Saturday, 5 May 2012

Cambodia - អក្សរខ្មែរ âksâr khmêr

One of the things that most fascinated me on my trips to Cambodia was the Khmer alphabet. Having spent a year in Thailand, I'm quite proud of the fact that I can read Thai script - okay, not fast enough to recognise the destinations of passing buses but, you know, given time to pore over the squiggles and rounded syllables, I can manage okay! Going to Cambodia (and Laos), the script was very familiar looking, but a lot more complicated and squiggly.

A shared heritage - Thai and Khmer

I guess Khmer script is more complicated than Thai because it's the script that Thai, Lao and some other South East Asian scripts derived from. I'd imagine it's retained a lot of it's original complexity which, perhaps, was simplified when the script was used to write Thai, a language that is tonal and couldn't be more different, phonologically, than the Khmer language. I think this paragraph is probably very controversial for Thai readers. Understandably, most people prefer to think of their culture as being unique and not under the influence of neighbouring cultures. As an outsider though, I have to say - that's how it looks!

Khmer writing on book cover
Writing as a tool for technology

Since its invention, writing has been a powerful tool for the advancement of technology. Think of all the things that writing has enabled us to do. The very essence of civilisation, history, science and communication, has been dependent on the technology of writing to help us share our ideas, learn from our mistakes and count the spoils of war or trade. It's hardly a surprise that some of the first examples of 'writing' were connected to accountancy and I have to wonder, yet again, at the power of trade to push forward technological developments.

The sacred nature of writing

In Ancient times writing was something that was sacred. Until the Middle Ages in Europe, only spiritual men (and usually only men), scribes and monks, were taught how to read and write (the two surely go hand-in-hand?). Written text enabled Pharaohs and Kings to create a legacy that would potentially be eternal and could speak for the writers long after they had deceased. In some Ancient societies, written creations had to be approved and stamped by the King, before they could be left behind as records of that society.

The power of the written word

Writing is just as powerful today. I'm sure J.K. Rowling would agree, having seen her Harry Potter series of books take the world by storm, being translated into innumerable languages and read by an audience of millions around the world - millions of people who speak different languages and come from very different cultures than the writer herself. And then there's the Media - newspaper headlines or a scathing review can make or break public figures. There is more power in a well-written text sometimes, than in any spoken words.

Lao script is much rounder and softer than Khmer
The 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal once said 'To know how to write well is to know how to think well' and I tend to agree. Perhaps good writing is only rivalled by good music, as a source of inspiration and change for the human mind.

The alphabet revolution

As part of my research for this blog post, I read A Very Short Introduction to Writing and Script by Andrew Robinson (published by Oxford University Press). It gave me a great overview of a topic I find endlessly fascinating. There was so much to learn from this book, but one of the main things I came to understand was how the alphabet revolutionised writing systems. I guess most of us will presume that alphabets have been around forever, but they're a much more recent invention and were pre-dated by other forms of writing, such as hieroglyphs, cuneiform writing and pictographs.

Thai script and other scripts like Khmer, Lao and Tamil are kind of like an alphabet (unlike Chinese or Japanese, where you need to learn thousands of characters before you can read). Having said that, they're not like any alphabet I'd met before and are actually somewhere between a true alphabet, where each individual sound (or phoneme) is represented by a single letter, and a syllabary, where each letter represents a syllable. Khmer, Thai and the others are like a hybrid between a syllabic system and more phonetic alphabet. I guess this type of 'alphabet' is probably better described as an Abugida..

Of course, it's all well and good to try to define everything and put things into boxes, but the reality is always a lot more complicated and even the English alphabet is a bewildering combination of letters and sounds.

Where do you put the vowels?

Chinese script
What I found really different about Thai and Khmer is that the vowels can appear in front of, behind, on top of or even under the consonant. There are rules of course and certain vowels tend to stand alone, whilst others are dependent on their partner consonant. Vowels have always been an issue and the first alphabets didn't contain any - some modern alphabets, like Arabic, Hebrew and Hindi generally leave them out. The existence of vowels in European scripts is mostly down to the Greeks and linguists speculate as to the influence Greek poetry had on the addition of vowels to a script.

Apart from that, learning to read a script like Thai or Khmer isn't all that difficult. The letters don't morph or change, as they might in Arabic or Hindi and, once you get over the initial culture shock of a completely different writing system, it all falls into place somehow and you will be able to make out words in other Brahmic scripts (which all have their origins in India).

The world's biggest and smallest alphabets

If Khmer is considered to be an alphabet, then it's probably the largest alphabet in the world, with 74 different signs (again, some of these are quite obscure and have disappeared in neighbouring scripts like Thai).

By all accounts, the world's smallest alphabet is the one used for the Rotokas language in Papua New Guinea - it only uses 12 letters (all from the Roman alphabet) - a e g i k o p r s t u v - there's definitely something to be said for keeping things simple!

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All images were taken by me.  Please feel free to re-use them under the Creative Commons License:

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