One Woman’s Fight to Bring Commas to Khmer

If Theary Seng had her way, hundreds of years of writing the Khmer language would be turned on its head, with spaces introduced between words and the Western comma utilized liberally for intelligibility.

A refugee who fled the civil war to the U.S. as a child in 1979 and returned in 1995, Ms. Seng has since become the sole proselytizer for an apocalyptic vision of written Khmer, which she depicts as a long-neglected form often unable to communicate complex ideas lucidly.

Theary Seng (Roland Neveu)
Theary Seng (Roland Neveu)

Pointing to the clarity that the comma can bring to English (such as, she notes, the important distinction between the phrases “Let’s eat, grandma” and “Let’s eat grandma”), Ms. Seng says its utility became apparent after she returned to the country having forgotten much of her native language.

“The issue arose for me principally in two ways: my encounter with re-learning Khmer as an adult, [and] my encounter with the struggles of educated Cambodians to articulate in Khmer,” Ms. Seng said in an email on Sunday.

The Khmer language, like its Thai and Lao derivatives, uses an abugida writing system—meaning each syllabic unit is based on a consonant, with a vowel wrapping into it to form a distinct block—and rarely, if ever, uses spaces or punctuation to separate words.

For many, that has never been a problem. But Ms. Seng said a turning point for her came in 2006 when she was named the director of the Center for Social Development (CSD) and “began cautiously by inserting commas” in their publications to separate concepts inside sentences.

“After being unable to decipher the rhyme or reason for word spacing (or lack thereof) and the use of punctuation (or lack thereof)…I began to appropriate what I know of the written English to the written Khmer,” she said.

“I got away with it but only some of the time. For example, I edited the Khmer version of our Understanding Trauma in Cambodia handbook; only a fraction of the commas made it into the published book!”

It became clear her efforts were unpopular, she said, when her predecessor and fellow U.S. returnee Chea Vannath “told the staff that the commas will be my downfall”—Ms. Seng was acrimoniously booted from the CSD in 2008 by a board including Ms. Vannath.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said on Sunday that he was not against the use of commas in Khmer, noting that Chuon Nath, the Buddhist monk famous for compiling the authoritative 1938 Khmer dictionary, used commas to delineate ideas.

“I think this is not a new idea because if we look at Chuon Nath, he used commas, and for nearly a decade, the Ministry of Finance and Economics has used commas to better express [its] ideas,” Mr. Chuon Naron said.

“It’s to separate ideas. It’s a little similar to English, but Chuon Nath was educated in French. This is not common, but if there is a need, we can use commas.”

But Mr. Chuon Naron said he did not believe commas were necessary for complex ideas, arguing that an astute writer using native syntax could communicate clearly.

“I read books in Khmer, and I think it’s not a problem. It’s a problem of mastering the language and about expressing clearly. For technical topics, they often use commas in texts just translated from English, and often I cannot understand it,” the education minister said.

“If you’re writing about technical topics, you need people with expertise, and then they can write in clear Khmer. It’s not about commas, it’s about writing clearly.”

Ms. Seng herself likes to note that Chuon Nath used commas in his landmark dictionary, labeling it a “coup” against her detractors when she uploaded to Facebook the seven-page introduction to the book—featuring his commas.

Yet the argument against the necessity of commas in Khmer is shared by Ang Choulean, an anthropologist at the Royal University of Fine Arts specializing in Cambodian traditions, who said he did not sympathize with Ms. Seng’s difficulties writing complex ideas.

“I write in the Khmer language and I don’t encounter this,” Mr. Choulean said. “It depends on the way you express your opinion. If you try to translate very, very, literally, then of course this is a problem, but each language has its own way to express things.”

“Right now, it is difficult for me because we are not speaking in Khmer, it’s in English. You have to have a perfect language and be very fluent, and then you can find the ways to express any concept,” he said.

“If you try only to translate, it cannot work, because the Khmer language is different from English,” he added.

Vong Meng, deputy director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s National Language Institute, which issues the rules of standardized Khmer, said it was not unthinkable for commas to be inserted into Khmer writing but also said it was not necessary.

“We have used commas in the past, especially in the old texts, in the dictionaries and the law books that were translated from French. But in the modern day, it’s rare. We use spaces instead,” Mr. Meng said.

Yet he acknowledged that the use of such spaces as quasi-commas was left to the discretion of each individual writer, as his institute had yet to release standards for when the space should be inserted.

“Generally, we use a space when we use one group of words, or one phrase, or between one sentence and another. There are two scholars now conducting [research on] how to use the space. This is still a topic that we have to talk about. We have not standardized it yet,” he said.

“It’s possible we could use commas, but it might be, let’s say, a complicated thing for the next generation,” he added.

But for Ms. Seng, such a system—using the space sometimes to mimic a comma, sometimes just to break sentences between clauses, and other times around a person’s name—is not a substitute for the comma.

In a blog post last month, she noted that the freedom to insert spaces for clarity is often ignored, with the Koh Santepheap Daily running a spaceless headline referring to the man leading a campaign against deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha as “Lok Srey Chamroeun.”

With “lok” meaning “Mr.” in Khmer and “srey” both meaning “woman” and being a part of the activist’s name, the headline could be interpreted as “Mr. Srey Chamroeun” or as “Mrs. Chamroeun,” she noted wryly.

“I can imagine the problem is in ALL the Khmer media outlets, well-established as well as not-so-well-established ones,” she said on Sunday.

“I deeply, passionately believe that punctuation (which automatically allows for greater word spacing) is truly the KEY to development.”

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