The Karen languages are comprised of a group of languages spoken primarily in lower Myanmar and coastal areas of Thailand. Karen languages exhibit a unique variety of traits that have made it difficult for scholars to determine their origins and confidently classify them in a specific linguistic category.


Classification of the Karen Languages

The origins of the Karen languages are not totally clear, but the languages are generally believed to be related to the Tibeto-Burman group of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The Sino-Tibetan languages were formerly known as Indochinese; however, this label is now restricted to including the languages of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken in Tibet and in areas of the Himalayas, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Southeast Asia, and central China.

The members of the Sino-Tibetan language family are all thought to have originated from a common ancestral language. Based on the way that the Sino-Tibetan languages are distributed, it appears as though the languages developed and spread along the many rivers throughout Asia. It is believed that the different languages that comprise the Sino-Tibetan language family today developed because various groups of people who spoke this ancestral language migrated and became isolated from one another, allowing distinct languages to develop.

Uncertain Origins of the Karen Language

One reason that linguists have difficulty agreeing on the origins of the Karen languages is that they exhibit a wide variety of influences from very different sources.

Although Karen languages do show evidence of a relationship with other Tibeto-Burman languages, they also appear to have been significantly influenced by the Tai and Austro-Asiatic language families. In general, however, most scholars classify Karen as a Tibeto-Burman language.

Characteristics of the Karen Languages

Karen is generally divided into three groups: northern, central and southern.

One unique characteristic of the Karen languages includes the use of pitch and tone to distinguish between words that would otherwise seem identical. Another interesting trait is the fact that the verb is placed between the subject and the object. This is especially interesting given the fact that other Tibeto-Burman languages place the verb after the subject and object.

It is likely that this trait developed thanks to the influence of one or more Mon or Tai languages. It is due to discrepancies like these that some linguists have questioned the Karen languages’ classification within the Tibeto-Burman group of languages.

Written Karen Language

The only Karen languages to have written forms are the southern languages of Pwo and Sgaw, which are written using a Burmese script. Adapted from the Mon script, modern Burmese dates as far back as 1000 AD and consists of a series of circular and semi-circular letters.

The lack of a written form found within the Karen language group is by no means a trait shared by all of the Tibeto-Burman languages. For example, the Burmese language has a writing system that dates back to the 11th century, while Tibetan script dates as far back as the 7th century.

The Karen People of Myanmar

Map of Myanmar

The term Karen can also refer specifically to the Karen people, as well as to the group of Karen languages.

The Karen people are a tribal people of Myanmar (formerly Burma) mostly found in the Kayah and Karen (also spelled Kayin) states of the country. An estimated 3 million Karen people live in Myanmar today.

Karen people demands for independence have led to tensions between Karen people and other residents of Myanmar for decades. Periods of violence persisted throughout the 1980s and 90s as militant Karen groups like the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) clashed with Myanmar’s military. Some Karen leaders today still accuse Myanmar’s government of ethnic cleansing. “Kawthoolei” is the name given to the state that Myanmar’s Karen people have been attempting to establish since the mid-20th century.

Persecution of Karen People: Significance of Religion

Religion has also played a significant role in the problems faced by Myanmar’s Karen population. Traditionally the Karen people practice nature worship. As a result of outside influence, the Karen people have increasingly turned to practicing Buddhism or Christianity in recent years.

Individuals who practice the western religion Christianity in Burma have often been viewed with skepticism and distrust. Accordingly, Burmese authorities are supposed to have persecuted a number of Christian-practicing Karen people, adding to the tensions between Myanmar’s people and the country’s Karen minority.

Modern Karen Languages

Flag of Myanmar

Today the Karen languages are predominantly found in lower Myanmar and in areas of Thailand. The two most prominent languages of the Karen branch are the Sgaw and Pwo languages, which each lay claim to more than 2 million speakers. An estimated 6 million Karen people live in Myanmar, compared to approximately 400,000 in Thailand. The numbers of speakers of minor Karen languages are much smaller.

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