Linguist Discusses His Lifelong Study of Khmer Language

Many native English speakers living in Cambodia know the name Franklin Huffman. It’s the name on the cover of the little yellow “Modern Spoken Cambodian” book they love to hate.

Meet the real Frank Huffman. Born in the rural Shenandoah Valley in the US state of Virginia, Huffman, now 68, made his first trip to Cambodia in 1957 while doing development work in Laos.

In 1958, Huffman tried to get from Vientiane to Paris on a BMW motorcycle. He smuggled the motorcycle into Burma, sold it in India, slept on cots in the Iranian desert and rode trains through Turkey. He finally achieved his destination, forever changed, he says, from a “country boy” to an adventurer.

Huffman spent 25 years studying Southeast Asian languages, especially Khmer, as an academic linguist before joining the US Foreign Service in 1985, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. He served in Britain, Burma, Morocco, France, Cambodia and New Zealand.

Now retired, he returned to Cambodia for the fifth time in February, on a six-month temporary assignment as press attache for the US Embassy.

Q: How did “Modern Spoken Cambodian” come about?

A: Cornell [University] offered me a scholarship to graduate school in 1960. I wanted to study Southeast Asia, but you couldn’t do area studies except as a minor together with what they considered a real—academic—discip-­line. So I went into Southeast Asian linguistics.

Gradually I realized that they thought I was there for a PhD. So I went ahead and got a PhD, and I went from graduate student to full professor from 1960 to 1980. Once having started something—this is my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, I think—there’s a verse in the Bible that says something like, “Once having put your hand to the plow, never look back.” I used to see this as a virtue. Now I see it as a serious character flaw, the compulsion to do what other people want you to do.

When the time came to pick a dissertation topic, I chose Cambodian. Why? First, be­cause Cambodian has a long and illustrious literary tradition. It’s the modern representative of the oldest linguistic stock in Southeast Asia, the Mon-Khmer group. In addition, it was the only major national language in Southeast Asia that had never been described from the point of view of structural linguistics.

Second, the fact that Cambodian belonged to this linguistic stock made it a very interesting candidate for historical comparative re­search in Southeast Asian linguistics. There were at one time about 100 languages belonging to the Mon-Khmer family, spoken all over Southeast Asia in a swath from East India through Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Cam­bo­dia, southern Laos and southern Vietnam. The remnants are still there in the Mont­agnard languages. Cambodian is the only one that became a national language.

The textbooks grew out of my dissertation research. In order to teach, I had to write textbooks, so I wrote two: “Modern Spoken Cam­bodian” and “Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader,” both of which I’ve seen in the markets here, though you can’t always read them. Following that I wrote an intermediate reader. I haven’t seen that out here. Altogether, I wrote five Cambodian textbooks, one Cambodian dictionary, and one general bibliography of Southeast Asian linguistics. I also wrote a Vietnamese textbook.

Q: So how many languages do you speak?

A: I have State Department competency in French, Khmer and Thai. I know some Lao, Vietnamese, Burmese and Spanish. I studied about 20 Montagnard languages on a Gug­genheim fellowship in 1970 to 71.

Q: What’s your proudest achievement?

A: My co-author, Proum Im—he was a Cam­bodian who had gone to the US on a Fulbright and defected—Mr Proum and I spent five years working on the dictionary, which was finally published in 1978 by Yale Press…. The royalties amounted to only 5 percent, or 2 1/2 percent each for myself and Mr Proum. I figured this was nothing.

But in the early 1980s, there was an influx of Cambodian refugees to the US—about 100,000 of them—and they all bought the dictionary! It was on the Yale Press best-seller list for 26 weeks. So that little 2 1/2 percent they grudgingly gave Mr Proum and me, turned into $10,000 a year. That tailed off, of course. I got $41 last year.

You can’t learn a language from a dictionary. All these people were buying the dictionary, so I thought I would write an English textbook for speakers of Khmer. It’s a masterpiece. The discussion of English grammar in Khmer has to be original in the Khmer language—scholars today would do well to investigate it. But it never sold. It was too technical. It ought to be the No 1 English textbook for speakers of Khmer—it was “English ex­plained!” And yet the dictionary is seen as my main contribution to Khmer linguistics.

When we wrote the dictionary, we found that a lot of [words] didn’t exist; Proum and I had to coin them, and now they’ve made their way into the Cambodian language. So I have affected the Cambodian language.

For example, English has a lot of abstract nouns, whereas Khmer is quintessentially a verbal language, very rich in verbs. A lot of the words that in English end in “-tion” or “-ment,” we had to find ways in Khmer to render all those English nominalizations, using particles to convert verbs into nouns.

Q: What do students of the Khmer language usually find most difficult?

A: Definitely the vowel system—the sounds are so close together. But there’s a historical reason for that. All over Southeast Asia it seems there was a kind of sweeping change in which a whole series of voiced consonants—b, d, j, g—coalesced with the voiceless consonants p, t, c, k. Consequently, all words that formerly started with ka or ga, now all started with ka. Before, two words might have been differentiated from each other because one started with ka and one started with ga; when they fell together, the difference was transferred from the initial consonant to the vowel. In some languages this led to the development of tones. In Khmer, it led to subtle variations in vowel sounds.

It probably won’t stay. I don’t think a language can sustain such close contrasts. Plenty of [Khmer] dialects don’t maintain such minute differences. For example, the vowel system of the Takeo dialect is much simplified—and they can still talk to each other.

Q: Many students find your transliteration system a headache—crossed i’s, upside-down e’s, symbols that don’t exist on an English keyboard. Can you justify it?

A: [Using a set of symbols that always represent the same sounds] is a phonemic thing, a linguist thing that’s beautiful to us. It’s constant, invariable, immutable—this is it, man!

Pedagogically it seems to [anger people]—people do tell me that. But you have to go with what’s pedagogically effective. I went by the international phonetic alphabet. People all over the world learning languages try to somehow notate the sound in their own alphabet, they write down something and later they find that it sounds slightly different from something else and they need to distinguish the two. You might like to use only the English alphabet, but it won’t do. You find that you don’t have the adequate symbols to notate the phonetics of a foreign language. My symbols are the result of a rigorous analysis of the full logical contrasts of the language. People don’t understand that.

I haven’t ever experimented with other ap­proaches. There’s no right approach. Every­one’s looking for an easy way to learn a language, and there isn’t one. Learning a language is a huge job that requires huge amounts of work. There’s no such thing as “French in Six Easy Lessons.”


: That must have been a frightening time to be in Cambodia.

A: Security had deteriorated to such a point that Phnom Penh was the only safe area. I stopped here in January 1971…because my intermediate reader was being printed at the Imprimerie Nationale. I was about to leave when the Khmer Rouge blew up Pochentong Airport. I had to extend my stay by 10 days. One night I was having dinner with an em­bassy official when there was a big explosion and all the lights went out. Somebody had blown up the South Vietnamese ambassador’s residence next door. So it was pretty hairy.

—al­though I get impatient sometimes with fashions in language pedagogy. They’re all

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