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Khmer Language Gets Turn in Global Spotlight in Jolie Movie


American actress Angelina Jolie along with her six children arrive at an outdoor world premiere of "First They Killed My Father" in Siem Reap, Cambodia, February 18, 2017. (Amanda Boury/Netflix)

The Khmer script is widely regarded as the largest alphabet in the world, with 74 characters.

The premiere here last month of the Angelina Jolie-directed drama about a young girl growing up under the totalitarian Khmer Rouge regime was the first time Cambodians had seen a major, American-made screen production in their native language.

Jolie, best known as an actress, has said it was a goal of hers to produce the film, First They Killed My Father, in the Khmer language, which will expose an international audience to Khmer.

The film made its debut in Cambodia with recent screenings in the towns of Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh. It is scheduled to be released worldwide in September on Netflix.

Native Khmer speakers and language experts say the high-profile stage that Khmer, the language of Cambodia, will be getting globally on Netflix later this year could contribute towards a revival of the language in academia and popular culture.

Rim Tith Panha, 21, a student of Khmer language and literature at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, says that Khmer remains an unpopular subject among his peers, who he says think it only involves learning how to read and write.

“I want to conserve Khmer identity and culture, which could possibly be lost one day if no-one cares to promote it,” he says.

In the Internet age of instant gratification, Rim Tith Panha worries that an already sparse Khmer literary tradition will be lost in the social media revolution.

It’s quicker and simpler to write Khmer in romanized script when chatting on Facebook with friends, he admits, which could lead to a wider decay of Khmer literacy and proper use of the language.

The need for more students with advanced scientific and technical skills is also eclipsing interest in the humanities and social sciences, says Sek Non, a Khmer teacher at Kampong Thom’s Hun Sen Krova high school.

A professor from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art recites a poem on National Reading Day at the National Institution of Education, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 11, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)
A professor from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art recites a poem on National Reading Day at the National Institution of Education, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 11, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

Sen Non, who won a government award last year for excellence in his field, says students see that they can earn more money in science and engineering. He emphasized, though, that it was too early to suggest that there was a crisis in the Khmer language.

“Cambodians still mainly use the Khmer language, [and will continue to] not only for the next 10 or 20 years, but for hundreds of years,” he said. He acknowledged that interest in the language generally is 'limited.'

The Khmer script is widely regarded as the largest alphabet in the world, with 74 characters. (Other languages, such as Mandarin, which have thousands of ideographic characters, are not considered alphabets.) Khmer is an Austroasiatic language spoken by an estimated 20 million people worldwide, a relatively small language group when compared to the world’s major languages, such as Spanish, Mandarin, English or Arabic.

Screenshot of Khmer alphabet on Google.
Screenshot of Khmer alphabet on Google.

Dr. Sok Soth, who holds a Ph.D in applied linguistics from Victoria University, Melbourne, is optimistic about the future of the Khmer language, which he claims is “on the rise”.

Over the last five years, Soth says the language has gained the attention of numerous scholars and researchers.

“Many new words have been created, especially in the law subjects. The press also pays more attention to spelling. Among scholars and researchers, we can see that they turn to use the national language and pay more attention to it,” he says.

“Even though there’s not much to show for it yet, it’s on people’s minds now.”

With the rise of technology, Soth would like to see digital dictionaries playing a vital role in the promotion of Khmer and improving its accuracy.

He says many new words are being created, but they are often vaguely defined and this could lead to the language being manipulated.

Newer words are often more literal than those invented by older generations, he says. He cites the Khmer word for calculator, which literally means “calculate machine”, whereas the word for television, created by an older generation of linguists, combines the words for “vision” and “from a distance”, or “distant vision”.

A high school student scans for Khmer novels in a book store, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 11, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)
A high school student scans for Khmer novels in a book store, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 11, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)



As a means to help revitalize the language, Soth suggested that the government could promote projects and writing competitions. “Writing, poetry and literary competitions should be arranged again, because when novels and poems are used, interest in the language also rises.”

Som Srey Oun, another RUPP Khmer student, says spelling is the most challenging aspect of modern Khmer, as there are numerous inconsistencies and debates over how words are spelled correctly.

“Even if you look at [government] documents, which are proofread by a lot of experts, you still notice mistakes,” she said.

Chan Samnop, president of the National Council of Khmer Language at the Council of Ministers, said many people had raised concerns with his office about the state of Khmer.

But despite the concerns, he believes the language is also on the rise. By 2021, he adds, a working group will be formed with the task of creating a new Khmer dictionary, which will make the language “even more prosperous”.

“The spelling issues will be solved ... when we have a main reference document,” he says. The new dictionary will be based on a dictionary from the 1950s, and will be followed by an official grammar book if there are the resources to dedicate to the project.

Children are being encouraged to read on National Reading Day at the National Institution of Education, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 11, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)
Children are being encouraged to read on National Reading Day at the National Institution of Education, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 11, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)



Samnop says the framework for updating the Khmer language is already in place. “The mechanism for correcting spelling in formal documents, as well as improving the education system, are mechanisms which we have been using to ensure that the Khmer language is still good and strong,” he says. “So we should not be too concerned.”

Hang Choun Naron, Minister of Education, said promoting literacy was a central strategy of his ministry.

“If you can’t read, you can’t learn anything else. Reading is a strong foundation. We try to promote it from grade 1 and 2. We plan to honor the five best teachers. We also promote writing skills,” he said.

Professor Teri Yamada, chair of the Department of Asian and Asian-American Studies at California State University in Long Beach, sees a lack of support for creative writing in Cambodian schools.

Phoeung Sakona, Minister of Culture, far right, attends the book exhibition on National Reading Day at the National Institution of Education, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 11, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer).
Phoeung Sakona, Minister of Culture, far right, attends the book exhibition on National Reading Day at the National Institution of Education, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 11, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer).



“Writing Khmer well—in clear and descriptive sentences with a storyline other than for passing tests—is not a high priority in the public schools,” she said.

He told VOA Khmer in an email that supporting writers who want to publish was also a high priority.

“If the government were serious about supporting Khmer language and literature they would need to establish publication support for new writers,” she said.

Despite the language getting more exposure through the Netflix release of “First They Killed My Father”, Yamada thinks the impact will be limited.

“It is, however, a visual text, not a book that one sits down to read,” she wrote.

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