Volume 2 No.8

What's New

Place of Interest

Phrase Of The Month

Overheard





Contemporary Khmer Obscures Origin
by: Chhin Veth. ( August, 2002 Volume 2 No.8 )

All over the world, each nation always has their own spoken language. Each phrase of any spoken language always has differing meanings to emphasize. This has been the crux of linguistic philosophy and their quest to locate the meaning of language. To attempt any sort of analysis, one must first understand the origins of a word and thus define its original meaning. Every word and phrase has uniquely differing roots and backgrounds. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the founder of linguistic philosophy, said: "Whereof one cannot speak one must remain silent." The notion was that words without meaning were a waste of time. The concept of analyzing each word, its meanings and nuances was the school of thought that he followed.
Cambodia is no exception. Especially provincial Khmer that provides a plethora of phrases that have strayed from their original meaning to evolve into a new definition. Through the use of imagery and metaphor, the literal translation and the true meaning are poles apart. More often than not this is through ignorance. With a penchant for harking back to the bygone era, we examine a quirky aspect of Khmer phraseology. The example used to extrapolate the theory is the word of "Antit Kor Lot". To dissect this phrase we must first examine the individual meaning of each word. The Khmer language is a compound language and, as such, needs to be broken down into the individual definition. The word "Antit" refers to a man who used to be a monk. Inevitably one falls victim to dialectical differences, in certain parts of the country "Antit" means son in law. The word "Kor Lot" means the cow that bucks. This sheds light on why, when hearing this phrase quickly, many Khmers will laugh at the imagery of a man who used to be a monk, but walks like a cow bucking. Traditionally, even today this practice continues, most men entered a monastery for some period. When they left the monkhood they were respected within society. Thus they were dubbed with the title "Antit". The origins of this word are from the word doctorate - the implication of being a monk carrying with it intellectual merit.
When it came to matters of the heart for these "Antit", both parents would have to reach an understanding if marriage were to follow. To earn his fiancée, the wanna be groom must first serve the parents of the girl. The time period of this servitude was normally three months. A variation to this previously established time limit would be the result of further discussions by the families involved. This practice provided an opportunity for the would be in-laws, to check out their daughters suitor and ensure that he was worthy.

In all major ceremonies, especially true of the national ones, there would be many activities including horse racing, wrestling and cart racing. In the journey to watch these events the suitor must act as cart driver for his future family. The story goes that due to a tailback on the cart track; the event they were on they way to was very popular. The "Antit" had to walk in front of the buffalo to ensure they were kept under control. The family of the girl involved saw this as the perfect opportunity to monitor and evaluate the ability of the "Antit". Could he be the one to hold their family honour high? Could he be good enough for their child? However as all cart drivers know, upon meeting their own kind, oxen and buffalo can tend to become frisky. This was the case in the story being told: the "Antit" lost control during one such encounter. The cart he was driving was overturned in the turmoil and the parents and lover were flung to the ground, like used, slightly soiled rags. The embarrassment for the family was monumental. In fact they lost so much face that they cancelled the engagement demanding that the "Antit" return to his home and not bother their daughter again. The man who lost his love because of the antics of the cows and his inability to control their vehicle was known as "Antit Kor Lot."

However in the age of modernization, and the slow decline in ox cart usage, the meaning and comprehension of this phrase has been lost. While the temples from the period still stand the words are less durable. The phrase is now merely a generic term for a man, without it's original meaning. This is one of a multitude of examples of phrasal amnesia. The effect is one that is comical, in the sense that the word will be used but the actual meaning unclear. At the same time this linguistic loss is sad, symptomatic of the desperate attempt to embrace all things new. The problem with this is that the tree cannot grow new branches, if it has forgotten its roots.