Manifestations of Language Contact in Dialects of Burmese

The project of the Greater Burma Zone has presented an opportunity to recast our thinking about Burma on questions of language, ethnicity, and identity. My own contribution to the project has been studying the manifestations of language contact in dialects of Burmese, particularly those whose speakers are surrounded by other languages. Living in Burma full time, I have been able to work both with speakers themselves and, where possible, with historical texts written in non-standard forms of Burmese.

The project started as an investigation into manifestations of language contact in Burma, which we at first saw as transitional between the South and Southeast Asia linguistic areas. Gradually, however, we began to question the placing of these two poles – eventually everything can become transitional to somewhere else. We instead decided to place Burma at the center and look at its areal linguistics. We have taken “Burma writ large,” an area that includes not only the modern nation-state of Myanmar, but parts of what are now Bangladesh, Northeast India, Yunnan, and northern Thailand in which there have been numerous forms of linguistic, cultural, religious, and political forms of contact. In some parts of the Zone, contact has been intense and direct, while in others, much more indirect. The internationally-recognized borders of the modern country do much to obfuscate this contact, while also binding some areas much more closely to the Burman center than they were in the past.

When thinking about the dynamics of language contacts, we start with how societies relate to each other. The idea of hierarchy has been central to the study of the lowland states of Southeast Asia. The mandala, or central polities, is an idea that describes power as a light bulb or radio signal (perhaps a Wi-Fi-router would be an updated metaphor): the farther from a mandala, the weaker the power its power. The mandala was one articulation of the idea that lowland Southeast Asian polities were in competition for people, land, and resources in the hinterland. These mandala could be arranged hierarchically with each other, or with more distant neighbors, such as powerful courts in what is now central Burma, Thailand, or distant China. Other discussions of hierarchy tend to focus on power relationships within specific societies. The elaborate speech registers of Javanese and Balinese are often considered linguistic manifestation of such hierarchical relationships.

On the other hand, there has been a body of scholarship that has delved into the potential hierarchical relationships between peoples of the region. The anthropologist Edmund Leach, for example, found that the Shans and Kachins were in a complementary relationship, one in which high-status, lowland, Buddhist, wet-rice producing Shans (speakers of a Tai-Kadai language) could “become” Kachin, a name encompassing a number of Tibeto-Burman languages whose speakers were lower-status, upland, animist (today, Christian), dry-rice producers. Although scholarship has done much to critique Leach’s formulations, the instability of ethnic identifications, the non-absolute nature of hierarchy, and the possibility of having multiple linguistic and cultural allegiances or shifting between them, is central to the linguistic landscape of Burma. James Scott articulated this idea in his work on Zomia.

Ethnicity and creation and maintenance of ethnic identities remains central to Burmese life and politics today. However, the ideology of ethnicity—bound, reified, atomizing identities projected into the past – stands in contrast to the lived, and historical, fluidity of identifications.

We are particularly interested in how the manifestations of language contact can help us understand shifting identities, interactions, and linguistic repertoires within the Greater Burma Zone. Our first body of work was on the differing manifestations of language contact among speakers of Mon in Burma and Thailand. Mon texts from what is now Thailand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century displayed evidence of pattern, but relatively little matter replication. The Mon community in Burma has generally been more conservative, yet in both cases, the fact that Mon speakers were replicating patterns from Burmese and Thai respectively suggested that they were lower on the socio-linguistic hierarchy. This finding was remarkable in the local historical context: there is a widespread assumption that since the Mons, as speakers of an “ancient” Austroasiatic language, arrived in mainland Southeast Asia before the Burmans and Thais, manifestations of contact phenomena must therefore flow from the Mons outwards. Their relationship, however, varied over time, which the varying directions of borrowings and patterns of replication show.

We had expected to find similar patterns of interaction between speakers of several of the Burmese dialects and their surrounding languages. Dialects of Burmese (Tavoyan, Intha, and Rakhaing-Marma) are made up of populations who view themselves as having separate, non-Burman linguistic and ethnic identities. Each of these communities is peripheral to central Burmese, being cut off geographically. The Tavoyan, Intha, and Rakhaing-Marma community of Bangladesh are surrounded by speakers of unrelated languages. We had hypothesized that the Burmese dialects would similarly replicate patterns from languages with which that had come into contact. This was not, in fact, the case, which is the focus of my current work as part of the Greater Burma Zone project.

The Burmese dialects, however, had few manifestations of contact-based matter or pattern replication. Rakhaing, perhaps because of its size (around 1.5 million speakers), showed no replication from Bengali. Intha, the smallest community with around 90,000 speakers, had only a few instances of pattern and matter replication from nearby Shan, a Tai-Kadai language. Tavoyan (500,000 speakers) similarly had few instances of replication from nearby Karen (Tibeto-Burman) or Thai (Tai-Kadai). On the other hand, the languages surrounding the dialects have often replicated matter from them.

Phonologically, however, Tavoyan, Intha, and the Marma subdivision of Rakhaing all displayed influence from their neighbors. Our reading of these findings is that despite the current ethnic self-identification of the speakers of these dialects, all tend to stand in a similar relationship to their neighbors as does standard Burmese to the other languages of the Greater Burma Zone. The languages and their speakers are arranged hierarchically within the Zone, so that speakers of lower-placed languages replicate patterns and matter from hierarchically higher languages. We tentatively argue that the phonological interference in the dialects affirms this second assertion: speakers of languages surrounding the dialects have probably assimilated towards the dialects. If the dialect community was small enough these speakers will bring with them phonological traits from their original language, thus incorporating them into the local standard.

I am working on bringing greater depth and nuance to these preliminary findings. If they hold, however, they may represent a new way to think about the social relations behind manifestations of contact-induced changes not only in other parts of Southeast Asia, but also beyond.