Addressing issues

My goodness, my brain has just melted. I have just had a culture lesson as a part of my language course on terms of address within the family. I knew Khmer terms of address was complicated, but I knew nothing.

So terms of address are what we call each other (Mr, Miss, buddy, sweetheart…) etc., with various levels of formality. In British culture we do change the terms of address in relation to the context. These terms of address can also refer to the person you are addressing or yourself. For example

Your humble servant asks your majesty to close the window.

The “Your humble servant” part refers to you as the speaker, and “your majesty” is the person you are addressing, in this case, the queen.

One of the most noticeable contexts we switch from terms of address is within a school. Students also refer to a teacher by their surname and a title (Mr, Mrs, Miss) or by Sir/Miss when not using their name. Teachers refer to other staff by their first name, unless when talking to or in front of the students.

  • Whilst in the classroom: “Mrs Smith, can I borrow your red whiteboard pen?”
  • “Jimmy, can you return this to Mrs Smith?”
  • In the staffroom: “Debbie, thanks for lending me the pen earlier.”

Parents and usually visitors will also use the polite form of the name when addressing or referring to a teacher. (This might not be so much the case in America and I have had visitors refer to me by my first name to a student, much to the student’s horror.)

We also do it within the family:

  • Sweetie, can you find mommy the sticky tape?
  • Come give granny a big cuddle and a kiss!

However, in Khmer, these terms are generally used instead of other personal pronouns. So you don’t use អ្នក (neak) which means you that often or even ខ្ញុំ (knhom / kʰɲom), for I, that often.

So you would say for a word-by-word translation:

  • “Big Brother well and healthy?”
  • “Mum go where?”
  • “Grandmother [I] will give Granddad [you] 20 dollars for the market.”
  • “What is wife cooking?”

These all come with varying levels of formality. Furthermore there are other specific examples, for example a grandfather can call his oldest child father (as long as he is actually now a father), to show his status within the family:

  • “How much did Father Suon [you- Suon is a name] pay for that motorbike?

I’m not sure if Suon would respond with dad or granddad at this point.

And this is just within the family. You’ve got to change the Is and yous to different words when addressing teachers, staff, managers, very close friends, monks, strangers, those of a higher status than you, kings and gods. You also might have to change the verbs you use as well.

I’ve started creating a table for this and will sit down with Vitou and make him help me fill it out. I expect it to be rather tear-stained before it’s finished. But I’m going to persevere!

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