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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Who's a 'Barang'?

Who's a 'Barang'?

In Cambodia, Westerners are usually called barang. Some understand the word

specifically means "French," but in fact it means a foreigner with a European

complexion. Khmers have a local adaptation fransay when they want to be more


The word-which is not Khmer-has a long history.

First of all, the word barang may be found in several unconnected languages

in the area. The Thais say farang (sometimes pronounced falang) when the Khmers say

barang. It is because there is no "F" sound in the Khmer language, and

"B" is a tentative rendering of "F". In Vietnamese, where Westerners

are usually called tay (which means West), the pha-rang or pha-lang is also

known, though rarely used.

Vietnamese as well as Chinese speakers tried to make the best out of this sound "FA",

which they heard from foreign travellers and which seemed to concern the French,

who used the sound FRA (as in France) to refer to themselves.

But this is an impossible sound in Chinese or Vietnamese. FA was available instead,

but already had a meaning: "law, justice." And in order to write a sound,

the ideographic writing uses a word with approximately the same sound.

So France was written fa-guo in Chinese and phap-quoc in Vietnamese, meaning

in a double sense, France or "country of justice." The French colonial

enterprise took stock of it. Vietnamese pronunciation is quite close to the ancient

way of pronouncing Chinese, similar to the present day Cantonese which is more conservative

than the Mandarin (northern) pronunciation.

But nothing of the sort occurred in Khmer. The word barang was acquired from

the Muslim traders coming from Malaysia, India and the Gulf region. The Malays, who

probably got the word earlier, have no "F" sound. Unlike the Khmers who

rendered F with B, the Malays substituted P. And when hearing Arab seafarers say
frandji, the Malays uttered Perantjis.-still their word for French.

It is clear now that barang is just one form of a word which has been adapted

from India to China, by way of Muslim, often Arab traders. Along the shores of Africa

and India they circulated the word farandji as a name for the people from Europe

to distinguish them from the Rumi, or the "Romans"-who were in fact

the Byzantine Greeks, the successors of Rome. Farandji means "Franks" and

was the word the Crusaders used for themselves. They had established a "Frankish"

kingdom in Jerusalem which lasted about one century (1099-1187).

The first Crusades were led by the kings and the military aristocracy of northern

Europe, mostly Germans, Flemish, British, French, and Normans. In this vast area,

the word "Frank" had a long political history.

The Franks, when we hear of them in the earliest historical records are a group of

unorganized Germanic tribes living west of Rhine. (This record calls them Pranci,

but later Franci prevailed). They started to cross the Rhine in the 3rd century

A.D. and controlled an important ford to which their name is still attached: Frankfurt.

During the 5th century, the Salian Franks expanded. Taking advantage of the growing

weakness of the Roman empire, they established Frankish kingdoms in the north of

France, Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine. They were warriors, spoke their own

Germanic language, and had their own laws. In the following centuries they expanded

their area of control to cover most of Northern Europe, destroying in the process

other Germanic kingdoms in Spain, Italy, etc. They inherited the title of Emperor

in the 9th century. The name Francia was given to the north of France where the most

important Frankish kingdom was established.

In the process, they had become Christians and more and more assimilated into the

Roman culture. Some maintained their Germanic language, but others on the territory

of the former Roman empire started to speak Latin.

The word "Frank" referred less and less to a tribal origin and more and

more to the class of warriors who had become big landowners by right of conquest.

At the time of the Crusades, "Frank" was still used as a political word

encompassing a great number of these new states, born out of the collapse of the

Roman empire. Many French kings have their name as Louis, an evolution of the Germanic

name Hludwig, or, as the chronicles said, Clovis, considered the first French king

(around 486 A.D.). On the other hand, Francia, at first a small part of Northern

Roman Gaul, expanded southward and their inhabitants were called "Français,"

although very few of them had Germanic ancestry. They spoke a rather rotten form

of Latin, called "roman", and later "French."

So, to put it in a nutshell, when Thais say farang or Khmers say barang

they unknowingly use the name of tribes who lived in central Germany about 2,000

years ago. The word's original meaning is lost in the dark forests of the past. It

has been said that the word originally meant "free" (Thais entertain the

myth that the word Thai means "free," a pure invention); an earlier

source (Historica Franco-rum in 660 A.D.) said that it means ferocious-but

both are late myth-ological rationalizations. The word came to mean "free"

much later, because of the privileges of power.



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