Professor Long Seam, Cambodia’s preeminent expert on ancient stone inscriptions, lived for the Khmer language, devoting nearly every waking moment to unraveling the history of his native tongue.
With his passing last week on his 72nd birthday, academics nationwide are left mourning a man they say was a tireless scholar without equal.
“[Long Seam] studied deeply to understand Cambodian history before and after the Angkorian era,” said Sorn Samnang, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia.
“Without his works and the research he did, younger generations would have difficulty understanding what happened 1,000 years ago,” he said.
Much of what Long Seam was able to contribute to the study of Cambodian history and language comes from his unrivaled ability to decipher the texts carved in stone at Angkorian and pre-Angkorian sites.
Iv Chan, deputy director of the Royal Academy’s Khmer Language Institute, said that most scholarship on Cambodia’s past, particularly by the French, had focused on documents, but it was Long Seam who really first began pulling history directly from the ancient inscriptions.
Long Seam was “the man who could talk to stone,” Iv Chan said. “Nobody was as good at [reading] inscriptions as Long Seam…. Without his language of stone, Cambodians would have difficulty understanding our culture, history, language and religion,” he said.
Long Seam’s uniqueness was also due to the small number of Cambodians who can read ancient Khmer.
Sorn Samnang said that there are only about 100 people who can interpret the carved texts—all of them students of Long Seam—and of those, only about 10 can do so proficiently.
One inscription particularly dear to Long Seam was a law from the reign of Suryavarman I in the first half of the 11th century.
The carved text is of an ancient oath by which the empire’s four top officials had to swear fealty to the King, with betrayers being punished in one of the 32 hells, said Sorn Pov, permanent secretary of the Royal Academy’s National Institute of Languages.
Sorn Pov said that in his later years, Long Seam tried to get the National Assembly and Senate to hang the law on their walls as a reminder to all of the achievements of the ancient Khmer Empire, which included codified laws.
A number of prominent academics said that Long Seam probably ranks as the second greatest scholar in Cambodian history after the late Chuon Nath—a famed Buddhist patriarch and Pali-language scholar who also edited the first Khmer dictionary.
“Long Seam will be like Samdech Chuon Nath—he will be remembered in everyone’s mind,” said Ros Chantraboth, deputy president of the Royal Academy.
Born into a well-off family in Kompong Thom province on July 15, 1935, Long Seam took his studies seriously from an early age, recalled longtime friend Miech Ponn, who is now an adviser to the Buddhist Institute of Cambodia.
“Seam was a strong learner, even when he was at a young age,” Miech Ponn said. “He was not a talkative person—he only liked to discuss that which would earn him more knowledge.”
According to a biography in his own “Ancient Khmer Dictionary,” Long Seam was assigned by the government in 1969 to teach the Khmer language in Moscow and work on a masters degree in modern Khmer literature.
It would be 13 years before he would return to Cambodia from Russia. His first wife and only child perished under the Khmer Rouge regime.
In 1976, he began doing doctoral work at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris searching for the roots of the Khmer language in ancient inscriptions.
He returned to Cambodia in 1982, publishing books throughout the ensuing decades, including a Khmer-Russian dictionary and a history of Cambodia.
In 1993, he became an adviser to the Ministry of Education and began teaching classes on inscriptions at the Royal Phnom Penh University and the Royal University of Fine Arts.
In 1997, he became an adviser to then-second Prime Minister Hun Sen on culture and Khmer literature. Three years later he became chairman of the National Language Institute—a position he held until his death.
But despite so many accomplishments, the project that was to be Long Seam’s greatest achievement is left unfinished by his death.
Sorn Pov said that among Long Seam’s final words was a request that his Khmer literature dictionary be finished.
Iv Chan said that the project was intended to give a comprehensive listing of Khmer words from the 6th century to the present, but only the 6th through 9th centuries have been completed. He added that Long Seam’s students have vowed to complete the work their teacher began.
“Cambodians only use 20,000 words, but if we continue to develop [the dictionary] we would have 100,000 words,” Iv Chan said.
“With so many words, Cambodians could produce great poetry.”