Learning Burmese, Colonial Style

I have recently begun working my way through a book designed to teach English speakers written Burmese. But unlike the textbooks that I have previously used, this one is a little dated. It was published in 1894 and was written by Richard Fleming St. Andrew St. John, an English Orientalist, colonial official and translator of Burmese texts.

Burmese Reader Cover
The cover page. Evidently, he was not a believer in short titles.

There are a number of benefits of using this text for me. Firstly, it helps to familiarize me with the spellings and typesets used in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, when most of the Burmese language sources I use were published. This greater familiarity helps me differentiate letters that have been smudged or are faded. Secondly, much of the book contains tales from the Sudhammacari, a collection of legal and moral parables. Nearly all of these tales involve animals. This helps build my animal vocabulary. It also offers some  insights into how certain animals are used allegorically and what characteristics have been associated with them. And thirdly, the book contains some examples of handwritten Burmese petitions, that will be very useful in enabling me to decipher the petitions that I have gathered from the National Archives of Myanmar.

aburmesereaderb00johngoog_0298
A petition to practice on.

At the same time, there are some dangers of learning from this book. St. Andrew St. John is explicitly writing for an intended audience of aspiring Indian Civil Servants heading out of Britain to work in Burma. His selection of texts has been chosen with these individuals in mind.  There is a danger that I am not only learning to read Burmese, I’m learning to read Burmese like a colonial official might.

St. Andrew St. John tells us in the preface that he had selected the Sudhammacari because of its common usage, relatively simple structure and range of vocabulary, but there may have been other factors shaping his decision. The late-nineteenth century was a time when British imperial views of Burmese law and scriptural traditions were changing dramatically. They went from viewing Burmese legal codes and text positively to denigrating them. They began to focus on particular texts as being representative of Burmese culture, at the expense of others. Through this, they often presented Burmese Buddhism as a unitary system in terminal decline. Was the selection of the Sudhammacari and St. Andrew St. John’s guide to translating it a way of inculcating a particular view of Burmese law in colonial officials? Did it shape the expectations of deputy commissioners when they acted as judges in colonial courts?

Although not as bluntly imperial as St. Andrew St. John’s book Burmese Self-Taught that provided the language for officials to bark orders at Burmese subordinates (as well as some slightly odd phrases), I’m still wary that I might be learning more than the language.

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