A Note on Cambodian Language and Culture

11 03 2013

I can remember sitting in my high school Spanish class, listening to my teacher explain the idea that a culture and its language cannot be separated. As a 14 year-old who had never left the US , I remember this sounding cliche. It was one of those things that teachers were supposed to say, like how my math teacher would insist that I would someday need trigonometry for the “real world.” (Yeah, right.)

As I got older, I began to realize there might be some truth to the Señora’s claim. I began to learn about foods, customs and events that existed in some cultures, but not my own. After all, I realized, how could we have an English word for quesillo if the vast majority of native English speakers had never tasted one?

As my understanding grew, I began to fully grasp the idea that, as a culture, we only name things that are important to us. We’ve all heard about the Inuit people having many different words for snow, right? It’s the same here with rice, which is the center of rural life in most of the country. The Cambodian people have one word for rice when it’s still in the field, another after it’s been husked, and yet another for after it’s been cooked.

After having spent close to two years immersed in the Khmer language and culture, it’s easy to see that the two are connected to an even higher degree than that. The ways in which Cambodians construct sentences, the words that they use — these things are a direct reflection of their deepest value systems and traditions. Since I haven’t studied the history or evolution of the language, I can’t guarantee that all of these examples are truly connected in the ways I’ve inferred, but below I’ve listed some of what I’ve found to be the most interesting and apparent links between Cambodian language and culture.

Emphasis on personal relationships

Generally speaking, Cambodians are much more community- or family-oriented than Americans. This plays out in daily activities, as well as special events and, of course, linguistics. When Cambodians speak to one another, they rarely use the pronoun “you.” Instead, they call you a familial term, based on your age as compared to theirs. For example, I would call a high school student oun, which translates to “younger sibling,” while I would call a 30 year-old friend bong, or “older sibling.” There are many words to choose from, including a couple of different words for “aunt” and “uncle,” which are dependent on the person’s age, as well as grandmother and grandfather. This means that when speaking to an elderly woman, I would literally say, “How is grandmother?” instead of “How are you?” It’s a constant reminder of the close-knit relationships people have and the emphasis placed on our connections to others.

"How is grandmother?"

“How is grandmother?”

Personal identity defined by relationship to group

Similarly, when talking about themselves in Khmer, people only occasionally use the pronoun “I,” choosing instead to define themselves based on their relationship to those around them. This means a mother speaking to her child would say the equivalent of “Mother loves child,” not “I love you.” Or, a teacher would say, “Teacher wants to go with student,” instead of “I want to go with you.” Based on my experience, this isn’t just a linguistic quirk either, it truly is a reflection of how many Cambodians view themselves and their identities: always part of the larger group.

Respect for hierarchy and authority

Working in a public school or health center, it doesn’t take long to notice that there is an unwavering belief in authority figures. Anything an authority says is unquestioned, and there are clearly defined lines between authorities and their subordinates.  Generally, at the top of the hierarchy are older people, men, and those with a great deal of money. The emphasis on hierarchy can be seen in the language too. Take the verb “to eat.” If we are talking about animals– or children even– there is one word used to mean “to eat.” When we talk about adults, there are a pair of different words we use. The words have the same meaning, of course, but they convey varying levels of respect. There is yet another word for “to eat” when talking to elders, and one more for royalty. So when Cambodians talk to one another, they are constantly reminded of the social status of the people they are talking to based on the verb used.

Indirect communication and saving face

It is well known that many Asian cultures place a greater emphasis on saving face than Western cultures. This can be seen in a number of ways. For example, as a foreigner, it means that sometimes Cambodians pretend to understand my heavily-accented Khmer instead of asking for clarification because they don’t want either of us to be embarrassed. Teachers say that “maybe” they will teach tomorrow because directly saying that they won’t is frowned upon. The indirectness is not only limited to the content of a message though, it can also be seen in the structure used. Cambodians use passive sentence structures very frequently, thus distancing themselves, or others, from direct responsibility. Instead of saying that a mother did not show up to the feeding sessions, they’ll say “I haven’t seen them come,” which softens the message. Instead of saying,”I didn’t teach today because it was raining,” they’ll say, “The rain made it so I could not teach.”

"Maybe we weigh babies tomorrow..."

“Maybe we weigh babies tomorrow…”

Relaxed sense of time

The Khmer language is largely tenseless, and, as such, allows a great deal of ambiguity. In English, a verb changes based on when the action happened– go, went, will go, am going, have gone, had gone, etc — but Khmer does not have this level of specificity. Not having tenses (which is an oversimplification, but mostly true), leaves the listener to infer when the action took place based on the context. However, as tempting as it is, it’s hard for me to say with any certainty that this linguistic ambiguity is a direct reflection of the loose attitudes toward time found in Cambodia. Cambodians do tend to value punctuality much less than we do in the States so at first glance, there seems to be a link between the language and the attitudes. However, many other developing countries have lax ideas about time while still using highly-structured tenses similar to English, so I’m not sure.

Predetermined destinies

One frustrating element of working in Cambodia for volunteers is that many times Cambodians see themselves with less agency than we see ourselves in the United States. By that I mean that, as a generalization, Cambodians don’t believe they can change their own lives to the extent we are taught to believe. Once poor, you will always be poor. Or, once your child is malnourished, she will always be malnourished. Many Cambodians seem to believe they do not have the power to change these things, perhaps for reasons related to certain aspects of Buddhism. There is one phrase in Khmer that seems to fully embody this idea though: awt jeh, or “s/he doesn’t know (how).” Any Peace Corps Volunteer teaching alongside a Khmer counterpart will hear this phrase a dozen times every week. For example, Tim will call on a student to answer a question, and his counterpart will immediately jump in and say, “He doesn’t know how. He’s from the village.” The connotation of this word, at least as I interpret it, is not that the student doesn’t know the answer. No, there’s a different phrase for that: awt dung. Instead, it implies that the student doesn’t have the capacity to know. He doesn’t have the answer today, nor will he ever have the answer. We should, instead, call on someone else. Once a student awt jehs, it is often believed he will never “know how.”





One response

18 03 2013

The thoughts of the younger sibling are appreciated by the word-nerd aunt! Very interesting–thanks, Katie.

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