Old Burmese inscriptions.[dubious ] Merguese is spoken by around 250,000 people.[14] The Tavoyan (Dawei) dialect is spoken by another 40,000. A second, well-known, dialect called Tavoyan is spoken by 400,000.[16]

Tavoyan dialects

Spoken in Southeast
Native speakers 440,000  (2000)
Language family
  • (Tibeto-Burman)
    • ...
      • Burmese
        • Tavoyan
Language codes
ISO 639-3 either:
tvn – Tavoyan proper
tco – Dawei Tavoyan (Taungyo)

The Tavoyan or Dawei dialect (ထားဝယ်စကား) retains /-l-/ medial that has since merged into the /-j-/ medial in standard Burmese and can form the following consonant clusters: /ɡl-/, /kl-/, /kʰl-/, /bl-/, /pl-/, /pʰl-/, /ml-/, /m̥l-/. Examples include မ္လေ (/mlè/ → Standard Burmese /mjè/) for "ground" and က္လောင်း (/kláuɴ/ → Standard Burmese /ʧáuɴ/) for "school".[17] Also, voicing only with unaspirated consonants, whereas in standard Burmese, voicing can occur with both aspirated and unaspirated consonants. Also, there are many loan words from Malay and Thai not found in Standard Burmese.

In the Tavoyan dialect, terms of endearment, as well as family terms, are considerably different from Standard Burmese. For instance, the terms for "son" and "daughter" are ဖစု (/pʰa̰ òu/) and မိစု (/mḭ òu/) respectively.[18] Moreover, the honorific နောင် (Naung) is used in lieu of မောင် (Maung) for young males.[18]

The following is a list of rhyme changes unique to the Tavoyan dialect:[5]

Written Burmese Standard Burmese Tavoyan dialect Notes
-င် -န် -မ် /-iɴ -aɴ -aɴ/ /-aɴ/
-ဉ် -ျင် /-iɴ -jiɴ/ /-iɴ -jiɴ/
​ောင် /-auɴ/ /-ɔɴ/
ုန် /-ouɴ/ /-uːɴ/
ုမ် /-aoɴ/
ိမ် /-ouɴ/ /-iːɴ/
ုတ် /-ouʔ/ /-ṵ/
ုပ် /-aoʔ/
-က် -တ် -ပ် /-ɛʔ -aʔ -aʔ/ /-aʔ/
-ိတ် -ိပ် /-eiʔ/ /-ḭ/
-ည် /-ɛ, -e, -i// /-ɛ/
-စ် -ျက် /-iʔ -jɛʔ/ /-iʔ -jiʔ/
ေွ /-we/ /-i/ is pronounced as in standard Burmese
Open syllables weak = ə
full = i, e, ɛ, a, ɔ, o, u
Closed syllables nasal = iːɴ, iɴ, aiɴ, an, ɔɴ, uɴ, uːɴ, aoɴ
stop = iʔ, aiʔ, aʔ, ɔʔ, uʔ, aoʔ

Intha dialect

Spoken in Inle Lake
Ethnicity Intha
Native speakers 90,000  (2000)
Language family
  • ...
    • Burmese
      • Intha
Language codes
ISO 639-3 int

The Intha dialect is spoken by the Intha people, a group of Bamar descendants who migrated to Inle Lake in Shan State. The dialect is spoken by 90,000.[19] The Intha dialect is characterized by a retention of the /-l-/ medial (for the following consonant clusters: /kl- kʰl- pl- pʰl- ml- hml-/). Examples include:

  • "full": Standard Burmese ပြည့် ([pjḛ]) → ပ္လည့် ([plḛ]), from old Burmese ပ္လည်
  • "ground": Standard Burmese မြေ ([mjè]) → မ္လေ ([mlè]), from old Burmese မ္လိယ်

There is no voicing with the presence of either aspirated or unaspirated consonants. For instance, ဗုဒ္ဓ (Buddha) is pronounced [boʊʔda̰] in standard Burmese, but [poʊʔtʰa̰] in the Intha dialect. This is probably due to influence from the Shan language.

Furthermore, (/θ/ in standard Burmese) has merged to /sʰ/ () in the Intha dialect.

Also, rhyme changes from standard Burmese follow these patterns:[5]

Written Burmese Standard Burmese Intha dialect Notes
-ျင် -င် /-iɴ/ /-ɛɴ/
-ဉ် /-iɴ/ /-iɴ/
ိမ် -ိန် ိုင် /-eiɴ -eiɴ -aiɴ/ /-eiɴ/
-ျက် -က် /-jɛʔ -ɛʔ/ /-aʔ/
-တ် -ပ် /-aʔ/ /-ɛʔ/
-ည် /--ɛ, -e, -i/ /-e/ /-i/ if initial is a palatal consonant
ိတ် ိပ် ိုက် /-eiʔ -eiʔ -aiʔ/ /-aiʔ/
Open syllables weak = ə
full = i, e, ɛ, a, ɔ, o, u
Closed nasal = iɴ, eiɴ, ɛɴ, aɴ, ɔɴ, ouɴ, uɴ
stop = iʔ, aiʔ, ɛʔ, aʔ, ɔʔ, ouʔ, uʔ


  1. ^ Barron, Sandy; John Okell, Saw Myat Yin, Kenneth VanBik, Arthur Swain, Emma Larkin, Anna J. Allott, and Kirsten Ewers (2007). Refugees From Burma: Their Backgrounds and Refugee Experiences (Report). Center for Applied Linguistics. pp. 16–17. http://www.cal.org/co/pdffiles/refugeesfromburma.pdf. Retrieved 2010-08-20. 
  2. ^ Victor B Lieberman (2003). Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, volume 1, Integration on the Mainland. Cambridge University Press. pp. 189. ISBN 978-0-521-80496-7. 
  3. ^ Lieberman, pp. 202-206
  4. ^ Lewis, M. Paul (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition.. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Rakhine: A language of Myanmar. ISBN 978-1-55671-216-6 1248. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=rki. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Okell, John (1995). Three Burmese Dialects. http://sealang.net/sala/archives/pdf8/okell1995three.pdf. 
  6. ^ Lewis, M. Paul (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition.. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Yangbye: A language of Myanmar. ISBN 978-1-55671-216-6 1248. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ybd. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 
  7. ^ Ethnologue (2009) for Chaungtha, Marma, Rakhine, and Yangbye
  8. ^ "Rakhine people who speak Sittwe Dialect". http://www.joshuaproject.net/peoples.php?peo3=13207. Retrieved 2010-07-22. , "Rakhine people who speak Yangbye Dialect". http://www.joshuaproject.net/languages.php?rol3=ybd. Retrieved 2010-07-22. 
  9. ^ "Rakhine people in Bangladesh". http://www.joshuaproject.net/peoples.php?peo3=13207. Retrieved 2010-07-22. 
  10. ^ "Rakhine people who speak Marma". http://www.joshuaproject.net/people-profile.php?peo3=17671&rog3=BG. Retrieved 2010-07-22. 
  11. ^ "Rakhine people in India". http://www.joshuaproject.net/peoples.php?peo3=13207. Retrieved 2010-07-22. 
  12. ^ Information on Arakanese
  13. ^ Houghton, Bernard (1897). "The Arakanese Dialect of the Burman Language". The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland): 453–461. doi:July+1897. JSTOR 25207880. 
  14. ^ a b Lewis, M. Paul (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition.. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Burmese: A language of Myanmar. ISBN 978-1-55671-216-6 1248. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=mya. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 
  15. ^ Okell, John (1989). The Yaw Dialect of Burmese. pp. 199–202. http://sealang.net/sala/archives/pdf4/okell1989yaw.pdf. 
  16. ^ Lewis, M. Paul (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition.. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Tavoyan: A language of Myanmar. ISBN 978-1-55671-216-6 1248. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=tvn. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 
  17. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/burmese/burma/2011/05/110520_alinkar24.shtml
  18. ^ a b http://www.bbc.co.uk/burmese/burma/2011/06/110610_alinkar27.shtml
  19. ^ Lewis, M. Paul (2009). Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition.. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Intha: A language of Myanmar. ISBN 978-1-55671-216-6 1248. http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=int. Retrieved 21 August 2010. 

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