Cambodians sick of their language
News of Cambodia N° 0746-E
CAMBODIANS SICK OF THEIR LANGUAGE
December 9th, 2007
We diffuse below an article about our language by Denis Richer in his interview with Cambodge Soir Hebdo N°9 / Year 1 of november 29th, 2007 pages 5 and 6. François Ponchaud also wrote an article on our language. Richer and Ponchaud uttered rather relevant criticisms on our language but both give no credible solution to remedy it.
It is true that many Cambodians ignore our language's wealth as Richer noted it so well. It is not new, already before 1970, during a debate on the radio, Keng Vansak complained about our language's poverty. But respectable Chuon Nath, author of the first dictionary of the Cambodian language, replies right away by saying that the Cambodian language is very rich, but many Cambodians ignore it. Nowadays there is a very well done Cambodian-English dictionary : « Modern Cambodian - English Dictionary » of Robert K. Headley Jr ., Rath Chinn and Ok Soeum published by Dunwoody Press, Kensington, Maryland, the USA, on 1997 and now a «Dictionary Cambodian -French » well documented of Father Rodineau. These dictionaries are intended to translate from Cambodian into English or into French. They are not intended to translate from English or from French into Cambodian. They are not either intended for the Cambodians who ignore our language. Yet for the moment there is no another project to publish a serious English-Cambodian or French-Cambodian dictionary. These dictionaries do not answer to the interests of major powers. No any rich Cambodian or no any group of Cambodians thinks of doing it either. Choun Nath dictionary still remains the only dictionary of this kind. There are efforts of some of our fellow countrymen to add to it the new words.
« About the words of a language. It is indisputable that there are mutual exchanges between neighbors and also words coming by far. » Michel Antelme (Of French Father and Cambodian mother).
Richer seems ignoring an important characteristic of our language, often ignored by foreigners. It is about all the harmony and the wealth of sounds. Cambodians have an innate sense of the visual and auditive beauty. This innate artistic capacity was felt by the American of Swedish origin Ingrid Muan, regrettably dead in a mysterious death in 2002 at 40 years old. Under her impulse, she created the Reyum Institute and developed the art everywhere of the word and also the Cambodian language. After her death, Reyum decays.
It is necessary to note that the former Cambodian texts are written in verse and sung by reading. How many Cambodians do they now know how to read texts written on leaves ? How to translate « Meul Phnom Thom Theng Reng Roleuk » in another language? In the prose of many Cambodian writers there are poetic and musical images at the same time, impossible to translate into another language. Fortunately there are still Cambodian writers who still know how to use the poetic and musical wealth, the image's harmony and the sound to describe at the same time a landscape and a profound sentiment evoked by the image.
There is also a wealth of accents. The melodious accent of Siem Reap, probably expressing about our angkorian ancestors, is very known and appreciated by all fellow countrymen. A Cambodian of Phnom Penh married a woman of Siem Reap. He asks to his wife to insult him with the accent of her province. Because the Siem Reap speaking is so melodious that even the insults are pleasant to hear and listen. The inhabitants of Siem Reap say that the Cambodians of Phnom Penh speak as a barking dog. Is this accent of Siem Reap going to disappear with the foreigner's influx? If it is the case, it will really be pity. It is a loss of a part of our cultural patrimony.
What it is dangerous is that Richer already thinks of romanising our language! The romanisation of the vietnamese language was invented by the Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes in 1650. But it was generalized by the colonial regime, that at about the 1920s, to remove the vietnamese culture of the chinese culture. If Cambodia loses her writing, she will also lose her cultural identity. Our writing was invented in the VIth century and it is the most ancient writing of our region. We should never forget that. It is to cut for ever, our fellow countrymen, of the writings on stone, our old manuscripts then of our cultural roots. So under pretext to help us, do not try to cut us of our past? Of our history?
Our regretted scholar Long Seam worked hard, with a weak salary, by means of the Toyota foundation, in order to give birth the invaluable first one « Dictionary of the Ancient Khmer » (Printed by Phnom Penh Printing House, 2000) when for the first time the writing of ancient Cambodian has the honor to appear without a dictionary. It is necessary to insist that our manuscripts on stone are still never translated into modern Cambodian. Then how to wonder that our fellow countrymen ignore their history?
About the new words. Let us remind that during the translation of the Arabic books into Latin, one had to either uses the Arabic words as « algebra » or invent the others. Nowadays the scholars invent every day of the new words which later on will become common words. It is normal. Cambodians have already used the word « sabou » for soap, the word « butters » etc. We have already adopted the word « computer » for computer. Of course we tried to impose a learned word for « train », but the people adopted « roteas phleung » or « rot phleung ». So after all it is the people who impose her vocabulary in the ordinary language.
It is normal that there are mutual exchanges in the language as well as in the meal for example. Michel Antelme is a specialist of the mutual exchanges between the Cambodian and the Thai languages. There is no another specialist for the Cambodian and Vietnamese languages.
« The Vietnamese is a rather homogeneous language; there are only two dialects, that of the North which has six tones, and that of the South which has only five. » (in « the languages of the humanity » by Michel Malherbe, Ed. Seghers, Paris 1983, page 251). Is not this decrease of the number of tones due to the influence of the Cambodian language, the language without tone ?
« As the Korean, the vietnamese language can use two systems of numeration, but if the one is diverted from the Chinese, the other one is diverted from the Khmer » (idem page 252). For example the word « Av » for cloth to cover the height of the body, is of Cambodian origin (Claude Hagège). In the Vietnamese cook point of view, that of the South is much different from that of the North. It is necessary to know that Cambodians who invented and made « Noum Banhchok », vermicelli made from the rice flour. The Japanese enjoyed it for the first time in Oudong. And they called them « Oudong ». Thus all the dishes containing this « Noum Banhchok », like « Bo Buong » is of Cambodian origin. As the dish known under the name of « Nem » is only of Chinese by-product dish used in Hanoi and modified by Cambodians. In a broadcast report, the Vietnamese of Prey Nokor said that the Vietnamese kitchen is very influenced by the Indian kitchen, for not to say Cambodian.
« For more sophistication, the Juan, in the first floor of Montreux Palace, serves as these excellent « World food », at the same time French, delicately Khmer and lemonic. Try it to discover a new art of new style cooking. » (In Paris Match of August 15th, 2002, page 97-98, in an entitled article « In Switzerland, Weekend on the Lake Geneva, with Berthe Morisot ». The traditional Cambodian kitchen is very fine and uses a big quantity of aromatic plants. Regrettably it is very long and difficult to prepare. Unfortunately there are few rich Cambodians who run a restaurant with a true Cambodian kitchen. The Thai preparation is only of the very bad Cambodian kitchen with a lot of hot chilis.
In the language point of view, Richer compares our current society to that of Europe of the Middle Age. It's true. But, how Europe evolved? It is mainly because of the printing office invention. It is the printing office which dethroned the Latin by developing the vernacular languages, the preludes in the births of the European nations nowadays. By diffusing books the printing office allows the numerous university and private libraries to grow up and expand. The knowledge is within the reach of a people growing number. The Latin, then the translations, allowed the European scholars to communicate each other and then to know all the innovations and the discoveries. We quote an example concerning the astronomy's development.
The first expedition around the world is begun by Fernand de Magellan (1480-1521): Started in August 1519 and ended by the Basque El Cano on September 8th, 1522. This journey confirms the sphericity of the earth, suspected since the antiquity. By consulting the ship's log, the crew notices one day of delay between the Spanish calendar and that of the expedition.
The Polish scholar Copernic (1473-1543) draws the conclusion which the earth turns on itself in 24 hours and not to undergo the Vatican's lightning, publish some months before his death his famous treaty where, for the first time he demonstrates the rotation of the earth and the other planets on themselves and the rotations of the earth and the other planets around the sun. This system is completely against the Christian religion of that time.
The navigation develops and its security depends on the determination of the position the most exact possible on the ground sphere. From where the cartography and also the astronomy are developed. After Copernic, it is the German Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Basing on the very precise measures of his boss, Dane Tycho de Brahé (1546-1601) who for the first time expresses the laws on the orbit's form of planets around the sun and on the connections between the characteristics of these orbits and its revolution time around the sun. Later the Englishman Isaac Newton (1642-1727) confirm by his Gravitation's theory the laws envisaged by Kepler by the only astronomical measures. The German Albert Einstein (1879-1955) invents the theory of relativity which comes to strengthen Newton's theory and which so far is accepted by astronomical measure.
The word is as useful as timing belt to transmit knowledge from generation to generation. But the information tends to get lost. The paper (writing) serves for passing on the knowledge more durably, but also through the space and with the translations between the peoples, although only for the small minority who knows how to read and write. With the printing office, the number of the people who know how to read and write increases in a considerable way. The printing office also favors the development of the popular languages which become national languages. By the translations, the knowledge's exchange and the inventions between the peoples of Europe develop. It is what allows Western Europe to dominate gradually the world.
The Russian czar Pierre 1st le Grand (1672-1725) is the first one who understands that the Western Europe power lies in its knowledge. He is the first Russian czar who introduces this knowledge in Russia through translations. He also understood that the European power also lies in the importance of its ports and its navy. He thus created the Saint-Petersburg’s port, built on a swamp. Nowadays the Russian navy always uses the codes promulgated by Pierre le Grand. The czarina Catherine II le Grand (born in Germany in 1729, czarina 1762-1796) continued Pierre le Grand's work. All the big names of the literature, the music and the Russian culture dated after this time. After the collapse of the napoleonic Grande Army in his Russia Campaign (1812), the russian army scrolls in Paris after Waterloo (in June 18th, 1815). Leon Tolstoï (1828-1910) described in a kind of novel way this first big Russian victory on a powerful western army. Hitler will make the same error during the Second World War (1939-1945).
The second country to understand the importance of the translations of the chief works of the western civilization is Japan of Meiji's era (from 1868).
From 1894 the Japanese armies defeat the Chinese armies in Korea then in Manchuria. By the treaty of Shimonoseki (in April 17th, 1895), China accept to give to Japan the following territory : Korea, province of Lioadong with Port Arthur and Dalian, Taiwan and Pescadores islands. Then Japan wins the war against Russia on land and at sea by destroying the Russian fleet of the Baltic commanded in the battle of Tsushima, between Korea and Japan, in 1905.
China has followed Japan, after its defeat in front of Japan and begin to translate into Chinese the chief works of the western culture. The birth of the Chinese national anthem problem is marked by the proclamation of the Republic of China, on January 1st, 1912, at Nankin, by Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925). He is considered as the father of modern China. He is one of the first two doctors from the Faculty of Medicine of Hong-Kong. He gets married, on October 25th, 1915, in Japan with Soong Ching-ling. She (in January 27th May 1893-16th, 1981 in Peking) is from a rich bourgeois family. She is one of the first Chinese women who study in the United States. She was the first Chinese woman aviator. Even during the Cultural revolution, there is in Peking a team of Chinese and foreign translators to translate among others books of the world culture into Chinese, among which shakespeare's complete works. In the China towns, there was an encyclopedia in several bound volumes (approximately 1000 pages on the whole) of sciences and techniques.
Let us return to our country concern. Richer notices the poverty of our spoken language and even more the language spoken by our farmers at the villages. He estimated at approximately 350 words. And Ponchaud reproach in the lack of abstract words. Indeed! How to remedy it? Such is the fundamental question put to our fellow countrymen.
I/. At first, it is necessary to enrich the language spoken by our farmers. How? By making facility for our farmers to journey towards cities as in all the countries of the world which begin to develop. It is thus necessary, immediately to build good roads inside our country, to connect cities between them and connect cities with villages, especially with cities and villages situated near our borders.
But look how Japan, Australia, South Korea and the United States help us:
A/. Develop industrial areas on our borders and to build good roads in order to facilitate the communications for persons as well as for the good transportation of our border provinces with our neighbors ?
B/. Build electric lines with high tension coming from our neighbors to electrify our border provinces and even more inside ? Every body knows that the energy independence is one of the fundamental conditions of our political independence. All the developed countries watch scrupulously their energy independence.
C/. Japan is transforming our provinces of the Northeast to be closely connected with Vietnam. The hydroelectric dams are built by the Vietnamese. Roads, even highways are built from West to East so that our wealth are exported by Vietnamese ports ?
The struggles to release our country of the Vietnamese domination are not only of political order. They are cultural, linguistic, economic, etc. as well.
Only trust on the major power's advices is to agree beforehand to subordinate totally our national interests to the chance and credibility of these major powers conflict interests. In that case how can we build strong national unity to support this current struggle against the vietnamization of Cambodia?
People who rejects her language, thus her culture's perpetuity; who relies only on the Cambodia history books written by foreigners, who ignores the history of her country; who makes little case of the economic problems, who thus ignores our dependence already important for the economic and energy point of view towards our neighbors and more particularly towards Vietnam. How in these conditions can we gather us to free our country from the dependence of Vietnam which is growing in all the points of view? Just denouncing the vietnamese domination alone, is it enough ?
II/. Enrich the vocabulary of People living in the cities. How? It is necessary to do as all the developed countries of the world did, including at our neighbours. To enrich our vocabulary is to translate into Cambodian language of the fundamental books of the culture which are globalized. The vocabulary are also globalized. First the scientific words which are the same in all languages. To defend the world French-speaking Richer recommends the creation of the French words to replace the English words. But who uses, for example, the word « toile » for Internet? The word « weekend » is not already used by the French people? The word « Parking » for example ? Cambodians already use « computer" for « computer » and « bye bye » at the time of leaving etc. The Indonesians and the Malays use the « mathematica » while the Cambodians use the word « Kanittsas » etc. It is necessary to know that the mathematical equations are the same in all the languages.
Thus in order to enrich our language, we need:
1/. The good English-Cambodian, French-Cambodian dictionaries using the maximum of Cambodian words which are already existing.
2/. Translations into Cambodian of the fundamental works of the world culture and also important novels universally known, by using, if it needs, the foreign word when there is no corresponding Cambodian word. It is in that way when the first translations were made in all the developed countries of the world at the beginning, like in Russia, in Japan and in China for example. The Vietnamese have vietnamised the Chinese words.
3/. Develop the Cambodian language in the university level in all the concern materials, in particular, scientists. It is the way working in all the developed countries. The university education in Cambodian favors the scientific books popularization publication for the children and the Cambodian people. It is the only way so that the intellectuals and the people speak about the same language. It is what taking place in all the developed countries in the world.
Already more than 90 % of the Cambodians abroad of less than 40 years old do not speak our language any more. More than 90 % of Cambodian families abroad, do not speak any more Cambodian at home. How many Cambodians of the following generation will remain Cambodian culturally? In these conditions, how can these Cambodians living abroad participate in the development of our country? Are not they already lost in the multiform struggles to free our country of the foreigners, particularly the vietnamese domination?
To read the interview with Denis Richer in french