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Khmer Language

The Khmer language is seriously unfit to introduce a love of reading into Cambodian society. Reading is essential for learning, and learning is in turn essential to development.

But NO ONE can be made to enjoy reading if the mangled language frustrates and confuses them, giving them headaches from the burden and work of having to decipher and fight the printed page before they can get to the content.


The General Problem


There are several problems that inhibit the production of quality written materials in Khmer.

First, there lacks a modern, comprehensive Khmer dictionary incorporating new words and uniform spelling. For example, “Sida”, “Aids”, “Hiv”, “Untac” are used as words without understanding their background as deriving from foreign acronyms and their full meaning.

Second, there is not a modern, comprehensive Khmer-English (or vice-versa) dictionary to accommodate the barrage of material being produced from translation, as many new thoughts and documents are first written in English and not originated in Khmer.

Much of the translated works have not been seriously reviewed for accuracy nor for comprehension; thus, much gibberish is entering the public square, which oftentimes create more confusion than learning opportunities. To guesstimate, on average only 50 percent of the published translated materials are accurate; Ms. Seng has worked with the best translators (meticulous, conscientious, deeply experienced) in the country, and on average their works are only 85 percent correct. On top of that, for those reading these translated materials, deduct another 25-30 percent from comprehension, as they are reading the Khmer text without the aid of the English original.

Third, there is, of course, a general lack of quality education in the country. Cambodia has been, until recently, reliant on oral traditions. Formal education had been very late in coming. For example, according to historian Ben Kiernan, only 144 Cambodians had completed the baccalaureate (high school diploma) by 1954, with no tertiary education in the whole country. Prof. Steinberg put the figure higher at approx. 5,000. The point remains: broad formal education only came after Cambodia’s independence in Nov. 1953. Even now, the education system is questionable, as a recent article in the Phnom Penh Post points out, and even government officials admit.


The Need for Punctuation


As Sarah Yost says, punctuation marks are the stitches that hold the fabric of language together, the traffic signals of language, a courtesy designed to help readers understand a story without stumbling, written manners.

In short, punctuation is necessary for the development of an advanced written language, which in turn is key to transmitting complex ideas. Complex ideas simply cannot be expressed only through the oral form – they require lengthy sentences and secondary clauses, and the ability to look back through pages. Advanced written text is the vehicle for flourishing in all sectors of a country’s development, from formal education to governance to rule of law to reconciliation to business to health.


Simply put, the transmission of advanced content necessary for development cannot do without a written language complete with a proper system of punctuation.

Unfortunately, the Khmer written structure makes for difficulty in communicating, even without the added technical issues of typing and layout. Written Khmer has words running into each other; the spacing of words and phrases are at the discretion of the writer/typist, with little standard guidelines.

It has no proper nouns, with very limited punctuation—effectively only the period (khan), question mark (often times used with the khan), the double quotation marks (“s”, but not ‘s’) vacillating between the French and English versions, and the colons (sometimes creating confusion as the English colon is exactly like a Khmer vowel, srak). If used at all, the comma is inserted with great reluctance because its function is not widely understood.

In summary, there is a lack of any complex and standardized punctuation in the Khmer language, which makes it difficult to express complex ideas – which require multiple clauses and clear sentence structure to follow – in the written form.


Why Does It Matter?


Language is the foundation of education, which is the foundation of ideas and deep thoughts and clear thinking. These, in turn, are the foundation of human flourishing, societal well-being, and national development.

CIVICUS Cambodia believes that every Cambodian has the capacity to develop a love of reading. A love of reading developed at an early age is key to enjoying reading more complex material later in life. But a love of reading cannot be fostered under the current circumstances. Providing books is not enough. The books must be well-translated and furthermore, they must be punctuated.


What Are We Doing?


The biggest problem with written Khmer is the lack of punctuation, which makes even basic reading a struggle.


Personal Initiative


Upon this realization, Ms. Seng was convicted to produce reading materials in the Khmer language with sufficient, consistently, proper punctuation.


Above is one of Ms. Seng's works, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in both English and Khmer with proper punctuation.

She began with the books of the Khmer Bible and finished 57 (of the 66) books. It was not Ms. Seng’s goal to work only on Christian Scripture, but she could find no other Khmer text of high quality translation and that existed in electronic form to punctuate. (The other two books which have been well translated, The History of Cambodia and When the War Was Over, did not exist online in an easy cut-and-paste format.)

Unlike other translated materials, these books of the Khmer Bible have undergone a very meticulous, lengthy process of translation and consultation by a committee of Khmer and foreign linguists and scholars who believe in the inerrancy of the Word of God. Hence, they expended extraordinary energy to adhere to this belief in ascertaining that the translation be as accurate as human possible to the original Biblical texts.


The Novel Project


CIVICUS Cambodia is currently focusing on translating and punctuating five classic and enjoyable children’s and young adult novels, and one memoir by a Khmer Rouge survivor, into Khmer, with the goal of using them to instill a love of reading in the younger generation.

By introducing punctuation to Cambodians in this way, the hope is that their understanding of the punctuation, and its significance, will be intuitive, and that they will crave punctuation in future reading materials.

Working alongside policymakers and other concerned leaders and educators, we hope to spark a grassroots call for punctuation in all written Khmer documents, with the aim that over time, punctuation will organically become part of the Khmer language.

Punctuation has not been around forever, it was not readily adopted into the developed languages until the rise of the printing press, for instance. English, German, French, etc did not naturally come with punctuation, but they adopted it through necessity and the proliferation of written materials featuring it. Khmer can do the same.