Myanmar is a hugely diverse country with many different ethnic and language groups. Burmese is the main language, but English is spoken by many people in cities and tourist areas (to varying degrees of proficiency); most hotels and bigger restaurants have some staff with a working level of English.
Because of Myanmar’s diversity and its colonial past, most places have two or more names that you might find used in newspapers, on the internet, on maps and in literature – the most prominent being the name of the country itself, which is referred to as both Myanmar and Burma. However, in Myanmar, almost everyone uses the name Myanmar. On this website, the locally-used name is the one that is used first – if a place has alternative names, we also provide them.
Spellings sometimes vary in Myanmar; this inconsistency is most challenging for visitors when it applies to hotels and road names. But if you bear this in mind, it is not too difficult to work out, as it is usually only one or two letters that are different. Also, because there is only one word for ‘road’, ‘street’ and ‘lane’ in Burmese (làn), English-language maps in Myanmar tend to be inconsistent in their usage of the three English words.
Language and audio guide
There are over 100 languages and dialects used in Myanmar. Burmese is the official and most widely-spoken language, being native to the largest ethnic group (the Bamar); it is the primary language in many areas accessible to foreigners and is understood by the majority of the population.
A tonal language that is part of the Tibeto-Burman language group, Burmese is in fact officially referred to as ‘the Myanmar language’ by the government; you will often here locals describe it as such, or simply ‘Myanmar’ (it is also sometimes referred to as Burmese or Bamar).
Some useful phrases:
- hello - min-ga-la-ba
- see you again – nout ma thway mae!
- how are you? – ne-kaùn-là?
- fine, thank you – ne-kaùn-ba-deh
- nice to meet you – twé-yá-da wùn-tha-ba-deh
- my name is Jack (male) – kya taw ka Jack bar
- my name is Mary (female) – kya ma ka Mary bar
- do you speak English? – ìng-guh-lay loh byàw da’-thuh-là?
- thank you – cè-zù tin-ba-deh
- that’s ok – ya-ba-deh
- yes – ho de
- no – ma ho bu
- where is the toilet? – eain da bae ma lae?
- bill or check (for example, at a restaurant or shop) – shin-meh
- how much is it? – beh-lau-leh
- (a bottle of) water – yè tan (de boo)
- tea – lae pae ye
- fried rice – htamin kyaw
- fried noodles – cow-sway kyaw
- eggs – kae oo
- I am a vegetarian (male) – kya taw tat tat lut sar tal
- I am a vegetarian (female) – kya ma tat tat lut sar tal
By using the words shi (have) and la? (closed question), you can ask if someone has something. For example, to ask at a restaurant if they have rice, you would say htamin shi la?. The answer might be:
Yes, we have – shi de
No, we do not have – ma shi bu
Although it is not an easy language to learn, in Burmese nouns are sometimes borrowed from English, for example common words such as mì-nù (menu) and bi-ya (beer) and coffee.
Be warned that if you do learn some basic Burmese phrases, you may hear fits of laughter in reply. This does not (necessarily) mean that you have got your pronunciation wrong; it is simply that many locals find it very funny that any foreigners should speak even a small amount of the language.
Script and naming conventions
A written language that is over one thousand years old, Burmese employs a Brahmic script and alphabet quite different from neighbouring countries, which scans from left to write and does not require spaces between letters. Here is an example (giving street directions in the town of Bogale):
Some minority languages in Myanmar, such as Chin and Kachin, were only spoken (not written) until the 20th century, and now use Roman script. Other languages, such as Shan (which is similar to Thai), use a different script from Burmese altogether.
The words ‘U’ (male) and ‘Daw’ (female) are used before mature people or those in a senior position, and they roughly translate as Mr/uncle and Mrs/aunt. For example – U Thant and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The concept of family names does not exist in the Burmese language, although some people choose to bestow an element of their own name to their children. For example, Aung San called his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi. The element of a Burmese name used for addressing someone in a familiar way (i.e. as first names are used in English) is somewhat random; it is only recently that Burmese have adopted names of more than one syllable.