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.