Thanks to its coastal location, Burma served early on as an important point of convergence for traders from all around the world. Early outside contact with Sri Lanka, India, and the West means that the Burmese have long been exposed to a variety of influences that have affected the development of cultures, religions and languages.
Burmese, the mother tongue of the Bamar and official language of Myanmar, is closely related to Tibetan and to the Chinese languages. It is written in a script consisting of circular and semi-circular letters, which comes from the Mon script.
The earliest known inscriptions in the Burmese script date from the 11th century. Written in an alphabet derived from the ancient Pali (the sacred language of Theravada Buddhism) language of India, the text is an example of the Old Burmese language from which the modern Burmese language we know today evolved. The Burmese writing system is alphabetic-syllabic, and is derived from the ancient Tamil scripts of South Eastern India.
The Burmese script is also used in by a selection of ethnic minority languages, Karen dialects, Shan and Kayah, with the addition of specialised characters and diacritics for each language.
The Burmese language is classified as a member of the Tibeto-Burman group of languages, part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. It is believed that the first humans settled in Myanmar approximately 11,000 years ago and the earliest known sample of an independent Burmese language text dates from the mid-11th century.
There are approximately one hundred languages spoken in Burma, however, Burmese is spoken by approximately 65% of the populace and is the official language. However, a wide variety of languages are spoken, especially by ethnic minorities, representing four major language families: Sino-Tibetan, Austro-Asiatic, Tai–Kadai, and Indo-European.
Aside from Burmese, other major languages spoken include Shan (spoken by 3,200,000), Karen dialects (spoken by 2,600,000), Kachin (spoken by 900,000), Chin dialects (spoken by 780,000), Mon (spoken by 750,000) and Rakhine (a linguistic dialect of Burmese spoken by 730,000).
After independence from British rule was achieved in 1947, Burmese became the official language of the country and of the education system. Following the military coup of 1962, Burmese has become the only allowed language of educational instruction at all levels. This law applies even in ethnic minority regions and an attempt has been made to purge the language of Anglicism’s.
The literature of Myanmar spans over a millennium. Burmese literature was historically influenced by Indian and Thai cultures, as seen in many works, such as the Ramayana. The Burmese language, unlike other Southeast Asian languages (e.g. Thai, Khmer), adopted words primarily from Pali rather than from Sanskrit. In addition, Burmese literature tends to reflect local folklore and culture.
The earliest forms of Burmese literature were on stone engravings for memorials or for special occasions such as the building of a temple or a monastery. Later, palm leaves were used as the traditional writing material, which resulted in the rounded forms of the Burmese alphabet. Straight lines would have torn the leaves. During the Bagan Dynasty, Theravada Buddhism was adopted as the state religion, and many Pali sacred texts were brought from Ceylon. These texts were translated; however, Pali remained the literary medium of the Burmese kingdom.
The growth of the liberal and secular literature and flexibility of the Burmese language encouraged poetry to become the most popular form. The monosyllabic and tonal nature and lack of many consonantal finals allowed poetry to utilise various rhyming schemes. We can distinguish four primary genres of poetry that had emerged by the 1400s: pyo (poems based on the Jataka Tales, linka (metaphysical and religious poems), mawgoun (historical verses written as a hybrid of epic and ode), and finally eigyin (lullabies of the royal family).
Despite the importance of the secular writers, Monks were also influential in developing Burmese literature. Shin Maha Thila Wuntha wrote a chronicle on the history of Buddhism. A contemporary of his, Shin Ottama Gyaw, is famous for his epic verses called Tawla that revelled in the natural beauty of the seasons, forests and travel.
Burmese literature, after the conquest of Thailand, incorporated many Thai elements. Most evident were the yadu (yatu), an emotional and philosophic verse and the yagan, which imitated the themes of the yadu genre. As the Konbaung Dynasty emerged in the 1700s, the Third Burmese Empire was founded. This period was called a “Golden Age of Literature”. After a second conquest of Ayutthaya in Thailand, many spoils of war were brought to the Burmese court.
The Ramayana, one of the great epics of India, was introduced and translated in Burmese. In addition, the Ramayana inspired romantic poems, which became popular literary sojourns among the royal class. Burmese literature during this period was therefore modelled after the Ramayana, and dramatic plays were patronised by the Burmese court. Monks remained powerful in Burmese literature, compiling histories of Burma. Kyigan Shingyi (1757-1807) wrote the Jataka Tales incorporating Burmese elements, including the myittaza.
During the First Anglo-Burmese War in the 19th century, more solemn and muted moods exuded from Burmese literature, including lyrical music.