Khmer Language

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Cambodia, 2004 - Scholars recently gathered for a rare event in Cambodia -- a conference on the country's language. The aim: to re-write the official Khmer dictionary. The last one was issued in 1915, and now, after a half-dozen different governments and decades of civil war, linguists are trying to put the pieces back together again.

By the end of the conference, experts hoped to triple the size of the old Khmer-language dictionary. It now has has just 16,000 entries, which is nothing compared to other regional languages, such as Malaysian, which has more than 700,000 words.

Kao Kim Hourn heads the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. An outspoken reformist, he took part in the conference and says reinforcing the language is key to rebuilding Cambodia's fractured society.

"Communication is so vital to trust building, to confidence building," he told me. "We must use language to unite the people."

The oldest known form of Khmer is called Khmer Mon and was likely spoken as early as 1000 BC. When Southeast Asia was Indianized in the first 500 years of the Christian era, Hinduism was introduced to the Cambodian elite and Sanskrit was used for writing messages to the gods. Those messages survive today at the famed temples of the Angkor era that ruled Cambodia and much of what is now Thailand, Burma, and Loas from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

Toward the end of Angkor's rule, Buddhism made its way to Cambodia, as did a third language, known as Pali, which Cambodian monks still use for prayer today.

I was first struck by Pali chants at a memorial service lead by monks who prayed for Cambodians who died during the Khmer Rouge of the 1970s. I stood in the middle of a circle of saffron-robed monks and listened as their rhythmic chants overpowered me. It seemed that the language was infinite.

In 1915, the three languages -- Khmer Mon, Sanskrit, and Pali -- were melded together into a dictionary and became the official language of Cambodia. Later, in 1968, the "Khmerization" movement was born to simplify the often complicated ways of writing out words, rendering certain vowels and consonants useless.

A debate raged among scholars over whether to stick with the 1915 version or a more modern Khmer. But that discussion was cut short by the spillover of the US war with Vietnam. Starting in 1975, language took back seat to Communist rule, first by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and then by the Vietnamese, who occupied Cambodia until 1989.

Lao Mong Hay runs a think tank in Phnom Penh. He presented a paper at the language conference. He says Cambodia also has to restore the words that the Khmer Rouge adulterated for political reasons.

"The word 'head,' for example -- in the old days, we did not use the word 'head' to count people," he told me on the sidelines of the conference's first day.

"The Khmer Rouge did. And the same with the word for 'to kill.' The Khmer Rouge used 'to destroy' -- to destroy some material thing, not a human being. And those words are still spoken these days."

These are the challenges that faced more than 100 Cambodian language experts who gathered at Phnom Penh's Royal University, a crumbling yet functional institution built just outside the capitol city in the 1960s.

There, the debate between the traditionalists and the modernists continued. Because it's been so long since the dictionary was written, a generation gap has formed between parents who read and write in the old way and their children who use modern spellings.

Long Seam, who chaired the conference, warned that abandoning traditions could actually confuse Cambodians more. In the modern way, for example, certain letters of the Khmer alphabet aren't used at all.

"Changes can't just happen," he told me in his office, as he prepared his presentation for the conference. "They must be approved by the proper scholars. Otherwise, everyone would be speaking different languages."

But supporters of Khmerization downplayed the rift between the two sides and said they hope they can reach consensus. In a country that for so long has known strife, they said, a dictionary will only help unite, not divide.

* * * * *