Struggling with Khmer Language (Part II)

In Linguistics and Language Learning on January 27, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Reading, Writing, and Other Stuff

By Antonio Graceffo


The Khmer language is written with a Pali/Sanskrit based writing system, which is similar to the writing in Thailand, Burma, Lao, and in several of the regional minority languages. Fortunately, every single one of these alphabets is different, and learning one is only marginally helpful in learning another. So, you could study forever and still be illiterate.


Westerners take it for granted that we all use a Latin based alphabet, the only exceptions being Russia and Greece which use a Cyrillic alphabet. But, actually, even the Cyrillic alphabet, although the letters look different, they function exactly the same. In both alphabets, the letters have sound value. Words are written left to right. And the sounds are read in the same sequence and order in which they occur on the paper. There are spaces between words. Words are connected to form sentences, which end at the period.   


With the Latin alphabet, plus or minus a handful of special letters and symbols, you can pick up a newspaper and read it, anywhere from Poland to South Africa, to Australia, to Newfoundland to Tierra Del Fuego. You might not know what the words mean, but you could at least read them. You could also look them up in a dictionary. Write them on flashcards, and memorize them.


None of this is true of any of the South East Asian Alphabets.


When you start going to school, determined only to learn a little speaking and listening, they slowly turn the sales screws, until they got you coming to school three hours per day, seven days per week. Then, just when you think they couldn’t bleed one more dollar out of you, they talk you into learning to read and write. They lure you in, telling you “It’s easy, try it.”


You believe you’re as smart as the average Khmer child. So, what the heck? I signed up for reading and writing, and I paid more than money, I paid blood.


On the first day, the teacher showed me an alphabet chart and said. “You see how simple? This is how small children learn. Each letter has a picture of an animal next to it. So, if you can’t remember how that letter sounds, just look at the picture.”


“That is easy.” I agreed. “So, this W-looking letter, next to the picture of a pig makes a P sound?”


She frowned. “Well, no. It makes a J sound, because pig in Khmer is Jerouk.”


Duh! Now I felt stupid. Of course it would be the sound, according to the Khmer animals names. Ok, no sweat. I figured first thing I would do is just make a list of the animals, and memorize their names.

Starting at the top of the chart, I said “OK, pig?”

“Jerouk” Answered the teacher.





But then I hit a stump. The next picture was of a gold-colored devil-man, with a sword.

“What is this one?” I asked.

The teacher said some Khmer word, which meant nothing to me.

“No, I mean what is it in English?”

“Don’t you know?” She asked, confused. “I thought you were American.”

“I am, but we don’t have golden dragon demons in Brooklyn. So, we don’t really have a name for them.”

We skipped that one. The next one was a picture of a little girl.

“What is this one?”

“Tida.” She answered.

“Oh, Tida means little girl?”

“No, that is her name?”

“How does one know that that girl is named Tida?” I asked, thinking maybe she was a famous Khmer cartoon character or something.

“It says Tida here.” She said, pointing at the Khmer letters under the girl.

“But if you couldn’t read, you wouldn’t know that, would you?” I asked.

“Yes.”  She said.

And we continued. Next, there was a picture of a fruit.

“And what is this?” I asked.

“You don’t know?”

“No, in Brooklyn our fruits tend to be very empirical, apple, banana, orange…What is this thing?” I was beginning to loose my patience.

“The New Zealand students know what that one is.” My teacher said, with a chastising voice.

“Oh yeah, well New Zealand isn’t an adjective.”

“What is the adjective for students from New Zealand?” She asked.

Was it New Zealander students? Or, was New Zealand students correct? Now I was stumped on a question in English. My brain was short-circuiting. How the did they expect me to learn to read these ancient letters if I still hadn’t mastered my native tongue?

“All the New Zealand people know this one.” She repeated.

“Well, hurray for New Zealand!” I shouted. “It’s closer to Asia than Brooklyn is. They probably eat this fruit everyday for breakfast. But I have never eaten breakfast in New Zealand, so I don’t know what it is.”

The same was true of the next four fruits, all of which, allegedly, New Zealanders would know.

“Why do New Zealands know so many more fruits than people from American? Are the schools better in New Zealand?”

“No, its because we spent our free-time creating the first modern democracy, while New Zealand was happy to be the British colony with the largest fruit vocabulary.”


Now I was angry at New Zealand! Normally I didn’t even have an opinion on that country that I always confused with Australia. But on that day, I wanted to get in a boxing ring with them, all twenty-five of them, or whatever the population of New Zealand was.


“Maybe you should have learned more fruits.” Suggested my teacher.

“Yeah, maybe. I mean I’d definitely trade my right to vote for greater fruit identification.” Actually, thinking back on the George W. Bush years, that might not have been a bad trade. It would have meant more fruit, and no George W. Bush. Americans would have got their vitamins and the world wouldn’t hate us. And we would have some type of jolly, fatherly New Zealander for a Prime Minister. The best part would be, the Queen of England would be the ultimate head of state.


That would actually be cool for a couple of years, you know, just try it out till we could elect Obama.


The next five or six pictures were large, flightless waterfowl.

“Pigeons, I have only seen pigeons.” I told her.

“Pigeon is the only bird you know?” Asked my teacher in the same empathetic voice you would ask “And the doctor really said you only have six months to live?” She felt sorry for me.

“I know some other birds.” I amended. “There was a toucan on my breakfast cereal.” Unfortunately, toucan didn’t come up, oddly, either did penguin, which I learned from eating ice-cream sandwiches, which had Eskimos and penguins on the label.   


Luckily the new Zealanders didn’t have Eskimos, so I felt a slight vindication.


I wondered if they had ice-cream sandwiches or cereal with toucans in New Zealand? I really must go visit New Zealand when I get a chance.


Abandoning the alphabet chart, I asked “In just what way is this language easy to read and write?”


“First off it is written left to right.” Answered my teacher.

Well that was good.

When I opened my book, I just saw a huge jumble of characters, written all the way across the page. “That is the longest word I’ve ever seen.” I said.


In Thailand some words were so long I couldn’t even begin to pronounce them. My best friend’s name had about fifty characters in it. I still call him by only the first three. And we have known each other for years!


“That’s not a word.” Said my teacher, momentarily putting my mind at ease. “It is a sentence.”

“But then why is it all written together like that?”

“In Khmer we don’t separate words.”

What a nice system.

“Why are some letters floating in the air like that?” I asked.

“Those are vowels.”

“I thought you wrote left to right.”

“We do. But some vowels are written on top.”


“Yes, some are written under, and some are written before. And some are written after or around a word.”

Of course, boy! this does sound easy. 


“It’s easy compared to learning Chinese.” She pointed out.


That was somewhat true. Now I can read Chinese. And I have to say, it takes five hours per day of writing characters for about a year. The advantage of Khmer, of course, is that it is an alphabet. The letters have sound values and they spell out words. But, because they aren’t pronounced in the order that they are written, it is really hard at first to know when and how to pronounce things. And with the signals, similar to accent marks in other languages, which are written all the way on top, then vowels often written below the signal, but on top of the consonant, then a consonant, with a subscript underneath, you could actually have a stack of four characters, one on top of the other. And these may or may not be read in sequence. The vowels written before or after this huge stack of letters might be read first or in the middle….


Another issue with Khmer writing is that spellings aren’t standardized. This is probably being fixed, even as we speak, but it will be a long time before every printed Khmer document has the same spelling.


In Khmer, as in Thai, I really had the impression that you had to know what the word was in order to pronounce it. When I was reading, in a way, I felt like I was recognizing the physical shape of the words, the same way I did in Chinese. The phonetics were just clues to help me guess at what I was reading.


No doubt, with practice, you could probably master Khmer reading and writing faster than Chinese, but Chinese is much more cut and dry. You see a character and you have memorized exactly how it must be pronounced.


“How many characters are there in Chinese?” She asked.

“Tens of thousands.”

“And how many do you need to read a news paper?”

“About 3,000.” This was a bit of a lie. At this point I could read about 3,000 Chinese characters but couldn’t even begin to make sense of a newspaper.

“And to finish university?”

“At least 4,000.”

“OK,” She said triumphantly. “Khmer only has 33 consonants.”

“33 letters, oh, that is easy. Where do I sign up?”


But that’s how they get you.

Looking at the chart, I counted the 33 consonants, my teacher had told me about. But then, I noticed a bunch of other stuff at the bottom.

“What’s all that?” I asked.

“Those are the vowels.” She said, a little embarrassed that I had caught her in a near-lie.

“I thought you said there were only33 letters.”

“No, 33 consonants. But, obviously you also need vowels.”

“Obviously.” I agreed. “So, how many are there?”

“Twenty three.”

So, fifty-six letters. Yikes! That was a lot. But ok, at least it was a finite number. With Chinese you can’t even write your name with 56 letters.


The first word I read was composed of two characters. There was a consonant GA and vowel A.

“GA” I read, proudly.

“Very good.” said my teacher.

This is going to be easy. I thought.

The next word was consonant KA and vowel A.



Next was consonant GO and vowel A.

Goa?” I guessed.

“No, GEA.” Corrected my teacher.

“Why GEA?”

“There are two kinds of consonants, those with A sounds and those with O sounds. We call them big and little consonants. If a vowel occurs after an A sound it has the sound you are familiar with. But if it occurs after an O sound, it changes.”

“So, there are 23 vowels, but each one has two sounds?” I asked.


“So, there are 46 vowels?”

She looked at me blankly. “I never thought about it that way, but yes, I guess so.”

I was beginning to think I had made a huge mistake.

So, we had 33 consonants and 46 vowels, 79 letters. Annoying, yes, but ok, still better than 3,000 characters in Chinese. I could do it.


The next word that we studied was the pronoun I, which in Khmer is knyom. It seemed to consist only of one letter, Ka.

“But where is the yom sound?” I asked.

“The yom sound comes from these subscripts under the word.” Explained my teacher.

It turned out that each consonant could be converted into a subscript, which appeared below the word, and added phonemes.

Once again 33 consonants meant 33 subscripts. So, now 79 plus 33, now we had 122 characters. I wanted my money back. But we wouldn’t learn how to say that until chapter ten. And by then it would be too late.


The next word we learned was the pronoun ‘he’, which I knew was guat. It was no surprise that guat was both ‘he’ and ‘she’. That is very common in many languages. So, the pronunciation and usage of the word was nothing special. But the writing, of course, left me looking for some razor blades, so I could cut my wrists.


Guat had a ga sound, and ended in a ja sound. That didn’t exactly make sense to me. But Khmer, like Thai, doesn’t have a lot of harsh terminal consonants. A and K, J and T may sound the same to our ears. In fact, that is why when Khmers speak English you don’t know if they are offering you milk or meal. The two words would be pronounced the same. Rice, ride, and right are also pronounced identically. As it is rare that someone would offer you meal with your coffee, the milk/meal controversy is easily remedied by context. But when a girl asks you to Write her, buy you understand RIDE, the results could be catastrophic.


I just realized I am on my second paragraph, writing about the experience of learning the word ‘he’ in Khmer. What other language is so complicated that learning a single word would need two paragraphs? I mean I could barely make a sentence about learning the word ‘he’ in Spanish.


The teacher said HE is el.”


OOOOh! That’s riveting. What an interesting story.


Guat ended in a JAW sound. But it was pronounced with a harsh T. so, “Where does the harsh T come from?” I asked my teacher

“It comes from this symbol here.”

She pointed at two dots over the final consonant.


“Yes, symbols occur over words, and they change the sound of the consonants.”

“Over the words? I asked, skeptically.

“Well, also under words.”

I was too mentally exhausted to shout AH HA! But trust me, I was thinking it. “And just how many of these symbols are there?”

“Oh,” She said, looking reflectively. Then after too long a pause, “about ten.” She answered.

“About, you mean you aren’t sure?”

“Yes.” She said. The only consistency in the Khmer language seemed to be that my teacher always said “yes.”

Would you like a knuckle sandwich?


So we were up to 122 characters. Now, we had ten more so 122. And those ten symbols changed the sounds of all the consonants, so maybe we had 155 phonemes to remember.

“And that’s it?” I asked, not believing it myself.

“Well, also dependent and independent vowels.”

When I asked how many, she just laughed at me.


So, why am I learning to read and write Khmer? I wasn’t so wrapped up with learning obscure languages maybe I would fall in with bad company, join a gang, and get into trouble.


If the nuns could see me now… At catholic school I refused to decline even a single French verb. Now, I sit for hours a day, learning to write this alphabet so I could send letters to my Khmer friends who live in the apartment downstairs. Of course, I could just call them….


In all honesty, given the difficulties which Khmers and foreigners alike have with the language, I really think Vietnam and Indonesia have the right idea by using the Latin alphabet. The Chinese and Thais claim that they can’t switch to Latin because their language is tonal, and there would be too many completely different words with the exact same spelling. But Khmer doesn’t have this issue.


Anyway, as soon as I can write Khmer I am planning to write a letter to the King to outline my reasons why I think they should Latinize.


Until then, I guess I am relegated to sitting in my dark little classroom, with a sixty-watt light bulb, matching Khmer letters with colorful pictures of animals and fruits, which only New Zealanders could identify. 



Author’s Note: Mark Twain once wrote a piece about his studies in Hidelburg, entitled “The Awful German Language.” The piece had a huge impression on me, and my friends and I all read it many times when we were studying in Germany. It was a tongue in cheek piece, which was actually fairly accurate from a linguistic standpoint. I had decided to write a similar series: “On Learning the Awful X Language.” The first one was the Chinese piece, which was well received.


This piece was number two in the series. When it was published, I received numerous death threats. In fact, one editor who published the story in his magazine was threatened by someone who basically said, “We know you have a Thai wife and child. We know where you live. Take this piece down immediately, or we will kill you.” Most of the emails were poorly written, with numerous spelling and grammar problems. Also, they missed the joke. But, to preserve my own well-being, I changed the name of the piece before reissuing it.




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.


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