looking beyond khmer

The latest research of French linguist Jean-Michel Filippi brings to light a facet of Cam­bodia whose complexity has yet to be fully explored: the country’s 20 to 25 minority languages, spoken by as few as 150 people and as many as 450,000.

“There is no monolithic identity in Cambodia, not even among the Khmers,” said Filippi who is director of the Institute for the Develop­ment of Social Sciences in Cam­bodia. “For centuries, there was no standardized Khmer language, and each pagoda had its own norm and orthography…based on local pronunciation,” he said in a recent in­terview.

Filippi’s “Preliminary Research on Minority Languages in Cam­bodia” was recently published in book form in French and will be posted in both French and Eng­lish at the institute’s Web site, www.idssc.org, in late July.

Funded by Unesco, the book is the result of Filippi’s field research and interviews as well as analysis of all research material produced on the subject; it is meant as a first phase that will hopefully lead to in-depth work on the country’s minority languages, he said.

“We are all quite ignorant on the topic,” Filippi said, referring to even the size of minority groups in the country and whether they speak only their own language or a mix of languages.

Research conducted prior to the 1970s is no longer relevant as communities were decimated during the years of war and conflicts, he explained. For instance, a re­searcher in 1967 had described Ratanakkiri province as being filled with villages of the Brao minority, which includes the Kreung; today, Jarai can also be found in the area, he said.

Filippi’s book includes graphics and charts on minority language families and relationships between languages—such as Jarai and Cham being from the Malayo-Polynesian branch of Austronesian languages, while Stieng and Viet­namese are from the oriental branch of the Austro-Asiatic family. In one section, there is a brief de­scription of each language, complete with population figures and a map showing which part of the country the minority’s villages are primarily based.

One section describes languages at risk. Samre could be called a dead language, Filippi said. Jean Moura, an early French Protec­torate administrator, had mentioned in his 1883 book on Cam­bodia that a Samre minority lived in Siem Reap province. But Filippi was unable to find a single Samre-speaking person in that province. The Samre spoken in the Carda­mom Mountains is a slightly different language, he said.

Two languages are on the verge of dying: the Sa’och in Kampot province and Poa in Preah Vihear province, he said. Their decline can be traced back to the Khmer Rouge regime, which forbade those minority groups from speaking their languages.

About 150 older persons in the Sa’och community and 300 in the Poa community still know the languages but neither use nor teach them to their children, which means that the languages will soon fade away unless efforts are made to revitalize them, Filippi said.

“A language dies the day it no longer is transmitted from one generation to the next,” he said.

Among the languages in transition, Filippi puts Phnong, Jarai, Tampuon and Brao that are spoken in daily life by the large hilltribe communities of Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces. Those communities, he said, “have been submitted to tremendous upheavals of a magnitude that had not so far taken place in recent history.” With recent economic changes in the two provinces, hilltribe villages will disappear, he said. Minority languages may be less and less used in the area since they are linked to agricultural practices and a way of life that hilltribe communities may no longer be able to keep, he said.

Although also a language in transition, the case of Kuay is entirely different, Filippi explained. Mostly established in Preah Vihear prov­ince, the Kuay were the blacksmiths of the Angkorian empire who made arms and worked metals—they still have smithies, he said. Most of them are Buddhist; they speak Kuay in their villages, and many of them are fairly well integrated into Cam­bodia’s mainstream. With the Preah Vihear temple about to be listed as a World Heritage site, which may cause a tourist boom, ethnic-minority tourism in Kuay villages may develop and give this minority language increased importance, Filippi said.

Among the large minorities are the Cham, whose size Filippi estimates to be approximately 240,000 people. Consisting of two communities with different Cham writing systems—the minority group using a system of Indian origin and the majority group an Arabic alphabet from Malaysia—the two communities hardly communicate with each other, he said. In his opinion, a program for Cham studies should be launched both to preserve and further Cham culture and language and to make sure that Cham people are not kept apart from Cam­bodian society, he said.

Other large minorities are those speaking Chinese languages such as the Teochiu who number about 181,000 people mostly living in Phnom Penh, and the Hainan whose community of 13,000 is mainly based in Kampot province.

Vietnamese is the most widely used minority language in the country, totaling about 450,000 speakers, according to government figures, Filippi said.

The argument for encouraging minority languages goes beyond the fact that minority cultures and languages are part of the county’s rich heritage and worth preserving, he said.

Cambodia’s mainstream could learn a great deal from minorities such as, he said, “their medical knowledge and pharmacopeia that have enabled them to survive for centuries.”

Much could be gained by involving minorities in environmental protection and development, especially in northeastern provinces, Filippi said. “Those people have a relationship with nature which is not ours,” and natural resource management skills developed over millennia, he said.

Fostering minority cultures and languages also has to do with alleviating poverty and ensuring sustainable development in the country, he said.

The Ministry of Education has taken the step of allowing the first two years of primary school to be taught entirely in minority languages with progressive introduction of the Khmer language, Filippi said. “This is one of the most interesting government policies in the region” to reduce illiteracy, he said. In order to be effective, literacy programs must enable people to learn to read and write in their mother tongues; literacy experiments that used French instead of people’s native languages in Africa failed miserably, he said.

In health or agriculture programs, Filippi said, “If we don’t take into consideration people’s languages and local know-how linked to those languages, this amounts to imposing things outright.”

“Imposing foreign techniques without a dialogue, without [an approach to bridge] local know-how and the know-how being introduced has led in all cases studied around the world to those populations becoming isolated, which is the opposite of sustainable development or any other form of development,” he said.

As for the chances of minority languages to endure, there is no denying the dangers of a standardized language and culture in our era of globalization, Filippi said. But, he added, “I refuse pessimism.”

Throughout history, diversity has ensured that a whole country’s population did not die when an epidemic struck a particular ethnic group. “Cultural diversity, racial diversity, linguistic diversity have always been a guarantee that have assured the continuation of the human heritage,” Filippi said.



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