The Khmer Questions that Haunt Me

Today’s post continues to honor the newest language to break into my vocabulary, Khmer. Though I have only been studying two weeks or so, my cohort of YAGMs and I cannot help but laugh at some of the strange questions that arise in class. So, here are some musings you might appreciate as we learn Khmer.

  1. How to know if something is past, present or future.

    • Explanation
      • There are no real tenses in Khmer. Everything is said in present tense, but there are a couple key words that are used just for the purpose of suggesting time. Yesterday and tomorrow are givens, but there is also one word for past, future, and present progressive.
    • Questions
      • Where does the word go?
      • What if I used to do something and I don’t do it anymore?
      • What if the majority of my sentences are usually in a perfect tense?
    • Conclusion
      • None of those words actually matter because they are almost exclusively used for writing only, if at all. So, in this case, listen and hope for the best that you’re thinking in the right tense.
  2. Similarities between “to keep,” “water,” and “table.”

    • Explanation
      • One particularly long day of vocab was broken up by the discovery of the words “to keep,” (dtoh) “water,” (dtuk) and “table” (dtohk). Our instructor thought the easiest way to differentiate these was to give us the sentence: “Keep the water on the table.” Or “dtoh the dtuk on the dtohk.”
    • Questions
      • What if I accidentally buy furniture instead of a refreshing beverage?
      • Did I just learn my first Khmer tongue twister?
      • Wait, there is no word for “the” either, so these words are basically consecutive?
    • Conclusion
      • Though this is a fun sentence to say, the likelihood of using all three of these words in one sentence is fairly low, so I suppose context will be easiest for deciphering these words.
  3. Properly saying “I am wearing ____.”

    • Explanation
      • Our instructor taught us words for clothing, so naturally we want to know how we say “to wear.” It turns out Khmer is a little harder. One word works for neck to waist, and feet. Another word works for waist to ankles. This put our minds into a bit of disarray.
    • Questions
      • What if I am wearing a sweatshirt tied around my waist?
      • What if I am wearing a belt? Is it different for normal belt on my pants vs. a fashion belt around my waist?
      • What about hats? Or scarves? Or things not worn from the neck down?
    • Conclusion
      • The next day our instructor returned to explain that there was a word that could be used for wearing anything. All ambiguity of what word to use quickly vanished after that point.
  4. Differences between “to scare” and “vegetables.”

    • Explanation
      • When we learned the word for “vegetables” early in our lessons, it quickly stuck in our minds: Bohn lai. As the middle of our second week of lessons rolled around, we learned a new word, the verb “to scare.” Or, in Khmer, bohn laih. These words sounded very similar to us, and rightfully so.
    • Questions
      • Why can’t I tell the difference between these words?
      • If I accidentally say “I vegetable someone” will the person imagine me throwing tomatoes and onions at a stage as a result of a poor performance?
      • Does this have anything to do with children being afraid of Veggie Tales?
    • Conclusions
      • We realized that in most sentences, “to scare” and “vegetables” are not interchangeable. And eventually we will learn the subtle difference.
  5. The importance of “water” as a base word.

    • Explanation
      • It turns out, water is the base word for many other things: tea, milk, and ice being the main words. For example: ice literally translates to “water frozen.” Another fun one is the word for Jetski which is literally “water motorcycle.”
    • Questions
      • Why have I never realized that there is water in so many things?
      • Am I saying “water” wrong and consequently saying many other words wrong?
      • Why doesn’t “watermelon” fall into this pattern?
    • Conclusions
      • It is best to start from the foundation. Start with saying water and work up to the many variations. Plus, it might be surprising when I know a word I thought I didn’t because it is based on water.

Hopefully these silly stories brightened your day a bit and gave you an insight into the beginnings of learning Khmer. I’m sure this is only the beginning.

Keep Shining,



One thought on “The Khmer Questions that Haunt Me

  1. Jen Engquist says:

    Both of your Khmer blogs are masterpieces. Bless you for doing this. What a gift. I am dying with laughter (figuratively)…. watermelon…. and “nothing gets past you!). Much good. so words. such happy.


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