Khmer Syntax

A couple people have already asked about how teaching’s going, so I really should have written about that this week. But I really want to get the series on the Khmer language tied up, even though I’ve sadly been pretty stagnant in learning new words and new grammar patterns in the last month. Will have to figure out how to turn that around…maybe a regular class is the best way, despite feeling quite busy.

This last language section is on syntax, or grammar; how sentences are put together. And it turns out there’s not too much to say; Khmer syntax is fairly simple and will feel familiar to anyone who speaks, say, English, Spanish, or Chinese.

Basic Word Order

The simplest Khmer sentence might be something like knyom mien dteuk [sap], or “I have [drinking] water”. And that’s pretty much word-for-word, with only “water” and, uh, “potable” switched. If you want to say “I have an apple”, you just say knyom mien raipon. If you want to say “He has an apple”, it’s koat mien raipon.

So just like English, Khmer puts its subject first, then the verb, then the object, if there is one. Linguists call this an “SVO” word order, and it’s one of the two most common in the world. (The other is “SOV”, which is used in Japanese. Watashi-wa mizu-ga aru means, essentially, “I water have”.)

What’s different from English (and Japanese) is that in Khmer that’s all you have. There’s no “a” or “an” (or “the”), no conjugation on the verb, and no inflection on the nouns to show the difference between subject and object (“he” vs. “him” and the wa and ga in the Japanese example). This isn’t too uncommon (especially in Southeast Asia, I believe), and it makes the structure very easy to learn.

Questions and Negatives

I touched on this in my “At Spoon” story, but questions and negatives in Khmer are easy. Yes/no questions are formed by adding dtei to the end of a sentence; koat mien moto dtei? means “does he have a moto?”. You can answer it with a positive mien (“[he] has [one]”) or a negative mun mien dtei (“[he] does not have [one]”). A full negative sentence might be knyom mun mien kang dtei (“I don’t have a bicycle”).

Of course, you can also answer “yes” (baat for men, chaa for women) or “no” (aw’dtei). But “yes” is used for “I’m listening, go on”, and “no” for objections, so I’d actually prefer using the verb. (This instinct may be totally wrong and leftover from learning Mandarin, which has no “yes” or “no”.)

There’s also a casual form, which replaces dtei with at (closer to “cot” than “cat”) in questions. (Yul at? “Do [you] understand?”) For negatives, mun is replaced with at and the final dtei is dropped. (At mien, “[I] don’t have [it]”.)

In English, other kinds of questions drag the question word to the front: where is he, what is it, etc. In Khmer, the question word just replaces the thing you question: koat ji ikei is word-for-word “he drives what”. For “how much / how many” questions, they add “poanmang” as a modifier: tlai poanmang “how expensive”, maong poanmang “what time” (literally “how many hours”).

There’s not much of a rise at the end of the sentence, either, which bugs me when my kids read questions in English.

Adjectives

In the last section I said a lot of Khmer “words” are more like compounds. Are those compounds made out of two nouns, or a noun and an adjective? Hard to say. Instead, I’d sort of just say “adjective” isn’t such an important distinction in Khmer; a “modifier” can be a noun, an adjective, or a whole phrase.

The only adjectives I know are thmei, “new”, and chaa, “old”, but again, the order is opposite from what it is in English. Instead of “new market”, Khmer says phsar thmei.

I’ll include possessives in here too: they’re the same as adjectives, and of course have no special markings. As in, “my moto” is just moto knyom. Which (again) isn’t surprising given last time’s kafei dteuk dtak go dteuk gawk (“iced coffee”). There is a word like “of” (or Spanish de), but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used.

(Combine this with the fact that Khmer speakers find it hard to add “s” to the end of a word, and you end up with most beginner-intermediate speakers completely ignoring English’s possessive “apostrophe-s”.)

The reversed noun-adjective order is one way in which Khmer differs from English, but it’s not that uncommon: anyone who’s studied a Romance language, for example, will be used to this. The only time it gets confusing is when someone’s speaking English, and says something like “brother father”. Is this supposed to be “brother’s father” or “father’s brother”? Fortunately for this example, only one of those makes sense to say…but in general you’ll have to gauge if this person’s English-sense is good enough to switch the order or not.

“To Be” or Not “To Be”?

Okay, I lied. The simplest possible Khmer sentence is one which relates two nouns, or a noun and an adjective: the sentences in English that use a form of the magic verb “to be”. Lots of languages special-case “to be”: in Spanish it’s as irregular as in English, and in Japanese it doesn’t exactly behave like a verb at all. (Study linguistics or ESL, and you’ll find that in English it doesn’t really behave like a verb at all, either…it’s more like the so-called auxiliaries “have” or “can”.)

The technical term for this word that connects a subject and descriptive complement is copula. But in Khmer, you do it by concatenation: that is, you just put the description after the subject. “I am a dog” would, AFAIK, be knyom chkae.1 “I am hot” would be knyom kdau.

(There is a word like “to be”, but it’s only used for professions. You could almost think of it as “to work as” instead.)

EDIT: This, it turns out, is not true. Noun-noun relations always use gujie or jie, “to be”. It’s only adjectives and other descriptive words or phrases where you leave it out.

Counters

In English, counters are rare. You get them for some kinds of clothing: a pair of pants (not really a pair at all). Sometimes there are collections of things: a bunch of bananas, a school of fish. And some things are uncountable (called mass nouns), so you have to put them in some kind of container or measure them: a bag of rice, 500 ml of water.

In Japanese and Chinese, essentially everything is uncountable. If you want to say “three books”, you have to say “three volumes of book” (san-satsu no hon in Japanese). “Five dogs” would be “five small-animals of dog” (go-hiki no inu). On the flip side, it’s fine to just leave that information out, so inu ga itta could mean “there was a dog” or “there were dogs”.

In Khmer, I think I heard somewhere that there are counters, but I don’t know how ubiquitous they are (if there are at all), and no one’s tried to teach me yet, and I haven’t had to count anything beyond purchases and money. And for money, at least, it’s the same as English: bey dola is “three dollars”, bpii ruoy riel is “two hundred riels”.

Adverbs

…go at the end of a sentence, though before a final dtei in a negative or question. Actually, the only adverbs I know are haɨ (“yet”/”already”) and nung (“also”, the same word as “and”).

Adverbs that modify adjectives go after the adjective, which makes sense since adjectives go after nouns. The only one of those that I know is nah (“very”).

Complex Sentences

I don’t actually know how to make complex sentences, such as those using “if”, “and”, “but”, “when”…any sort of conjunction is as of yet out of my grasp. I can do simple prepositional phrases, but the only preposition I have memorized is “at”. I can’t imagine any of it being too complicated, but I have no real information here.

Putting it all together

Okay, everyone. Using the information in this post, how would you say “I did not ride my new bike yet”? Politely?

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Knyom mun ji kang thmei knyom haɨ dtei. (“I not ride bike new my already no.”)

(Except the double knyom sounds ugly to me; I’d probably leave one or both out. They’d both probably be assumed anyway.)


Take all of this simplicity with a grain of salt, and keep in mind I can understand maybe one complete sentence a day despite theoretically being surrounded by Khmer. I should really put more effort into learning this language, but I feel busy enough as it is. (And my already-large respect for teachers has increased even more over the past two months.)

That’s supposed to be the end of the language topics. But in writing this, I realized there’s a couple interesting things left: how to say “you”, the presence and absence of gender in Khmer, and the stress patterns…plus anything else I think of. So there may be a couple more posts on language before I’m done.

(But next time will be a post about teaching again, I promise. Unless something big and unexpected happens again.)

  1. Why “I am a dog” instead of something reasonable like “I am a teacher”? Because I don’t actually know names for any professions. I guess I could have said “I am a woman”, but “I am a dog” was more fun than that. …Clearly my vocabulary is quite limited. ↩︎

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