top of page

Cambodia. Doctorate
in Patience

The Language of This Blog

A Word of Explanation

English version only: the author is of Polish origin and primarily writes in his language. Hence the English version of "The Language of This Blog" might not seem the most relevant for other languages.

Khmer customs and language are very different from the languages of Western people, including Polish. Many things and ideas natural to the West have no equivalents in the Khmer language, and vice versa. For example, the incredible flexibility of the Polish language allows to Polonize, accommodate, and adapt almost any foreign word. I enjoy playing with words and mixing languages, so I find fun in translating foreign phrases in my own way. In the case of the Khmer language, it is essential.

The Polish language
(like probably all European languages) does not know such letters, and there are no such sounds that could be used to, even approximately, express unknown sounds of the Khmer language. The Polish or English vocalization of Khmer words deforms them so profoundly that the Khmer will not understand us. I assume that it is the Polish (and in this case English speaking) reader who is to understand this blog, which is why I adjust the pronunciation of Khmer words my way, but mind, please, that using them in this form in Cambodia may prove futile.

Context – In many Asian languages and cultures, context determines the meaning of a word or phrase. Of course, this happens in any language. But! While Western cultures use many different words, and the context complements or clarifies the intention, there are far fewer words in Southeast Asia, but their meaning (or sense) can dramatically change depending on the context.

Tuk-tuk – a means of transport typical in Cambodia and neighboring countries, usually consisting of a towing vehicle (motorcycle, scooter) and two-wheeled gondola.

Tuktukman – instead of tuk-tuk driver like a Polish dorożkarz, or English cabbie.

Bongkengkonyan originating from or related to central district of Phnom Penh, Boeung Keng Kang, that in my ear of a classical musician sounds more or less like:  Bon-Kin-Kong

Expat abbreviation of expatriate: labor immigrant, resident. This colonial term was supposed to distinguish a labor immigrant from a resident who came to help, build, create, and lead. Expats are people in high and specialized positions (teacher, engineer, professor, director, manager).

Addressing People: There are no exact equivalents to "sir, lady" in Cambodia. Instead, the phrases "older sister," "younger sister," "older brother," and "younger brother" are used; we address much older people as "uncle" and "aunt." There is also a distinction between formal and informal expression, characteristic of East Asia. In some situations (e.g., in front of a king or princess), only particular phrases are used.

Bong – gender-neutral word to address someone older than us or higher in rank. It is used universally (shop, market, hotel, work) and expresses respect. To display basic courtesy, this word may be applied to everyone except children (for tourists). Other forms of address are used in formal situations. It is worth being alert: when calling someone bong, we suggest they are older than us, although maybe they don't feel this way. Especially women tend to be sensitive in this matter. If you don't read this Blog, you may not know intricate details like this. In Cambodia, marriages are still arranged by parents. I know contemporary young Khmer women and men who met, for example, twice before their wedding day, accompanied by the family elders. Wife and husband refer to each other as bong (the older one) and oun (the younger one). These words play similar role to Western mister, madam, but after the wedding, according to the new context, both words mean... darling...

Oun – gender-neutral word to address someone younger than us or lower in rank. Gender indications can be made by saying oun broh (younger brother) and oun srey (younger sister). Remain sensitive, perhaps even oversensitive, about this beautiful but dangerous term. Addressing someone more senior than us, more important or mature and dignified enough to be called bong with this (oun) word can offend someone's feelings. Oun is also the correct address word for the younger spouse (see description of bong). As always (!), Khmer words have many meanings that only the Khmer and my readers know. Traditional Khmer often use this word to address shop employees, service workers, and waiters, regardless of their age; yes, it emphasizes who the boss is, although, in business relations, it is still polite enough. In Khmer culture, where compliments are not openly paid, or at least not in an obvious way, sometimes the use of oun can become a compliment about someone's appearance smuggled between lines. Just as in any case you don't understand in depth, be careful, there is more to it, but it would require a whole article.

Bong broh – broh means brother. Bong broh corresponds to the English "sir," "mister," and means simply older brother/s, you.

Bong srey – srey means woman, and in some phrases sister. Bong srey resembles, in a sense, our "ma'am" and stands more literally for "older sister/s."

Okun jran – (pronounced okun chran), thank you very much. Okun – thanks. Jran – a lot, many. Therefore, this term is closer to many thanks, or the German vielen Dank.

Sok sobay – (pronounced sok sobay) a phrase accompanying greeting and goodbye. The words sok and sobay are challenging to translate exactly because every Khmer I asked told me something different about their meaning, like: healthy, good, happiness, peace, and excellent. Sok sobay has a similar function to the British phrase how do you do, which is answered with precisely the exact words without explaining whether we are doing great or not. In Khmer there is more to it. Greeting others in Cambodia, we honor them with a greeting relevant to the time of the day and ask "Sok sobay?" (How are you? or rather Are you fine?, All good?) A greeting back and "Jaah/baat. Sok sobay!" (now, standing for "Yes, I'm all right!") is expected in reply. When saying goodbyes, everyone says "Sok sobay!" again. In this context, the phrase becomes a wish for all the best. Basically, the meaning of words sok and sobay is that ALL [IS] GOOD and ALL GOOD [IS] WISHED. Ok, but good... what? Stop digging! Just good, and that's that!

The West and Westerner, Barang – everyone has their own West. In Cambodia, a Westerner, Barang in Khmer, is basically any white person. From the Cambodian point of view, Ukrainian, Greek, Irish, Swedish, white American, Canadian, and South African are Barang; Australians and some others belong to this group, too. Putting all of us in one box still amazes me.
On the other hand, I constantly meet Westerners who do not see the profound differences between Taiwanese, Burmese, Japanese, and Indonesians, even though these nations are so tremendously different culturally (not only from one to another but also diverse internally!) that I would risk saying Europe does not have so extreme differences. As far as I know, non-white individuals, even if they were born and raised in the part of the world considered in Cambodia as the West, are defined separately. It seems to me to have a hidden history. Barang literally means French. Cambodia was a French colony (formally a protectorate, but what's the difference?). This term was extended to all Westerners who were not Hindu or Arabs known in Cambodia for over two millennia.

bottom of page