Burmese names

Burmese people do not have surnames.

U Thant
Jac. de Nijs / Anefo, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

The man pictured above is U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was a significant force for world peace, brokering negotiations between the United States and the USSR during the Cuban Missile Crisis for example. The “U” is not his first name but a common Burmese honorific – roughly equivalent to “Mr.” And U Thant, like all Burmese people, has no surname.

Now, the surname convention looks quite different depending on the time and place: China has had surnames for millennia; Europe had them during the Roman Empire, then lost them for a few hundred years, then picked them back up in Medieval times. In Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), surnames just aren’t a thing. Instead, people have a single name, and that name may change over the course of their life.

Aung San, the founder of modern Myanmar, was born Maung Htein Lin (“Maung” being an honorific designating a younger brother) – but his name was changed later to mirror his older brother Aung Than. Later “Bogyoke” (commander) was added too, an honorific to mark his status as a politician and military leader.

Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi – the most recently elected leader of Myanmar and current political prisoner – bucked the Burmese naming trend somewhat by having a name that included her father’s (Aung San) and her mother’s (Khin Kyi) and her father’s mother’s (Suu) names. In fact, Burmese names have been getting longer since the start of the 20th century. Most Burmese names used to be a single syllable, but now they’re more commonly three, four, or five syllables long.

One interesting convention in the Burmese naming system is its connection to the day of the week. Each day has a few letters associated with it: if you’re born on a Friday, for example, you would traditionally choose a name beginning with “tha” or “ha” – and sure enough, U Thant was born on a Friday. The Burmese Buddhist zodiac, by the way, divides the week into eight days – Wednesday morning and Wednesday afternoon are different days – so they have different letters too.

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