Asian Geographic - - On Assignment - BACK­GROUND

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.

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