sen monorom town, Mondolkiri Province – Give a man language and what will he write? If you are a 28-year-old Phnong man like Poeurng Tem, the son of farmers, who grew up in a traditional thatched hut that got really smoky when it rained, you may well write first about rabbits. Funny rabbits.
In 2003, the written word came to Mondolkiri’s Phnong ethnic minority—who make up some 80 percent of the province’s inhabitants—and today written language has started to wend its way through a community that for centuries has had a strong oral tradition but no script.
Though it remains to be seen whether written Phnong will take root—and how it will change their political and imaginative lives if it does—already it is following a familiar path: In Mondolkiri, as in ancient Greece, words are used first for business, and only later for literature.
The Khmer script for written Phnong was created by Diethelm Kanjahn, a German linguist working for International Cooperation Cambodia, a Christian charity with an office in Sen Monorom, Mondolkiri’s provincial capital.
In 2003, Kanjahn’s system was approved by the government, and the next year, ICC began teaching villagers how to read and write, in both Phnong and Khmer.
Today, ICC has 43 teachers working with about 400 students, who learn life skills like basic health care and accounting, as well as literacy. Mariam Smith, ICC’s non-formal education coordinator, said functional literacy rates among the Phnong in 2003 were around 5 percent.
The first use of written language, for most of the small but growing core of literate Phnong, has been in the market.
“They calculate numbers and write down what they’ve sold,” said Sey Touch, the office manager for ICC’s literacy project.
So it was in ancient Greece, according to Sylvain Vogel, a linguist who works for the French Embassy and began his career as a student of ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit.
The earliest Greek writing, Vogel said, was an enumeration of merchandise, people and houses.
“The first alphabets were invented to take down lists,” he said. “Later, it was used for official purposes. The King would write down deeds and laws. Literature emerged much later.”
Writing, Vogel added, also facilitates new structures of governance. “You cannot manage a big community without writing,” he said. “If a political unit is a village of 200 people, why should you write anything? You know each and everyone in the village.”
Vogel, who has written two books about the Phnong language, said that Phnong history and culture have been preserved in ancient songs and epic poems, recited generation after generation. That oral tradition, however, is now being lost to the televisions and motorbikes that have pushed their way deep into the Phnong heartland.
“They shared the same heroes and the same divinities,” he said. “Now only people over 50 know them.”
Vogel has been writing down the ancient legends, using the international phonetic alphabet, a scholar’s script he says is great for academics but useless in everyday life.
“When the oral literature vanishes, it’s dead. I’m collecting it, but I’m not the savior of Phnong literature. That’s up to the Phnong,” he said.
If and when written Phnong takes root, Vogel says, it will change Phnong literature, which is now structured so that it can be remembered, 2,000 and 3,000 verses at a time. It is highly repetitive and built on tropes and recurring characters, memory aids that aren’t necessary with the written word.
“Literature changes when you write it down,” he said.
Which brings us back to Poeurng Tem’s rabbits.
Poeurng Tem, who looks humble enough as he waits out the afternoon rains in a stained t-shirt and bare feet, is one of the first Phnong ever to write in his mother tongue.
He is one of six Phnong the ICC employs to record the legends of their villages, translate texts and write simple stories. Smith says she hopes writing will help the Phnong deal with the onslaught of modernity that has been chipping away at their traditional livelihoods and
culture. “Change has to come, but they should have choices,” she said.
To date, ICC has a library of more than 130 Phnong-language titles, including health manuals, teaching materials, folk tales and reading primers. Cookbooks, basket-making manuals and songbooks are in the works, Smith said.
Poeurng Tem has written four booklets: two that record village myths and two from his imagination.
One is about a rabbit that eats bananas.
“I wanted to make people laugh: It’s so strange, a rabbit eating bananas,” he said.
In addition to being gastronomically adventurous, Poeurng Tem’s rabbit is clever, and seeing a woman with a basket of tasty bananas strapped to her back, he plays dead. The woman, dreaming perhaps of some nice roast rabbit, picks up the limp little bunny and puts him in her basket, whereupon he eats all the bananas and runs off, to live, presumably, happily ever after.
He also wrote one about a bear that helps a monkey.
For inspiration, he said, he turns to Khmer legends, which are stocked with ungrateful crocodiles, tiger bullies, and, indeed, clever rabbits.
In addition to his imaginary stories, he’s also recorded legends from village elders. For his latest work, now in a trial edition, Poeurng Tem researched the myth of Keirra Y Rock, a local rock formation near Bou Sra village.
He also wrote a history of the Mountain Radung Gungrala, a hill not far from his home. “I loved the mountain dearly,” he said. “So I wanted to learn the history.”
His parents, both farmers, can’t read his books. “But they love to listen to me read them,” he said.
At this point, he said, writing helps him remember all the new words he’s learning to write in Phnong. And, he said, there’s a special thrill in writing down a word no one—or almost no one—has ever put to paper before.
Already, he’s learned an early lesson in the power of the pen. Phnong traditionally drink their ceremonial jugs of wine from only one straw, and Poeurng Tem was trying to convince them that it would be more hygienic to drink from separate straws. No amount of verbal instruction, however, could change their minds: He had to write it down.
“People are afraid verbal explanations are a lie. We drew pictures. Some people can read a little bit. They really believe in the written word,” he said.