On Learning the Awful Khmer Language
by Antonio Graceffo
The first five months that I lived in Cambodia, I made a concerted effort to learn the language, by practicing with my Khmer friends, and by studying a grammar book at night, on my own. But the deeper I got into the language, the weirder it got.
Numbers are generally a pretty straight forward thing to learn when you are learning a foreign language. But of course, with Khmer the numbers make no sense. The counting system repeats after five, instead of after ten. That means, zero through five are unique numbers. Then six is FIVE and ONE. And SEVEN is FIVE and TWO. When you get into the teens, it is staggering how long the words are. Eighteen is TEN, FIVE, and THREE.
Khmer has a unique word for ten and a word for twenty. But then the tens, from thirty to one-hundred, are the same as in Thai.
Without doing any research, this tells me the early Khmers weren’t people who needed large numbers. And large numbers here, would be defined as larger than twenty-nine.
Having this mix of Thai and Khmer is completely inconsistent. For example, the word for FIFTY is not related to the word for FIVE, because FIVE is Khmer, and FIFTY is Thai. Apparently it doesn’t bother the Khmers to look at two FIVES, as in 55, and pronounce it HASEP PRAM, instead of HA or PRAM SEP PRAM. HA SEP means FIVE TENS in Thai. So, that part is logical in Thai. But in Khmer HA SEP has no meaning other that it is FIFTY.Once I gave up on learning from my friends, and decided to sign up for school, it got worse. When we started reading decimal numbers I suspected that my teacher was lying to me. She claimed that .50 would be read DECIMAL HA SEP, but .5 would be read DECIMAL PRAM. So I asked her. “Since those two look identical, and since the zero after the decimal has no value, shouldn’t those be read the same?” Her answer was “yes.” But she continued to read them differently. The “Yes” answer was like coarse sandpaper on my eardrums. Her insistence on answering every question with “yes,” and then contradicting herself became another source of confusion and frustration for me. I would ask her something like “Is the word for chair Doc?”
Ands she would answer “Yes.”
Then I would continue with my sentence in Khmer. “I sit on the Doc.”
When I finished she would say. “Yes, that is incorrect. The Khmer word for CHAIR is GAUAI, not DOC. DOC is table.”
“But I asked you if CHAIR was DOC, and you said yes!” I protested.
“Yes.” She agreed.
The first few weeks of lessons I thought either my teacher was insane, or she was intentionally tripping me up. Maybe it was a conspiracy. Maybe the government didn’t want foreigners to learn Khmer and take away their edge.
What I eventually learned was that it was very common for Khmers, out of politeness, to always answer a question first with “yes.” Then they would give you the real answer, which could be yes or no. And the meaning of this first yes wasn’t the silly polite yes in Thailand, where they just never tell you that you are wrong. Actually it was a polite yes, which meant “I heard you,” or “I am listening.” Unfortunately, it took me a long time to figure this out, which resulted in me shouting at my teacher a number of times. “BUT YOU SAID YES!!! THEN YOU TELL ME I’M WRONG!!!”
Now that I am used to hearing “Yes, but No” we are getting along well. I know now that I have to ask once, pause, wait for the yes, pause again, and maybe ask a second time, before I will get the right answer. Pausing is hard for New Yorkers. And politeness is also not one of our string suits. But when in Phnom Penh…
My first post-graduate studies were in the field of applied linguistics, which I studied at the University of Mainz, Germany for four years. I never delved deeply into the field of psycholinguistics, but I have always been fascinated by the cultural facts which are revealed by a language and the way it is spoken. I really want to get a history book and read about how undeveloped Cambodia must have been in the 1850s before the French came. They must have had absolutely nothing because even very basic words were French
Newspaper and magazine are both French words. So, this would suggest that they must not have had either before the French came. The word for air-conditioner is MACHINE DRAWJACK, which literally translates as COLD MACHINE. Now this isn’t too far off. A lot of languages use the word machine for every single apparatus. In Chinese and Thai, and even in Italian, machine is everything, from a camera to an airplane. But the frightening thing is that Khmer uses the French word for machine. So does this mean that they didn’t have any machines before the French came?
During vocabulary lessons I am staggered at the number of foreign words, which the Khmers use.
“Gi that is the Khmer word for ride, like ride a horse,” said my teacher.
Incidentally, aleman was also the word for Germany, German language, and German people. And even when they are speaking English, Khmers can’t be bothered to learn an adjective form, a noun form, and separate forms for people and countries. Instead they just say “He comes from German.” That is, unless they say “He comes from aleman.”
Learning the Khmer language helps me to interpret their unique brand of English. Recently everyone was coming up to me saying “Happy merry Christmas.” I couldn’t figure out why they did that. So I asked my teacher how to say Christmas in Khmer.
Some other theories I came up with may have been a stretch. For example, the word for tourist is DESKJA. And I really have to wonder if it was some bastardization of the word desk job. Maybe when the first tourists came here in the early seventies, the Khmers asked them “why are you here?” And the tourists answered something like, “Oh I have an awful desk job. And I am trying to escape.” Or maybe when the Khmers asked them what they did at home, they said “I am an advertising executive.” or “I deal in collateralized mortgage securities.” And when the Khmers didn’t hear, “I am a farmer, a doctor, or a school teacher,” they would just say, oh, “DESKJOB.”
Where learning to speak had been interesting, and gave me little cultural tidbits to mull over at night, learning to read and write is a nightmare.
When you start going to school, determined only to learn a little speaking and listening, they slowly turn the sales screws, until they got you coming to school three hours per day, seven days per week. Then, just when you think they couldn’t bleed one more dollar out of you, they talk you into learning to read and write. They lure you in, telling you “It’s easy, try it.” You believe you’re as smart as the average Khmer. And over seventy percent of them can read and write. So, what the heck? I signed up for reading and writing, and I paid my money.
On the first day, the teacher showed me an alphabet chart and said. “You see how simple? This is how small children learn. Each letter has a picture of an animal next to it. So, if you can’t remember how that letter sounds, just look at the picture.”
“That is easy.” I agreed. “So, this W-looking letter, next to the picture of a pig makes a P sound?”
Now I was angry at New Zealand! Normally I didn’t even have an opinion on that country that I always confused with Australia. But on that day, I wanted to get in a boxing ring with them, all twenty-five of them, or whatever the laughable population of New Zealand was.
“Maybe you should have learned more fruits.” Suggested my teacher.
In Thailand some words were so long I couldn’t even begin to pronounce them. My best friend’s name had about fifty characters in it. I still call him by only the first three. And we have known each other for nearly a year!
“That’s not a word.” Said my teacher, momentarily putting my mind at ease. “It is a sentence.”
The next word that we studied was the pronoun I, which in Khmer is knyom. It seemed to consist only of one letter, Ka. “But where is the yom sound?” I asked.
The next word we learned was the pronoun HE, which I knew was guat. It was no surprise that guat was both HE and SHE. That is very common in many languages. So, the pronunciation and usage of the word was nothing special. But the writing, of course, left me looking for some razor blades, so I could cut my wrists.
Guat had a ga sound, and ended in a ja sound. That didn’t exactly make sense to me. But Khmer, like Thai, doesn’t have a lot of harsh terminal consonants. A and K, J and T may sound the same to our ears. In fact, that is why when Khmers speak English you don’t know if they are offering you milk or meal. The two words would be pronounced the same. Rice, ride, and right are also pronounced identically. As it is rare that someone would offer you meal with your coffee, the milk/meal controversy is easily remedied by context. But when a girl asks you to Write her, buy you understand RIDE, the results could be catastrophic.
I just realized I am on my second paragraph, writing about the experience of learning the word HE in Khmer. What other language is so complicated that learning a single word would need two paragraphs? I mean I could barely make a sentence about learning the word HE in Spanish.
“The teacher said HE is el.”
Guat ended in a JAW sound. But it was pronounced with a harsh T. So, “Where does the harsh T come from?” I asked my teacher.
Because I quit learning to read Chinese, and I quit learning to read Thai, I am determined to stick it out with Khmer. But it just seams so hopeless and silly. There are almost no websites in Khmer. You can’t send SMS on a cell phone with Khmer. There are almost no books written in Khmer, and certainly none that I would want to read. The only thing you could do with written Khmer is write a letter. But of course the houses have no addresses. And the post office is just a false front for a huge theft machine. So the letter wouldn’t get there anyway. And even if I chose to write to one of only 13,000,000 Khmers, there is a 38% probability that he couldn’t read.
So, why am I learning to read and write Khmer? I am learning so it will be easier when I go back to a temple to learn to read and write Thai-ai, a language spoken only in the Shan State of Burma. Is that stupid? Yes, it is insane. But if I wasn’t so wrapped up with learning obscure languages maybe I would fall in with bad company, join a gang, and get into trouble.
If the nuns could see me now… At catholic school I refused to decline even a single French verb. Now, I sit for hours a day, learning to write this bizarre and useless language, based on ancient Pali, of India.
In all honesty, given the difficulties which Khmers and foreigners alike have with the language, I really think Vietnam and Indonesia have the right idea by using the Latin alphabet. The Chinese and Thais claim that they can’t switch to Latin because their language is tonal, and there would be too many completely different words with the exact same spelling. But Khmer doesn’t have this issue.
Anyway, as soon as I can write Khmer I am planning to write a letter to King Sihamouni to outline my reasons why I think they should Latinize.
Until then, I guess I am relegated to sitting in my dark little classroom, with a sixty-watt light bulb, matching Khmer letters with colorful pictures of animals and fruits, which only New Zealanders could identify.
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