Nerds, Harry Potter, and Burmese translations: what do these have in common?

You know those “Common Bonds” puzzles, a.k.a. “What do these three have in common?” Look at the title to this post. The first two items are easy—nerds have a lot in common with Harry Potter—but Burmese translations?

Take a look at the Burmese word in the image here, where it is overlaid on the flag of Myanmar and a… a spider,  perhaps? A mp of Myanmar showing a lot of rivers? (Brief aside: As you know, Myanmar is the current name of the country formerly known as Burma, but there are disagreements about what we call the language. Many people split the difference, calling the country Myanmar and the language Burmese, as I have done here.)

I’m learning more than I ever expected to know about Burmese translations of the Harry Potter books from this in-depth article, which includes fascinating discussions of the writing systems and politics of Myanmar. (Yes, they are deeply Intertwingled.) Let me just mention a few non-political observations here; you can then read the entire article yourself.

If you’ve ever been to a Burmese restaurant—probably in the beforetimes—you’ve probably noticed that the written language looks impenetrable. For example:

This, of course, means “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” but you probably figured that out already. Knowing nothing about the language, what do we notice that’s difficult about the writing system? Let me count the ways:

  • Generally no spaces between words (though sometimes between phrases).
  • Lots of diacritics—above, below, and even enclosing letters.
  • Too many similar-looking characters, making it tough on readers, especially those with dyslexia.
  • No capital letters (maybe).

You probably expect Myanmar to use a writing system that resembles what one of its neighbors uses, but no such luck. Your only guarantee is that it’s not going to be the Roman alphabet. Myanmar, of course, borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand, so let’s look at samples of the major writing system of each of these five countries. (Not so easy for India, which has over 400 languages and many different scripts with which to write those languages, so we’ll just settle for the largest one, Hindi, for our sample.) Here’s what we see in each neighboring country:






You can make a few observations at a glance: The Hindi and Bengali writing systems are clearly related to each other, likewise Lao and Thai, but none of the five resemble Burmese. More data would of course give us more information and lead to more hypotheses, but what’s up with Burmese? I could learn something from one of the Burmese Harry Potter translations—but they’re too intimidating! But let’s get a smidgen of additional data for Burmese, closing with an image of the cover of Deathly Hallows as another example:


Categories: Linguistics