Scholars Still Stuck in a Dictionary Debate

It’s a language with more letters than any other in Asia. The problem is how to put them all together correctly.

Scholars working with the Royal Academy of Cambodia are sorting out how to do this as they prepare a new version of the  Khmer-language dictionary.

It is the most ambitious work on the dictionary since it was first written in 1915 under the direction of the celebrated language scholar Chourn Nath, Acad­emy President Sorn Sam Nang said .

With years of civil war, including the Khmer Rouge regime and the Vietnamese occupation, there was little emphasis on Khmer language, scholars say.

“We have lost 30 years [in which] we paid little attention to our language,” Sorn Sam Nang said. “But just now we are at peace, and it’s a perfect time to start discussing it.”

Scholars are divided over whether the dictionary should stick to traditional principles of spelling, grammar and pronunciation, or whether it should include modern usage.

Modern scholars want to leave their own mark on the language by revising basic elements like spelling and pronunciation, said Miech Ponn, a top language expert at the Ministry of Cults and Religions. But, he said, they risk changing forever a pillar of Khmer culture. He pointed out that official Khmer spellings have been changed dramatically since 1982, when the Ministry of Edu­cation began revising them.

De­bate resumes at a conference Sept 7 to 9 in Phnom Penh. They hope to add 34,000 more words to the official Khmer dictionary, which now has just 16,000 words. Many of the new additions will be technical and scientific words.


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