Khmer Morphology

Welcome to the second post on the Khmer language. This time I’m going to talk about morphology, or how words are put together.

In Khmer, there’s a tendency to keep new words to a minimum, at least compared to English. For example, English has the word “beef” to mean “the meat of a cow”.1 In Khmer, it’s just saich go [saɪt̙̚ go], or “meat cow”. This is the same as, say, Chinese, which uses 牛肉 (“cow meat”), except that in Khmer adjectives and modifiers come after the main noun.

This extends to plenty of other words, too: dteuk gawk [d̥ʊk gɔk̚] “ice”, mriam dai [mɾiəm daɪ] “finger” and mriam jun [mɾiəm d͡ʒʊn] “toe”, tngai nih [tŋaɪ nih] “today”. This is by no means uncommon in the world, but it’s an important part of understanding how Khmer works.

Not every polysyllabic word is really made up of two parts; I don’t think damrai (“elephant”) is really dam plus rai. The important thing is that if you ask someone if dteuk gawk is one word or two, they’ll probably say two.

…even though Khmer is written without spaces.

This isn’t that weird, though! Think of languages at the other end of the spectrum, like German. (Several of the other volunteers here speak German.) The word for “vocational school” in German is Berufsschule (according to Google Translate)…literally “profession” + “school”.

So while German generally smashes things into one word, Khmer just makes standard phrases that are basically multi-word nouns (or verbs, and maybe adjectives too). English is somewhere in the middle: “blackbird” and “high school”.

The fun thing is that this means we can predict how to make words sometimes—especially Janina, who’s taking an actual language class. I can’t think of a specific example right now, but as she put it, “That’s how this language works.”

The other fun thing is that this can sometimes make for very long phrases. When we ask for iced coffee, it’s kafei dteuk dtak go dteuk gawk, which is just “coffee”, “milk”, and “ice” one after another. There’s a word for “with”, but since in this case you’re describing the drink rather than specifying what you want in it…Khmer just doesn’t use connecting words as often as English.

(This particular phrase is especially well-known, so when Hauke—a volunteer working at STAR Kampuchea, our coordinating association—tried to order iced coffee from a vendor outside, she said it with him and laughed.)

Of course, there are loanwords, too: (plai) staw’bperi [plaɪ ˈstɔb̥ɛˌɾi] for “strawberry”, pi sa onglei [b̥i sa ɔŋleɪ] for “English” (c/f the French “Anglais”). Actually, there are plenty of words borrowed from French, which makes sense given the decades of control by the French government. But there’s not the same obsession with loanwords as in, say, Japan, and that makes me happy. (In Japan they’ll use a Japanicized version of an English word, even when they have a perfectly good Japanese word, because English is cool. Bleah.)

That’s it. Simple words in Khmer, those that would have been around for centuries, are usually—but not always—one syllable. “Words” for newer things are either loanwords or descriptive phrases, with the “description” part after the main noun. And because Khmer is pretty loose about concatenation (just putting words next to each other to make a new word-phrase), this all works pretty well.

Next time on language: Khmer syntax and grammar, or “Everything went better than expected”.

  1. The origin of this doubling—beef/cow, pork/pig, poultry/chicken—comes from the French Normans ruling over the Britonic Saxons, way back in the times of Old English. Saxon English was a Germanic language, but many French terms were introduced around this time. So, when an animal was on a farm, it had a Germanic name, but once it was killed and brought to the ruling lords, the meat had a French name. And that’s why we have two words today. ↩︎