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Review of  Cambodian

Reviewer: James Kirby
Book Title: Cambodian
Book Author: John Haiman
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Khmer, Central
Khmer, Northern
Issue Number: 23.3805

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AUTHOR: Haiman, John
TITLE: Cambodian
SERIES TITLE: London Oriental and African Language Library 16
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

James P. Kirby, Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh


“Cambodian,” by John Haiman (H), is the 16th volume of the London Oriental and
African Language Library (LAOLL), a series based at the School of Oriental and
African Studies that “aims to make available reliable and up-to-date analyses of
the grammatical structure of the major Oriental and African languages, in a form
readily accessible to the non-specialist”
( A noted expert on slang, gossip and
sarcasm in addition to syntactic change and grammaticalization, H has published
extensively on Cambodian (Khmer) since the 1990s. The present volume consists of
11 chapters discussing Khmer phonology, morphology, and syntax, plus an appendix
containing five Khmer texts.

The first several chapters focus on phonology and morphology. Chapter 1 provides
an introduction to Khmer phonology and orthography (although somewhat
confusingly, Khmer orthography does not appear anywhere in the volume), along
with an overview of phonological processes and natural classes. It also includes
some discussion of differences between formal (written) and colloquial (spoken)
Khmer, as well as a brief overview of what is known about dialect variation.
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 deal with word structure, covering topics such as
phonotactics, differences in the syllable structure of native vocabulary versus
borrowings, affixes (of both Indic and Mon-Khmer origin), and various types of
compounding. An entire chapter is devoted to so-called “symmetrical compounds”
akin to English forms like 'jibber-jabber', and H offers some speculations on
the origins of the nominalizing -Vm(n) infix and “servant words” (partial
reduplications occurring in symmetrical compounds).

Chapters 5-9 describe syntactic phenomena, including noun and measure phrases;
the syntactic behavior of deictics, pronouns, and honorifics; negation,
questions, and imperatives; verbal predicates, including auxiliary and serial
verbs; and complex clause structures involving complementation, relatives, and
conditionals. The chapter on clausal syntax also briefly covers topic and focus
marking. While acknowledging the language's basic SVO clause structure, these
chapters highlight the general difficulty of characterizing syntactic units in
inflectionally barren Southeast Asian languages such as Khmer.

The last two chapters consider issues of lexicalization and grammaticalization.
Chapter 10 discusses changes to the syntactic and semantic functions of Khmer
words, focusing on three polyfunctional morphemes: the complementizer/main verb
[aoj] 'give, for'; the discourse particle [kaw:] 'and then/so'; and
polyfunctional [ba:n] (reprising in part the discussion of Haiman 1999 and
Enfield 2001). H also offers some principles by which one might typologize the
range of semantic extensions observed. In Chapter 11, H presents a
categorization of Khmer lexemes into parts of speech based on relative stability
of putative category membership -- what he terms “the nobility” (p. 359:
categories with at least one dedicated member), “the nouveau riche” (p. 363:
free forms from other paradigms), “anchors and heads” (p. 366: quantifiers,
deictics, indefinite pronouns and intensifiers), items which can change category
membership (via grammaticalization or grammaticalization-like processes), and
elements like interjections, ideophones, and conventionalized discourse
particles. The appendix, which includes a collection of proverbs, a pamphlet for
blood donors, and several folk tales, is annotated with glosses and free


At 425 pages, “Cambodian” is one of the lengthier entries into the LOALL series,
and the sheer volume of material that has been collected and collated here
surely surpasses any other English-language monograph on the Khmer language. H
provides a wealth of examples illustrating Khmer's rich array of disyllabic
forms and its highly visible (if largely historically vestigial) derivational
and affixal morphology; the chapter devoted to symmetric compounding is a
similarly welcome excursus on a feature common to languages of the region but
rarely discussed in the typological literature. While H maintains a largely
atheoretical stance throughout the text, it is clear that he is particularly
interested in the processes of lexicalization and grammaticalization,
discussions of which are frequent and numerous (e.g. the origins of symmetric
compounding in Chapter 4, the discussion of noun phrases in Chapter 5, or the
stages of the grammaticalization of relative clauses in Chapter 8). Readers
interested in these phenomena will find much to intrigue them here.

Despite its many excellent qualities, the book has several aspects that may
restrict its potential readership. The data presented are almost entirely drawn
from existing texts, spoken as well as written, rather than from elicitation;
those seeking grammaticality judgments or arguments for functional categories
will need to look elsewhere. Furthermore, while it is not a pedagogical grammar
(nor does it claim to be), neither is it a descriptive grammar in the
traditional sense. Instead, it reads in large part like a lightly edited version
of the author's field notes and ruminations, an impression reinforced by the
breezy, informal prose. Though the colloquial style -- H makes passing
references to Alec Guiness, the 2008 U.S. Presidential debates, and
Winnie-The-Pooh -- is surely a matter of taste, I suspect it will probably
endear and distract in equal measure.

While the in-depth coverage of many topics makes “Cambodian” a valuable resource
for specialists, readers with no prior knowledge of the language may often find
themselves seeking clarification from a more introductory text. No doubt they
will find this tough going, however, since many other Khmer resources assume at
least a working knowledge of the native orthography; it is therefore unfortunate
that the decision was made to completely omit Khmer orthography from the volume.
This is no doubt designed to be in keeping with the series' goal of insuring
that “the language material in each volume is in roman script, and fully glossed
and translated,” but one suspects then that references to properties of the
orthography can only serve to confuse the uninitiated reader. This is frequently
illustrated by statements such as “What is written in the native orthography
as...” (e.g. p. 10) which are then followed by H's idiosyncratic transliteration
of the native orthography. That there exists no single agreed-upon
transliteration from Khmer to roman script makes it all the more unfortunate
that H does not provide the details of his system (although reference is
provided to an unpublished manuscript in which the system is apparently laid
out). One might suppose that, for the purposes of describing morphological,
syntactic and semantic phenomena -- clearly the focus of the volume -- the
specifics of the orthography are largely immaterial; however, it can make
subsequent consultation of other references difficult, as the reader must
inevitably reverse-engineer the romanized forms back into native orthography.

Two other issues are worth mentioning. First, H has knowingly set himself an
impossible task, trying to walk a fine line between a description of the
classical (written) language and the common vernacular; though admirable, this
means that it is at times difficult to discern precisely which register is
currently under investigation (although constructed examples may be identified
by their references to pigs). Second, given the wealth of data contained herein,
one wishes for a somewhat more comprehensive index (which contains entries for
‘Cockney rhyming slang’ and ‘Louisiana waitress-ese’ but not ‘classifier’ or
‘infixation’); however, this is somewhat mitigated by a lengthy and
well-organized table of contents. These shortcomings aside, on the balance there
is still much to recommend H's volume. If in some ways less accessible to
non-specialists for the reasons outlined above, in other aspects the volume is
uniquely suited to those whose linguistic backgrounds may draw more heavily from
Indo-European languages. For instance, instead of simply cataloguing examples of
stative verbs or kinship terms, H takes the time to draw parallels to related
phenomena in languages like French, English and Spanish, which will no doubt be
illuminating to many readers.

While I am a bit dubious of H's assertion that “rigor has no place in Khmer
grammar” (p. 354) it is certainly true that it is a complicated and mercurial
creature. It shares many features that will no doubt be familiar to students of
other languages of the region, in particular, the difficulty in stating
definitively when a structural element is required, since such elements are
usually polyfunctional and thus can appear without their function being
fulfilled. H's book makes a concerted effort to capture, or at least being
honest about, the fact that Khmer in particular and Southeast Asian languages in
general frequently resist easy characterization in terms of traditional Western
notions of grammatical categories and syntactic structures. For this alone it is
a valuable addition to the canon. An impressive collection of data that will
surely interest specialists, “Cambodian” will also hopefully inspire a new
generation of scholars to take up the linguistic challenges of the Khmer language.


Enfield, N. J. 2001. Remarks on John Haiman 1999. Studies in Language 25:115-24.

Haiman, J. 1999. Auxiliation in Khmer. Studies in Language 23:149-72.

James Kirby is a Lecturer in Phonetics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests include sound change, computational models of language transmission, and the languages of Southeast Asia, especially Vietnamese and Khmer dialects of Cambodia and Vietnam.