As for Chinese, every country inside of the Chinese sphere of influence uses a lot of Chinese words. Cambodia is in a unique position, in that it is poised to have borrowed from both India and China. But because I haven’t studied any Indian languages yet, I can’t comment with certainty about the words of Indian origin.

And, of course, Cambodia was a colony of France for a bit more than a hundred years. So, they borrowed French words. Older Khmers told me that schools at that time were taught in French and literacy was probably higher in French than in Khmer. As a result, some Khmer words were probably lost. In some cases, French words were used to describe modern concepts which Cambodia didn’t have, like machines and what was at that time modern technology.

It is hard to believe France was ever more technologically advanced than anyone. I am always glad my country was a colony of England, rather than France.

At the time I was wrestling with Khmer, I really thought it was a hodgepodge language, a synthetic patois spoken by a small minority of people. It would take several years for me to understand or appreciate Khmer. Apart from the Khmer history I learned studying in Thailand, the other factors that helped me realize that Khmer had a right to be its own unique language, was that I studied Korean, in Busan, and attended EMT training in the Philippines.

Korean is a strange language in that scholars claim that up to 80% of Korean vocabulary is Chinese. And yet, Korean is not a Chinese dialect. Its origins are unique and almost completely unrelated to Chinese. By the same token, Khmer has a significant count of words from French, Chinese, and English, but it is its own, independent language. I was unconvinced of this fact, until I was arguing with a language friend in a bar in Taiwan. He said to me, “You studied in the Philippines. How did you understand your medical classes?”

“Most of the Filipino medical vocabulary is English or Spanish. Plus, about 40% of the rest of their words come from those two languages. So, I can often just follow along, if I know the subject they are talking about.’

“In that case, would you say that Filipino is a Romance language?”

“No, of course not.”

“So, having French, English and Chinese words doesn’t make Khmer French, English or Chinese.”

He had a point.

Newspaper and magazine were both French words. 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.

Aleman was the Khmer word for German. It was also the word for Germany, German language, and German people. Some of these funny French words found their way into the vocabulary of Khmers who could speak English. They would say “He comes from German.” That is, unless they said “He comes from Aleman.”

Learning the Khmer language helped me to interpret the unique brand of English spoken in the capital. On Christmas, 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.

“Bon Noel,” she answered.

It made sense that they used the French word, because they definitely didn’t have Christmas before the French came. But “bon noel” in French was Merry Christmas. So, did they adopt the whole phrase, merry Christmas as their word for Christmas? I sent that question out to a bunch of Khmers around the world, who all said that bon is a Sanskrit word, meaning festival. So, the people say “bon noel” meaning Christmas festival.

That explanation made sense. But it still didn’t explain why people, speaking English, said, “Happy merry Christmas.” But then I remembered the sage words of the linguist guy in Korea. “Languages do what languages do.” I guess the same was true for speakers.

Another theory I came up with was a stretch. The word for tourist is DESKJA. I wondered if it was some bastardization of the word desk job. Maybe when the first tourists came, 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.”

Once again, a reader wrote in and gave me a Hindi origin for this word, “deskja” meaning vacation. Although he is probably right, I like the cleverness of my answer better.

Where learning to speak had been interesting, and gave me little cultural tidbits to mull over at night, learning to read and write was a nightmare.