Society for East Asian Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Some Cambodians believe that the Khmer language is dying or deteriorating. Some point to language mistakes they notice in both spoken and written form. Others believe the popularity of English is corrupting Khmer. Some surmise that, with the prevalence of international schools, Khmer will cease to exist as the younger generation prefers to speak English over Khmer. Cambodians who are participating in this linguistic “complaint tradition” (Milroy & Milroy 1985) believe that the chaotic language they observe today is due to the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-79), which targeted intellectuals and educators for execution. Lacking qualified educators after the fall of the regime, the country reconstructed the education system with the slogan: “Those who know more, teach those who know less; those who know less, teach those who know nothing.” For some, the deterioration of Khmer in the subsequent decades was a product of unqualified, inconsistent educators in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge.
I explore these metapragmatic commentaries (Silverstein 1976) about language change in light of Cambodia’s recent history of war and isolation to today’s globalization and open market economy. Although languages naturally change, some Cambodians depict the changes as wrong and immoral. These language attitudes reflect fears beyond language. Using language and the Khmer Rouge as culprits, language complaint participants are anxious about changes they see in the social, economic, and political landscape. Discourses about language degradation are ultimately discourses about the perceived degradation of traditional Cambodian culture that values hierarchy, deference, and Buddhist morality.