Burmese Pronunciation of Pāḷi (မြန်မာအသံထွက်နဲ့ ပါဠိဘာသာ)

I was recently looking at Eisel Mazard’s description of the Burmese pronunciation of Pāḷi (I’m just gonna write “Pali” from here on out) and while it’s very detailed, there are a few mistakes in it that I’d like to correct. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, my criticism here lies with the description and not with Mazard.

As a pre-requisite, be sure to check out my previous post detailed how one could transcribe Burmese in IPA, since a lot of Burmese Pali matches the phonology of the Burmese language itself.

The Pali c is pronounced as “s” (& ch becomes “sh”).

What Mazard is referring to is the စ and ဆ, respectively. In “international Pali” the <c> is pronounced like /c/ and <ch> as /cʰ/. In Burmese, however the စ is pronounced as /s/ and the ဆ as /sʰ/, not /ʃ/ as Mazard indicates. So, for example, <saccā> (perhaps [sə.caː]) သစ္စာ is pronounced /θɪʔ.sa/ [θɪ̰.sa] both in Burmese and in Burmese Pali. Moving to <ch>, we can look at the famous mantra <buddhaṁ saranaṁ gacchāmi> rendered in Burmese script as ဗုဒ္ဓံသရဏံဂစ္ဆာမိ and pronounced /boʊʔ.daɴ.θə.ɹə.naɴ.gɪʔ.sʰa.mḭ/ [boʊ.dã.θə.ɹə.nã.gɪ.saː.mḭ]. Yes, while there is a phonemic distinction between စ and ဆ, it often doesn’t come out in speech.

The Pali p is pronounced as “b”; there may yet be some audible distinction from the the Pali b proper, but I am oblivious to it. Geminates involving b, p and their aspirated counterparts seem to be mutually-indistinguishable.

The Pali <p> should be pronounced as [p], a voiceless bilabial plosive. I think Mazard and others assumed that the Pali <p> was pronounced as English <p> which is [pʰ], an aspirated bilabial plosive. What the Burmese utter is not a [b] (voiced bilabial plosive) but rather [p]. It is important to note, though, that while certain Pali loans in Burmese retain the voiceless pronunciation (e.g. ပါရမီ [paː.ɹə.miː]), those same loans in Thai are voiced: บารมี [baː.ɹa.miː]. Maybe Mazard mixed them up?

The Pali ss (ဿ) is often pronounced like a “g”; my informant writes in to correct me, that this is more accurately a glottal stop (IPA: ʔ). As an example, he offers manussa appropriated as (IPA:) manouʔθa̰. However, the audio recordings, I could hear this glyph instead pronounced as a double “s” sound from time to time, i.e., again showing that formal Pali chanting is not entirely consistent with the pattern of interpretation that native speakers apply to loan-words.

It’s not a [g] and your informant is correct. The “stacked consonants” are interpreted as the top consonant being “killed” with the [θaʔ] <်>, the vowel quality is altered based upon the rule (see my previous post again) and then the consonant on the bottom of the stack starts the new syllable. So မနုဿ is actually interpreted in long form as မနုသ်သာ /mə.noʊʔ.θa/. Other than that, I’m not sure where Mazard got the [g] pronunciation from. For example, this YouTube video has the monk chant a ဿ around 1:51 and he definitely pronounces it as [θə].

The Pali short a is pronounced as an “i” especially when interpreting the implicit vowel prior to a geminate or in any syllable involving the letter c (the latter is, recall, itself mispronounced as “s”). The pronunciation of paccayo as “pissayo”, and gacchāmi as “gissami” are frequent examples.

Again, this goes back to Burmese phonology. Any syllable containing an <စ်> at the coda has an /ɪʔ/ vowel, sometimes reduced to [ɪ] in fast speech. <paccayo> is <ပစ္စ​ယော>, which is <ပစ်စ​ယော> in long form and thus syllabified as <ပစ်.စ.​ယော> and pronounced [pʲɪs.sə.jɔ] or [pɪs.sa.jɔ] or even [pʲɪs.si.jɔ].

A short “a” sound is sometimes inserted between compound consonants where there is none to be found in the text (e.g., tasmiŋ read aloud as “tasamiŋ”; perhaps an especially significant example given the frequency of the word, and the clarity of the Burmese orthography on the subscript sequence sm-).

This is simply just a limitation of Burmese phonology. There is no syllable-final or word-final [s] in Burmese, so <tas.miŋ> (two syllables) being rendered in Burmese Pali script as <တသ္မိံ> thus <တ.သ.မိံ> [ta.θa.mɛɪɴ]. Note that Thai also renders tasmiŋ as three syllables <ตสฺมึ> with a virama under the <ส>, indicating it’s not to be pronounced (I’ll bet the average Thai Buddhist still pronounces it, though).

Everything else Mazard states is more-or-less correct. I should also note that I’m not a Buddhist, I do not play one on TV, my partner is also not Buddhist, and thus my knowledge of Burmese Pali comes from my knowledge of the language and from hanging out and talking with Buddhist people and hearing them chant on more than one occasion.

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