The Meanderthals

What we have here……

A few weeks ago, with a month’s worth of Khmer language instruction under our belts, Gabi and I set out to tackle Phnom Penh’s Russian Market on our own. Our quest: to converse in Khmer, negotiate with shop keepers and buy some stuff while sharpening our language skills.
While tickling a small child who was listlessly lying in his (her?) mother’s arms, I noticed that the child was mostly unresponsive. Aha! I thought, an opportunity for conversation.
“Koat ott sabai?” I asked her: (“He/she is not happy?”)
The mother made a face and said a helluva lot more than I could gather, but she essentially verified that the kid was not well.
I mustered my command of the vocabulary, and set out to advance the conversation.
“Soam toe. Koat chekuit?”
Gabi gasped, and the woman’s expression instantly changed from smile to scowl.
In my earnest interest to talk to the woman, I had inadvertently asked if her child was crazy (chekuit) rather than the intended sick (chuh). Hence the less than enthusiastic response.

Lesson learned, and our quest to at least grasp the basics of the Khmer language, Gabi and I are always in the hunt for word associations to help us build vocabulary and remember the subtle variances in pronunciations that can make a world of difference.

Interestingly enough, the language does its part to help us along, and I’m offering here some examples for your review and entertainment:

Krowich chma – That’s lemon in Khmer, but literally it translates to “orange cat.” I have no idea why, but it somehow helps us remember when we order “soam soda krowich chma mooey” (one soda water with lemon, please.) Oh, by the way, when you order “krowich chma” you are served limes, not lemons, though they have plenty of (green-skinned) oranges around. Again, I have no idea why. I just shut up and drink the stuff.

Kmao dyie – Pencil, literally translated, means “black hand.” Memories of grade school rush to the cerebral cortex as this word is permanently ensconced in my vocabulary. If a visual connection seals a word to one’s vocabulary, this has to win the award for Best Association.
The mysterious “krowie”. “Jawng athut krowie” is “next weekend”. “Kang krowie”is “it’s in back”. The word means next as well as in back – very helpful. Got it.
Payek – “to wear”, but not if you’re referring to shirts or trousers. Then, it’s “sliak”, as in “knyom ott jo jet sliak cow thgnye nik. Thgnye nih kdow nah.” (I don’t like to wear pants today, it’s too hot.)
Jake – bananas, exept for the smaller ones, which are called “jake pong moin” (literally, “chicken egg bananas”. I cannot explain this.) A bunch of bananas is jake snut, which my would confound my dad (whose nickname was Jake) to no end.
Neak balk tuk tuk – Tuk tuk driver, or, literally “you open tuk tuk”. Which must not be confused with waitress, which is neak rut tok (“you run table”). Logic was either on vacation or hadn’t been invented when this language was created.
Neak twerr kha chia mui – “you work with”, which means, of course, colleague.
Macine ghun – Blender, of course.
Knyom nityay laing – “I speak play”, or, a joke. I use this one a lot, particularly when I’m haplessly insulting mothers with sick babies.
Grapes are “tumpeang baay juu,” which literally means bamboo shoot rice sour.
“See you later” is “juap kneah peel krowey,” which is “meet together time next.”
Does your head hurt yet? I’m not even touching on “specifier words,” which can dangerously change context and meaning if missaplied.
Cashew nut is “kroap swaay jan tii,” or, “seed mango cashew.” I don’t know how the mango bit got in there, but if you don’t include it you get retreaded tires or a haircut for your grandmother, I forget which.
There is a logic to all this stuff, however, and it lies in the descriptive nature of the language, which often revolves around stories or lore.
For example, “chlah” is tiger, and “kamom” is bee.
As Cambodian logic dictates, therefore, “clah kamom” means, of course, bear.
All of this is “num mooey chum nut” for us, which, translated, means “A piece of cake.” 


  • bsnapp

    I’m trying to take it all in and find logic and pattern. What a challenge. Have you encountered different accents in the different regions you’ve explored? Thanks for the lesson. I hope to put it to use there some day.

  • Francie

    I am never, ever, going to remember any of this!! As you are learning, language is context. Without the latter, there is no former. But carry on, you two, and you will become terrific translators for us when we all visit!!xoxo

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