Myanmar (Burmese) Culture

Naming

The majority of the Myanmar population speaks Burmese and follows Burmese naming conventions. The following information largely describes these dominant naming practices.


However, be aware there are over 135 ethnicities and 100 languages in Myanmar. Not all ethnic groups may observe these naming practices and traditions outlined below.


Burmese Naming Conventions

  • Under Burmese naming conventions, all components of a name are considered part of a single personal name alone, i.e. [personal name].
  • The Western concept of having a ‘first name’ and ‘family name’ is not followed by Bamar, Karen, Karenni or Chin ethnic groups. Most of the population do not have a surname or follow a cultural custom of inheriting names. 
  • Some ethnic groups pass down family names and have one or multiple surnames. However, as this convention is not recognised in Myanmar, only their given personal name appears on official documentation. 
  • Burmese personal names are generally one to four words long. For example, Ba Kaung (male) or Daw Mya Aye (female).
  • The names of family members often have no resemblance to each other. For example, Ba Kaung and Daw Mya Aye may have a son called Saw Tin.
  • However, some parents may choose to integrate components of their own name into their child’s name. For example, the ‘Aye’ in Daw Mya Aye may come from her mother’s name. This is purely based on parents’ personal preference.
  • Burmese women generally do not change their name at marriage. 
  • Burmese people may also change their name at any point in their life. It is common to do so if burdened by bad luck/ill health or to reflect a significant change in their life. Name changes do not always have legal oversight and may occur through simple public proclamation (e.g. putting an announcement in the newspaper).

 

Westernising Burmese Names

  • Burmese people living overseas may have to adapt their names to suit English-Western conventions for administrative purposes, i.e. [personal name] [middle name] [SURNAME]. 
  • In such cases, a person may use the last word of their personal name as their surname, e.g. Daw Mya AYE
  • Some Burmese people who speak English or live in Western countries may adopt an English personal name that they use among close friends and foreigners. For example, Daw Mya Aye may be known as “Michelle”.
  • In this case, they may use an English name as their ‘first’ personal name, the first words of their Burmese name as their middle name, and the last word as their surname. For example, Michelle Daw Mya AYE.
  • Most Burmese people will continue to use their original name when returning to Myanmar or speaking in Burmese.
  • Differences in naming conventions can cause major cultural problems for Burmese refugees overseas. Some may not know how best to fit their name into the provided western categories of ‘given name’ and ‘surname’ on forms, leading to their identity being mistaken. Many people also report that overseas officials incorrectly record their identity.

 

Names

  • Burmese names are traditionally chosen following an astrological system and calendar, whereby a person’s name corresponds to the time and date of their birth. It is common belief that a good name aligned with stars and astrology will bring luck (and vice versa). 
  • The day of the week a person is born dictates the first letter of their given name. For example, children born on a Thursday would have one word beginning with the letter ‘P’, ‘B’ or ‘M’, such as ‘May’ (မေ). 
  • Some families consult an astrologer to choose the most auspicious name for their child. In other cases, the name may be chosen by a monk, elderly relative or the child’s parents. 
  • Burmese people tend to choose names that symbolise goodwill, prosperousness or connote some other positive destiny for their child in their meaning and sound. 
  • Female names tend to signify beauty, flora or family-associated values, e.g. Hla (pretty). Male names usually signify strength, bravery or an aspiration for success, e.g. Aung (successful). However, many of these words are non-gender specific.
  • Names may also be chosen so that the individual meaning of each component (word) in a person’s name complements one another.
  • Some of the most common Burmese name components include Zin, Win, U, Myat, Htun, Phyo, Kyaw, Htet and Aung.1 
  • Two- or three-word long names tend to be the most popular throughout Myanmar (e.g. Aung Htin Kyaw or Nay Chi). 
  • Single word names more often belong to those among the older generation (e.g. Nu or Thant). 
  • It is common to encounter people with similar or identical names. 

 

Addressing Others

  • Burmese generally address people using honorific titles based on their gender, age and social relationship to one another. 
  • It is common to address younger males or males of a similar age using the titles ‘Maung’ (younger brother) or ‘Ko’ (older brother). People address younger females or females of a similar age as ‘Ma’ (sister). 
  • The titles ‘U’ (uncle) and ‘Daw’ (aunty) are used to address adults older than oneself. These are also terms of respect for someone who is distinguished. 
  • Younger honorifics may be used to address someone of a lower social status. For example, a landowner may address his labourer by ‘Maung’. 
  • The title comes before the person’s full name (e.g. U Ba Kaung). It is incorrect to use only one word of a person’s name. For example, you would not refer to Ba Kuang as “U Kuang”.
  • The everyday use of titles can lead them to become an integral part of a person’s identity, somewhat adopted as part of their personal name. 
  • Some titles, such as ‘Maung’ and ‘Ma’, are also common given names. This can lead to a double up in words when using titles. For example, Ma Lay would be addressed as “Ma Ma Lay”.
  • Close friends may address one another using nicknames. These may be an abbreviation of the person’s original name or a word that describes their character.
  • It is also common to use titles based on a person’s occupation or rank, e.g. ‘Bo' (Military officer), ‘Saya’ / ‘Sayama’ (Teacher).
  • Be aware forms of address can also vary between ethnicities within Myanmar. For example, the Chin people refer to parents using patronymics (e.g. ‘father of ...’ or ‘mother of ...’).

 

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1 Fifty Viss, 2014
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