Scholar Fills Void, Publishes First Textbook on Old Khmer
By | December 2, 2013

Ever since the first French researchers came across inscriptions in Old Khmer on Angkorian monuments, foreign and Cambodian scholars have studied those texts and published specialized works on the subject.

But until now, there has been no textbook available for people who wanted to learn the basics of the version of Khmer that was spoken from the 6th through the 14th centuries.

Aware of this void, scholar Ang Choulean has spent the past few years developing such a book. The result is a 280-page publication entitled “Old Khmer Textbook,” which was released Sunday.

An ethnologist specializing in Cambodian rituals and traditions who was awarded Japan’s Fukuoka Grand Prize in 2011, Mr. Choulean first studied Old Khmer in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Paris, and spent the following decades reading academic works on the topic.

Since 2007, he has taught Old Khmer to archaeology students at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and run Old Khmer workshops for the staff of Apsara Authority, the government agency managing Angkor Archaeological park. He is also an adviser to Bun Narith, the director-general of Apsara.

“It’s teaching that has helped… become aware of the difficulties” that students face in learning Old Khmer, Mr. Choulean said. “To write a textbook, you’re not allowed to insert personal opinions or theories…it must be straightforward, with you serving as a conduit for the information.”

The book’s publication was funded by Heritage Watch, an organization involved in the protection of Cambodia’s archaeological sites. “As Cambodia’s heritage melts away, it is important to protect it at a faster pace,” said Heritage Watch board member Joyce Clark.

The textbook’s release is part of the formal launch of the organization Yosothor. Named after the original moniker of Angkor’s capital, this group headed by Mr. Choulean has operated informally for several years, its members consisting of students, teachers and researchers in the social sciences who have run the Khmer-language website Khmer Renaissance since 2005.

Their goal is to make social science research accessible and interesting to the general public, said Siyonn Sophearith, a lecturer in art history and Cambodian history. “We aim to help provide an understanding of Khmer culture” for people of all ages, he said. The website has so far posted more than 320 short articles, using scores of illustrations to make them more appealing.

The group has also published since 2000 the annual scholarly publication Udaya, which, starting with its 11th issue in January, will be posted online. Both the website and Udaya are funded by the organization Friends of Khmer Culture, which provides resources for Cambodian students who have limited research tools available to them.

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