Burma is a Jackson Pollack painting of peoples and languages. The country has over 135 distinct and recognized ethnic groups, divided into eight over-arching “ethnic states”. These states have made the news often over the past year, as a changing government tries to create solidarity and democracy among a very diverse community of cultures.
With this number of separate identities, it is no surprise that progress moves slowly. How do you communicate the concept of human rights or voting options, when many citizens do not even speak Burmese fluently?
Though the students and staff I work with are Kayah (Karenni, in English) by birth, they represent a state with nine main dialects- Kayah, Karen, Kayan, Manaw, Kayaw, to name a few. Sometimes, they struggle to understand each other! For example:
eat = ar in Kayaw dialect -ay in Kayah dialect -ang in Kayan dialect
rice = whoe in Kayaw -hoe in Kayah -horthar in Kayan
mouse = you in Kayaw –yu in Kayah –yu in Kayan
To illustrate the point of these unique vocal structures, here’s a cute story:
When the British first took over parts of the country in the 1870s, they signed a treaty with the Burmese King recognizing the independence of Karenni State. At some point, Her Majesty’s colonial representatives visited the region. One night, while staying in a Kayaw-speaking village, a soldier was startled by a figure in the shadows.
“WHO ARE YOU?” he shouted out in nervous warning.
The figure, an elderly man on his way home from the fields, heard an anxious Brit scream “WHOE AR YUO!” (“RICE EAT MOUSE!”)
Baffled at the insanity of this English officer, the elderly shook his head and shouted right back. “YOU AR WHOE!” (“MOUSE EATS RICE!”)
I can imagine this caused no end of confusion, as the two woke the village with an unintentional argument over the digestive capabilities of a grain of rice…