Cambodia: An ancient language, and a people, face extinction

Samrong Loeu Village, Southwestern Cambodia

Only a handful of S'aoch still speak their native language, mirroring the situation for indigenous peoples in Cambodia and throughout the world. Linguists warn that languages - and cultural diversity - are disappearing globally at an alarming rate.

In this tiny village, only about 10 elderly members of the S'aoch indigenous minority still speak their language. Once they are gone, experts say the S'aoch will cease to exist as a cultural entity.

The S'aoch are among about 19 threatened linguistic groups within Cambodia, but the trend is global. Linguists estimate that one language disappears somewhere in the world every two weeks, while about 3,000 are at risk. The UN Atlas of Endangered Languages lists 199 as having less than 10 speakers.

The reasons for this mass linguistic extinction are complex, but often involve the marginalization of minority or indigenous groups. The case of the S'aoch is extreme: their numbers were decimated under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975-1979 and executed S'aoch who dared to speak their native tongue.

Even after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown, the S'aoch never regained their traditional land, which was on the coast. Instead the surviving members gathered here, where the approximately 110 remaining S'aoch eke out a living.

It wasn't the first time the S'aoch minority was targeted. Noi, an elder who uses one name, tells a story in his own language of an incident passed down through generations.

A long time ago there were many S'aoch in the region, he says. Then ships from Thailand arrived, captured many S'aoch and took them away as slaves. After the Thais left, only three S'aoch families remained in Cambodia.

"This is true. We even know the name of the Thai admiral whose boat took the S'aoch." says French linguist Jean-Michel Filippi, adding that the incident took place in the 19th century.

Filippi is attempting to preserve S'aoch by compiling a dictionary before the language disappears. He has recorded about 4,000 words so far, but it isn't an easy task, he says. Even the remaining speakers do not share his enthusiasm for the project, as they associate their language and culture with exclusion and poverty.

But Filippi is undaunted. "Once a language disappears, a vision of the world disappears," he says.

And his work becomes more important every day, as languages expire at an unprecedented rate. Languages have been disappearing throughout history, Filippi explains. No one speaks Latin on the streets of Europe anymore, for example. But as Latin declined, other languages were created in its place. This process usually involves the development of pidgin tongues, which combine various languages to form a single, simple means of communication. Some, like English, eventually morph into full-fledged languages.

For the first time in recorded history, this process has halted. The world is losing languages faster than ever, but new ones are not being formed. Instead, young people from distinct linguistic groups are most likely to learn one of the world's three or four most dominant languages, according to Filippe.

Download and listen

CLIP 1: Noi tells a story in his language, S'aoch, about a 19th century attack in which a Thai admiral captured S'aoch and took them as slaves. Jean-Michel Filippi translates.

CLIP 2: Jean-Michel Filippi speaks about why the S'aoch are losing their language and culture, as well as the importance of preserving minority languages on a global scale.


For more information contact Jared Ferrie, Minority Voices Newsroom Asia Editor, via the Contact page. 


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Meo, his grandfather, Noi, and his father, Tuem, and Luen (doorway) in Samrong Loeu Village, Cambodia. The three elder men are among the last 10 remaining speakers of their native language, while Meo knows only a few words.
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Luen, one of the last 10 remaining speakers of his native language, in the doorway of his home in Samrong Loeu Village, Cambodia
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Date: 23/09/2010




Culture and Tradition

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