Organized Panel Session
A study of the speakers of Burmese dialects, including Rakhaing, Tavoyan, and Intha of Burma, and Marma of Bangladesh and Northeast India, throws into relief some assumptions related to ethnicity and language in Burma. Linguistic studies of the dialects focus on phonological differences from Standard Burmese. Following arboreal or genetic models of linguistic classification, Tavoyan and Intha appear to be simple variants. From the perspective of contact linguistics, however, both show marked influence from neighboring, unrelated languages, a situation which complicates traditional understandings of language development.
Language and ethnicity are often equated in Burma. Burmese dialect speakers complicate what appears to be a recent equation stemming from British colonial practices of classification and governance. Based on a construction of their historical experience, the “Rakhaing” emerged as an ethnicity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries out of internally diverse communities who used to call themselves Mranmā. Tavoyan speakers, on the other hand, often call themselves Bamā, despite the far more marked differences with Standard Burmese than is the case with Rakhaing. During the twentieth century, Marma elites crafted a unique history separate from that of the Rakhaing following terms, because of their position outside of British Burma. Even if some dialect speakers conceive of themselves as ethnicities separate from the Burmans, overall their role in the local language ecology places their them at or very near the top of the local language hierarchies.