A Student of Khmer Finds Language Rich in Imagery and Metaphor

After a recent appearance at a provincial village, Hun Sen climbed onto a dragonfly and flew off to the drowning side.

That is to say, he got into a helicopter and headed west.

Such are the joys and hazards of literally translating the Khmer language into English. If you’re an expatriate studying Khmer, as I am, you probably learned some time ago that east is the birth side, and west is the drowning side—an obvious reference to what the sun does every day. Why north is the leg side, and south is the jewel side, however, I have yet to figure out.

I am not a great student of Khmer. I haven’t yet had the satisfaction of having a smooth conversation in the language; when the Khmer words for “stand,” “wood,” and “believe” come out of my mouth, they all sound exactly the same.

Fortunately, often just at the moment during a Khmer lesson that I’m ready to baok (throw) my little yellow siaphew (book) in utter frustration and stomp out of the room, I learn that a bullet is the “seed of the gun,” that a key is the “child of the lock,” that ankles are “the eyes at the end,” that a brother-in-law is an “expensive brother,” that a freckle is a “fly turd,” or that a bear is a “tiger bee” (think about it), and I feel much better.

Even before I started learning the language, I had come to appreciate the Cambodian fondness for metaphor as expressed in proverbs. Hun Sen is always observing that you can’t cut the head to fit the hat, and his opponents have compared the political coalition he has built to a fig that conceals a rotten core under a healthy skin.

I was pleased to discover the same tendency in the words of the language itself. To foreigners, Khmer may not sound particularly melodic, and its grammar and vocabulary may seem almost primitively simple. But it often succeeds in uniting man and nature, the abstract and the concrete, in an extremely economical fashion. In short, it is poetic.

Do not underestimate the breadth of this accomplishment. Cambodia may have spent most of the last several hundred years under the thumb of one foreign regime or another, but its language appears to have remained entirely its own. After all, they could have just called a helicopter a “helicopter” instead of a dragonfly. They could have called blue jeans “blue jeans” instead of cowboy pants, and a pencil a “pencil” (or stylo, the French word) instead of a black hand.

Instead, Cambodians at some point decided to try to put these new imports within their own vision of the world.

It’s worth a comparison here to the French, who colonized this country for the greater part of a century with the two primary aims of gaining wealth and spreading its culture, including the language.

French seems to have made only minor inroads into the Khmer language. Meanwhile, in their home country, French kids are flaunting les blue-jeans and gathering at le disco, adopting English words even as their elders debate proposals to outlaw them.

To say that the Khmer language is highly metaphorical is not to say that it’s unique. Some linguists have argued that almost all words in all languages have their roots in metaphor—that is, that language has almost always evolved from the concrete to the abstract. Linguist George Lakoff, author of the book “Metaphors We Live By,” has observed that even the English word “is” can be traced, at its origin, to an ancient language word meaning “to breathe.”

Indeed, English used to be a considerably different language. We appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare’s metaphors from a distance nowadays, but in Shakes­peare’s time, even a commoner’s language was much more likely to refer to the rose, the heath, or the sparrow. And for the common farmer or fisherman, this wasn’t poetry, it was the workings of his world. For an urbanizing and developing population, metaphors were a handy way to relate the new ways to the old.

Most people in the Western world moved off the farms and the seas long ago, and today the English language reflects the needs of the city-dweller and the modern bureaucracy. The charming horse-carriage language of old has been replaced by the zippy, if somewhat cold, sports-car language of today. The metaphorical flourishes have been dropped. It is efficient, precise (or maddeningly generic, when nececssary). In English, there is no mistaking a helicopter for a dragonfly.

It is also alienated—divorced from its origins, like many of its speakers. Most Wester­ners can go to the supermarket and buy a variety of goods that would have been beyond the reach of a king a couple hundred years ago. But we don’t know who grows our vegetables or mills our rice, or how; we feel disconnected from the elements of life, anxious about our own purpose. This anxiety is the disease of the rich Westerner, and our everyday language does not heal us.

Part of the satisfaction we get from travel is from fleeting glimpses of people who we somehow believe are more grounded in the elemental facts of life. Here in Cambodia we enjoy travelling through the countryside, watching farmers at work, and learning about metaphors in Khmer.

It saddens me a bit, then, when I sense that Khmer may become a seriously neglected language. I go to the few libraries that exist here and see that most of the books are in English. The older generation keeps a strong oral culture, but literacy is poor, and casual reading is rare. The ambitious younger generation has an insatiable appetite for English and a smattering of other languages, spending precious riel on lessons at private schools.

But their basic education in their own language is often very poor. Expatriates are all too happy to teach English, but the message is out: to succeed, you must learn someone else’s tongue.

Given Cambodia’s difficulties, it may be difficult to expect otherwise. Still, there is much talk about saving Cambodian traditional culture—its dance, music, theater and folklore.

Language, though not always thought of us as such, is a vast reservoir of common culture—a gargantuan common effort, and the reflection of a worldview. Khmer has successfully asserted itself against a host of foreign tongues. If older students do not learn advanced Khmer along with their English or other languages, will they learn to appreciate its beauty? When this country produces its next great novelists or poets, what language will they use?






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