CommentaryExpat LifePhnom Penh

Linguistic Faux Pas in Cambodia

Many moons ago when Lord Playboy was freshly arrived in Cambodia, looking for change, adventure and a cheap, clean, substitute for nuclear fuel, I took an intensive course in learning Khmer

Having been a devoted student of the Khmer language, for many, many, hours. I took to trying out my budding linguistic abilities at every opportunity, often with hilarious results ? well, hilarious for the locals and my Khmer friends.

I thought that I would just share a few of my more humorous – well, embarrassing – mistakes with you, as this may be especially amusing for anyone currently learning, or thinking of learning a little of the language.

For the benefit of those of you who are not fluent in Khmer [and I still have to include myself in that group] I will attempt to explain all this in English.

The first example is not mine, but is a common enough urban story here about a visiting dignitary who wanted to learn a couple of sentences in Khmer to say during his speech.

Part of what he wanted to say, in Khmer, was –
‘I am looking forward to helping my Khmer colleagues’

What he actually said was –
‘I am looking forward to f%cking my Khmer colleagues’

It tells you something about a culture when only half a vowel sound separates the words for help and f*ck.

Well, an easy mistake to make, anyone could have done it really. Plus, it is far, far, worse than any of mine, which also makes me feel a whole lot better about my odd mistake.

So anyway, I was talking about some of the slip-ups that I had made.

For example, what I thought I was saying was:
‘The weather in Cambodia is very hot.’
Alas, what I actually said was
‘The weather in Cambodia is very penis.’

This was not so bad as it was in the classroom with just my teacher and 3 fellow students; what made me die of embarrassment was when I realised that I had been pronouncing it that way for a week or two already. What my 60 year old housekeeper must have thought when I wandered home in the early evening say ‘penis, very, very penis today’ I shudder to think. No wonder the old dear was always grinning at me. It was several months after that before I felt confident to use the word outside of the classroom again.

Another, exceptionally, embarrassing slip of the tongue was not during the confines of a language lesson, but in a Khmer shop on Monivong, where I was buying some household furnishings prior to me having visitors arrive from the UK.

What I wanted to say was
‘I need a new mattress, a large mattress’

Unfortunately to; my horror, the bafflement of the shopkeeper, his wife and family and to the amusement of three Khmer friends of mine, what I actually said was
‘I need a new c*nt, a large c*nt’

Which actually brings us to what I consider the most embarrassing of my language mishaps, not because it involved words any ruder than the above, but because it actually upset the waitress I was speaking to.

What I was attempting to do was ask for some fish sauce to go with my lunch.

Now, the way that the words for fish sauce are constructed in Khmer is the equivalent of ‘water fish’ unfortunately the word for fish is very similar to the word for woman. So as I pointed at the waitress and asked her if she had ‘water woman’ she really did not know what to make of it all, as I repeated the request, she grew visibly embarrassed and fled to the kitchen, not to return during the rest of my time there.

Basically it was the equivalent of asking a western woman ‘if she was wet,’ nudge, nudge, wink, wink, and it would not be rainfall that one was referring to in that manner of asking?

Lord Playboy

The views in this column are entirely those of Lord Playboy (of Phnom Penh, Sonteipheap and that muddy patch of ground next to the school;) they are in no way are representative of Khmer440, its editors or staff, of any Ministry of the Royal Government of Cambodia who employs Lord Playboy, of people who think it is perfectly okay to walk uninvited into someone?s office, or short fat ignorant women who can not manage an excuse me in a bar to get by, of employees of the Lonely Planet who have never left London, or those people who think that Raffles Hotel is how to see Cambodia. Damn, things will be different when I am running the Country.

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