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THE KHMER LANGUAGE IS ALIVE AND WELL; THE BRAIN IS IN CRISIS
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BY  SAMBATH MEAS

“Teh. Khnhom ott hoab teh. Khnhom ott khlean. Arkoun yeay,” I responded to my childhood friend’s grandmother. The woman stood aghast at the sight of me, an eleven-year-old Khmer girl. I scoured the stored information in my brain to locate the cultural faux pas that I had committed. How could she be offended by my response: “No. I’m not eating. I’m not hungry”?  I did say “Thank you.” I couldn’t understand why she reacted so strongly. 

"Hoab is a Khmer Rouge word!” she lashed out at me.  

At that age, I knew about the Khmer Rouge’s (Red Khmer) destruction of Cambodia. Many people who fled the country hated being associated with Khmer. They would proudly say they were Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and other Asian ethnicities or nationalities; anything was better than being Khmer. These refugees denigrated and trashed Khmer people, culture, religion, language, and history. They would associate all negativities to these things and didn’t want anything to do with their own culture (not until they were able to reap the benefits from the exploitation of the Khmer people). The hatred was palpable.   

Granted that the Khmer Rouge was a demonic regime, I couldn’t understand how she could be so offended by this simple Khmer word: hoab (eat). Her look of horror and disgust remained in the back of my mind, and it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that it became apparent to me.  

Like many Cambodians of Chinese descent, especially city dwellers who weren’t immersed in, or assimilated into, Khmer culture, my friend’s grandmother was deeply ignorant of the common Khmer language.

Tragically, these outsiders only came into contact with the everyday language after the murderous Khmer Rouge forced them out of the cities and dumped them in the countryside. They were threatened with torture and death if they were found using city words or demonstrating a city mentality, attitude, or culture. 

This is why I find Ms. Theary Seng’s opinion about the Khmer language, which was published in the Phnom Penh Post on August 16, 2011, appalling and shameful. She reminds me of that grandmother; she probably doesn’t even know that she is out of touch and wrong about it until this day. 

Ms. Seng, the daughter of Cambodians of Chinese immigrants, grew up, was educated, and lived in the United States for most of her life. Her political affiliation, writing, and not-for-profit work brought her to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. According to her, she has been living there for seven years now. Anyone who has ever been to Phnom Penh knows that it is a completely different world from the rest of Cambodia, ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. The media seldom shows pictures of Ms. Seng associating with common folks. Her recent rant in the Phnom Penh Post confirms that she lacks Khmer mentality and is out of touch with the natives and our language.

With the majority of city people using incorrect grammar, or misspelling, mispronouncing, and misusing Khmer words (not to mention speaking the language in a lazy, slurry, and foreign accent), she is horrid to the people who actually speak it correctly.

She claims that the “Cambodian” language is dying, because (a) “the spoken language is either crude or earthy (to the point of offensiveness) or highly stylized (to the point of incomprehension)”; (b) “the written language is in crisis from carelessness and lack of development, mummified from antiquity, rattled by modernity.”

Based on her “general observations,” she finds the following words “crude,” “earthy,” and “offensive”: aign (it should be anhn); haign (it should be a-heing or ah-heing); veer (it should be vea); and phoeum. There is nothing crude, rude, impolite, or dehumanizing about them.

Anhn (I/me), a-heing (you), vea (he/she/it, depending on the subject), and phoeum (pregnant) are familiar and common words.  The beauty of the Khmer language is that we have formal and informal words to address ourselves, religious and political figures, the royal family, older and younger individuals, and elitists. For those of us who are familiar with each other, there are down-to-earth, neutral and intimate words, such as anhn, a-heing, vea, and phoeum. To reiterate, they are familiar, common, intimate, and hold the proleung (spirit) of Khmer. They connect us together. To remove these words is to crush and destroy the Khmer spirit of closeness. Of course, you would have to be close friends, family members, or relatives to use them. They are familiar words for the same class and the same age groups. Therefore, a younger person should not use anhn, a-heing, and vea towards elders. At the same time, my father wouldn’t refer to himself as “khnhom” when he speaks to me. We both know it’s absurd. He only uses “khnhom” or “khnhom bat” to spite me. That is the beauty of the Khmer language. You can use formal (distant) and informal (intimate) words to express sarcasm and anger.

The irony is that the Khmer Rouge forced people to stop using city and elitist words. Now, as the “genocide activist” or “the daughter of the killing fields,” as Ms. Seng calls herself, she is barring us from using common Khmer words, the language of our ancestors. It is similar to the situation when the UNTAC tried to ban, and even punish us for using, the word Yuon for “Vietnamese.” The cycle of ignorance continues.

I mean no disrespect to Ms. Theary Seng and Ms. Mu Sochu, but I cannot help but wonder if they drank the same Kool-Aid. Both of these political and social activists show a shallow understanding of the Khmer language. Not too long ago, Ms. Mu cried out to the world that Prime Minister Hun Sen, the high-handed leader of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), called her cheung klang. She interpreted it to literally mean “strong leg.” She claimed it had a sexual overtone. Actually, cheung klang is an informal way of saying someone is either brave, well known, or famously or infamously known for something. The word cheung, as explained to me, also refers to a group or a part of something. For example, Teahean Cheung Teuk means Marine or Teahean Cheung Damrey means Elephant Troop. If you want to refer to a person or group as bad, he or she or it is called cheung khoch. More importantly, the word cannot be used in a sexual content. It simply doesn’t have that association. When I visited Cambodia, I waited for a boat to go to the birthplace of my father and our ancestors. The owner (mind you, he was ethnically Chinese, but was in touch with the Khmer language) told me that I could either go this cheung (trip) or the next cheung (trip). 

Come to think of it, I cannot help but wonder if these women were Joel Brinkley’s interpreters when he wrote Cambodia’s Curse. One of his many misinterpretations and confusions was probably the word soy-reach. He was being cute and clever when he wrote:

The only other interaction families had with the government came when an official showed up to collect “taxes”—10 percent of each harvest. It’s no wonder that the Khmer verb to govern literally means “to eat the kingdom.”         

First, there is no definition in the Khmer dictionary that says “to govern” is literally “to eat the kingdom.” I asked the Khmer elders. Nothing. What we’ve concluded is that Mr. Brinkley and his interpreter probably confuse the word soy-reach, which is “to receive the reign.” Soy is “to receive.” It depends on the noun it is associated with: i.e., to receive the crown, to receive the title, to receive wealth, to receive food, etc. For sure, soy-reach doesn’t mean “to eat the kingdom.” The exact interpretation of “to govern” is kroup-krorng or doeuk-nuom.

These educated women (Ms. Seng and Ms. Mu) and man (Mr. Joel Brinkley) meant well and their subjects are pertinent to our society, but their examples are unsubstantiated. They are respected people in their societies, but they need to get off their high horses and breathe the same air as the rest of us. Their self-righteous indignation is unfounded.

Ms. Seng’s second outrage is the Khmer written language. She writes, “The current written Khmer language is a nightmare with great limitations for communicating complex ideas and for understanding. The written Khmer lacks clarity.”

The Khmer written language already has a strong foundation: grammar (veyeakar), spelling (akharavirouth), and the art of writing (aksar selb), etc. There is no limitation to being creative. Everything is there. We have 33 consonants (pyunhchanak), 23 vowels (srak), 16 complete or independent vowels (srak penhtour), and 18 diacritics (vannakyuth or sanha samkual). Khmer has the longest alphabet and can make a vast variety of sounds. All you have to do is learn these things well, be creative, and build from there. My English professors taught us that in writing, in order to break the rules, you must master them first. Otherwise, you’d look stupid. Being poorly informed of the language doesn’t mean that the language is dying.

In regards to “typing Khmer,” Ms. Seng writes:

Currently, two competing systems exist for typing Khmer – the pictorial system (best exemplified by Limon) and the Unicode system. By way of illustration, the act of typing “A” in the old (but still prevalent) pictorial system requires three keystrokes, as one is effectively drawing a picture of the “A”.


Consequently, the pictorial system is not conducive to searches and the internet. The Unicode (universal) system allows for searches and internet usage, but presents more problems in doing layout for publication with all the “hair” and “feet” of the vowels and words jumping all over the page. One almost needs another pair of hands with another set of fingers to type Khmer in any of the two systems.


Additionally, there is little harmonization of the fonts within each system, as well as little harmonization between the systems to each other. And on some computers, saving a word document to transfer from one computer to another can lead to words and phrases mixing into gibberish nonsense, a phenomenon we, at CIVICUS Cambodia, encountered recently in saving, transferring, printing a draft Khmer curriculum we have been working on for a workshop in Siem Reap!).

 If one doesn’t want to learn how to press “Control,” “Alt,” “Shift,” “Command,” etc., then the language is not dying. It is the one who is controlling the brain that is being lazy. Also, like any computer software or application, it takes time and money to develop. The developers need wealthy patrons and their money to support their work. As an activist, maybe Ms. Seng’s organization should solicit their donors to fund such development of Khmer language. Maybe these developers can learn from the computer scientists around the world how to handle, as Mr. Franklin E. Huffman puts it, Cambodian vowel symbols that “may consist of one or a combination of elements written before, above, below, or after the initial consonant symbol.” And learn to write a better program to search, print, and transfer files flawlessly from one location to another.

In a nutshell, I do agree with Ms. Theary Seng that leaders and educators should be critically concerned about the Khmer language. As she eloquently writes, “Because language is the foundation of communication, which is the foundation of relationship, which is the foundation of human flourishing, which is the foundation of societal well-being, which is the foundation of national development.”

Ms. Seng is a social and political activist. Her job is to raise awareness and help people learn how to help themselves. In order for her to do so effectively and efficiently, she must understand and possess the mentality of Khmer natives and our sophisticated language. How else could our Khmer ancestors build “the most powerful and opulent empire in Southeast Asia” (Khmer: The Lost Empire of Cambodia by Thierry Zéphir)?

Since ancient history, every time a new group of people dominates Cambodia, we, as natives, are forced to abandon our vocabulary. Not only that, but these foreigners claim that our words are derogatory, crude, rude, and offensive.

The saddest part about all of this is that the indigenous Khmers are less active in Cambodian society. They are the ones who know our language best. Their influence and knowledge are lacking in Cambodia, leaving room for those who don’t represent our thoughts and culture effectively.