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In time, our language will correct itself

In time, our language will correct itself

Dear Editor,

Theary Seng’s opinion piece (“A language in crisis”, August 16) was interesting and contributive, but I think there are some aberrations in her observations on the use and development of the
Khmer language.

To begin, I honestly believe Theary Seng should improve her Khmer-language skills.

I understand she was brought up in the US, but she has livied in Cambodia for quite a long time. I have met Khmer Americans who speak fluent Khmer, and Cham Americans who speak Cham very well.

I also understand that acquiring a second language is not something that can be done easily; people differ in their linguistic intelligence. But judging from Theary Seng’s English-language fluency, she doesn’t lack that intelligence.

A lack of fluency in the Khmer language is, I think, the main problem in Theary Seng’s analysis of its use and development.

If I follow the theory she posited  that language is the foundation of communication and relationships, her lack of Khmer-language fluency is the foundation of her misunderstanding of a number of key areas in the use and development of the Khmer language.

In terms of spoken Khmer, Theary Seng cited a number of supposed derogatory terms such as aign, haign, veer and phoeum.

These words are not dehumanising when used in the right context. Practically any word can be offensive; it all depends on the tone that is used.

When these words are used among people who know each other well, particularly by a super-ior or older person, they can be a sign of closeness between the two, because it means they are comfortable with each other.

This is not dehumanising. It can be dehumanising if one intends it to be, but I believe most Khmer-speakers know the appropriate context for such words.

With regard to the written form, there are indeed a number of areas for improvement.

Theary Seng correctly raised the issues of poor use of punctuat-ion and the lack of a really good English-Khmer or Khmer-English dictionary. I believe such a dictionary will arrive in the near future, as English fluency among young Cambodians is increasing every day.

The Samdach Sang Chuon Nat dictionary is still very useful in terms of Khmer spelling and meaning. Many magazines and news-papers use it as a benchmark.

Indeed, if one uses it correctly, consistently and innovatively, one’s Khmer writing can be as nuanced as anything.

Interpretation and translation, however, are tricky areas. As Theary Seng noted, there’s so much in a language that goes beyond simple word meanings.

A language hides within it its host culture, emotions, knowledge, technical jargon and mentality. It must also be capable of expressing deep thoughts and ideas.

Cambodia is now exposed to globalisation and the resulting flow of knowledge and ideas, and the Khmer language cannot catch up as quickly. Interpreters and trans-lators cannot learn that fast, either.

One should also note that the Khmer language is different in many parts of Cambodia. Specific terms, phrases and intonation vary from region to region.

Finally, language is self-developing. It follows both logical struct-ures and habitual use. In time, it should correct itself, especially with the help of measures taken    to speed up its self-development.

Kok-Thay Eng
Deputy director, Documentation Center of Cambodia

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.

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