Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

The Establishment of the National Language in Twentieth-Century Cambodia: Debates on Orthography and Coinage

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

The Establishment of the National Language in Twentieth-Century Cambodia: Debates on Orthography and Coinage

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)


Article No. 2 of the first Cambodian Constitution promulgated by the Royal Government on May 6, 1947 provided that Cambodian was the official language (Jennar 1995, 37).1) The People's Republic of Kampuchea, which came into power after overthrowing the Pol Pot regime in 1979, amended the Constitution in order to abandon socialism in 1989 and stipulated that the official language and script was Khmer. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia in force, which was adopted on September 24, 1993 after the election supervised by UNTAC, prescribes Khmer as the official language and script (Huot Vutthy ca. 1998; Jennar 1995). Since ethnic Khmers allegedly make up about 90 percent of the Cambodian nationals,2) it seems natural that the Khmer language has been chosen as the official language and functions as the national one.

So political is the enactment of a national language, however, that many case studies have explored its significance for nation-building. For example, several languages in France regarded as "patois" or dialects have been oppressed since the French Revolution. Many books have also been published since the late 1990s addressing the relationship between the establishment of the national language and nationalism in modern Japan.3) In the same way, recent works on mainland Southeast Asia are searching for methods to combine sociolinguistic and nationalism studies.4)

Meanwhile, Cambodian studies have failed to amass knowledge on this issue. Scrutinizing magazines and newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s in her PhD dissertation and book, Penny Edwards (1999; 2007) refers to the first Khmer dictionary, mostly edited by a Buddhist monk named Chuon Nath (Edwards 2007, 249), and often mentions the establishment of the national language in colonial Cambodia. But the colonial period did not see the complete development of the national language, because the coinage of new vocabularies, which fill out a modern language, was carried out during the transition to and after the achievement of independence.

Khin Sok's works (1999a; 1999b) are one of the few studies on language policies in independent Cambodia. He mainly discusses Khmerization from the middle of the 1960s. His article (1999a) is noteworthy for its presentation of a memorandum written by a participant of the Khmerization movement. Although he refers to the activities of the Cultural Committee founded before the movement, he is not precise about the founding year of the Committee;5) nor does he fully analyze the Committee's coinage and its etymology.

While the papers concerned with socialist jargons after the Pol Pot regime can also be regarded as sociolinguistic studies on Cambodia (Mikami 1998; Picq 1984), coinage during the decisive period from the last years of colonization to the 1960s has to be revisited to elucidate the process by which an ethnic language became the Cambodian national one. In the first chapter, therefore, this paper traces the path to the publication of the first Khmer dictionary, which established an etymological style of orthography. Secondly, the membership and activities of the Cultural Committee are discussed to analyze coinage of modern vocabularies from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Finally, introducing some opinions on and objections to the orthography and coinage accomplished chiefly by the Buddhist monks, we try to shed light on the meandering road the Cambodian national language has followed to date.

I Compilation of the Khmer Dictionary

Mainland Southeast Asian languages, of which scripts are derived from Indian civilization, have two options of orthography: etymological style spelling the silent letter(s) at the end of a word, and phonemic style, which tries to conform the spelling of a word as closely as possible to its pronunciation. While Thailand selected the former and Laos the latter, Book One of the Khmer dictionary brought out in 1938 settled the dispute from the early twentieth century as to which style Cambodia would choose. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.