“During a lecture in Germany, I once fell asleep while waiting for the verb.” — Paraphrase, Mark Twain
About the story.
Many Americans don’t know this, but author Mark Twain once spent a year studying at the university in Heidelberg, Germany. While there, he wrote an article entitled “On the Awful German Language.” I found the article humorous, as it explored a lot of the same frustrations I experienced, studying at a German university about fifty miles away. And so, I began writing a series of language articles, entitled, “On Learning the X language.” Chinese and Korean went off without a hitch. But the one I wrote about Khmer came back to haunt me.
Once the article was published, I received a constant slue of emails, primarily from overseas Khmers, complaining that I had insulted their culture. It became so bad that my life was actually threatened on more than one occasion. The pinnacle came when one of the magazine editors received an anonymous email saying, “We know your daughter goes to X school. And we know where your wife is. If you ever publish another story by Antonio Graceffo, we will kill them.”
I was just about to publish, “On Learning the Awful Thai language,” at that point, but I decided to change the title and end the series.
Since every German professor I ever studied under had read the Mark Twain piece and found it funny, my first thought was to say, “I guess the Khmer have less of a sense of humor than the Germans.”
But then I gave it some serious thought. Since no one has less of a sense of humor than the Germans, maybe the angry reaction is somehow my fault. Could it be that people don’t like having their language and culture made fun of and plastered all over the internet? After enduring the hardships of the Khmer Rouge genocide, I guess the Khmers didn’t really need me making fun of them.
So, thanks to the literally hundreds of Khmer who wrote in, I sat down to revise the piece. Aside from starting from a position of not making fun of the Khmers, but leaving New Zealanders and Canadians as fair game, another positive about the rewrite was that I had since learned a lot more about the Khmer Language. There were a number of factual errors in the original, so I was able to correct those, while including some new information.
Thanks to the trip back to school, in Thailand, where they taught us about the Khmer origins of significant parts of the Thai language, and a return to Cambodia to work as a field translator for some American TV networks, I wound up speaking the language fairly well, but completely let go of reading and writing. I did most of the research for my third Cambodia book on that last trip, and did a lot of the interviews and translations without a translator. But it took a lot of sweat and tears to get to that point.
Here is my struggle with the Khmer language. Your struggle may be different. And maybe the entire struggle is my fault or reflects my lack of linguistic aptitude; after all, even Khmer preschoolers can speak Khmer. So, clearly they are smarter than I am.
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.
Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, is a Mon Khmer language, which has roots in Sanskrit and Pali, two very ancient Indian languages. Said another way, it was completely different than any language I had ever studied. Consequently, almost nothing I knew going into my study of Khmer was going to help. Of course, since the closest linguistic relatives of Khmer language are the Pearic, Bahnaric, and Katuic tribal languages, spoken in the region, if you spoke one of these languages, you would find it easier to learn Khmer.
I kept having nightmares of signing up for Khmer class and finding out that all of my classmates were missionaries, who had been living with the tribes and had mastered the Pearic, Bahnaric, and Katuic languages. The whole curve would be thrown off, and I would be the lowest scoring student. Maybe the teacher would even make me stand in the corner.
The other Indochina languages, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese (as well as many tribal languages) are tonal, like Chinese. Luckily, Khmer is not. So, that was one slight advantage. One of the arguments for why Chinese is tonal is because it is a single syllable language. Each word is only one syllable or a combination of one syllable words. As there are a limited number of single syllables that can be made, a particular sound, such as dai might appear in twenty different words, with completely different meanings. The way they differentiate between them is through tones.
Khmer has anywhere from 40 – 80 vowel sounds, depending on who’s counting and which regional dialect they are studying. As a result, there are slues of sounds that sound identical to western ears, but have completely different meanings in Khmer. The way the Khmers differentiate is through very slight differences in vowel pronunciation, and vowel stress inflexion. The vowel stress was something I had never encountered in another foreign language, and at the end of the day, it might as well be tonal, for the difficulty that it presented me.
I quickly learned to always use words I could pronounce correctly or to use whole sentences, so that if I mispronounced a word, the context would help the listener understand my meaning.
Khmer puts the adjectives and numbers after the noun, like in Thai and Romance languages. But on a happier note, there are no articles or genders of words. In fact, even names don’t necessarily have gender. The bulk of Khmer names could be used for either boys or girls.
Most of the countries in Asia seem to have their own unique writing system. Khmer is no exception. Like Thai, Lao and other regional languages, Khmer has an Indian based writing system, which is similar to those used in the other countries, but is different enough that the writing would be mutually unintelligible across national boundaries. Another minimal advantage for someone who already studied Thai, the vowels in Thai were taken from Khmer. So, you would already have been exposed to about 10% of the language. Instead of a hundred years to master the language, as I estimated I would need, a competent reader of Thai could complete the study in 90 years.
The deeper I got into the language, the harder it got.
The Khmers had their own numbers, and printed them on money and any type of official documents. The country had two currencies, US dollars and Cambodian Riel. The largest Riel note was 10,000 which (at that time) was worth about $2.50. Obviously, for large purchases, you had to use Dollars, because even a hundred dollar purchase price would have meant counting out 40 of the 10,000 Riel notes. Right off the bat, not only did I need to learn to say and read Khmer numbers, but I had to do it for two separate currencies.
Numbers are generally a pretty straight forward thing to learn, when you are learning a foreign language. But Khmer was different. The counting system repeated after five, instead of after ten. That meant, Zero through five were unique numbers (sune, moi, bee, bai, bon, prahm). Then six was FIVE and ONE (prahm moi). 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 (dop prahm bei).