More Khmer quirks

I shared in a previous post about the complexity of Khmer, especially its written script, and also some of the frustrations I had.  At risk of becoming my brother (i.e. an insufferable linguistic obsessive), I thought I’d share some of the other quirks I’ve been discovering about the language.

Namely, it has consonants that you don’t really say. Now you’re going to say, “Have you never come across words like knife, gnome or debt?” That’s not what I mean. Nor do I mean, for example, when a cockney wants some liquid refreshment they may ask for a “boh-ohl oh woh-ah” (a bottle of water for those not au fait with English accents). Here, they don’t even try to pronounce the letter t, they just replace it with a glottal stop. In Khmer, consonants at the end of words often aren’t “released” (e.g. the air isn’t let go at the end). The Khmer person’s mouth will go through the motions to say the sound, but they won’t commit to it at it’s conclusion. It is the linguistic equivalent of being jilted at the alter.

How can the Khmer be so linguistically depraved, you may think. Well, judge not lest ye be judged. We (sort of) have unreleased stops, so they are known, in English.

For this illustration I will need you to place your finger in front of your lips. Then I would like you to say the word “dock”. Feel the air against your finger. There is quite a steady flow throughout the word, with an emphasis on the /d/ and /k/ sounds. Now, do the same for the word “turd”. Again, a nice amount of air throughout. Say the words together. You may realise you’re (almost) saying “doctored”. So rather than say these two unrelated words, just go ahead and say “doctored”. When you do, make a note of what happens to the air, especially when you say the /k/ sound. You may notice significantly less air coming out at this point in the word than when you said it as two separate words. That’s because, in English, when there are consonant clusters the first consonant (sort of) has no audible release. Essentially, we’re saying the /k/ sound but no air is allowed through at the end, unlike when we say “dock” and the air is released afterwards. In English, this happens because the formation of the next consonant is what stops the air.

However, in Khmer this happens at the end of words so it’s not because of a following consonant sound. This happens with /p, t, c, k/ sounds. So, I’m having a lot of fun with that.