Featured Linguist: San San HNIN TUN



To introduce myself, I am a Burmese Citizen (ethnically Arakanese, also known as Rakhine now), born and raised in Myanmar, also known as Burma in English, and did my formal schooling up to a Masters at the University of Yangon. I currently teach Burmese
at INALCO (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations) in Paris, France, after 20+ years of teaching Burmese (and French) at Cornell University in the US. So with this multicultural/lingual experience, I should certainly be considered as a linguist, right ? At least according to some members of my family in Myanmar, I am a linguist, because I speak « several » languages.  If I found their reasoning rather amusing, I think it is not far from reality, since I have always been working with languages (be it by teaching, learning, playing with languages, etc. which require reflections on the functions of languages …)

Defending my thesis in front of the jury Maison de la recherche, Paris, Decembre 2013

But please rest assured, if I am on “Linguist List”, I do have some formal training in linguistics to be qualified for the status of a linguist: first as an English major with specialization in Linguistics at the University of Yangon in Myanmar ; then a thesis on “Discourse marking systems in Burmese and English” at the University of Nottingham in Great Britain ; and last but not least another thesis on “Grammar of Spoken Burmese” at the University of Paris III, Sorbonne Nouvelle in France.

Map of Pangloss: languages under study at research unit LACITO (http://lacito.vif.cnrs.fr/)

In my current job as an “enseignant-chercheur” in France, 50% of my work is officially dedicated to research in linguistics (except that numbers do not correspond to the reality, for obvious reasons that people in Academic worlds are familiar with), and I am very lucky to have been welcome as a full member of the research lab LACITO-CNRS (National research laboratory on languages and civilizations with oral tradition) since I came to France in 2010, where I have opportunities on a regular basis for stimulating and inspiring exchanges on linguistic research with colleagues working on different areas and aspects of languages. In my opinion, the field of linguistics is quite broad, and the role of language in all societies is so fascinating that it is hard not to be interested in linguistics.

I was first introduced to linguistics when I was accepted as an “English major” student at the University of Yangon in the early 80s. I remember that I wrote a Master’s thesis (Master’s students were required to write 4 “theses” for each of the 2 years study course,
which I realized later, were more like research papers in universities abroad) on a comparison of negative structures in Burmese, English, and French (at that time I had started learning French at Alliance Française in Yangon ). I was interested in this comparison because in both Burmese and French, the verb comes in between two elements (/məә/ and /bù/ in Burmese; and ‘ne’ and ‘pas’ in French), which is different from English. Looking back now, my analyses were very superficial and naïve, but I was happy to have done something different, as it was not very common to include languages other than English in linguistic studies there and then.

In 1989, I was hired to teach Burmese at Cornell University in the US (which is the beginning of my career as a language teacher outside Myanmar) and I thought I would pick up linguistics again. I sat in different theoretical linguistic courses, and realized that I was not
prepared enough to pursue my studies in theoretical linguistics with what I had learnt in linguistics in Myanmar. I tried to learn more languages instead (namely Spanish, German, Italian, American Sign Language) at Cornell, while teaching Burmese and French, and sitting in some linguistics courses as well. Surrounded by linguists, applied linguists and different language instructors who have passion for languages and language pedagogy, I was bathed in
linguistics (or language studies), but probably more on an applied side of the linguistics, which of course is not just about “how to teach languages” (a common misconception).

Example of discourse particles in imperative utterances. Extract from thesis, Hnin Tun (2006)

In any case, I kept thinking about the ways different languages function in given societies, among which one particular aspect of Burmese intrigued me increasingly: namely so-called “particles” (for lack of a better term – lexical items that do not fit into a specific category such as nouns, verbs, prepositions, etc.) that do not always have grammatical or syntactic function, but are frequently present in spoken Burmese.

When I first discovered corpus linguistics in the late 90s, in a course entitled “Working with spoken language” (I hope I remember the exact title) at Cornell, it was a turning point for my linguistic studies. I realized that corpus linguistics and studies of discourse marking systems would be the key to a better understanding of my Burmese particles. I decided to pursue a further training in linguistic studies, and luckily I could apply to a recently established program at the University of Nottingham in Great Britain (where Professor Michael McCarthy, one of the co-organizers of the course above taught) called “jointly-supervised PhD program”, which allowed me to pursue my PhD without having to leave my teaching job at Cornell. And I am grateful that Professor John Whitman from Cornell kindly accepted to be the co-supervisor (after changes in different co-supervisors, due to their departure from Cornell) for my thesis: his input was invaluable since besides his expertise in the field of Linguistics, he also knows Burmese. With this decision, I just had to use all my “spare” time working on my thesis and spending parts of the year in GB for consultation . If my chosen life style looked rather sad (doing nothing but “work”), I was thrilled every time I found a new lead in my corpus, and it was a (fun) challenge trying to figure out how to talk about it in English. In other words, my “work” was like a game (in which one tries to win something but has fun trying at the same time).

Entrance to INALCO (and BULAC – University library for languages and civilizations), Paris, France

While I was working on my thesis for Nottingham, I often stopped in France (during my visits to Great Britain), where I got a chance to engage in many stimulating discussions on Burmese language with Professor Denise Bernot, who founded the Burmese program at INALCO (where I currently teach). As I finished up my thesis at Nottingham, a decision was made to do a second thesis in France. People often asked me why I did two theses. I probably do not have a rational explanation, but I considered writing down my thinking in another language in a way that should be comprehensible for someone else but me, as a challenge and every challenge is like a “game”, since I cannot know in advance whether or not I would reach my goal. And I often jokingly said that if I wrote articles, I was not sure who would read, but as a thesis, there would always be at least one attentive reader, my thesis director, who would furthermore provide me indispensable guidance.

So in short, one might say that I started off officially as a language teacher, and became a linguist. But in reality, I think during my now almost 30 years of experience in teaching, and learning different languages in the mean time, I have always been doing (be it in a less official manner) linguistic analyses. My further studies provide me different theoretical frameworks for my research in linguistics, and to do linguistic research in a more structured manner. For the moment, I am focusing my research on the Burmese language only, and as I often tell my students (in language classes or in a linguistic class as an initiation to Burmese that I teach at Sorbonne), if you are interested in doing linguistic research on Burmese, it is a gold mine: there are yet so many things to discover that are so far under investigated. I believe that there are so many different ways of doing linguistics, and when I am asked what kind of linguistics I do, I often do not know what to answer, since in my opinion, everything seems related between sounds and words and utterances. More importantly for me, there is always a human being behind those elements, who uses them differently according to situations and linguistic communities concerned, and who are governed by their respective socio-cultural codes. My job as a linguist is to figure out as many as possible reasons why a certain thing is said by one person and how it is or can be interpreted by another. And that I am determined to continue doing for the rest of my life.


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