Sunday, January 02, 2011

Khmer for Canadians

Before I left for the trip, I watched a few YouTube videos on Khmer, mastering only "Hello," "What is your name?" and the numbers from zero to ten. Except three. I'm not good at three. I hoped I could pick up more as I went along. The problem is that I'm a visual learner, and hadn't taken the time to learn the Khmer writing system. When I'm travelling I normally use signs and bilingual pamphlets to build vocabulary. Everything becomes my Rosetta Stone (the namesake, by the way, of a product line not available for Khmer). But when everything is spelled "squiggle," learning has to be at the pace people speak, and that has been in some variant of English, or too fast to follow in Khmer.

After the first day on the build, my little pre-blogging notebook was filling up, so I went out to buy a new notebook. I found it not at the big supermarket but at a street stall run by a young architecture student. She also had a locally produced phrasebook for sale, so I bought that, and as she wasn't too busy, I asked her if she would teach me some Khmer. She protested that she wasn't a teacher and that she didn't speak much English, which was true, but I countered with the fact that it was Khmer I wanted to learn, and she consented to help me with my pronunciation.

It's difficult. She had a textbook that showed her the 'proper' transliteration system for the Khmer writing system (which is elaborate, but phonetic). Between the different YouTube videographers and my guidebook, I had seen three different phonetic writing systems, and devised an inconsistent shorthand of my own, plus the new phrasebook had an entirely different and almost unusable system involving exclamation points to indicate short vowels, and dipthongs described in terms of regional pronunciations from various parts of the British Isles. "Like flour, said in a South London accent" really doesn't help me much. I practised reading phrases out of the book and having her correct my pronunciation until it was at least understandable, trying to get a feel for the sounds. She taught me how to say, "I hope you will be happy in your new house," in what I hope was a suitably respectful register. Khmer has so many registers for different levels of social strata that I never dared construct sentences with second person pronouns lest I pick the wrong one. Pronunciation was not helped by the fact that this was a corner news-stall, with vehicle traffic passing by constantly. Occasionally our lesson was interrupted for her to sell something to someone on a motorbike, or just to let the traffic noise die down enough to hear.

I mentioned that there was a b sound that was like a p (but not a p, as there's a separate p). There's also a kh that is separate from k, and you've already noticed consonant combinations that we don't do in English, like the Khm in Khmer. Fortunately I have some experience with Slavic languages so I don't stop short and refuse to pronounce a k and m consecutively with no intervening vowel, but am I pronouncing the correct k? Don't you just love it when you are trying to say something in a language and the person bursts into gales of laughter, and then says "no, no, no, not foo, FOO!" and the correction sounds identical to the, to them, hysterically funny error? We also have the problem that native speakers often do not realize the difference between spelling and pronunciation, so she is spelling the words according to strict transliterations, but I have noticed that terminal r, l, and n are barely pronounced, and terminal s is not pronounced at all. This spills over into Cambodians' accent in English. At first I just thought it was a normal pidgin feature of using the singular for the plural: one book, two book, e.g., but they pronounce rice like rye, their instincts telling them that an s sound written at the end of a word doesn't really mean it.

Despite all my interest in things linguistic, I have never actually taken a linguistics course, and indeed don't even know the international phonetic alphabet in any systematic way. This would be useful now, instead of my trying to come up with unambiguous ways to write phonetic pronunciations. I end up writing "rhymes with pay" to try and write a sound that could be spelled day, deh, dā, dei, and something like die! (including the exclamation point) in the most bizarre of my phrasebooks. In IPA it would be e. Or maybe more like ę or ĕ or both diacriticals, but I can't get them to stack.

I pay her for my lesson and she says to come back tomorrow in the afternoon. Not the morning, because she'll be at school then.

I do go back, and happen to meet her mother, greeting her, then flicking my head around to ask if that was the right greeting. (It was). In the end I ask if I may send her a postcard and she's hesitant about that, so proposes I send it to the business address. No problem. The address she wrote out in something that reads more like directions from the nearest monastery. I have her e-mail as well, so I'll ask her if she gets the card.

1 comment:

townmouse said...

As a North Londoner who moved (reluctantly) to South London for a while, I'd struggle to tell you how 'flour' was pronounced with a specifically South London accent. 'Flaaaar' would be the nearest, I suppose. I guess it made sense to the phrasebook author though.