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Linguist races to document Cambodia's dying S'aoch language

End nears for minority group whose local history stretches back centuries

Jean-Michel Filippi, a French linguistics expert, left, talks with Knoi, a village elder who still speaks the S'aoch language. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

VEAL RENH, Cambodia -- Jean-Michel Filippi is racing against the clock: Only 10 speakers remain of an ancient language the French linguistic expert is recording before it surely dies, taking with it much of the culture of its people.

Downtrodden for centuries, devastated by the bloody rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, and mired in extreme poverty, less than 100 survivors of the S'aoch ethnic minority now lead a marginal existence in the village of Veal Renh, in southwestern Cambodia.

"Young people only know a few everyday words. At school they learn Khmer (the language of Cambodia's dominant ethnic group) and English. They are not interested in our language any more," said Knoi, a gray-haired village elder aged about 75 who still speaks S'aoch. His granddaughter, a teenager, admitted that she only knows a few words, including pic (sleep), hop chalaeng (eat) and neng (wash).

Located on a dirt road backed by low hills, their village consists of huts cobbled together with thatch, corrugated iron and plastic sheets. Garbage litters every corner. Noi Sreitouch, the granddaughter, pointed out the houses of Khmer villagers, noting that intermarriage occurs between the two groups. "There are more and more of them and less and less of us," she said. Unlike her grandfather, who uses the traditional single name of the S'aoch language, Noi Sreitouch has adopted a Khmer name.

Filippi said he realized when he came into contact with the S'aoch in 1997 that their language could not be saved. So he began compiling a dictionary of more than 6,000 S'aoch words, and has written a soon-to-be published history of the people, said to go back some 5,000 years.

S’oach children in the village of Veal Renh. The young here no longer speak the language of their ethnic minority. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

Filippi, who is conversant in more than 20 languages including Macedonian and Vietnamese, is also compiling a S'aoch grammar. But he said his efforts "will never reveal the reality of the language as it is used. Once a language is dead, it is dead." That would be a pity, because it would put an end to a way of seeing the world.

"A language is a unique vision of the world. If a language disappears, a whole vision of the world disappears as well," he said, noting that even relatively closely related languages such as English and French reflect different views of reality.

The S’oach village of Long Le in the late 19th century (Courtesy of Jean-Michel Filippi).

The S'aoch are not alone. According to UNESCO, a language dies every fortnight. Google's Endangered Languages Project lists more than 3,400 endangered tongues, out of 7,000 still spoken worldwide, with half of those in peril found in Asia. These range from the language of the Ainu on Japan's Hokkaido island to those of the Saaroa in Taiwan and Nepal's Kusundu minority. Experts predict that only half the languages now spoken will survive until the end of the century.

The S'aoch appear to have come already to the end of their long road. Since the time of Cambodia's Khmer Empire, which ruled from the ninth century to the 15th century, they and other linguistically related extant ethnic minority groups have been called Pearic, a term used in Cambodia to denote someone of low class. The word S'aoch translates as "an itchy skin disease" in Khmer.

As the Khmer Empire weakened, the S'aoch were able to carve out a semi-autonomous enclave in southwestern Cambodia. But in the 1830s they were defeated by Thai forces, which carried off a large part of the population to what is now Thailand's Kanchanaburi province. Filippi said that only a couple of elders there still hold on to the language; as in Cambodia, their children speak the dominant tongue.

A second great dispersal occurred in the mid-1970s when the Khmer Rouge drove the S'aoch from their homes to become slave laborers. "When the Khmer Rouge came they forbade everything. They killed many, many of us. They sent us everywhere in the countryside and separated us from each other," said Knoi's son Lohn. The Khmer Rouge had unleashed "a kind of murderous madness beyond imagination" against the S'aoch, said Filippi.

After the defeat of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese forces in 1979, S'aoch survivors returned to the three villages where they had resided. How many had perished is not known, but there were clearly many more than today's number because about 300 alone lived a largely self-sufficient existence in just one of the three villages before the Khmer Rouge terror.

"They felt rejected, felt that their own situation was inferior," Filippi said. "So they thought: 'We are poor. We are S'aoch. If we were like the Khmer we would have proper clothes and houses, a real education. So let's not be S'aoch any more."'

The village of Veal Renh, home to less than 100 S’oach ethnic minority people (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

The S'aoch say they sometimes go to Buddhist temples, and from time to time they gather for traditional animist ceremonies. But in one conversation, several older men could not recall the names of their gods, and were vague about the nature of the ceremonies.

There is no evident effort among them to revive the language, and while the Cambodian government has launched programs to safeguard some of the country's 19 endangered peoples there are no programs for S'aoch or the other Pearic languages. Only Filippi studies them.

"You can only revitalize a language if people want it to be revitalized. And none of the S'aoch want it to be revitalized," he said. "You can't save a language if its speakers see it as a symbol of their own inferiority." He added that communities will not invest time and energy in retaining mother tongues if they are worried about where their next meals will come from.

Filippi said he intends to intensify his work, using every opportunity to speak to the S'aoch and document as much as possible of their language, which he described as sophisticated and complex. Most of his best informants have already died, he said, noting that eliciting the meaning of each word and transcribing it into the International Phonetic Alphabet (a system of phonetic notation based largely on the Latin alphabet) was a long and painstaking task.

"I feel very depressed every time I come to this village," he admitted, surrounded by welcoming locals. For them, Filippi sees a near-term future not unlike that of the Kamassian speakers of central Siberia. Kamassian was thought to have disappeared until a Russian archaeologist came across Klavdiya Plotnikova, the last speaker of the language, in the 1960s. In order not to forget her heritage, Plotnikova spoke to her cow in her mother tongue every morning.

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