August 08, 2006

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

I've been asked several times about the name of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi ဒော္ အောင္ ဆန္း စု က္ရည္, the democratically elected leader of Burma, 1991 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and prisoner of conscience. One question is, why so many names? Part of the answer is that she doesn't have quite as many as it seems. Daw ဒော္ is not a name; it's a respectful title for women. Its male counterpart is U ဦး, as in U Thant, the third Secretary General of the United Nations.

Even so, her name is indeed longer than most Burmese names. The first part, Aung San အောင္ ဆန္း "strange victory", is the name of her father, General Aung San, the hero of Burmese independence. The second part, Suu စု, is the name of her paternal grandmother, the final part, Kyi က္ရည္, one of the names of her mother, Khin Kyi. The name by which she is known to those privileged to be on a first name basis with her is Suu စု. Those on less intimate terms would address her as Daw Suu ဒော္ စု.

The other question is why the last syllable of her name is spelled <kyi> but pronounced [ʧi]. The reason is that <kyi> is not an English rendering of the pronounciation of her name but a transliteration. That is, it reflects the way her name is written in Burmese. Burmese spelling, like that of English, is archaicizing. At one time, Burmese had velar stops before /j/. Burmese subsequently underwent a sound change in which /kj/ merged with /ʧ/, but the spelling was not changed. Although there is no longer any phonetic distinction, Burmese retains an orthographic distinction between /kji/ and /ʧi/ which is reflected in the transliteration.

The plot is actually a bit thicker than this. If you use the transliteration favored by scholars of Burmese, က္ရည္ is transliterated <kri>, not <kyi>. That's because it was once pronounced /kri/. By another sound change, /r/ merged with /j/.

There's still a further complication. If you work out what the individual letters are, you'll discover that there are actually five: က   ္   ရ   ည   ္. က is /k/, ရ is /r/, and ည is /ɲ/. What about   ္  ? Well, Burmese is one of the many writing systems that has a default vowel. If a consonant letter is not followed by a vowel letter or an   ္  , it is assumed that it is followed by an /a/. The role of the   ္   is to indicate that no default vowel is to be inserted. For example, က by itself represents /ka/, while က္ represents /k/. So, the last of Daw Suu's names is actually, in a historicizing transliteration, kraɲ. Yet another sound change resulted in the rhyme /aɲ/ becoming /i/.

Posted by Bill Poser at August 8, 2006 02:37 AM