កម្ពុជាយេីង/ ខ្មែរយេីង kampuchia yerng/khmai yerng – “us Cambodians/we Cambodians”
អត្តចេះ ot jeh – “I do not know how.”
Cambodian language – Khmer – is brusque, clipped yet extravagant, at times honey-thick on the back molars and at others like a match stricken on the teeth. Khmer is bouncy, loopy, playful, perfunctory, and sometimes for entire days on end, completely unnecessary. While the dive into my first foreign language continues to polish the known ways words can help us communicate, more often than not it reveals the many ways that words fail us. There is instruction in the failure, though, about the liberation of speaking with the body, in both a passing squeeze of the tricep and the forewarning of squared shoulders. This piece, though, is specifically about the potential reasons why the actual words of the Khmer language don’t always seem to cut it, in what contexts, and how the gaps are bridged. This goes not only for foreign speakers but for the culture that created this language and needs it most.
It is said that Khmer is not a tonal language in the way of Vietnamese and Mandarin. The main challenges in pronunciation and word distinction arise from the importance of vowel shapes and consonant aspiration. English examples would be dOg/dUg and roaD/wroTe, respectively. I’ve taken great solace over the past year in how often my Khmer friends and family have to ask to have something repeated multiple times to be sure they heard correctly even when speaking to each other. Some of this pronunciation malarkey may arise from expectation that the alphasyllabary Khmer alphabet can 1) suitably provide the adequate sounds necessary to render Khmer’s words of oldest origin (from Pali and Sanskrit) and newest additions to the language (French and English loan words) and 2) do so with combinations of its 23 consonants and 21 vowels in a way that isn’t prohibitively complicated to learn. This calculus is not in favor of Cambodian students who study Khmer script for years before grasping it given that there are multiple ways of spelling the same syllable. To spell in Khmer you start with a single character representing a syllable that begins with a consonant, and then you decorate it above, below, and bookend it on either side. Sometimes when I’m bored I loudly ask someone to help me spell something just to watch the room erupt in an argument about which hair, legs, and heads the word needs.
Being a culture founded in respect, social hierarchy is built directly into the ways we address one another. These greetings are defined not only by age but also sex, kinship, marital status, occupation, and finally, your familiarity with one another. If you’re ever at a Khmer dinner party with five men of the same age – a teacher, a farmer, a monk, a criminal, and a king – you’ll likely address each of them differently (the blanket use of “you” might get you thrown out or at least not invited next time around). Beyond that, there will be different words to describe how each of those men sleep, eat, and perform other daily activities. It becomes more complicated as the age of the person you’re addressing increases. For most teenagers and young adults of marriageable age, great stress is placed on their marital status, specifically their availability. Many of the words used for small children – specifically “it” – are also used for animals, something which seems to influence the sometimes uncomfortable deficit of children’s rights, extending even into adulthood. In some ways, the way the community addresses you sometimes reflects what the individual and society most explicitly expect from you at that time – to teach (lokkru/neakkru), to treat illness (lokkru/neakkrupet), to be a knowledgeable elder (om/lok), a demure younger sister (p’on srey), marriageable and prepared to bear children (kon kramom), a helpless creature in need of regular feedings and cleanings (wee-uh – “it” for children/animals). It’s possible that this system of addresses extends into the difficulties of eliciting critical and creative thinking in Khmer classrooms. It’s hard to foster a sense of individualism and free-thinking when you’re one in a sea of other p’on srey/p’on proh/pu/ming/wee-uh (“younger sister/younger brother/uncle/aunt/it”).
I’m the first to admit that I know the names of only a handful of my students, given that they are often called by the blanket p’on or as the “child/grandchild of _______,” who I also do not know my name. There have been times when I have felt somewhat slighted or condescended to by this system of honorifics/diminutives, even threatened, particularly in the case of pushy men. While I often resolve to check my ego, reflect on the cultural difference behind the interaction, I do not think I am alone in this perception, particularly as a woman. When the language dictates that you as the female or wife should be called p’on (“younger, subordinate”) to a man or your husband’s bong (“elder, superior”), it is hard not to feel that the language is being used to dominate. This is reflected in an excerpt from a Phnom Penh Post article, authored by a Cambodian national.
“…being good at speaking is beneficial to leadership. If we do not know how to use Khmer for communication, how can we make our subordinates understand and believe what we are talking?” – Sun Narin, The Phnom Penh Post
At least in the village, exchanges are brief and direct, stripped down to their bare bones. “Wait to ask your father when he gets home to tomorrow,” becomes, “wait ask dad tomorrow.” One of the greatest hurdles of learning Khmer has been to give up fussing over prepositions, articles, and verb-conjugation. Most of the time what comes out feels good, not perfect, but that’s usually adequate. When it’s not, emotive noises and theatrical displays suffice. Khmer has the great advantage of being pretty literal in many ways. Your shoes are your “feet skin,” to exercise is to “practice your body,” and the “#” symbol is known as a “pig’s pen.” Additionally, the fact that Khmer often has but one word with many meanings can simplify the excessive wordiness of English. The snags arise when one Khmer word has two or more meanings that complicate what you are trying to communicate. The word s’aat can mean both “beautiful,” “functional,” “clean,” and “new,” which makes it somewhat disarming to be called not s’aat for wonder of just what the speaker means to imply. Ugly? Broken? Dirty? Another example would be khoic which can mean “broken,” “different,” and “wrong/incorrect.” It is feasible that this sticky word makes it difficult to conceptualize the Different – foreign customs and people, personal and political differences, personal style and fashion choices – as acceptable, separate from the Wrong, thus informing the homogeneity and xenophobia in many parts of Khmer culture. Finally, presented with a task, food, or proposition that gives one cause to balk, one can defer to the common refrain ot jeh – “I do not know how,” which is often said with finality. If you’ve offered a strange-looking new snack to be tasted or asked for a volunteer from the back of the classroom and they tell you they “don’t know how,” they mean to also imply that they do not intend to learn.
This describes the case in the countryside, but it’s true that there exist language registers, certain tiers of the language necessary only as one associates with the loftier echelons of government or royalty. Immediately following the establishment of independence from France in the 1950s, a Cultural Committee was formed to actually create entirely new Khmer words that would replace what some Cambodians leaders considered to be too many French loan words cluttering the language. Given that this committee churned out their 10-dollar words from the capital in the years before the Lon Nol coup and the Khmer Rouge genocide, most of the words they created are not well-known in the countryside. Many French loan words – translated clumsily with Khmer letters – are still used regularly in the rural reaches and often they serve to denote a concept or item that likely did not exist in Cambodia before French rule in the late 1800s. Some examples include the words for “sanitation” (aknakmey & sa’boo), “souvenir” (anuksawvaree), and “bread” (numpang). Regardless of their true origins, edibles not native to Cambodia are called “French _____,” such as “French onions” (white onions), “French chickens” (turkeys), and “French potatoes” (white potatoes). Today, the novel monosyllabic Khmer words created by the Committee in the 50’s are used primarily in official documents and speeches among the well-educated classes of the city. It is of note that this partitioning of the language may contribute to the growing disparity between the government and its constituents, suggested particularly by the fact that many of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s supporters appreciate that his public addresses are delivered in a more provincial tongue and vernacular than his lavish opponents.
If there is any aspect of the language which appears ostensibly to shape the way people interact and relate to each other here, it has to be the way in which a deficit of common language to communicate complicated abstract concepts or sensations – coupled with a social norm that supports collective harmony and success above the actualization of the individual – creates an overwhelming emphasis on the superficial. Over 90% of the conversations overheard in the village revolve around just a few things: personal appearance (skin color, weight), weather, prices of common goods (and money in general). Not only are all of these things visible, corroborable by the eye, they are defensible by the common understandings of those around them – beauty standards and ideals, how much money defines a “rich person” – and thus require no further justification and leave little room for debate. Indeed, most often when I have asked for someone’s personal opinion about anything from cooking techniques to etiquette to wardrobe, I’m offered a collective response. “We Cambodians,” they say, “What we think, what we would do, if it were us…”
At the end of the day, though, it’s that same collectiveness that functions, in turn, as a total salve for the gulfs that language can create. Large groups of Cambodians can spend ages working on a common task, guided by tradition, without the need for conversation. I can think of few American traditions so ingrained that they warrant such silence. Some of the deepest connections I have felt were in moments completely devoid of words: quietly munching on lotus seeds with my granny, washing clothes with my toddler nephew, free-shoulder massages from aunties on my torrie ride home. Another volunteer, Taylor Flanders, summed it up nicely. “…it’s not necessarily the language but the gap of when they speak. I think the silences they sit in are so cool. Just two, three, nine people sitting together, not on the phone and not speaking. I think the language is more of a necessity sometimes and it’s just the being around each other that matters. Like in the U.S. the depth of the conversation matters so much. Me just sitting it the room or with my mak and ming while they’re selling, I can tell means a lot to them. In America we’re afraid of silence and [here] they like it… besides the loud pagoda music.”
Grandpa, soon I will have for you a colorful list of the many Khmer sayings and phrases that keep me giggling, the slang and expressions that end up being more than half of what I utter on any given day. The neat bow I will tie around this post it to note that this conclusion was fashioned while reclining in the shade with my neighbor aunt as she picks at her teeth, giving subtle head-nods or chin-dips to our village friends and family who moto or walk past. We haven’t spoken a word in upwards of ten minutes.
Love you all the time,
P.S. Many thanks to the PCVs who offered me their two cents for this post! Jacob Massey, Taylor Flanders, Matthew Thielker, Sara Dupuis, Bailey Hobbs, Carlen Stadnik, Andrew Stober, Cortney Urban, an Mawell Wallace. Not to mention Loralie and Luke Young, my Jedi masters. Thank you, guys.
2 thoughts on “We Cambodians”
What a wonderful, thoughtful essay on Khmer language and people! Took me back to my months spent in Cambodia and trying to learn the language…
…Pearl? Pearl is that you?
Thank you for reading! Hope you’re well and somewhere with plumbing.