How to Use Khmer Phonetic Reversal

In Khmer language, you can alter a phrase into a list of unrecognizable words by transpose the different syllables to obfuscate the meaning. You have to reverse it back to get the original meanings. This is widely used by Cambodians as part of everyday conversation or in comedy, poetry, song, derogatory speech, and interjection as a play on words. This technique is called “Phonetic Reversal” គ្រលាស់​ (Kroleus). This is not the same as speech reversal or spoonerism. This flipping process seems natural to many Cambodians and can convert back and forth without much effort.

To understand this technique, I will start by showing the basic phonetic reversal process using English words. Then I will switch to Khmer words and also show some of the popular phrases and many other usages.

Introduction

In Khmer language, there is a unique technique that alters the original phrase to create a different sound phrase where it can be reverted back. This technique performs the transposed of the homophone which called Kunleus (គន្លាស់) or Phonetic Reversal. We can see this style of the language uses in comedy, poetry, derogatory phrase, interjection. One of the phrase used by the famous comedian/singer Promagn “ព្រហ្មម៉ាញ” is by calling his partner named Sinaet with a new last name as “PROM Sinaet”. This sounds like an ordinary name but when it is reversed, it becomes PRAET SINUM which means “ghost that eats cake”. How do you like someone calling you that?

In English, there is a similar style called “Spoonerism” which is a play on words by switching between two words in a phrase. For example saying "The Lord is a shoving leopard" instead of "The Lord is a loving shepherd" or “a blushing crow" instead of “crushing blow”. [2] This process is different because it interchanged the consonant sound rather than the last portion of the syllable as in Khmer phonetic reversal approach.

Khmer Phonetic Reversal

The Technique

The Khmer phonetic reversal can be performed on words or phrase of two or more syllables. The technique transposes the ending sound of the syllables. In order to understand how this work, we will demonstrate several examples using English words.

Let us start with 2 syllables word/phrase: “BASIC”.

  • First we need to break up the word into syllables. BASIC becomes: BA and SIC.
  • Then break up each syllable as a consonant sound and an ending syllable sound. This becomes: [B - A] and [S - IC].
  • Now perform the transposing by switching only the ending sound of each syllable by swapping the red and the blue letters.
  • From [B - A] [S - IC], we get [B - IC] [S - A]. You must keep the way the syllables sound so the new word sounds like: BIC-SAY.
As you can see, BASIC is reversed to BIC-SAY.

Let us try another example: PROGRAM.

  • In step 1, we get: [PRO] [GRAM].
  • In step 2, we get: [PR-O] [GR-AM].
  • Then in step 3, the flipping becomes [PRAM] [GRO].

    How about another 2 syllables example: “STANDARD”.

  • [STAN] [DARD] split to [ST-AN] [D-ARD]
  • and the final reversal becomes [STARD] [DAN].
  • See if you can reverse it back and forth by just saying them out loud. Many Cambodian can naturally say them without knowing the process I mentioned here.

    For three syllables, just swap between the first and the last syllable and keep the second syllable untouched.

    For example, the word “COMPUTER”:

  • [COM] [PU] [TER] => [C-OM] [PU] [T-ER]
  • this becomes [CER] [PU] [TOM] which sounds as KER-PEW-TOM. Remember that you have to keep the consonant sound and the ending syllable sound the same. So COM has the K sound, when combined to CER, it should read as KER. So the final syllables sound of CER-PU-TOM sounds like KER-PEW-TOM.

    The same can be done with 4 syllables. You keep the middle two syllable the same and swap the first and the last. For example, “DICTIONARY”:

  • It is segmented to [DIC] [TION] [NA] [RY]
  • This becomes [D-IC] [TION] [NA] [R-Y], the final reversal becomes DY TION NA RIC.

    This can go on to 5 syllables or more but it becomes more complicated to the ears for beginner. You can split them into several segments instead so you can transpose two or three syllables at a time.

    Note that we cannot interchange two syllables with the same consonant sound. For example: MAD MAN has the same consonant ‘M’. So this would revert to MAN MAD which just re-ordering the words and would not obfuscate the sound.

    Khmer Phrase Examples

    Let’s practice with Khmer words on some of popular known words or phrases. The following are play on words that commonly used.

    ដាំ ⁣ចេក ⁣=> ដេក ចាំ
  • DUM CHEK (plant banana) => DEK CHUM (sleep-wait meaning waiting forever)
  • Context: When someone ask you for something and you are not willing to give, you can says DUM CHEK (plant banana) which reverse to mean to wait forever.

    សិល អំប៊ី => ស៊ី អំបិល

  • SEL OMBEE => SEE OMBEL (eat salt)
  • Context: The first original word SEL means to religious rule. Ask if someone were to follow the rule (SEL), it can be joked as “SEL OMBEE” to say that he or she is eating salt, meaning not following the religious rule.

    ដូត រហើ => ដើរ រហូត

  • DOTE ROHAUY => DAUY ROHOTE (Walk all the way) normally say ដូតល្ហើ DOTE LHAUY
  • Context: This is usually mentioned when asking how someone would get to one place and the answer is to ride this “ដូតល្ហើ” vehicle implying he or she is walking all the way.

    ដៀ តែ ខ្នូច => ដូច តែ គ្នា (switch the letters for easy reading: ា to ៀ ⁣and ខ ⁣to គ)

  • DEAR TAE KNOCH => DOCH TAE KNEA (same as others)
  • Context: These two phrases become synonymous. Rather than saying DOCH TAE KNEA, one just say DEAR TAE KNOCH.

    ជាង មិន លុះ⁣⁣ => ជុះ មិន លៀង

  • CHEANG MIN LOUS => CHOUS MIN LEANG (did not clean oneself after pooping)
  • Context: CHEANG means handyman. When you want to call someone who does not know what he or she is doing or trying to be a handyman. So call this person CHEANG MIN LOUS.

    Shorten Phonetic Reversal - គន្លាស់​កាត់

    The use of the reversal technique is a unique play on words for Cambodians. It can be as simple as trying to say something in a different way or to joke around. So far the Khmer phonetic reversal allow the listeners to reverse it back to its intended meaning.

    Another similar approach is to eliminate some syllables of the reversed phrase so it is hard to reverse to the original meaning without knowing the missing syllables. This technique is called shorten phonetic reversal (គន្លាស់​កាត់) [1] .

    As cited by Eav Keus in “The Khmer Language”, this technique can explain the source of some words. For example, the word ថ្នើ (tney) which mean shelf is part of the shorten Phonetic reversal of ⁣ថ្នើលាក់ (tney lak) which reverse to ⁣ថ្នាក់​លើ that means top level.

    Beside the use to create new words, the shorten phonetic reversal is used in the accompanying syllables word called Borivasap “បរិវារស័ព្ទ” according to Eav Keus in “The Khmer Language”. The Borivasap are words that contains extra syllables to accompany the original words to enhance the sounds for easy listening with certain rhyme and rhythm. For example, the word ក្បាន is used as a Borivasap for ចាន meaning plate thus creating the word ចានក្បាន which has the same meaning. Khmer has many of these kind of words which may sound redundant to some but they added the unique rhythm and approach to speaking and writing style especially in poetry and songs.

    In the earlier word has the full reversal phrase as ក្បាន​ជើង​គ្រែ which reverse to ⁣ក្បែរ​ជើងក្រាន meaning the plate near the kitchen.

    While there are examples of Borivasap with the use of Phonetic Reversal which listed many of the phrase and its reversed meanings by Eav Keus and Sisovath (​ស៊ី​សុវត្ថិ,​ ប៉ូរក្ខស៊ី) in the book “Boriavasap in Khmer Language” , 1972 (បរិវារសព្ទ​ក្នុង​ភាសា​ខ្មែរ), Chuon Nath who is the creator of Khmer dictionary and consider as the founding father of Khmer language, did not agreed with the use of phonetic reversal as the true source of the words. See the video link below for his full comments.

    Derogatory Phrases

    The shorten phonetic reversal approach can be used to create derogatory phrases. Eav Keus cited an example, when an annoyed person is asking for salt, he or she might say “I don’t have the f*cking salt.” So instead of saying OMBEL (salt), or she says “អំបិល អំបុយ” (OMBEL OMBUOY) meaning “f*cking salt”. There is nowhere in the phase that has the word f*ck (CHUY in Khmer). Also the word OMBUY is not a valid Khmer word. So this is hidden from the listener who does not know the missing syllables.

    But if you were to “reverse” it with another syllable “ចិល” CHEL as “អំបុយ ចិល” (OMBUY CHEL), the reversed phrase becomes “OMBEL CHUY” which translate to “f*cking salt”. This process only uses the first part of the word “OMBUY” and drop the syllable “CHEL”. This is how the derogatory term is used without saying the bad words.

    Interjection

    Similarly, some of Khmer interjection such as Kondom Chaep (កន្ដុំ​ឆែប), can be added with another syllable “Chuoy” to become Kondom Choep Chuoy which reversed as Konduoy Chaep Chom. Konduoy means female private part and Chaep (ឆែប) means messed up or splitted apart.

    Conclusion

    The Khmer Phonetic Reversal is a unique technique for play on words that commonly used among Cambodians in everyday conversation, poetry, and comedy. It is an essence of Khmer cultural that rarely taught in school or explained. Rather it is picked up by exposing to it. Here I outline the technique and different usages including the use shorten phonetic reversal.


    References:

    Other links:

    1. http://dictionary.tovnah.com/
    2. http://km.wikipedia.org/wiki/បរិវារសព្ទ
    3. https://choukhmer.wordpress.com/2009/07/14/khmer-word-family/
    4. http://choukhmer.com/2009/07/14/khmer-word-family/
    5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvGR6JgSakE (Chuon Nath on Borivasap -- around 11 mins)
    6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oO2yWFYDQU (Samdech Chuon Nath: ពាក្យថា "ចោរខ្មួយ")