Struggling with the Khmer Language

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 17, 2009 at 10:31 am

By Antonio Graceffo


“During a lecture in Germany, I once fell asleep while waiting for the verb.” Paraphrase, Mark Twain


About the story


Many Americans don’t know this, but author Mark Twain once spent a year studying at the university in Heidelberg, Germany. While there, he wrote an article entitled “On the Awful German Language.” I found the article humorous, as it explored a lot of the same frustrations I experienced, studying at a German university about fifty miles away. And so, I began writing a series of language articles, entitled, “On Learning the X language.” Chinese and Korean went off without a hitch. But the one I wrote about Khmer came back to haunt me.


Once the article was published, I received a constant slue of emails, primarily from overseas Khmers, complaining that I had insulted their culture. It became so bad that my life was actually threatened on more than one occasion. The pinnacle came when one of the magazine editors received an anonymous email saying, “We know your daughter goes to X school. And we know where your wife is. If you ever publish another story by Antonio Graceffo, we will kill them.”


I was just about to publish, “On Learning the Awful Thai language,” at that point, but I decided to change the title and end the series.


Since every German professor I ever studied under had read the Mark Twain piece and found it funny, my first thought was to say, “I guess the Khmer have less of a sense of humor than the Germans.”


But then I gave it some serious thought. Since no one has less of a sense of humor than the Germans, maybe the angry reaction is somehow my fault. Could it be that people don’t like having their language and culture made fun of and plastered all over the internet? After enduring the hardships of the Khmer Rouge genocide, I guess the Khmers didn’t really need me making fun of them.


So, thanks to the literally hundreds of Khmer who wrote in, I sat down to revise the piece. Aside from starting from a position of not making fun of the Khmers, but leaving new Zealanders and Canadians as fair game, another positive about the rewrite was that I had since learned a lot more about the Khmer Language. There were a number of factual errors in the original, so I was able to correct those, while including some new information.


Thanks to the trip back to school, in Thailand, where they taught us about the Khmer origins of significant parts of the Thai language, and a return to Cambodia to work as a field translator for some American TV networks, I wound up speaking the language fairly well, but completely let go of reading and writing. I did most of the research for my third Cambodia book on that last trip, and did a lot of the interviews and translations without a translator. But it took a lot of sweat and tears to get to that point.


Here is my struggle with the Khmer language. Your struggle may be different. And maybe the entire struggle is my fault or reflects my lack of linguistic aptitude, after all, even Khmer preschoolers can speak Khmer. So, clearly they are smarter than I am.


The first five months that I lived in Cambodia, I made a concerted effort to learn the language, by practicing with my Khmer friends, and by studying a grammar book at night, on my own.


Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, is a Mon Khmer language, which has roots in Sanskrit and Pali, two very ancient Indian languages. Said another way, it was completely different than any language I had ever studied. Consequently, almost nothing I knew going into my study of Khmer was going to help. Of course, since the closest linguistic relatives of Khmer language are the Pearic, Bahnaric, and Katuic tribal languages, spoken in the region, if you spoke one of these languages, you would find it easier to learn Khmer.


I kept having nightmares of signing up for Khmer class and finding out that all of my classmates were missionaries, who had been living with the tribes and had mastered the Pearic, Bahnaric, and Katuic languages. The whole curve would be thrown off, and I would be the lowest scoring student. Maybe the teacher would even make me stand in the corner.


The other Indochina languages, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese (as well as many tribal languages) are tonal, like Chinese. Luckily, Khmer is not. So, that was one slight advantage. One of the arguments for why Chinese is tonal is because it is a single syllable language. Each word is only one syllable or a combination of one syllable words. As there are a limited number of single syllables that can be made, a particular sound, such as dai might appear in twenty different words, with completely different meanings. The way they differentiate between them is through tones.


Khmer has anywhere from 40 – 80 vowel sounds, depending on whose counting and which regional dialect they are studying. As a result, there are slues of sounds that sound identical to western ears, but have completely different meanings in Khmer. The way the Khmers differentiate is through very slight differences in vowel pronunciation, and vowel stress inflexion. The vowel stress was something I had never encountered in another foreign language, and at the end of the day, it might as well be tonal, for the difficulty that it presented me.


I quickly learned to always use words I could pronounce correctly or to use whole sentences, so that if I mispronounced a word, the context would help the listener understand my meaning.


Khmer puts the adjectives and numbers after the noun, like in Thai and Romance languages. But on a happier note, there are no articles or genders of words. In fact, even names don’t necessarily have gender. The bulk of Khmer names could be used for either boys or girls.


Most of the countries in Asia seem to have their own unique writing system. Khmer is no exception. Like Thai, Lao and other regional languages, Khmer has an Indian based writing system, which is similar to those used in the other countries, but is different enough that the writing would be mutually unintelligible across national boundaries. Another minimal advantage for someone who already studied Thai, the vowels in Thai were taken from Khmer. So, you would already have been exposed to about 10% of the language. Instead of a hundred years to master the language, as I estimated I would need, a competent reader of Thai could complete the study in 90 years.


The deeper I got into the language, the harder it got.


The Khmers had their own numbers, and printed them on money and any type of official documents. The country had two currencies, US dollars and Cambodian Riel. The largest Riel note was 10,000 which (at that time) was worth about $2.50. Obviously, for large purchases, you had to use Dollars, because even a hundred dollar  purchase price would have meant counting out 40 of the 10,000 Riel notes. Right off the bat, not only did I need to learn to say and read Khmer numbers, but I had to do it for two separate currencies.


Numbers are generally a pretty straight forward thing to learn, when you are learning a foreign language. But Khmer was different. The counting system repeated after five, instead of after ten. That meant, Zero through five were unique numbers (sune, moi, bee, bai, bon, prahm). Then six was FIVE and ONE (prahm moi). And SEVEN was FIVE and TWO. When you got into the teens, it was staggering how long the words were. Eighteen was TEN, FIVE, and THREE (dop prahm bei).


Khmer had a unique word for ten and a word for twenty. But then the tens, from thirty to one-hundred, were the same as in Thai.


The Angkorian Empire of Cambodia was technologically and intellectually more advanced than any other culture in the region. As a result, Thailand, Lao, and Shanland all borrowed from the Angkorian culture. There were similarities between the religion, martial art, language, culture, and architecture. It was hard to believe, comparing modern Bangkok to Phnom Penh, but Cambodia was once the seat of learning in the region. About 20% of Thai language came from Khmer. But which way did the numbers move? This was a mystery that would take me several years to find out. And the only way you will ever know is  by reading on.


In Khmer, the word for fifty was not related to the word for five, because five in Khmer is prahm, and fifty is hasep. It was hard for me to look at 55 and pronounce it hasep pram, instead of ha sep ha, or pram sep pram. 


I wrote to a linguistics professor in Korea and posed the question that haunted me. Why is it that in Thai, the whole counting system is consistent, but in Khmer it is not. Is it because of a mix of origins of the numbers? If so, would that suggest that Thailand maybe didn’t have a counting system at all, and just adopted the new one from Cambodia, but the Khmers had a Khmer system which went through 29 and then borrowed the numbers 30 – 90 from India?


Granted, he wasn’t a Khmer specialist, but his answer was, “Languages do what languages do, independent of any logic you may impose on them.”


Maybe it wasn’t the most scientific of advice, but it did make sense. The greater meaning was, don’t over intellectualize it.


Doing some research, I found out that Khmer numbers were derived from Hindu Arabic numerals, and they are really old. They were documented in carvings as far back as 611 AD. What really blew my mind was that the Khmers had a zero. Unless are a linguistics or math geek you may not know about the search for zero, but many of the greatest early empires on Earth didn’t have a zero. Without zero, true mathematics can’t be done. The numbers one – five were completely original Khmer numbers. Zero was borrowed from Sanskrit language. But the point is, Khmers had a zero.


The tens, 30 – 90 are the same as modern Cantonese and Thai, and are not related to the other Khmer numbers. It turns out, they were in fact borrowed by the Khmers. So, I will make sure to send this article to my linguistics professor in Korea.


The other question I sent to my linguist friend was about the number 20. In Khmer, hundred is roi. One hundred is moi roi, but when you speak, you shorten it to mroi. Twenty is mpai. It suddenly hit me one day, was twenty actually mpai? In other words one unit of twenty. So, did early Khmers possibly count things by units of 20? In most Asian languages, Chinese, Thai, and also Khmer, there is a unit for ten thousand, so you can count things by ten thousands. In the same vein, maybe early Khmers could count things by units of twenty. Going way out on a limb, I thought about decimal counting systems, such as the Romans used. 


Why did they repeat after ten? People counted on their fingers. They had ten fingers, then they made a tally, or tied a not in a rope, or moved a bead on an abacus, to show how many tens they had counted. Could it be that early Khmers did this by twenties? Again, this was all crazy conjecture, but Khmer has a counting system based on five. So, it would make sense that they only counted to five on the right hand. Then, when they got to five, they counted one finger on the left hand, one unit of five. When they had hit four sets of five on the left hand, they counted one set of twenty.


My linguistics professor’s answer was, “I don’t know.”


On the one hand, this was discouraging. On the other, I realized at that moment, that I could some day become a professor.


Doing research, which I probably should have done before writing to a famous linguist for answers, I discovered that Khmers used a stroke tally system and counted by units of 10, 20, or 100. So, it was a kind of victory, because I had thought this theory up all by myself. But now, I only knew how to count in Khmer, and was still a long way away from learning to communicate.


I opened my Khmer book, became discouraged, and decided to explore the numbers again. Khmer counting system is called a vigesimal system, which basically means, it is a decimal system based on twnety instead of ten.




Once I gave up on learning from my books and my friends, and decided to sign up for school, my struggle just got deeper and deeper. When we started reading decimal numbers I suspected that my teacher was lying to me. She claimed that .50 would be read DECIMAL HA SEP, but .5 would be read DECIMAL PRAM. So I asked her. “Since those two look identical, and since the zero after the decimal has no value, shouldn’t those be read the same?”

Her answer was “yes.” But she continued to read them differently.


In Khmer, almost every answer begins with yes, Bat, and then followed by the actual answer. To the Khmer mind, this is a kind of politeness. It also softens the blow if you have to decline a request or give bad news. Yes just sort of meant, I heard you,” or “I am listening.” But, until I learned this aspect of Khmer culture, you could imagine how confusing it was.


I would ask her something like “Is the word for chair Doc?” Ands she would answer “Yes.”

Then I would continue with my sentence in Khmer. “I sit on the Doc.”

When I finished she would say. “Yes, that is incorrect. The Khmer word for CHAIR is GAUAI, not DOC. DOC is table.”

“But I asked you if CHAIR was DOC, and you said yes!” I protested.

“Yes.” She agreed.



Once I got used to hearing “Yes, but No” we got along a lot better. My new strategy was to ask once, pause, wait for the yes, pause again, and maybe ask a second time, before I would get the right answer. Pausing is hard for New Yorkers. And politeness is also not one of our strong suits. But when in Phnom Penh, do as the Phnom Penhians.


The next hurdle I had to overcome in my Khmer studies was the borrowed words. On any given page of our textbook, I would find up to twenty five percent of the Khmer words were the same as French, Chinese, Thai, or English. Of course the pronunciation would often be pretty far off, because of the differences in the writing system. At the time, I thought Khmer had borrowed words from Thai. But when I went back to study in Bangkok, they told us that Thai had borrowed from Khmer. So, that explained the allegedly “Thai words.”


As for Chinese, every country inside of the Chinese sphere of influence uses a lot of Chinese words. Cambodia is in a unique position, in that it is poised to have borrowed from both India and China. But because I haven’t studied any Indian languages yet, I can’t comment with certainty about the words of Indian origin.


And, of course, Cambodia was a colony of France for a bit more than a hundred years. So, they borrowed French words. Older Khmers told me that schools at that time were taught in French and literacy was probably higher in French than in Khmer. As a result, some Khmer words were probably lost. In some cases, French words were used to describe modern concepts which Cambodia didn’t have, like machines and what was at that time modern technology.


It is hard to believe France was ever more technologically advanced than anyone. I am always glad my country was a colony of England, rather than France.


At the time I was wrestling with Khmer, I really thought it was a hodgepodge language, a synthetic patois spoken by a small minority of people. It would take several years for me to understand or appreciate Khmer. Apart from the Khmer history I learned studying in Thailand, the other factors that helped me realize that Khmer had a right to be its own unique language, was that I studied Korean, in Busan, and attended EMT training in the Philippines.

Korean is a strange language in that scholars claim that up to 80% of Korean vocabulary is Chinese. And yet, Korean is not a Chinese dialect. Its origins are unique and almost completely unrelated to Chinese. By the same token, Khmer has a significant count of words from French, Chinese, and English, but it is its own, independent language. I was unconvinced of this fact, until I was arguing with a language friend in a bar in Taiwan. He said to me, “You studied in the Philippines. How did you understand your medical classes?”


“Most of the Filipino medical vocabulary is English or Spanish. Plus, about 40% of the rest of their words come from those two languages. So, I can often just follow along, if I know the subject they are talking about.’


“In that case, would you say that Filipino is a Romance language?”


“No, of course not.”


“So, having French, English and Chinese words doesn’t make Khmer French, English or Chinese.”


He had a point.



Newspaper and magazine were both French words. The word for air-conditioner is MACHINE DRAWJACK, which literally translates as COLD MACHINE. Now this isn’t too far off. A lot of languages use the word machine for every single apparatus. In Chinese and Thai, and even in Italian machine is everything, from a camera to an airplane.


Aleman was the Khmer word for German. It was also the word for Germany, German language, and German people. Some of these funny French words found their way into the vocabulary of Khmers who could speak English. They would say “He comes from German.” That is, unless they said “He comes from aleman.”


Learning the Khmer language helped me to interpret the unique brand of English spoken in the capital. On Christmas, everyone was coming up to me saying “Happy merry Christmas.” I couldn’t figure out why they did that. So I asked my teacher how to say Christmas in Khmer.

“Bon Noel.” She answered.

It made sense that they used the French word, because they definitely didn’t have Christmas before the French came. But “buon noel” in French was Merry Christmas. So, did they adopt the hole phrase, merry Christmas as their word for Christmas? I sent that question out to a bunch of Khmers around the world, who all said that bon is a Sanskrit word, meaning festival. So, the people say “bon noel” meaning Christmas festival.


That explanation made sense. But it still didn’t explain why people, speaking English, said, “Happy merry Christmas.” But then I remembered the sage words of the linguist guy in Korea. “Languages do what languages do.” I guess the same was true for speakers.




Another theory I came up with was a stretch. The word for tourist is DESKJA. I wondered if it was some bastardization of the word desk job. Maybe when the first tourists came, in the early seventies, the Khmers asked them “why are you here?” And the tourists answered something like, “Oh I have an awful desk job. And I am trying to escape.” Or maybe when the Khmers asked them what they did at home, they said “I am an advertising executive.” or “I deal in collateralized mortgage securities.” And when the Khmers didn’t hear, “I am a farmer, a doctor, or a school teacher,” they would just say, oh, “DESKJOB.”


Once again, a reader wrote in and gave me a Hindi origin for this word, “deskja” meaning vacation. Although he is probably right, I like the cleverness of my answer better.


Where learning to speak had been interesting, and gave me little cultural tidbits to mull over at night, learning to read and write was a nightmare.



Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, and all of his books, are available at See his videos on youtube.


His website is

Join him on

Contact Antonio:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: