Your First Khmer Lesson

10 10 2011

After two months of intensive language classes, I’ve started to miss studying Khmer now that we’re at permanent site. Virtually every class had one or two hilarious (or at least intriguing) moments when we were able to connect the meaning of one word with other. Khmer is largely made up of compound words, so we’d often learn three or four short words from one longer word or phrase. For instance, the word gah = neck and wain = long. Put them together and you get gah wain = giraffe. Easy, right? Here are more:

bii = rice / patea = house / bii patea = kitchen (lit. rice house)

smau = shoulder / ow = shirt / smau ow = hanger

dteuk = water / trii = fish / dteuk trii = fish sauce

                             / crowit = orange / dteuk crowit = orange juice

                             / bantoupe = room / bantoupe dteuk = bathroom

Avocado = butter fruit.

Diabetes = sweet urine.

Cake = French snack.

Air conditioning = cold machine.

Pretty fun, right? The next thing to know about Khmer is that there are no tenses and no verb conjugation. Remember those countless hours studying Spanish, French, German, or Arabic verb forms? Not here! Just throw a subject with a verb and call it a day.

Knyum nam bii howiee. (I ate rice already)

Gwat nam bii howiee.(He/she ate rice already)

Jung nam bii howiee. (We ate rice already)

Just use the same verb (nam) throughout. If you’re feeling particularly precise you can add “tomorrow”, “yesterday”, or “later” to indicate time, but people here seem generally confident that I will somehow manage to figure out the time through context clues. I think this is an advantage to learning the language now since it cuts way down on how much you need to memorize, but will probably be frustrating in the future when we don’t know if something is going to happen, happened already or is happening now.

Our next Khmer hurdle is to learn the alphabet. During training, we made our own transliterations from how we interpreted our LCFs (Language and Cultural Facilitators), instead of learning the Khmer alphabet. This was a great way of getting us to speak , but made it next to impossible to share each others’ notes without yelling, “Why would you write it like that?!?!” This just solidified the fact that we hear sounds differently and find lots of creative ways to remember words. Mnemonic devices ran rampant during language training. Some students wrote down words to look more like English to better remember them. Personally, I tried to think of Khmer words as if they were said with a thick Brooklyn accent whenever possible. For example, watch or clock is nea la kaa, which to me sounds a lot like a Brooklyner saying, “near the car.” This helped me remember, but probably destroyed my pronunciation (and made it impossible not to giggle whenever someone said clock).

I hope this was interesting to anyone outside of Cambodia. We are having a great time deciphering Khmer and can’t wait to be a bit more conversational.

-Tim

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3 responses

11 10 2011
Susannah

hahaha, sweet urine. I understand now why Katie said Khmer was so much easier to learn than Spanish! Tim please don’t speak like a Brooklyner, I’m sure Cambodians think people from the States are odd enough already. :)

15 10 2011
kbergen

Clock may very well be one of my favorite Khmai words.

23 10 2011
Anne Marie

I love this!

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