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.
The Angkorian Empire of Cambodia was technologically and intellectually more advanced than any other culture in the region. As a result, Thailand, Lao, and Shanland all borrowed from the Angkorian culture. There were similarities between the religion, martial art, language, culture, and architecture. It was hard to believe, comparing modern Bangkok to Phnom Penh, but Cambodia was once the seat of learning in the region. About 20% of Thai language came from Khmer. But which way did the numbers move? This was a mystery that would take me several years to find out. And the only way you will ever know is by reading on.
In Khmer, the word for fifty was not related to the word for five, because five in Khmer is prahm, and fifty is hasep. It was hard for me to look at 55 and pronounce it hasep pram, instead of ha sep ha, or pram sep pram.
I wrote to a linguistics professor in Korea and posed the question that haunted me. Why is it that in Thai, the whole counting system is consistent, but in Khmer it is not. Is it because of a mix of origins of the numbers? If so, would that suggest that Thailand maybe didn’t have a counting system at all, and just adopted the new one from Cambodia, but the Khmers had a Khmer system which went through 29 and then borrowed the numbers 30 – 90 from India?
Granted, he wasn’t a Khmer specialist, but his answer was, “Languages do what languages do, independent of any logic you may impose on them.”
Maybe it wasn’t the most scientific of advice, but it did make sense. The greater meaning was, don’t over intellectualize it.
Doing some research, I found out that Khmer numbers were derived from Hindu Arabic numerals, and they are really old. They were documented in carvings as far back as 611 AD. What really blew my mind was that the Khmers had a zero. Unless you are a linguistics or math geek you may not know about the search for zero, but many of the greatest early empires on Earth didn’t have a zero. Without zero, true mathematics can’t be done. The numbers one through five were completely original Khmer numbers. Zero was borrowed from Sanskrit language. But the point is, Khmers had a zero.
The tens, 30 – 90 are the same as modern Cantonese and Thai, and are not related to the other Khmer numbers. It turns out, they were in fact borrowed by the Khmers. So, I will make sure to send this article to my linguistics professor in Korea.
The other question I sent to my linguist friend was about the number 20. In Khmer, hundred is roi. One hundred is moi roi, but when you speak, you shorten it to mroi. Twenty is mpai. It suddenly hit me one day, was twenty actually mpai? In other words one unit of twenty. So, did early Khmers possibly count things by units of 20? In most Asian languages, Chinese, Thai, and also Khmer, there is a unit for ten thousand, so you can count things by ten thousands. In the same vein, maybe early Khmers could count things by units of twenty. Going way out on a limb, I thought about decimal counting systems, such as the Romans used.
Why did they repeat after ten? People counted on their fingers. They had ten fingers, then they made a tally, or tied a not in a rope, or moved a bead on an abacus, to show how many tens they had counted. Could it be that early Khmers did this by twenties? Again, this was all crazy conjecture, but Khmer has a counting system based on five. So, it would make sense that they only counted to five on the right hand. Then, when they got to five, they counted one finger on the left hand, one unit of five. When they had hit four sets of five on the left hand, they counted one set of twenty.
My linguistics professor’s answer was, “I don’t know.”
On the one hand, this was discouraging. On the other, I realized at that moment, that I could some day become a professor.
Doing research, which I probably should have done before writing to a famous linguist for answers, I discovered that Khmers used a stroke tally system and counted by units of 10, 20, or 100. So, it was a kind of victory, because I had thought this theory up all by myself. But now, I only knew how to count in Khmer, and was still a long way away from learning to communicate.
I opened my Khmer book, became discouraged, and decided to explore the numbers again. Khmer counting system is called a vigesimal system, which basically means, it is a decimal system based on twenty instead of ten.
Once I gave up on learning from my books and my friends, and decided to sign up for school, my struggle just got deeper and deeper. 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.
In Khmer, almost every answer begins with yes, Bat, and then followed by the actual answer. To the Khmer mind, this is a kind of politeness. It also softens the blow if you have to decline a request or give bad news. Yes just sort of meant, “I heard you,” or “I am listening.” But, until I learned this aspect of Khmer culture, you could imagine how confusing it was.
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.
Once I got used to hearing “Yes, but No” we got along a lot better. My new strategy was to ask once, pause, wait for the yes, pause again, and maybe ask a second time, before I would get the right answer. Pausing is hard for New Yorkers. And politeness is also not one of our strong suits. But when in Phnom Penh, do as the Phnom Penhians.
The next hurdle I had to overcome in my Khmer studies was the borrowed words. On any given page of our textbook, I would find up to twenty five percent of the Khmer words were the same as French, Chinese, Thai, or English. Of course the pronunciation would often be pretty far off, because of the differences in the writing system. At the time, I thought Khmer had borrowed words from Thai. But when I went back to study in Bangkok, they told us that Thai had borrowed from Khmer. So, that explained the allegedly “Thai words.”