Every Tuesday and Friday I have a language lesson with Anna, who is the daughter of a friend and a great teacher. We've been working through an aptly-named book: "Cambodian for Beginners," and I have been pretty successful at mastering introductory conversation and spurning marriage proposals. After that, though, it's a bit more difficult to chart my progress.
Khmer (or khmai) is an interesting language for many reasons, including its many vowels, new phonetics, and naming principles. Just today I was reminded that the words for top, over, above, and up are pretty much the same (neu leu) as are the words for bottom, under, below, and down (neu krhaom). So if you wanted to say something was "over the top," you're out of luck. Despite using one word for all these pronouns, there are completely different words for long (yuu = time; wegn = distance) and short (klay = distance). This does not include the fact that you can be tall (kapua) or short (tiep).
I also discovered today in our review of fruits and vegetables, that the word for grapes is dom being bai chuu. Forgetting the rest of that word, let me tell you that the last part, chuu, means "sour." I'm not sure how you could express that someone is eating "sour grapes," since they are already the same thing. The word for shopping cart, interestingly enough, is roteah, which is also part of the word for train (roteah de pleung); just imagine the fun of grocery store lines with shopping carts the size of a train car! The words are made different because the de pleung in the word for train means, "with fire" or "with electricity" (because the word for fire and electricity is the same thing). When there is a power outage, I tell people that I don't have fire. Even when I'm lighting candles.
This doesn't even begin to cover the homophones in the language. The words for dog, far, and delicious (chagaii, chingai, chingein) are nearly identical to my ear, which can be problematic if you tell someone you want to go very delicious or that your meal is quite dog. You should be careful when you're tongue tied, since the word for tongue (andat)is pronounced similarly to the word for turtle (andaut). I'm sure you wouldn't want a turtle stuck in your mouth. Of course, sometimes the word is exactly the same, like the pronouns he and she (gowuht). Have fun figuring out if HE told HER the info or if SHE told HIM. The same is true for the words remember and wait (jahm). A sentence in which she can't remember him could easily be mistaken for one in which he couldn't wait for her.
Other vocabulary words are simply exact meanings crunched together. If you have a sore ankle, you would explain to someone that you injured the corner of your leg. Similarly, the corner of your arm (elbow) could also be hurt, say in a motorbike accident. Your knee, despite its 90 degree bend-a-bility, is in no way a corner of your body. Neither is your shoulder, come to think of it. When you take off your shoes (sbeik jeung), you remove the skin of your feet. Ouch. Your socks, though, are sraoum jeung, and gloves srouam dai. In other words, cylinder foot or cylinder hand. The names for your fingers aren't numbered either, being simply may-dai (the boss, your thumb), dai jong-croh (the finger which points), dai kandal (the finger between), dai neeung (the finger of a girl, your ring finger), and dai g'oohn (the baby finger). Sadly, the word for arm, hand, and finger are all the same, as is the leg (except for the thigh, which is called plauv, the same word for road).
And we haven't even gone over grammar yet. Oy.
All of this is the reason why some weeks, two lessons is not nearly enough, while others, it's far too much to handle. Even when we finish the book (which will be soon), I'll only be ready to upgrade to "Cambodian for Beginners II."