Struggling with the Khmer Language (Revisited) - Part 2
by Antonio Graceffo
January 28 , 2009
The Khmer language is written with a Pali/Sanskrit based writing system, which is similar to the writing in Thailand, Burma, Lao, and in several of the regional minority languages. Fortunately, every single one of these alphabets is different, and learning one is only marginally helpful in learning another. So, you could study forever and still be illiterate.
Westerners take it for granted that we all use a Latin based alphabet, the only exceptions being Russia and Greece which use a Cyrillic alphabet. But, actually, even the Cyrillic alphabet, although the letters look different, they function exactly the same. In both alphabets, the letters have sound value. Words are written left to right. And the sounds are read in the same sequence and order in which they occur on the paper. There are spaces between words. Words are connected to form sentences, which end at the period.
With the Latin alphabet, plus or minus a handful of special letters and symbols, you can pick up a newspaper and read it, anywhere from Poland to South Africa, to Australia, to Newfoundland to Tierra Del Fuego. You might not know what the words mean, but you could at least read them. You could also look them up in a dictionary. Write them on flashcards, and memorize them.
None of this is true of any of the South East Asian Alphabets.
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.”
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?”
She frowned. “Well, no. It makes a J sound, because pig in Khmer is Jerouk.”
Duh! Now I felt stupid. Of course it would be the sound, according to the Khmer animals names. Ok, no sweat. I figured first thing I would do is just make a list of the animals, and memorize their names.
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 population of New Zealand was.
“Maybe you should have learned more fruits.” Suggested my teacher.
That would actually be cool for a couple of years, you know, just try it out till we could elect Obama.
The next five or six pictures were large, flightless waterfowl.
Luckily the new Zealanders didn’t have Eskimos, so I felt a slight vindication.
I wondered if they had ice-cream sandwiches or cereal with toucans in New Zealand? I really must go visit New Zealand when I get a chance.
“First off it is written left to right.” Answered my teacher. Well that was good. When I opened my book, I just saw a huge jumble of characters, written all the way across the page. “That is the longest word I’ve ever seen.” I said.
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 years!
“That’s not a word.” Said my teacher, momentarily putting my mind at ease. “It is a sentence.”
That was somewhat true. Now I can read Chinese. And I have to say, it takes five hours per day of writing characters for about a year. The advantage of Khmer, of course, is that it is an alphabet. The letters have sound values and they spell out words. But, because they aren’t pronounced in the order that they are written, it is really hard at first to know when and how to pronounce things. And with the signals, similar to accent marks in other languages, which are written all the way on top, then vowels often written below the signal, but on top of the consonant, then a consonant, with a subscript underneath, you could actually have a stack of four characters, one on top of the other. And these may or may not be read in sequence. The vowels written before or after this huge stack of letters might be read first or in the middle….
Another issue with Khmer writing is that spellings aren’t standardized. This is probably being fixed, even as we speak, but it will be a long time before every printed Khmer document has the same spelling.
In Khmer, as in Thai, I really had the impression that you had to know what the word was in order to pronounce it. When I was reading, in a way, I felt like I was recognizing the physical shape of the words, the same way I did in Chinese. The phonetics were just clues to help me guess at what I was reading.
No doubt, with practice, you could probably master Khmer reading and writing faster than Chinese, but Chinese is much more cut and dry. You see a character and you have memorized exactly how it must be pronounced.
“How many characters are there in Chinese?” She asked.
But that’s how they get you. Looking at the chart, I counted the 33 consonants, my teacher had told me about. But then, I noticed a bunch of other stuff at the bottom.
The first word I read was composed of two characters. There was a consonant GA and vowel A.
The next word that we studied was the pronoun I, which in Khmer is knyom. It seemed to consist only of one letter, Ka.
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.”
OOOOh! That’s riveting. What an interesting story.
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
So, why am I learning to read and write Khmer? 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 alphabet so I could send letters to my Khmer friends who live in the apartment downstairs. Of course, I could just call them….
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 the King 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.
Author’s Note: Mark Twain once wrote a piece about his studies in Hidelburg, entitled “The Awful German Language.” The piece had a huge impression on me, and my friends and I all read it many times when we were studying in Germany. It was a tongue in cheek piece, which was actually fairly accurate from a linguistic standpoint. I had decided to write a similar series: “On Learning the Awful X Language.” The first one was the Chinese piece, which was well received.
This piece was number two in the series. When it was published, I received numerous death threats. In fact, one editor who published the story in his magazine was threatened by someone who basically said, “We know you have a Thai wife and child. We know where you live. Take this piece down immediately, or we will kill you.” Most of the emails were poorly written, with numerous spelling and grammar problems. Also, they missed the joke. But, to preserve my own well-being, I changed the name of the piece before reissuing it.
Adventure and martial arts author, Antonio Graceffo has lived in Asia for more than six years, publishing four books, available on amazon.com and several hundred articles in magazines and websites around the world. He has worked as a consultant and writer for shows on the History and Discovery Channel and appears on camera in “Digging for the Truth,” and “Human Weapon.” For the last several months, Antonio has been embedded with the Shan State rebel army in Burma. Antonio is host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people. To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: http://youtube.com/results?search_query=antonio+graceffo&search=Search
Antonio is the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com
See Antonio’s website http://speakingadventure.com/
Get Antonio’s books at amazon.com
Opinions expressed on Readers' Submissions pages do not necessarily reflect those of talesofasia.com, its publisher, or anyone else that could be remotely affiliated with the talesofasia name.
Unless otherwise credited, the copyright on all text and photographs appearing on a Readers' Submissions page belong to the credited author and are not the property of talesofasia.com. Inquirires regarding this material should be made to the author. Unless stated otherwise, all other text and photographs on talesofasia.com are © 1998 - 2009 talesofasia.com. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.