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.