Thursday, June 11, 2009

Refugee/ Asia Stuff: S'qaw Karen, Mon, Shan language script and encoding.

At the risk of objectifying large swathes of human beings, one of the reasons that I drifted into Asian studies years ago was that other cultures are like puzzles. There's pieces, and the pieces fit together if one only understands them well enough to understand how, and there's constant questions and riddles. And with contact with another culture, one finds new riddles and new questions.

[In fact, truth be known, several of the refugees I know have questioned things like why I am reading books about their home country and dabbling in learning its language. It just doesn't make complete sense to them. Which, come to think of it, is the response many Americans gave me when I began seriously studying about China. Alas, we are who we are.]

Which brings me to the issue of the Karen script. If one spends time around Karen refugees, one will soon see the S'qaw Karen script. It will be on such things as posters, t-shirts and photographs, many of which have a distinct political slant. There are multiple, distinctly different dialects of Karen. The one most spoken, in my experience, by refugees is called S'qaw Karen (pronounced "Squaw Kar-in" with the emphasis on the second syllable). It is worth mentioning that the S'qaw Karen had a higher rate of conversion to Christianity than other Karen and under the British Karen Christian militias, were involved in frequent conflict with the Burmese.

It is also worth noting that just for the record there is no connection between the Karen and Korea or Koreans, although some Americans who have never heard of the Karen, or for that matter probably don't know much about Korea either, occasionally mix them up upon first meeting someone who self-identifies as a Karen. (And since Karen have a long history of problems with the Burmese, Karen often don't like being referred to as Burmese. Occasionally, as many who come here have spent years in Thailand, often in a refugee camp, they will tell people they "come from Thailand" instead of Burma where they were born.)

The Burmese script is an unusual script noted for its circular letters. It is an awkward script to learn and the best introduction to it is probably John Okell's, "Burmese: An Introduction to the Script, Book 3." (Books one and two in the series, deal with the spoken language. Book four deals with the literary script.) [See footnote 1 for details.]

According to the on-line Museum of Karen History and Culture the S'qaw Karen script was first invented by Dr Jonathan Wade in the 1830's with Rev. Brayton. They also created a script for Pwo Karen, a different dialect of Karen, ten years later. Both scripts were developed using the Burmese alphabet as a base.

If you would like to read some of Dr. Johnathan Wade's writings, you may click here. Others of his materials, as well as more S-qaw Karen script material and resources, are available here.

[In a future post, perhaps I will explain who Dr. Johnathan Wade was. --see how there's always another riddle? However, at this time, alas, I confess I actually don't know. Based on the time, place and activities he was involved in, it stands to reason that he was a missionary from an English or American Protestant mission. If so this ties in interesting with some of the stuff below on Chin and Hmong. --See how there's always different pieces that tie together once you look deeply enough and see the shapes?]

Which brings me to the following; a document intended to offer ways in which to present the S'qaw Karen script using Universal Multiple-Octet Coded Character Set.

See PDF file.

The document states that there are four characters used in S'qaw Karen that are not used in Burmese.

"Additions for S’gaw Karen.
Four characters used in S’gaw Karen are not used in Burmese: · LETTER SGAW KAREN SHA contrasts with Burmese õæ rha (which is õ LETTER RA + the @æ CONSONANT SIGN MEDIAL HA proposed in N3043); @‚ VOWEL SIGN SGAW KAREN EU serves as a vowel [P] and (with the @∫ SIGN ASAT proposed in N3043) as a tone mark @‚∫; @„ SIGN SGAW KAREN HATHI and @‰ SIGN SGAW KAREN KE PHO are tone marks. The former only occurs with the @∫ SIGN ASAT, thus @„∫. It should also be noted that in S’gaw Karen the @´ VOWEL SIGN TALL AA proposed in N3043 is used as a vowel (in all contexts following all consonants), and @¨ VOWEL SIGN AA is used as a tone mark, only occurring with the @∫ SIGN ASAT, thus @¨∫. (Figures 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10.)"

The same document also offers materials on representing the Mon script, another language of Burma, for the same system.

Again, see here for details.

A second document also offers procedures on converting two other languages of Burma, Shan which is a Tai-Kadai language, and Rumai-Palaung, which is a member of the Mon-Khmer group of languages.


Footnote 1:
Burmese: An Introduction to the Script, Book 3 . by John Okell

# Paperback: 428 pages
# Publisher: Southeast Asia Publications, Northern Illinois University; Pap/Cas edition (September 1, 1994)
# Language: English
# ISBN-10: 1877979430
# ISBN-13: 978-1877979439
# Product Dimensions: 10.8 x 8.4 x 2.3 inches
# Shipping Weight: 3.8 pounds

Music I am listening to: Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Arrested Development, Angelique Kidjo (see? Isn't that what cool people put on their blog posts? Am I a cool person or what?)


  1. Unicode is definitely the way to go, so that anything written in these scripts will be available in the long term. Now there are many fonts with available, but each has a different layout. If you do not have the right font, you cannot read the document. This problem is solved with Unicode.

    However, having a Unicode font is not enough — you need a Unicode "keyboard" (i.e., software that accesses the correct Unicode characters when you type.)
    These are easy to make, with Ukelele (available from You put the characters on keys that make sense to you, install, and then you can type away in your own system. Other people can read it, as long as they have any Unicode 5.1 font. They do not need your keyboard.

  2. Please tell me what writing system did the Karen people use before the Burmese script was created for them. I heard it was similar to Chinese writing is this so?

  3. My understanding is that prior to the creation of a modified Burmese script for them, the Karen were illiterate and had no script.