Myanmar Alphabet

A History of the Myanmar Alphabet

Beginning with Brāhmī

1.     All researchers who have studied the origin and development of the Myanmar script accept that its source was the Brāhmī script which flourished in India from about 500 B. C. to over 300  A. D.

2.         Myanmar  script  like the  Brāhmī script is  a  system  of   writing  constructed  from consonants, consonant combination symbols  – ် , ၾ -   , -ြ ,  -ွ ;  vowel symbols related to the relevant consonants, and diacritic marks indicating tone level  ( niggahīta,   visajjaniya ).   Though  the  number of consonants and vowels, and the name and number of  symbols  are  slightly  different due  to the difference  in the languages  which employ  the  Brāhmī  script, the Myanmar   writing  system  and  those  which employ  the Brāhmī writing system are basically  the same.

3.         A study  of  the  track of  change  through  the ages of  Brāhmī consonants, consonant combination symbols, vowels, vowel symbols and diacritic  marks  clearly  show  the relationship with the forms of Myanmar consonants, consonant combination symbols, vowels, vowel symbols and diacritic marks.

4.         The relationship of  similarity between  characters and letter forms  suggests  there is no denying that Myanmar script had its source in  Brāhmī.

Scripts developed from  Brāhmī

5.         The first  Brāhmī  script was seen about 500 B. C. It had spread throughout India by 300 A. D. in the reign of King Asoka.

6.         After  the dissolution  of  the Maurya Kingdom established by King Asoka, first the Kusāna dynasty, and, later, the Gupta dynasty appeared and ruled  in northern  India. The  Brāhmī  script gradually changed during  those  reigns. The scripts which developed during those reigns were named Kusāna  and Gupta for  the kings. Then such convoluted scripts as Kutila and urban  Nāgarī, simple script like Shārda and Bengali developed progressively according to region and period. Writing forms in those scripts became gradually differentiated regionally and historically.

7.         In  South India, the  Andhra dynasty arose after the dissolution of the Maurya kingdom. Then arose such dynasties as Pallava, Kadamba, Cālukya, Rashtrakuta and Cola. During those dynasties there developed from Brāhmī  such scripts in the west as Pacchimi script, Madhya Pradesh script in the middle region, and, in the south, such scripts as Telugu, Kanati, academic  Grantha, Tamil which are contained in Kadamba, Cālukya and Rashtrakuta.

8.         These Indian scripts  descended  from  Brāhmī  spread  to Tibet, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia along with the Indian beliefs and culture in the period 100 A. D. to 800 A. D. and helped in the development in those regions of  indigenous scripts.

Spread of Indian scripts to Myanmar

9.         During  the  period  100  A. D.  to  1200  A. D.  when  the  Brāhmī  script  developed  gradually   into Brāhmī-derived scripts in India, there developed in Myanmar the civilization of Pyu, Myanmar, Mon and Rakhine. These civilizations communicated with the countries in the east and west. There was special communication  with India in  the west by  land and sea. Buddhism reached Myanmar very early because of  such intercourse. Brāhmī script and scripts derived from  Brāhmī  arrived in Myanmar in their successive periods. The indigenous peoples of Myanmar employed those scripts to inscribe and study extracts from the Pali  teachings of Buddha and recorded acts of charity and merit in Sanskrit. When the conditions developed to use writing for their indigenous languages, they adapted and devised consonant and vowel signs and symbols based on the familiar contemporary Brāhmī-derived  scripts  to approximate as close  as  possible the sounds of their languages.

Writing in Myanmar in the sixth century

10.        Writing in the sixth century A. D. found in Myanmar are bell  inscriptions, brass  plate inscriptions and lithic inscriptions of  Rakhine Vesali, Pyu lithic  inscriptions of Hanlin, Pali inscriptions in Pyu script on gold leaf and silver leaf found around Thayekhittaya, funerary urn inscriptions in Pyu script, writing round the plinths of Buddha images in Pyu and Sanskrit.

11.        Writing  in Rakhine. Ancient  writing of  the fourth to sixth century A. D. found in Rakhine Vesali is  in  Sanskrit  or  Sanskrit  mixed  with Pali. The  script  is  similar  to  the  Gupta  script  descended  from Brāhmī.

12.        Pyu writing. Writing of the period A.D. 400 to 600 is found in the Ayeyarwady Valley in the form of stone inscriptions ( such as the Hanlin Pyu stone inscriptions ) in Pyu characters and Pyu language, extracts from the Buddhist Canon on gold plates in Pyu characters, and stone inscriptions in mixed Pyu and Sanskrit languages.

13.        The Pyu people had established an urban civilization by about A.D. 400. They were familiar not only with the literature of India but had also devised a script based on the script of that literature for their own Pyu language.

14.        Based on the Pyu writing of about A.D. 400, it can be surmised that the Pyu script was first devised in about A.D. 300- 400. The old Pyu script resembles the Kadamba script of southern India. Thus, epigraphical researchers conclude that the Pyu devised their script on  the basis of the Kadamba script. Though the Pyu accepted and employed the Kadamba script as a basis, it is evident that they were also familiar with the Gupta script as seen in some Pyu-Sanskrit bilingual religious inscriptions. Vertically exaggerated letters  as in the Jaggayapeta script are found in many Pyu stone inscriptions. This indicates that though Pyu script was based on the Kadamba script it was not free from the influence of other contemporary Indian scripts.

Writing from A.D. 600 to 1200

15.        Writing  found  in Myanmar during  this  period are Sanskrit stone  inscriptions from Rakhine Vesali, Pyu stone inscriptions from various parts of Myanmar, Mon stone inscriptions and Myanmar stone inscriptions.

16.        Rakhine Vesali. Ananda-Candra  stone  inscriptions and other stone inscriptions are found at Rakhine Vesali during  this period. The stone inscriptions are Sanskrit stone inscriptions inscribed in the Någar¥ script which is descended from  the Gupta scripts. The Vesali  period flourished till A.D. 900 but few inscriptions are to be found after A.D. 800.

17.        Pyu writing. Historical researchers hold the opinion that Pyu urban states were extant in Myanmar till A.D. 900-1000. Pyu stone  inscriptions  are to be found widely. However, it is difficult to date these Pyu stone inscriptions because they do not carry dates and some are almost illegible. The period is assessed by century on the basis of  the form of  the characters. However, it can be firmly held that Pyu writing was in use at the end of the 11th century and the beginning of the 12th on the evidence of the Rajakumar Stone inscription  in Pyu language at the beginning of  the 12th century and the Pyu plaque inscriptions  inscribed during the reign of Kyansittha.

18.        Mon writing. The earliest Mon writing is found on the plaque in the relic chamber of the Kyaik-day-art  pagoda inscribed with the Pali verse beginning  ‘Ye-dhammā’. The characteristics of  the script date it as of the 7th century A.D. The Trap stone inscriptions and the  Pandit stone inscriptions of Thaton are inscribed in the Mon language. They  are undated but the form of  the characters  place  them  in  the 10th and 11th centuries. From the reign of Anawrahta in the 11th century  to the reign of Alaungsithu in the 12th century, Mon stone inscriptions, tablets, plaques and wall  inscriptions  are  found in many  places in Myanmar. The Shwezigon Mon stone inscription otherwise known as Kyansittha stone inscription, Myakan Mon stone inscription and Rajakumar Mon stone inscription are famous.

19.        Evidence found within Myanmar is not sufficient to trace the origins of Mon writing. The Mons resided widely within south-east Asia from the beginning of  the Christian era. Thus, stone  inscriptions  inscribed with Mon characters  in  the Mon language may  be  seen in Dvaravati of Thailand. These are Pra Pathom stone inscriptions  estimated to be of the 7th century A.D. and Lopburi stone inscriptions of the 8th-9th century  A.D. The formation  of  consonants, vowels and orthography suggests that these stone inscriptions are about  three  centuries earlier than the 10th-11th century  stone inscriptions found in Myanmar, at Thaton. Those characters may be compared with the characters of the tablet beginning Ye-dhamma of Kyaik-day-art pagoda. They may also be compared with Pyu characters. From the evidence it may be estimated that Mon writing originated about the 5th or 6th century A.D. Epigraphy shows that the style of writing of the earliest Mon stone inscriptions is similar to the style found in the Cambodian Takap stone inscriptions, and Laokao Wat stone inscriptions both inscribed in Sanskrit. This shows that the Mon were familiar with Pali and Sanskrit material and the Indian scripts used for such tracts  before indigenous writing was developed. The earliest Mon writing and script and the characters of Cambodian stone inscriptions are similar to the Pallava script of the fourth century A.D. South India. Thus, epigraphers conclude that the Mon based their script on the Pallava script of South India. Though the Mon based their script on the Pallava, they devised new consonants to suit their own language. The Mon accepted devowelizer  symbols  which can be found  in other south Indian scripts  as Cālukya and Vallabhi. These show that though Mon script was based on Pallava, it was not free of the influence of contemporary Indian scripts.

20.        Myanmar writing. The earliest Myanmar writing is from the Bagan period of the 11th and 12th centuries. Rajakumar stone inscription was inscribed in about 475 B.E. or A.D. 1113 which is early 12th century. There are earlier Myanmar writings. In Kyansittha’s Myakan Mon stone inscription the name of the lake ‘Maha Nibban Letswe Chi Ye’ is inserted in Myanmar. This inscription is earlier than Rajakumar inscription. Though there is no date, epigraphers believe from the formation of the letters and orthography that Thetso Taung Pawdawmu pagoda inscriptions were earlier than Rajakumar inscription by about 50 years. From the reign of Anawratha of Bagan to the reign of Alaung-sithu, it was the fashion to offer votive tablets at the pagodas. Donors would inscribe a few lines about their act of merit in a language selected from Pali, Mon, Pyu and Myanmar. Among such votive tablets those found in the field of  U Chit Sa  of  Bagan   are  held to be very early by virtue of formation of characters and orthography. It may be said from the evidence that Myanmar writing was well established by the 11th century.

21.        Just as there is the relationship of the development of the scripts of the Pyu and Mon to the development of the Pyu and Mon urban states, so also there is the relationship of the development of Myanmar writing to the development of the Myanmar urban state. Though the Bagan state was in existence from ancient days it began to flourish only during Anawratha’s reign in the 11th century. The Myanmar were familiar with Sanskrit and Pali literature and Pyu and Mon writing before the development of Myanmar writing. In terms of scripts they were also familiar in the 10th and 11th centuries with Nāgarī, Pyu and Mon characters. Since Pyu and Mon characters were based on Indian characters descended from  Brāhmī , early Pyu and Mon characters were similar. Serifs could be found in both early Pyu and Mon characters. By the end of the 9th century A.D, the head-marks developed from the horizontal head-lines in Mon characters had more or less disappeared. But these head-marks continued to be seen in Pyu characters till the 12 th  century. In writing Pyu characters, much up and down space was utilised in drawing the  vertically elongated letters. Such vertically elongated letters  were also found in the Pra Pathom Mon stone inscriptions. The vertical displacement had become shorter in the 10th to 11th century Thaton  Mon  stone inscriptions. The Mon characters of the 10th and 11th centuries have a simpler form than contemporary Pyu characters. For this reason when the time came to develop the Myanmar script, simple and easy Mon characters were selected over the more difficult Nāgarī and Pyu characters. Thus, from the Bagan period Myanmar characters and symbols became similar in form to Mon characters and symbols.

22.        The developers of the Myanmar script took what was appropriate to the Myanmar language from Sanskrit, Pali, Pyu and Mon scripts, and rejected what was not appropriate. Sanskrit consonants ၐ and ၑ, and Mon consonants ๏ and မွ, unnecessary in Myanmar, were rejected. (Note: ၐ and ၑ may  be found in some stone inscriptions but not extensively.) Though  ṭa, ṭh and  ḍ were not consonants used in Myanmar they  were retained  so  as  not  to create  difficulty  in  the  study  of  Pali.  The vowel   mark  ေ – ာ္ ( the long o ), the   tone mark ( -႔ ), the characters  ၏, ၍, ၌  though not extant in Pali and Mon were devised. Thus, the Myanmar script which is  similar  to  the  Mon  script which is descended from  Brāhmī ,  and which is  also related to Pali, Sanskrit and Mon scripts began to be developed in the Bagan period according to the style and manner of  the Myanmar.

Writing after the 12th century

23.        Pyu writing. After the Rajakumar stone inscription of the early 12th century  no more Pyu writing has been found.

24.        Mon writing. Mon stone inscriptions began to disappear after the latter part of the 12th century. However, Mon writing continued to be alive in Lower Myanmar. Middle Mon stone inscriptions began to be found around Hanthawaddy in the 15th century A.D. Mon writing is  thriving in the Mon state today.

25.        Myanmar writing. Myanmar writing has developed onward from the 12th century to date.

26.        Indigenous writing related to Myanmar writing. Indigenous writing related to Myanmar writing are found after the 12th century. These are Karen, Pa-o and Shan writing. These scripts should continue to be studied.