“Teh. Khnhom ott hoab teh. Khnhom ott khlean. Arkoun yeay,” I responded to my childhood friend’s grandmother. The woman stood aghast at the sight of me, an 11-year-old Khmer girl. I scoured the stored information in my brain to locate the cultural faux pas that I had committed.
How could she be offended by my response: “No. I’m not eating. I’m not hungry”? I did say “Thank you.” I couldn’t understand why she reacted so strongly.
"Hoab is a Khmer Rouge word!” she lashed out at me.
Granted that the Khmer Rouge was a demonic regime, I couldn’t understand how she could be so offended by this simple Khmer word: hoab (eat). Her look of horror and disgust remained in the back of my mind, and it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that it became apparent to me.
Like many Cambodians of Chinese descent, especially city dwellers who weren’t immersed in, or assimilated into, Khmer culture, my friend’s grandmother was deeply ignorant of the common Khmer language.
Tragically, these outsiders only came into contact with the everyday language after the murderous Khmer Rouge forced them out of the cities and dumped them in the countryside. They were threatened with torture and death if they were found using city words or demonstrating a city mentality, attitude or culture.
This is why I find Ms Theary Seng’s opinion about the Khmer language, which was published in The Phnom Penh Post on August 16, 2011, appalling and shameful. She reminds me of that grandmother; she probably doesn’t even know that she is out of touch and wrong about it until this day.
With the majority of city people using incorrect grammar, or misspelling, mispronouncing and misusing Khmer words (not to mention speaking the language in a lazy, slurry, and foreign accent), she is wrong to the people who actually speak it correctly.
Based on her “general observations”, she finds the following words “crude”, “earthy” and “offensive”: aign (it should be anhn); haign (it should be a-heing or ah-heing); veer (it should be vea); and phoeum. There is nothing crude, rude, impolite or dehumanizing about them.
Anhn (I/me), a-heing (you), vea (he/she/it, depending on the subject) and phoeum (pregnant) are familiar and common words. The beauty of the Khmer language is that we have formal and informal words to address ourselves, religious and political figures, the royal family, older and younger individuals and elitists.
For those of us who are familiar with each other, there are down-to-earth, neutral and intimate words, such as anhn, a-heing, vea and phoeum. They connect us together. To remove these words is to crush and destroy the Khmer spirit of closeness. Of course, you would have to be close friends, family members or relatives to use them. They are familiar words for the same class and the same age groups. Therefore, a younger person should not use anhn, a-heing and vea towards elders.
The irony is that the Khmer Rouge forced people to stop using city and elitist words. Now, as the “genocide activist” or “the daughter of the killing fields”, as Ms Seng calls herself, she is barring us from using common Khmer words, the language of our ancestors. It is similar to the situation when the UNTAC tried to ban, and even punish us, for using the word Yuon for “Vietnamese”. The cycle of ignorance continues.
Secondly, the Khmer written language already has a strong foundation: grammar (veyeakar), spelling (akharavirouth) and the art of writing (aksar selb) etc. There is no limitation to being creative.
Everything is there.
We have 33 consonants (pyunhchanak), 23 vowels (srak), 16 complete or independent vowels (srak penhtour) and 18 diacritics (vannakyuth or sanha samkual). Khmer has the longest alphabet and can make a vast variety of sounds. All you have to do is learn these things well, be creative and build from there. Being poorly informed of the language doesn’t mean that the language is dying.
In a nutshell, Ms Seng is a social and political activist. Her job is to raise awareness and help people learn how to help themselves. In order for her to do so effectively and efficiently, she must understand and possess the mentality of Khmer natives and our sophisticated language.
The saddest part about all of this is that the indigenous Khmers are less active in Cambodian society. They are the ones who know our language best.
Send letters to: [email protected] 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.