Tones in Burmese Language
Burmese language has 3 tones. The first tone is best described as a short utterance, while the second tone is neutral without stress in it. The third tone in Burmese has a kind of prolong lingering stress to it. It's almost as if you need more air from the lungs and more energy from the throat to get the third tone out.
Burmese 1,2,3 Tone System with Script
Reference table for Burmese 1,2,3 Tone System ♩ ♬ 🎹 using the character "ka1" is available for download. This is a summary version of Myanmar Script Learning Guide in lesson 33.
Revised Date: 2018-08-25
File Size: 103 KB
Number of Pages: 6
I used "blue" color code to indicate the vowel sound and "red" as tone. For simplicity, consonant modification symbols in "green" are not used as in lesson 33. Yellow background indicates the base for a particular vowel from which the tones can be changed. Since this is only a summary reference, variations in spelling are not shown.
If you pay close attention to news-readers on the radio, you will note that some ending words in Burmese sentences are spoken not exactly in a flat monotone, but stressed from a lower to a higher level somewhat like the Pinyin 2nd tone. For example, the ending word spoken by female radio news announcers almost always shift from shin2 to a higher pitch shin3 within a fraction of a second.
When the Burmese character ma1 is used as a stand-alone character, it sounds like mah1 ("Mark" with silent "rk".) It is clear enough when this vowel is used at the end of the word, or sentence, or shown as a stand-alone character.
However, when ma1 appears in the beginning, or in the middle of words, it will in most cases sound like a short ma1 as in Malaysia, not Mah-laysia.
In written Burmese language, there is no way to differentiate full Mah1 sound and short ma1. Even Burmese people will have to look at the context to determine whether the word ma1 ni2 la2 should be pronounced Manila (city in the Philippines), or a girl's name mah1 ni2 la2 (Ms. Nilar).
To give an another example, the word "favoritism" is spelled with the 33rd Burmese Character (ah1), followed by the third character (ga1) and the word (ti1). A Burmese child who has not learned this word wouldn't know whether to pronounce this as ah1 gah1 ti1 or aga1 ti1, or agati1,or the correct pronunciation, which could be better expressed in romanization as ah1 ga1-ti1 with full ah1 and short ga1. It could also be expressed as ah1 gati1, but there is still a possibility of mispronouncing the middle syllable as "gut" instead of the correct short "ga1".
I now see this as an opportunity to further enhance the romanization by adding "h" to the vowel "a1" when appropriate. This way, I can better express the word kah1 ba2 (please dance) and differentiate it from ka1 ba2 (the World). Also note that ending words such as suggestion "ba2" would sound smoother if you can slightly extend and prolong it to "ba3".
Romanization is further improved in full-fledged Myanmar-English Dictionary. Sliding tones are now represented by the dash symbol. In addition, they are now closer to the actual spoken sounds.
Thus, the "World" is now romanized as ga1-ba2. Please dance is expressed as ka1 ba2 without the need for an extra 'h'.
The word "favoritism" is romanized as ah1 ga1-de1 which is now closer to the spoken sound.
And the Burmese lady named ma1 ni2 la2 will be happy knowing that people will not confuse her name with the city in the Philippines called ma1-ni2 la2.
Burmese Vowels and Single Tone Groups
Consider the sound of the first "a" in "America". That's the first tone. Compare this to "Ar" in "Argentina". That's the example of the second tone. When you scream with pain as in "Arghhhhhhh...." you put lots of stress to it. It is like "Ar" without the "r" sound in "Artist". That's the third tone. So, there you go. The first set of 3 tones with the Vowel "A" are...
Ah -- sounds like "Art" with silent "rt" ending.
Ar -- "Argentina" with silent "r".
Aah -- "ar" sound without "r" ending in "artist".
I will be using Burmese 1,2,3 Tone System to describe those 3 tones as ...
and so on.
And yes, just a small "stress" or "tone" difference and you will have words with completely different meanings. Here is just to give you examples on how meanings of certain words could change with just a slight difference in tone.
Ah1 -- stupid
Ah2 -- verbally picking up a fight
Ah3 -- have free time
Sa1 -- to start
Sa2 -- letter
Sa3 -- to eat
Ka1 -- to dance
Ka2 -- to shield
Ka3 -- to exaggerate
The first tone will be like "de" sound in "deep". A good example of second tone will be "de" as in "demote". The third tone has more stress to it, such as "dee" in "deer".
I have to use "e" instead of "i" in this case, because "Di" will sound like "Diana".
More examples of 3 tones with the Vowel "E" or "I":
Si1 -- sounds like "seat" without "t" ending. -- scrutinize as in si1-zit.
Si2 -- normal stress or tone as in "si" of the word "seduce". Yes, it does sound a bit like Spanish "si" - not "sy" as in "cyber". -- arrange and organize objects.
Si3 -- pronounced as "see". -- ride a vehicle.
Pe1 -- try saying "Pete" with silent "t". -- to be trapped under (something).
Pe2 -- Stress normally as in "Pe" of "Peru". -- be able to pronounce correctly.
Pe3 -- pronounced just like "pee" or "pea". This is close enough to Pyi3 -- finish.
E1 -- as in "eat" with silent "t".
E2 -- as in "Egyptian".
E3 -- as in "e-commerce".
First tone example: a short "u" sound as in "Youth" with silent "th"; a short "u" sound in "amused".
Second tone example: Neutral tone of "u" as in "University".
Third tone example: stressed "u" which sounds like "ew" in "New", or as New Yorkers would say "Noo" in "New York".
Another third tone example would be a stressed "u" sound in "user".
Yu1 -- tender care as in yu1-ya1
Yu2 -- take something.
Yu3 -- crazy, mentally disturbed.
More examples of 3 tones with the Vowel "U":
Ku1 -- as in "uncouth" with silent "th". -- to treat a patient.
Ku2 -- stress normally as in "Kuwait". -- help.
Ku3 -- sounds like "Cool" with silent "l". -- swim.
Pu1 -- pronounced like "poof" without "f" ending. -- short in stature. From my personal experience, the last syllable of my last name is often mispronounced by the Americans as "pu3" in the third tone, instead of the correct "pu1", which I find it quite amusing :-) Mandarin Chinese speakers will have no problem as it is equivalent to the 4th tone in Pinyin.
Pu2 -- as in "pu" sound of "pudding". -- hot.
Pu3 -- sounds like "pool" without "l" ending. -- to be joined.
The first tone will be like "Colt" without the "lt" ending sound.
The second tone sounds like the first "co" of "Coca Cola".
The third tone example: try saying "cold" without "ld" ending.
Due to eccentricity of English language, I will use "OE" or "OH" instead of the vowel "O" for the consonants "d" and "t" as follow:
Toh1 - touch lightly.
Toh2 - short as opposed to long.
Toe3 - push and shove.
That's a tough one to give examples. Try saying "Scott". The first tone is "ott" in "Scott" without ending "tt" sound; it is closer to British pronunciation of "o" rather than what an American would pronounce, i.e., "Scutt". It sounds like "odd" with silent "d".
Au1 : "Au" sound in "Auction".
Au2 : "Au" as in "Australia".
Au3 : "Au" sound of the word "August".
It should be noted that Burmese doesn't have closing sounds of the words. Just like "s" in French is silent in "Paris" and pronounced "Pa-ree", Burmese doesn't have any closing sounds you would expect in English. No "ch", "sh", "s", "r", "f" "l", "m", "n" ending consonants-- none. How would you go about saying words with silent ending? Simple. Those ending consonants always need some kind of tongue play and or closing of the lips. Don't move your tongue and don't close your lips, and you will be speaking perfect Burmese!
Au1 -- throw up in disgust as in au1-un2.
Au2 -- shout.
Au3 -- have deep voice.
More examples of tones with the Vowel "Au":
Pau1 -- try saying "pulse" without "lse" ending. -- light in weight.
Pau2 -- somewhere in between "pulse" and "Paul". How about "Pauline"? -- exposed, or "politician".
Pau3 -- sounds like "Paul" without "l" sound. -- abundant.
The first tone example: "aun" as in "aunt".
the second tone example: Normal stress of "un" in "understanding".
The third tone example: the word "un" stressed as in "under".
Un1 -- be amazed as in un1-au3.
Un2 -- throw up.
Un3 -- return change as in a-kjway2-un3.
More examples with the Vowel "Un":
Lun1 -- sounds like "lunt" in "blunt". -- be fearful.
Lun2 -- somewhat between "lunt" and "London" as in luncheon -- fall out from the place due to an abrupt force, such as when the roof being blown away by the strong wind.
Lun3 -- stressed "Lun" in "London". -- road, street, path.
For some words, it seems more natural to use "An" rather than "Un":
khan1 -- sounds like British "can't" -- not American "can't". -- Grand as in khan1-nya3.
khan2 -- unstressed "can" as in "canoe". -- collect water.
khan3 -- stressed to the level of the word "cun" in "cunning". -- dried up.
I choose the "An" variant of "un" only because some words are already associated in English with certain pronunciations. Well, English is just like that. I will never understand why "P-U-T" is pronounced "Poot", but "B-U-T" is "But".
In1 : "ink" with silent "k"
In2 : "In" as in "Indiana".
In3 : "In" as in "Innate"
Hsin1 -- sounds like "sink" without "k" ending. -- stack up.
Hsin2 -- normal stress of "sin" in "sincerely". -- elephant.
Hsin3 -- just like "sin" in "sinful". -- go down.
What's the difference between "Hsin3" and "Sin3"? "Hsin3" has more hissing sound. Mandarin Chinese speakers will be able to detect the difference. If you can't, just say "Sin3".
First tone example: sounds like "maize" without "ze" ending.
Second tone example: "May" as in "May I ?" without stressing on "may".
Third tone example: "may" stressed like in "amazing".
may1 -- "maize" without "ze" sound. -- forgotten.
may2 -- "may" as in "May I?" -- prefix used in front of some female names.
may3 -- stressed like in "amazing". -- to question.
The closest one can get to the first tone is "self" without "lf" ending. Another example would be "wealth" without "lth" ending.
Second tone sounds like "Sal" in "Salary" without "l" ending, or "pal" without "l" ending in "maple".
The third tone will be like "sell" without double "l" ending. It belongs to "Wear", "tear", "pear" sound group.
More examples on tones with the Vowel "Eare":
meare1 -- sounds like "melt" without "lt" ending. -- to put on an unhappy face.
meare2 -- not so much stress on "mare" like in "marry-making". -- indication of intention.
meare3 -- stressed like "mare" in "nightmare". -- black in color.
You may ask why don't I just drop the middle "e" and shorten those as
The reason why I didn't was because I couldn't use it consistently for words starting with the vowel "a" that sounds like "air", so I came up with this "eare" coding to associate the word with the burmese sound group below.
Eare1 -- as in "Edward".
Eare2 -- as in "Editor".
Eare3 -- as in "Elephant".
First tone example: "laint" as in "complaint" where "t" ain't included in the ending sound.
second tone example: somewhere between "laint" and "lane" such as in "flamboyant".
third tone example: fully stressed "lane".
lain1 -- a wheel to roll.
lain2 -- to lie.
lain3 -- apply or rub on the skin or hair.
First tone examples: "on't" sounds as in won't, don't.
Second tone example: "Om" with silent "m" in "Romania".
Third tone example: Fully stressed "Om" with silent "m" in "Rome".
tone1 -- retaliate as in tone1 pyan2.
tone2 -- shivering, rattling, vibrating.
tone3 -- to chop something.
I will use the "m" variant for some words like "gome2". With "n" it will sound like "gone".
To romanize this vowel, I have no choice but to use "m" variant because with "n", it becomes number "one".
First tone example: "kind" without "d" ending.
Second tone example: the closest is unstressed "mine" in "minute". I am referring to the word "mine-nute" as in "minutely small", not the hour and "min-it" with the same spelling.
The third tone example: "tine" sound in "tiny", or simply "mine".
kine1 as in "kind"
kine2 as in "kinetic"
kine3 that rhymes with "pine"
pine1 - [English] pint, measurement for alcohol.
pine2 - own; possess.
pine3 - cut up or divide something.
First tone example: "doont" sound in "couldn't".
Second tone example: "Kung" sound in "Kung Fu", or "mun" in "monetary" or "monastery".
Third tone example: "Coon" as in "Cocoon".
toon1 -- similar to "doont" sound in "couldn't". -- wrinkles of the skin.
toon2 -- the same stress level as "mun" in "monastery". -- crow of the cock.
toon3 -- as in "cartoon". -- push.
First tone example: koun1 - "Count" without ending "t".
Second tone example: koun2 - "Coun as in "Counter-strike".
Third tone example: koun3 - "Coun" as in "Counseling".
soun1 - wait.
soun2 - blanket.
soun3 - harp.
Those words with single tones are categories by themselves. Those have English equivalent sound groups. I will refer to those groups as (c1, c2, c3, ..., c8). Since they can be expressed by English spellings without ambiguity, I will leave out the numbering.
Remember, there are no closing sounds in Burmese, so try saying those words without tongue play and keep your lips apart for the ending parts of the words.
(c1) cake, jade, eight, paid, sake, bake. E.g., sate - mind
(c2) wet, set, mad, yet. E.g., set - machine
(c3) cook, put, look. E.g., woot - wear clothes
(c4) out, south, mouse, doubt. E.g., thout - drink
(c5) sight, pipe, night, dice, like, wide, guide. E.g., bite - stomach
(c6) up, suck, duck, mud. E.g., yut - stop; stand up
(c7) oat, coat, goat, soak. E.g., hote - true; yes
(c8) it, pit, sit. E.g., chit - love
This section correlates Burmese 1,2,3 Tone System with the tone classifications in some studies: Low, High, Creaky tones and & Glottal Stops. Some consider "Glottal Stops" as the fourth tone while Burmese children are taught only three tone variations in school as in ka1, ka2, ka3. "Tone" variations in Burmese as well as Chinese "Pinyin" always have the same vowel base.
That means, you cannot go ka1, ka2, ka3 and then go kut as the fourth tone.
The suffix word thun2 from the word a-thun2 means voice, sound, or noise. Although some of those voices or sounds in the Burmese language can be made to go up and down using tone marks (while maintaining the same vowel sound), some are just single tones and impossible to combine with tone change symbols. Official Burmese language by the Myanmar Language Commission recognizes four sound or thun2 groups as follow:
- First tone: - Ah1, E1, U1, Ay1, Au1, O1, In1, Oun1, Ine1, Un1, Ain1, Ome1, Eare1. There are 18 of those with 23 different spellings, out of which 18 of those use tone change symbol out myit, which looks like a dot (.) under the character. In total, there are only 13 distinct sounds as represented by romanization with 1,2,3 tone system above. This group is identified as Creaky Tone by some studies. Myanmar Language Commission defines this group as Checked tone.
- Second tone: - Ah2, E2, U2, Ay2, Au2, O2, In2, Oun2, Ine2, Un2, Ain2, Ome2, Eare2. There are 18 of those with 23 different spellings. In total, there are only 13 distinct sounds as represented by the romanization with 1,2,3 tone system above. This group is identified as Low Tone by some studies. Myanmar Language Commission defines this group as Rising tone.
- Third tone: - Ah3, E3, U3, Ay3, Au3, O3, In3, Oun3, Ine3, Un3, Ain3, Ome3, Eare3. There are 18 of those with 21 different spellings, out of which 18 of those use tone change symbol wit-sa1-pout, which looks like a column(:). In total, there are only 13 distinct sounds as represented by romanization with 1,2,3 tone system above. This group is identified as High Tone by some studies. Myanmar Language Commission defines this group as Falling tone.
- Single tone Groups: - Ate, Et, Out, Ike, Ut, Oat, It There are 10 of those using the closing thut which looks like a small "c" over the second character when spelled. In total, there are only 7 distinct sounds as represented by romanization with 1,2,3 tone system above. This group is identified as Ten Glottal Stops by Myanmar Language Commission.
Another thing to take note: The four thun2 groups: Check tones, Rising tones, Falling tones & Glottal Stops in the official listing all add up to the total of 46 sounds with four missing sounds:
Burmese 1,2,3 Tone System used in this website covers the missing vowel group "oon" (See lesson 47) and Single Tone Group "oot" (See lesson 56). The Burmese Script version of this page has the list of 46 sounds with romanization and MP3 audio files.
Let's test out a few phrases with the tone system:
beare2 lout leare3 -- How much?
beare2 -- 2nd tone with the Vowel "Eare" such as "mare" tone in "marry-making". So, it has a normal stress like "bare" in "strawberry".
lout -- belongs to single tone group (c4). It is clear enough, so not numbered.
leare3 -- 3rd tone with the Vowel "Eare". Stressed like "mare" in "nightmare". Just replace "m" initial consonant sound with "l".
beare2 thwa3 chin2 leare3
-- Where do you want to go?
beare2 -- 2nd tone with the Vowel "Eare" such as "bare" in "strawberry".
thwa3 -- 3rd tone with the Vowel "A", stressed like Ahhhhh...., so it would sound like tha-waahhhh".
chin2 -- 2nd tone Vowel "In"; normal stress like "sin" in "sincerely". Just replace "s" with "ch" sound, i.e., "chin" in place of "sin".
leare3 -- 3rd tone just like "mare" in "nightmare". Replace "m" with "l" and say it.
sa3 ja1 zo1 -- let's eat!
sa3 -- third tone with the Vowel "A"; fully stressed as Sahhhhh....
ja1 -- first tone with the Vowel "A"; short tone like "ja" in "Japan".
zo1 -- first tone with the Vowel "O"; a short tone comparable to "colt" without "lt" sound. Replace "c" with "z", i.e., "zolt" without "lt" ending.
To the beginner, it may all sound confusing at first, but the tones will get automatic and natural with practice. When I first learn Mandarin Chinese, I initially had trouble remembering Pinyin tone system. I used to refer back to the tone and pronunciation table, and with repetition, the tones become second-nature. I have included the tone reference table on the left column of every lessons for easy reference. MP3 sound files and Burmese script are later additions to the original lessons. Happy learning Burmese!!
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