Khmer Gender

I’ve posted before about gendered language, and how I’m generally in favor of moving towards gender-neutral occupations and supporting a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in English. In Khmer for the most part this is already reality…but there are a few funny quirks in the language which still don’t make sense to me.

The first good sign is the third-person pronoun, koat, which is gender-neutral. (If you really want to indicate the gender, you can use nea and neang, but except when translating from English no one seems to do this.) Next is the collection of second-person pronouns, of which there are a lot. The most generic is nek, but there are several others, and I never actually use nek in real life:

  • bong, for people around your age or older than you.
  • bu and minh, for men and women, respectively, who are around your parents’ age
  • dta (?) and yeay, for men and women, respectively, who are around your grandparents’ age or older
  • oun or bp’oun, for people younger than you. Bp’oun is a contraction of bpor oun and is a bit more polite.
  • loak and loak srey, for men and women who you want to address formally/respectfully. I’ve never actually used these, but I can feel that it’s right for the director of our organization, Ms. Noun Phymean.

The interesting thing is that all of these, including nek, are just normal words. (You can mouse over them, or possibly tap them on a phone/tablet, to see what each of them means.) I would bet that koat is a normal word too, though I don’t know its non-grammatical meaning. And you can also address someone using their title, like in Japanese: nek kroo nyam bai haʉi dtei? “(Did) Teacher eat rice yet?”

The most interesting “pronouns” for me are bong and (bp’)oun: the natural division of siblings in Khmer isn’t between male and female (“brother” vs. “sister”), but between older and younger (bong and oun). You can of course use these (and all the other second-person pronouns) as titles as well: I can talk about my host brother as Bong Piseth, and his friend as Bong Sea.

Even though the more respectful pronouns are gender-divided, the different division in bong and oun and the neutrality of nek are still good signs, right? Plus there’s no grammatical gender on nouns, like in many European languages.

Then, for no reason I can fathom, the word for “yes” is different whether you’re a man or a woman.


That’s right. I mentioned it in passing in the post on syntax, but no one seemed to find it unusual. (Or at least no one commented on it.) But I can’t think of a historical-linguistic reason for this: what linguistic pressure could possibly result in two words for the simple concept of affirmation? It’s usually not even confirmation, just a sort of “what?” or “uh-huh, I’m listening”.

Men say baat, women say jaa. It turns out not to be hard to get used to, but it’s still weird.

(The best hypothesis I can come up with is that it’s a status thing, that jaa is somehow more submissive from a time when women had to be more submissive. But…it doesn’t feel likely.)

Oh, and “no” is the same for both: awtei.

As for professions…well, mostly they’re gender-neutral to begin with, not to mention very simple. “Cashier”, for example, is nek ket lui, or “person who thinks of money”. But “teacher” is an exception: the original word is loak kroo, but loak is masculine. So female teachers are now called nek kroo, using the neutral nek instead. …And male teachers are still called loak kroo.

*bangs head against wall*