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Our language is evolving, not dying

Children learn to write the Khmer language at a school in Kandal province's Loeuk Dek district.

Dear Editor,

I am responding to Theary C Seng’s article “A language in crisis”, published in the opinion page of The Phnom Penh Post on August 16.

With great interest and curiosity, I read Ms Seng’s analysis of the Khmer language and her observat-ions on how the language is used.

For one thing, I come from a language-education background, and for another I have come to realise I am not the only one who is concerned about the future of the Khmer language and its
‘‘complicated’’ usage.

I embrace Ms Seng’s goodwill and her efforts to preserve the Khmer language. But I would like to respond to some of her analyses and observations, which I find quite prescriptive from my point of view.

“Crude, offensive” words are a characteristic of any language, and I say they cannot be regarded as prohibited words.

That people use these words is not a language problem. It's a people problem that, in turn, reflects the society in which these people live.

Besides, the fact that people fail to use proper styles of Khmer language in different settings – be they formal or informal – is not a language problem. Again, it’s a problem with the people who use the language.

When Ms Seng says the use of these words should be stopped, I understand that she is suggesting these words are prohibited.

But if she meant to suggest that the people who speak the language  should stop using these words, the problem, as I mentioned, lies not with the language but the users themselves. So it’s not the language that's in crisis – it’s the people who use it!

I strongly agree that we need a Khmer dictionary that includes new Khmer words being used by people who speak this language.

But I’m not convinced the Khmer language is limited in terms of  “communicating complex ideas”. And judging it as such does the language itself no justice.

Any language is limited in terms of communicating ideas, however complicated they are. And, like any other language, Khmer is rich in expressions with their own subtle characteristics.

I acknowledge that the Khmer language is under-studied, but that doesn't make it a dying lang-uage. In fact, it lives and is evolving.

Prescriptivists may not be happy with this trend, but it’s a fact: a living  language is never static.

A language dies when no one uses it. This is far from being the case for the Khmer language. I don’t say it’s in crisis – its users are! And to understand why Khmer- speakers are in such a crisis (in their use of the language, that is), a look at the Cambodian historical context may generate an answer, as also suggested by Ms Seng.

Khmer is now a modern language.
A great deal about it has changed and a lot can be said about it now, so research into this language is badly needed.

(Surprisingly, however, discussions about the Khmer language and how it is used are usually written in a language other than Khmer!)  humbly respect Theary Seng’s eff-orts to keep the Khmer language alive, and I join her in calling for our country's leaders to turn their attention to promoting the national language. 

Lim Sovannarith
Phnom Penh

Send letters to: or PO Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.
The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.



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