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Learning the awful Khmer language


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 made no sense. The counting system repeated after five, instead of after ten. That meant, Zero through five were unique numbers. Then six was FIVE and ONE. And SEVEN was FIVE and TWO. When you got into the teens, it was staggering how long the words were. Eighteen was TEN, FIVE, and THREE.

Khmer had a unique word for ten and a word for twenty. But then the tens, from thirty to one-hundred, were 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 was completely inconsistent. For example, the word for FIFTY was not related to the word for FIVE, because FIVE was Khmer, and FIFTY was 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 very 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 were 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.
“No, actually Gi is the Chinese word for ride.” I pointed out.
“Rot that is the Khmer word for car.”
“No, that is the Thai word for car.”
“Aleman is the Khmer word for German.”
“No, it is the French word for German.”

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.
“Buon Noel.” She answered.
It made sense that they used the French word, because they definitely didn’t have Christmas before the French came.
“But buon noel is merry Christmas.” I pointed out. “I just wanted the noun, you know, Christmas.”
Of course she answer, “Yes,” followed by “Christmas is buonnoel.”
What I guessed was that they had adopted the French word for merry Christmas to mean just Christmas. But they couldn’t just walk up to you and wish you a Christmas so they then translated their word for happy, and voila “happy merry Christmas.”

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?”
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.
Starting at the top of the chart, I said “OK, pig?”
“Jerouk” Answered the teacher.
“Cat?”
“Chma”
“Horse”
“Sae.”
But then I hit a stump. The next picture was of a gold-colored devil-man, with a sword.
“What is this one?” I asked.
The teacher said some Khmer word, which meant nothing to me.
“No, I mean what is it in English?”
“Don’t you know?” She asked, confused. “I thought you were American.”
“I am, but we don’t have golden dragon demons in Brooklyn. So, we don’t really have a name for them.”
We skipped that one. The next one was a picture of a little girl.
“What is this one?”
“Tida.” She answered.
“Oh, Tida means little girl?”
“No, that is her name?”
“How does one know that that girl is named Tida?” I asked, thinking maybe she was a famous Khmer cartoon character or something.
“It says Tida here.” She said, pointing at the Khmer letters under the girl.
“But if you couldn’t read, you wouldn’t know that, would you?” I asked.
“Yes.”  She said.
And we continued. Next, there was a picture of a fruit.
“And what is this?” I asked.
“You don’t know?”
“No, in Brooklyn our fruits tend to be very empirical, apple, banana, orange…What the hell is this thing?” I was beginning to loose my patience.
“The New Zealand students know what that one is.” My teacher said, with a chastising voice.
“Oh yeah, well New Zealand isn’t an adjective.”
“What is the adjective for students from New Zealand?” She asked.
Was it New Zealander students? Or, was New Zealand students correct? Now I was stumped on a question in English. My brain was short-circuiting. How the hell did they expect me to learn to read these ancient scribbles that they called an alphabet?
“All the New Zealand people know this one.” She repeated.
“Well, hurray for New Zealand!” I shouted. “It’s a tropical country. They probably eat this fruit everyday for breakfast. But I have never seen one before.”
The same was true of the next four fruits, all of which, allegedly, New Zealanders would know.
“Why do New Zealands know so many more fruits than people from American? Are the schools better in New Zealand?”
“No, its because we spent our free-time creating the first modern democracy, while New Zealand was happy to be the British colony with the largest fruit vocabulary.”

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.
“Yeah, maybe. I mean I’d definitely trade my right to vote for greater fruit identification.” Actually, thinking back on the latest US presidential election, that might not have been a bad trade.
The next five or six pictures were large, flightless waterfowl.
“Pigeons, I have only seen pigeons.” I told her.
“Pigeon is the only bird you know?” Asked my teacher in the same empathetic voice you would ask “And the doctor really said you only have six months to live?” She felt sorry for me.
“I know some other birds.” I amended. “There was a toucan on my breakfast cereal.” Unfortunately, toucan didn’t come up, oddly, either did penguin.
Luckily the new Zealanders didn’t know those birds either.
Abandoning the alphabet chart, I asked “In just what way is this language easy to read and write?”

“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 nearly a year!

“That’s not a word.” Said my teacher, momentarily putting my mind at ease. “It is a sentence.”
“But then why is it all written together like that?”
“In Khmer we don’t separate words.”
What a nice system.
“Why are some letters floating in the air like that?” I asked.
“Those are vowels.”
“I thought you wrote left to right.”
“We do. But some vowels are written on top.”
“Some?”
“Yes, some are written under, and some are written before. And some are written after or around a word.”
Of course, boy! this does sound easy.

“It’s easy compared to learning Chinese.” She pointed out.
That was true. And that was why I could speak Chinese well, but I gave up on reading and writing after about a month.
“How many characters are there in Chinese?” She asked.
“Tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands.”
“And how many do you need to read a news paper?”
“About 1,500.”
“And to finish university?”
“At least 2,500.”
“OK,” She said triumphantly. “Khmer only has 33 consonants.”
“33 letters, oh, that is easy. Where do I sign up?”
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 all this mess at the bottom.
“What’s all that?” I asked.
“Those are the vowels.” She said, a little embarrassed that I had caught her in a near-lie.
“I thought you said there were only33 letters.”
“No, 33 consonants. But, obviously you also need vowels.”
“Obviously.” I agreed. “So, how many are there?”
“Twenty three.”
So, fifty-six letters. Yikes! That was a lot. But ok, at least it was a finite number. With Chinese you can’t even write your name with 56 letters. In fact I knew about two hundred characters before I learned to write my name. And I still do it wrong sometimes.
The first word I read was composed of two characters. There was a consonant GA and vowel A.
“GA” I read, proudly.
“Very good.” said my teacher.
This is going to be easy. I thought.
The next word was consonant KA and vowel A.
“Ka.”
“Good!”
Next was consonant GO and vowel A.
“Goa?” I guessed.
“No, GEA.” Corrected my teacher.
“Why GEA?”
“There are two kinds of consonants, those with A sounds and those with O sounds. We call them big and little consonants. If a vowel occurs after an A sound it has the sound you are familiar with. But if it occurs after an O sound, it changes.”
“So, there are 23 vowels, but each one has two sounds?” I asked.
“Yes.”
“So, there are 46 vowels?”
She looked at me blankly. “I never thought about it that way, but yes, I guess so.”
I was beginning to hate the Khmer language.
So, we had 33 consonants and 46 vowels, 79 letters. Annoying, yes, but ok. I could do it. I had a Khmer friend named Klack who wasn’t too sharp. He told me the reason I wore glasses was because I was demon possessed, and the proof that there were demons in my house was that I had a bookshelf. And everyone knows how much demons like to collect on shelves.
“Do you know why Khmers don’t have book shelves?” he asked.
“Because they don’t read?” I surmised.
“No, because of the demons.” Klak answered.

Well, in the end, I figured, if Klak were smart enough to read Khmer, so was I.

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 yom sound comes from these subscripts under the word.” Explained my teacher.
It turned out that each consonant could be converted into a subscript, which appeared below the word, and added phonemes.
Once again 33 consonants meant 33 subscripts. So, now 79 plus 33, now we had 122 characters. I wanted my money back. But we wouldn’t learn how to say that until chapter ten. And by then it would be too late.

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.

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