Khmer TILL DEATH DO US PART
Khmer, pronounced ‘ kmae’ (the final ‘r’ is silent), is the official language of Cambodia; it branches into several dialects in different regions of the country. While it is one of the most widely spoken AustroAsiatic languages (second only to Vietnamese), a despairing 35 percent of the population over 15 years old cannot read or write it.
Khmer is the root language of three other dialects that vary according to the region that it is spoken in. There is Northern Khmer, where the final ‘r’ is still pronounced, and Western Khmer, where there is a relaxation and shortening of words – for example from ‘Phnom Penh’ to ‘m’penh’.
Sanskrit Origins Khmer differs from its cousins Thai and Vietnamese in that it is nontonal. Khmer writing is based on the Sanskrit alphabet and even preserves its alphabetical order. It has 33 known consonants, each one accompanied by its own subscript, with about 23 known vowels. The Khmer script is written with an abugida (where vowel scripts are written as a unit) known in Khmer as âksâr khmêr and developed from the Pallava script of India before the 7th century. It is made up of three styles of writing: a script type used in handwriting; a block form used in books, magazines and newspapers; and a rounded style used on signs, official documents and formal invitations.
Both Thai and Lao were based on the Old Khmer system, so these three languages have scripts that look similar. Old Khmer language inscriptions dating from the 7th to 15th centuries have been found in Thailand, southern Vietnam and Cambodia itself. In Thailand and Laos, the Khmer script is adopted when transcribing folk magic formulas and tattoos. The modern Khmer of today is a living legacy of Cambodia’s rich and complex culture and history.
Respect in Speech In keeping with traditional Cambodian values of non-confrontation and respect for elders, the Khmer language is divided into a system of registers: common speech, polite speech, speaking to or about royals, and speaking to or about monks. Each register employs varying alternate verbs, nouns, pronouns and honorifics to match the social status of the person being spoken to. Because of Hinduism and Buddhism influences, Khmer is largely modelled after Pali and Sanskrit, especially in the royal and religious registers.
In keeping with traditional Cambodian values of nonconfrontation and respect for elders, the Khmer language is divided into a system of registers: common speech, polite speech, speaking to or about royals, and speaking to or about monks
Old and New Like the English have Old and Middle English, Khmer also has Old and Middle Khmer. Old Khmer, also known as Angkorian Khmer, is the language spoken in the Khmer Empire from the 9th century until the degradation of the empire four centuries later. With the fall of the Khmer Empire, the language, too, lost its significance as the language of the elite, and of political discourse. It underwent many proliferations before arriving at the language of Modern Khmer as it was spoken from the 19th century until today. The transitional Khmer during the periods between the 13th and 19th centuries, Middle Khmer, was borrowed from Thai, Lao and even Vietnamese.
Later, perhaps under the influence of French colonialism, the final ‘r’ of words was softened, resulting in the modern pronunciation of Khmer as ‘ kmae’. Various external forces have moulded the Modern Khmer language and identity that we know today, making it quite far removed from its predecessor language.
A rise in foreign language institutes in Cambodia has led to recent worries about the future of Khmer in a labour market that favours foreign languages. The dying out of a language leads to the demise of a culture and identity. There is a Khmer proverb that says, “If a culture dies, so does the nation. And if the culture is splendid, so is the nation.”
The Thai script is closely linked to Khmer (Cambodian), Lao and Sanskrit. Today, standard Thai and Thai dialects are spoken by around 60 million speakers.