Crash Course in Khmer

The other night I woke from a dream where I was able to have entire conversations in Khmer. The people in the dream asked me questions, responded to my own, and we laughed and joked just like old friends.

Lee and I both shared goals of learning Khmer once we moved here. We had never had the opportunity or motivation to really expand our minds in such a way. Like most people, I dabbled in a few languages at school. French mostly, a little bit of Japanese and German, but nothing really stuck beyond being able to count and say hello and goodbye.

Khmer Flash Cards. Photo © Mel Nutter.

Working in a childcare centre for the last 10 years, I was able to catch pieces of a few other languages as relevent to the culture of various children and families. French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese. The repetition of children's songs, labelling colours, and singing Happy Birthday engraved the words into my mind. I can still sing them now with relatively good pronunciation and accuracy.

Learning a new language to communicate in the everyday world, however, is a whole new challenge. As much as I may dream of having friendly conversations in Khmer, I am only beginning to move past simple greetings and introductions.

Lee and I started formal Khmer lessons in October. We attended two classes a week and worked on talking, listening, and reading skills. Our saving grace was that Khmer is a phonetic language. Once you know what sound each letter makes, it's relatively easy to transliterate a written setence and identify words you know.

It has come as a surprise that reading Khmer is easier than speaking it. The complexities of the script, the fact that vowels make different sounds depending on the series of their paired consonant, and that there are no spaces between the words, all offered a daunting task. But to our teacher's praise, Lee and I can now read street signs and business names, and decipher simple sentences with relative accuracy, even if we still run our finger along the words like a Grade 1 child.

It is a fascinating language. The sounds are not as tonal as Mandarin or Cantonese, but there are some humorous connections that occur between words which sound so similar to Western ears it has become a bit of a joke. Context plays a huge role in creating meaning and understanding here. You could say the same sentence to a woman at the market and then repeat it to a friend at night at the bar and they mean two completely different things.

We learned the word for "hot" within a few weeks of arriving. Chanted through loud speakers from street sellers advertising their goods, our days are marked by the arrival of the lady with duck eggs, or the evening conglomeration of carts filled with noodles and rice porridge.

Adding a slight rise in intonation at the end of the word, however, may get you in trouble. A young waitress at the bar giggled sheepishly as my pronuncation leaned a little to the left and I found out that "g'dao" is also one of the words for "penis".

When studying words for everyday objects, Lee and I shared our own giggle as we found out that the word for "door" is also regularly used to talk about "vaginas", although sometimes more politely referred to as the "golden door".

On a less crude note, it's lovely that the word for "pink" when used without the colour prefix, is also the word for "lotus". The pink tinged buds of unopened lotus flowers are strewn over temples everywhere. Similarly, the word for "green" stems from the large banana leaves that are used reguarly in cooking. Both a lovely reminder of how the language is embedded in culture and richer religious meaning.

As we expand our Khmer vocabularly, Lee and I are continually presented with new ways of connecting ideas and meaning. "Yeut" is used for "slow", most commonly heard by expats asking locals to speak more slowly. We soon learned that it can also be used in place of "late" - you arrived too slow. In a different context, "yeut" is also used to describe things that stretch, like elastic.

Flowers, fruit, and even fish can be fresh or dried. If you want fresh flowers you need to ask for "p'ka sroh", which also carries the meaning of them being attractive and cheerful. Contrastingly the word "sroh" also means dehydrated and drained.

This interplay creates lovely poetry in my mind. A fresh flower has already started to wither once plucked from the stem. Or, perhaps you were late because you stretched yourself too thin.

I am reminded of word games and phrases from books like Dr.Suess that would have engaged my mind in building the same connections with English as a child. People have shared how hard learning English is with so many words that share spellings but have different meanings - close, minute, park, rose, rock, sow, wave etc. Perhaps this is not just an English phenomena but a language one. And one that continues to motivate me to find more.

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