Mondolkiri Tribe Losing Language, Culture

For centuries, the Phnong’s history and culture has been passed on by their storytellers; people would gather at the end of the day and listen to tales that often mixed facts and magic. Because there was no written form of their language, Phnong history and literature have resided solely in the human memory.

But the isolation that has enabled the Phnong to retain their heritage is becoming a thing of the past, said Sylvain Vogel, linguist with the Linguistic So­ciety at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Even Phnong villages in remote areas of Mondolkiri province have discovered radio and television, which are quickly filling storytelling time, he said. In addition, there are no schools to teach Phnong history, literature or even language, Vogel said.

This makes it urgent not only to collect their oral works before the stories disappear, but to collect them accurately—and even scientifically—in order to truly reflect the Phnong culture they come from, he said. A case involving a popular Phnong story shows how tricky this can be.

During a research trip to Mondolkiri province in 1998, Vogel asked a Phnong man for a tale that would not be too long to write down and that was well known among Phnong people.

Nchoep told him the “Story of the Two Orphans” about two boys who, through a series of adventures that included battling a dragon, became men and ended up happily married.

Vogel later learned that, in 1898, this same tale had been published in a French magazine by Adhemar Leclere, a French colonial administrator who was living in Cambodia at the time. This made him curious: Would the story, which had been transmitted orally from one Phnong generation to the next, change over the 100 years that separated the two versions?

He discovered that the tale itself had not really changed, but that the version taken down by Leclere in the 19th century had a Khmer slant that had nothing to do with the Phnong culture.

Leclere had heard the story in Khmer from a Khmer-speaking Phnong who had added elements of Khmer tales to it, said Vogel. The heroes, whose Phnong names are Nprong and Ndjong, became Phang and Iyang; the damsel that the younger brother saves from the dragon is a Chinese princess in the Khmerized version; and his story, which ends with his marriage in the Phnong version, continues to see him crowned as king of China and later defeated in war, said Vogel.

In Nchoep’s version, the two brothers faced what are considered handicaps in Phnong society, he said. In the course of their journey, they will lose the marginal status of orphan children and turn into mar­ried men and respected members of the community.

The Khmerized version ends with the younger brother’s sword being lost and its parts scattered in Cambodia and Thailand­—a part of the story with no connection with the Phnong culture, said Vogel.

The Phnong have a vast collection of literary works, from poetry to novel-length tales often of great complexity, he said. Many stories are elaborate epics containing family histories, descriptions of villages and of daily activities, and detailed accounts of conflicts and wars involving humans and gods.

Vogel and fellow linguist Jean-Michel Filippi, also of the Linguistic Society, have been developing a written phonetic form of the Phnong language with support from the French government, in order to preserve the Phnong oral tradition.

Having experts of the language record texts may ensure exact versions reflecting the Phnong context, said Vogel. However, the study of their culture would require ethnologists and literary specialists to become involved while that culture still exists, he said. Already, the “Story of the Two Orphans” refers to traditions and customs that have faded away, such as men wearing loincloths and women numerous bracelets.

Vogel said he plans to put his analysis and translation of the tale at the disposal of researchers in the hope of triggering their interest in the Phnong culture. The Phnong make up about 80 percent of the population of Mondolkiri province, which is estimated at 40,000 people.

 

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