What’s in a Name in Burma?

Portrait of a Burmese girl with thanaka powdered face who works

Many speakers of English will have a vague recollection that the day of the week that they are born on is supposed to influence their personality:

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Tuesday’s child is full of grace,

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Thursday’s child has far to go,

Friday’s child works hard for a living,

Saturday’s child is loving and giving,

But the child who is born on the Sabbath day

Is bonnie and blithe and good and gay.

Nursery rhyme aside, in most of the Western world horoscopic prediction of personality is related to a zodiac system which divides the year into 12 signs, and we have to look to the Far East for a more complete development of “weekday astrology”.

For many Buddhists in Burma, the name and horoscope given to newborns depends on which of the 8 days of the week (corresponding to the 8 cardinal directions) that they are born on. 8 days a week don’t exist only in the Beatles’ discography – in Burmese astrology Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon fall under two different zodiac signs. The name of a child born on Friday (and thus linked to the North, the sign of the Guinea Pig, and the planet Venus) could begin with the Burmese letters which correspond to the English sounds “th” or “h”, but the name of a child born on Sunday (the Northeast, the mythical bird-like Garuda, and the Sun) must begin with “a” (N.B. Burmese characters are some of the most difficult to display on most Internet browsers, which is why we have opted for transliteration).

However, despite the strict rules governing its institution at birth, a Burmese name is much less restrictive than a name given to a Western child. In fact a Burman can change his or her name at any time if this seems like the appropriate thing to do. Burmese revolutionary Aung San was known as Htein Lin at birth (the “ht” at the beginning of the name corresponds to his Saturday birth date), and used the nom de guerre Bo Teza as well as the names Myo Aung and U Naung Cho during the Burmese resistance movement. The first parts of some of these names are what are known as “honorifics”, titles which are roughly equivalent to our “Sir”, “Dr.” or “Mrs.” “Bo” is an honorific used to indicate a military leader and “U” is a title of respect for older men. The name that he is remembered by in posterity is Bogyoke Aung San, where the first part of the name means “General.”

In general females and the younger generations in Burma tend to have longer names with respect to their older, male counterparts, and Aung San’s children are a good example of this. The “General” gave birth to two boys, Aung San Lin and Aung San Oo, and one girl, future Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi (the week day naming rules were not applied). Although all of the children were given their father’s name, they have nothing corresponding to a “last” name or surname, as is the case for all Burmese.

Last week we gave a brief overview of the Tibetic languages, which represent the numerically inferior although perhaps better-known branch of the Tibeto-Burman languages. The Tibetic languages boast about 8 million speakers; while Burmese – which cannot boast the worldwide exposure given to Classical Tibetan through the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism – are spoken by around 33 million people. Since the military junta in control of the country reinstated a national constitution in 2008, Burmese has been officially known as the Myanmar language.

If you know anyone with a Burmese name, ask them about the meanings of the various parts of their name!

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