Can you spell ... (continued)

There are quite a few foreigners who believe that it is a good idea to spell English words when they stumble upon communication problems in Myanmar. Nothing could be farther from the truth! It may be a good idea in the West but in these parts caution is advised. It seems to me that many Burmese are not clear on the purpose of spelling. Obviously, spelling doesn’t serve to make things clear but to show how fast one can spell. If I ask the ten year old daughter of my maid to spell the word ‘COW’ she will inevitably reply: „COW: cee – o – doubleyou: COW!! . At breathtaking speed. That seems to be the way they learn it at school. Probably this is related to the fact that the letters of the Burmese alphabet have unmistakable names. Such as ka gyi (great K) for the letter ‘K’. There is another (aspirated) ‘K’ that goes by the name of ka gway (crooked K).

I still remember when a friend of mine used the English word ‘yard’ in our conversation during one of my first trips to Burma. As usual he didn’t pronounce the ‘d’ at the end of the word and I was not used to it yet. I didn’t know what he was talking about and asked him to explain further. And what did he say (at top speed)? “Yard: why – a – are – dee: Yard!” – It was Double Dutch to me! What the hell was he talking about:‘Whyyayardee?!? Was that Burmese or English? In the West people use spelling alphabets to make things clearer. And every language has its own! In Myanmar this is obviously restricted to air traffic as the following phone conversation proves that I had with the Traders Hotel in Yangon.  


Telephon conversation with the Traders Hotel Yangon:

I wanted to talk to my client, Mr. Fischer, but didn’t know his room number.  The following conversation ensued:

operator: “Good morning, Traders Hotel, how may I help you?”

foreigner: “Can I talk to Mr. Fischer? Unfortunately, I don’t know his room number!”

operator: “No problem, I’ll find Mr. Bishop for you?

foreigner: “Sorry, I want to talk to Mr. Fischer, not to Mr. Bishop!!”

operator: “Mr. Krishna?”

foreigner: “No, Fischer! I’ll spell it for you: ‘Foxtrot – India – Sierra – Charlie – Hotel – Echo – Romeo!”

operator: “Please wait a minute! Sorry Sir, Mr. Romeo is not staying here!

foreigner: “Mr. Romeo? I want to talk to Mr. Fischer! I’ll spell again: ‘Foxtrot – India – Sierra – Charlie – Hotel – Echo – Romeo!”

operator: “…………………………..”

foreigner: “Hello, are you still there?”

operator: “Yes, Sir! Please, can you spell foxtrot, Sir?”

I couldn’t help but feel that this conversation would take significantly longer than I had anticipated –  so I hung up!