Language differences

I love learning Khmer. I’m getting to the point where I know some really random words but some normal words pass me by. (I know how to say “circumcised” thanks to reading the Bible in Khmer but I still don’t know how to say “different types of” very well.) One of the biggest struggles is where the definition of a word doesn’t fit neatly with an English definition, so I end up writing an insanely long definition to clarify. So this post is about some of the conceptual differences between Khmer and English. This is of course the same with all languages, but I feel that Khmer has rather stark differences in cases (perhaps by virtue of it not being derived from Proto-Indo-European but in a separate language family – but I’m no linguist). It also makes speaking Khmer harder because you have to remember these nuances rather than just directly translating.


When you’re learning languages at first you learn some basic translations: red = this, blue = that. However, you learn that perceptions of colours are not always the same. Khmer uses colours in ways that English wouldn’t. For example, what we would describe as verdant greens, especially when occurring naturally, Khmer would describe as kheav ខៀវ which is often translated to mean blue.

When you fry meat, you don’t fry it until it is “golden brown” as in English, but until it is “red”. Browny-blond hair (such as mine) is often described as red (which red-heads might see as something sacrilegious or a victory). Dark woods are often red as well.

The pinky sandstone of the temple Banteay Srei is sometimes referred to as gold.

Falling in Cambodia

There are different ways to fall in both English and Khmer. We have different words such as fall (which is mostly general), to tip over, to collapse, etc. The three main ones that give me difficulty are the distinctions between ធ្លាក់ tleak /tleak/, ដួល duol /duəl/, and ជ្រុះ jroh /croh/. Tleak is to fall from a height downwards; to descend. So a waterfall is ទឹកធ្លាក់ (tuk tleak), which is the same as in English.

Duol essentially means to tip over. If you or an object have contact with the ground or a surface, but then find yourself less upright than before, this is the one to use. So if you trip over, you use duol. If you are riding your motorbike, but it slips in the mud, you duol. If, however, you are sitting on the back of a motorbike and not driving it, but fall from it and the motorbike continues, you use tleak.

Jroh is for when something is attached or kept in place and then detaches and falls. So you use this for leaves and fruit falling from trees. Also, if something is in place in your pocket then falls out, this is the version to use.

Hold on tight!

This is where my vocabulary fails and I know there is a distinction between the words but I don’t know what they are yet. Khmer has a different word for carry/hold depending on how you do it. Carrying it on your head, shoulders, back, cradling it in your arms, holding it in your hands, or carrying goods using a bar across your shoulders all have different words. I found this out when reading the Book of Ruth in the Bible. In a part of it, she carries some grain. The translation I was reading told us she was carrying it in a bundle on her head. The English version doesn’t specify this as far as I remember.

You asked for it

One that I always get wrong and my teacher always corrects me on is the word to ask. There is a difference in Khmer between the word to ask a question in order to get information and to ask someone to do something. Because English has no distinction in day-to-day speech (we do in more formal, literary circumstances: to question and to request, etc.), I always use the wrong one.

The struggle

So learning Khmer can be a real struggle. It has alphabet with the most characters in the the world (over 100); there are really difficult sounds and sound combinations; lots of writing and reading rules; and now these differences I have to remember and get used to.

However, this is of course true for any language. And the more I teach English, the more I think I’d rather be learning Khmer.