Naming System in Burma

There is consensus among people in Burma on the first problem they encounter when traveling abroad. They have to tell people how to address them by cutting a slice of their actual names. As opposed to the predominant naming systems of Western world (three-word names) or China (two-word names), Burmese names can have either single word or multiple words. What’s more, we do not inherit our names from our father or family. Or women do not take their husband’s name. Our names belong one hundred percent to ourselves. Therefore, U Mya Maung might have a wife, Daw Shwe Zin, a son, Maung Khin Win and a daughter Ma Thazin. “U” and “Daw” can be roughly translated into English as “Mr.” and “Miss” or “Mrs” respectively. “Maung” is used to refer to boys or male persons younger than the speaker while “Ma” is the title for girls or female persons

In the traditional Western sense, a person has first name or given name, middle name (or your father’s name) and last name or family name. In Chinese or Japanese culture, people do not have middle name but they have first name or given name together with family name. Both of these systems are inapplicable to people in Burma, who only have their given names. However, since the Burmese language is a monosyllabic language, their given names usually have two or three syllables which is the main cause of the confusion and misunderstanding between both Burmese and non-Burmese people when communicating with each other.

To give some instances, Aung San, the leading architect of the independence of modern Burma, has two-syllable name, none of which are his father’s name or family name. U Thant, third Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, has one-syllable name, “Thant”.

I thought our neighboring countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam would have the same naming system like we do until I met some of them personally. Burmese culture is probably the only one where people have their given names as full names. It had been intriguing to me for a while why we do not have customary patronymic naming system like the cultures next to us.

There are two explanations that can satisfy my curiosity. The first one is the popular belief in traditional astrology, which encourages the parents to consult with the astrologers to name their children with beautiful and lucky meaning. As a result, one will find that most of the boys in Myanmar today have the name, Aung, which means “success”. In addition, the traditional 8-day calendar can, depending on the day the child was born into, provide the possible names for a child too. For example, Monday-born child’s name will start with the alphabets, ka, hka, ga, ga and nga,

It can also be deduced that various patriotic or independence movements under the British colonial rule have contributed largely to the resistance of Burmese-speaking population against the attempts of the British to incorporate Burmese society into the Anglo-Indian culture. I asked my Cambodian friend since when they have used the patronymic naming system in their country. He said it was not long ago and it happened in the era of French colonial rule to modernize Cambodia. Perhaps the same attempt of the British government would have failed.

When I talked with my friends who have experienced the same issue of having to slice their name for people in other countries to address, their reaction is positive. It is true that we have a little trouble when we apply for passport and visa and when we fill in the Napplications for scholarship and work abroad. Nevertheless, none of us wants to abandon this aspect of our culture, which represents how it is unique to be a Burmese to certain extent.