Burmese: Out of the Mouths of “Babes”

The winner of last week’s free book, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s monumental Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, is Edith in Bethesda. Thanks for reading, Edith! The book’s on the way.

A less-commonly taught language I’m hearing more about is Burmese. That’s for two reasons. First, the number of Burmese-Americans is rising. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Burmese-Americans counted in the US Census rose five-fold and now stands at about 100,000. Second, with the release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and (fingers crossed) an improving political situation in Myanmar/Burma, visa restrictions have been eased and the number of travelers to the country has jumped. As a result, we’re seeing an uptick in sales of our Burmese phrase book Making Out in Burmese and our Pocket Burmese Dictionary.


Pocket Burmese Dictionary

The first inkling I had of this was in 2009, when a woman in Houston phoned. She told me it had come to her attention that there was a large population of non-English-speaking Burmese in her area. She was organizing an effort at her church to build some relationships with her Burmese neighbors, teach them some English-language skills, and learn a little Burmese along the way. One of the few Burmese books in the market is our handy little Pocket Burmese Dictionary. We were really touched by what she was doing, so the sales department at Tuttle donated a few dictionaries, and her church purchased a few at a discount. Just a month later, I was at the conference of the New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers in Rochester, NY when a woman approached me and said there was a Burmese community in her town. She took a copy of the dictionary too. After that, we continued to see sales of Burmese dictionaries in places you wouldn’t normally expect. I wanted to call the State Dept to see if there was a pattern to the settlements of Burmese immigrants, but they can’t tell you that, so all I could do was see where the books were selling and infer what I could from that.

Burmese script developed from the abugidas of South Asia and so is related to devanagari, the script of modern Hindi and Nepali, but the spoken language itself is in the Sino-Tibetan family, and so is related to Mandarin, Cantonese, Min, Tibetan, and the other members of that family. Like most members of that family, Burmese is tonal. It has four tones, one of which is “the creaky tone”. This was something I knew, but had never heard an example of and, even after reading descriptions, just couldn’t imagine.


Creaky voice expert Mae West.

That was in the back of my mind when I started listening to a recent edition of Lexicon Valley, Slate magazine’s language podcast. The subject was the increase (get this) in the use of “creaky voice” in all young Americans, but especially women. It turns out that this Burmese phonation I can’t imagine is already present (and increasing) in the mouths of young Americans, especially female.

What is it? “Creaky voice” is what you’d call a gravelly tone of voice, and curmudgeonly co-host Bob Garfield bemoans what is now a documented rise in the use of “creaky voice” phonation in young American women. They played some audio clips from popular culture to illustrate creaky voice, such as the main character in the film “Legally Blonde” and virtually everything Mae West ever said. In the follow-up show, Garfield is roasted by listeners who complain that his complaints are sexist and dismissive.

Nobody quite knows why creaky voice is rising in the US. To some extent, language has inexplicable fashion trends just like, well, fashion, so a reason for “creaky voice” creep in American English (it’s absent in the UK) is as elusive or non-existent as a reason for the popularity of Hello, Kitty! or the Macarena. Not to be outdone, however, socio-linguists hypothesize that it may be an unconscious effort by young women to affect a more gender-neutral tone of voice in co-ed social and work environments.

For us here, it just means that if you want some examples of Burmese creaky voice, you can find lots of examples in popular culture or from your nearest 20-something friends.


Decoding Calligraphy


A collector’s edition companion to the SF Asian Art Museum’s superlative calligraphy exhibition.

Last Saturday, I hosted here in the Tuttle library the inaugural meeting of the Vermont Association of Chinese Teachers. We spent the day together meeting, eating, and talking about language books and teaching methods. We hope we’ll meet again soon and often.

In honor of my new friends, this week’s free book is the collector’s edition of Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy. It’s a hefty book by the San Francisco Asian Art Museum compiled to accompany a comprehensive calligraphy exhibit of the same name. You don’t have to have seen the exhibit to prize this book. As handsome as it is authoritative, this 350-pp hardback special edition contains 6 lbs of scholarship and art and many hundreds of color plates. It’s not a how-to guide to calligraphy, but this huge collection of fine Chinese calligraphy will inspire new calligraphers and offer thousands of examples to emulate. If you’d like to win this amazing book, click here to email me and put “Calligraphy” in the subject line.

A big thank you to Tamar who, after seeing me wonder out loud if it’s true that Eskimos have 15 words for snow, sent this link to an article titled There Really Are 50 Eskimo Words for Snow in the Washington Post on Monday.

The short answer? Yes.

This is intuitively so, right? Vermonters discuss snow with much more precision and nuance than my family in the Deep South. And, back in Tokyo in the early ’90s when it snowed one wintry day, my roommate from Caracas began to exclaim: “It’s snowing”. But never (seriously, never) having said that before, he had to weigh “está nievando” against “está nevando” before deciding that the latter was the correct form of the verb. At a similar latitude, speakers of Tagalog in the Philippines had no need for a word for snow. They borrowed the Spanish word nieve, which with some adjustments for spelling, is modern Filipino niyebe.

The Japanese have one word for snow (yuki, 雪). My sense is that they wouldn’t innovate new words for snow but would deploy their prodigiously poetic range of onomatopoeic language to describe different sorts of snowfall. Snow that fell chira-chira would be soft (like cherry-blossom petals). A damp and heavy snow would fall shin-shin.

Machine Translation


Marisa Baggett’s “Sushi Secrets”

Congratulations to Allison in Santa Barbara, CA, who won Friday’s free copy of Sushi Secrets by Marisa Baggett!

This week’s Economist has a very interesting article titled Conquering Babel about machine translation, the idea that advances in speech recognition, translation, and reproduction will (sooner than we think) render human interpreters redundant.

Now, the possibility of traveling with a translating machine would, on one hand, be pretty sweet. Even a gifted polyglot can’t learn everything (and, in my observation, people who say they speak ten languages are just dabbling in most of them). So, no offense to Letts, but let’s say I’m admitting here in front of everyone that I’m never going to attempt to learn Latvian. But if I met a Latvian, I’d be glad to hear about life in Riga if I had a box that would translate my new friend’s words for her or him. That would be great. Sign me up for that.

At the same time, the thing about learning a language is that it changes you a bit in the process. And changes you for the better is what I say. A person who has learned a foreign language might not sound as fluent as one using a magic translator, but I believe that that person is going to be way more interesting to talk to.