Tongue-tied: How English is winning Cambodia’s war of words – Southeast Asia Globe/RTÉ World Report

Chinese-language signage on one of the many new high rise apartment blocks being built in Phnom Penh . Simon Roughneen

PHNOM PENH — Dependent on its increasingly assertive neighbour China for investment and on faraway markets in Europe and North America for exports, Cambodia’s 16.2 million people, like residents of any small country, are exposed to the flux and churn of fortune and influence from without. Such vulnerabilities are not just economic. The national language, Khmer, is increasingly treading lexical water, as if about to be pulled under by waves of technological and scientific neologisms. “Hundreds of new technical, scientific and legal terms are added into the English dictionary every year,”said Khoun Theara of Future Forum, a Cambodian think tank.Such terms, usually coined first in English, present tongue-twisting translation dilemmas for Khmer speakers trying to localise new words in what is the mother tongue for around 97% of Cambodians. That is not to say that other tongues in the region do not face similar dilemmas. “All Southeast Asian languages have difficulty in adapting to the modern world,” said Jean-Michel Filippi, professor of linguistics at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.