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The Origins of the Burmese Script

Burmese Script
Burmese Script

Burmese is the official language of Burma and is spoken by approximately 40 million people across the globe. Adapted from a southern Indian script over one thousand years ago, the Burmese script has a notably round appearance and a fascinating origin.

The Burmese script is characterized by rounded letters with few sharp lines, lending a flowing appearance to the writing. Despite being aesthetically pleasing, the rounded script was born of necessity.

Because Burma has a rather damp, tropical climate, paper and leather deteriorates quickly and was not a viable option to use for writing. Instead, early scribes began using palm leaves to write on. It was common practice for Buddhist monks to plant trees specifically to have plenty of writing materials on hand. Once the trees reached maturity, the leaves would be boiled, dried, and flattened in preparation for the scribes to record their texts.

For ink, ashes would be mixed with a resin and sometimes fish gall to produce a sooty, black color. Sometimes the ink would be applied directly with a bamboo stylus, though it was also common to scratch the words onto the leaf and then rub the ink into the grooves.

The leaves were more delicate than paper, leather, or bark, so care had to be taken when transcribing texts. If pressed too hard, the stylus could go all the way through the leaf rather than merely piercing the fibers. Long, straight lines were too risky to use on the delicate leaves, so a rounded Burmese script was invented instead.

The lovely, rounded script can be seen here, in the official name for Burma, ပြည်ထောင်စုသမ္မတ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံတော်, or the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

Examples of palm leaf manuscripts can be found at https://www.brandeis.edu/library/archives/spotlights/special-collections/2016/burmese-texts.html.

 

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