Finding Burmese Speakers During WW2

On Language Log, Mark Liberman has been excerpting passages from J Milton Cowan‘s brief memoir, “American Linguistics in Peace and at War.”

It is difficult today to visualize some of the obstacles we had to overcome. To illustrate I will tell the Burmese story because it has multiple punch lines. In the lottery of languages William S. Cornyn drew the Burmese straw. This frightened him a bit but Leonard Bloomfield promised to hold his hand. Nobody knew where to find any native speakers of Burmese and the files of the Alien Registration Act were classified. The Department of Immigration and Naturalization said there were no Burmese legally in the country at the time. There were supposed to be some sailors who’d jumped ship in New York and San Francisco but they hadn’t caught up with them yet.

Mortimer sent me to the Pentagon to see a young fellow in G-2 (Military Intelligence), Major Dean Rusk, a name not so well-known in those days, but known to Mortimer. I described the non-existence of known Burmans and why we wanted some. He volunteered to see what could be done with the roster of Alien Registration. He phoned our offices the same afternoon, saying tht he had over a hundred names and he’d call back as soon as he could have them decoded. Next morning he phoned to say there was something funny, there were Abernathys, Browns, Davenports, Fitzgeralds and so on down through the Youngs. It turned out that the Roster listed those foreigners residing in the U.S. who had been born in Burma, regardless of their current nationality. These were the names of children born to business people and missionaries while living in Burma. There were only two names that sounded exotic enough to be possible Burmans.

Read the rest at Language Log

When I was a missionary kid in elementary school in Kyoto, I remember reading a biography of Adoniram Judson, a pioneering Christian missionary in Burma at a time when converts risked death sentences for changing their religion. Judson was no slouch as a linguist, either.

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Filed under Burma, language, U.S.

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