LINGUIST List 23.3805

Tue Sep 11 2012

Review: Language Documentation: Haiman (2011)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 11-Sep-2012
From: James Kirby <>
Subject: Cambodian: Khmer
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AUTHOR: Haiman, JohnTITLE: CambodianSUBTITLE: KhmerSERIES TITLE: London Oriental and African Language Library 16PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2011

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


“Cambodian,” by John Haiman (H), is the 16th volume of the London Oriental andAfrican Language Library (LAOLL), a series based at the School of Oriental andAfrican Studies that “aims to make available reliable and up-to-date analyses ofthe grammatical structure of the major Oriental and African languages, in a formreadily accessible to the non-specialist”( A noted expert on slang, gossip andsarcasm in addition to syntactic change and grammaticalization, H has publishedextensively on Cambodian (Khmer) since the 1990s. The present volume consists of11 chapters discussing Khmer phonology, morphology, and syntax, plus an appendixcontaining five Khmer texts.

The first several chapters focus on phonology and morphology. Chapter 1 providesan introduction to Khmer phonology and orthography (although somewhatconfusingly, Khmer orthography does not appear anywhere in the volume), alongwith an overview of phonological processes and natural classes. It also includessome 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 asphonotactics, differences in the syllable structure of native vocabulary versusborrowings, affixes (of both Indic and Mon-Khmer origin), and various types ofcompounding. An entire chapter is devoted to so-called “symmetrical compounds”akin to English forms like 'jibber-jabber', and H offers some speculations onthe origins of the nominalizing -Vm(n) infix and “servant words” (partialreduplications 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 serialverbs; and complex clause structures involving complementation, relatives, andconditionals. The chapter on clausal syntax also briefly covers topic and focusmarking. While acknowledging the language's basic SVO clause structure, thesechapters highlight the general difficulty of characterizing syntactic units ininflectionally 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 Khmerwords, focusing on three polyfunctional morphemes: the complementizer/main verb[aoj] 'give, for'; the discourse particle [kaw:] 'and then/so'; andpolyfunctional [ba:n] (reprising in part the discussion of Haiman 1999 andEnfield 2001). H also offers some principles by which one might typologize therange of semantic extensions observed. In Chapter 11, H presents acategorization of Khmer lexemes into parts of speech based on relative stabilityof 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 categorymembership (via grammaticalization or grammaticalization-like processes), andelements like interjections, ideophones, and conventionalized discourseparticles. The appendix, which includes a collection of proverbs, a pamphlet forblood donors, and several folk tales, is annotated with glosses and freetranslations,


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 heresurely surpasses any other English-language monograph on the Khmer language. Hprovides a wealth of examples illustrating Khmer's rich array of disyllabicforms and its highly visible (if largely historically vestigial) derivationaland affixal morphology; the chapter devoted to symmetric compounding is asimilarly welcome excursus on a feature common to languages of the region butrarely discussed in the typological literature. While H maintains a largelyatheoretical stance throughout the text, it is clear that he is particularlyinterested in the processes of lexicalization and grammaticalization,discussions of which are frequent and numerous (e.g. the origins of symmetriccompounding in Chapter 4, the discussion of noun phrases in Chapter 5, or thestages of the grammaticalization of relative clauses in Chapter 8). Readersinterested in these phenomena will find much to intrigue them here.

Despite its many excellent qualities, the book has several aspects that mayrestrict its potential readership. The data presented are almost entirely drawnfrom existing texts, spoken as well as written, rather than from elicitation;those seeking grammaticality judgments or arguments for functional categorieswill 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 thetraditional sense. Instead, it reads in large part like a lightly edited versionof the author's field notes and ruminations, an impression reinforced by thebreezy, informal prose. Though the colloquial style -- H makes passingreferences to Alec Guiness, the 2008 U.S. Presidential debates, andWinnie-The-Pooh -- is surely a matter of taste, I suspect it will probablyendear and distract in equal measure.

While the in-depth coverage of many topics makes “Cambodian” a valuable resourcefor specialists, readers with no prior knowledge of the language may often findthemselves seeking clarification from a more introductory text. No doubt theywill find this tough going, however, since many other Khmer resources assume atleast a working knowledge of the native orthography; it is therefore unfortunatethat 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 insuringthat “the language material in each volume is in roman script, and fully glossedand translated,” but one suspects then that references to properties of theorthography can only serve to confuse the uninitiated reader. This is frequentlyillustrated by statements such as “What is written in the native orthographyas...” (e.g. p. 10) which are then followed by H's idiosyncratic transliterationof the native orthography. That there exists no single agreed-upontransliteration from Khmer to roman script makes it all the more unfortunatethat H does not provide the details of his system (although reference isprovided to an unpublished manuscript in which the system is apparently laidout). One might suppose that, for the purposes of describing morphological,syntactic and semantic phenomena -- clearly the focus of the volume -- thespecifics of the orthography are largely immaterial; however, it can makesubsequent consultation of other references difficult, as the reader mustinevitably reverse-engineer the romanized forms back into native orthography.

Two other issues are worth mentioning. First, H has knowingly set himself animpossible task, trying to walk a fine line between a description of theclassical (written) language and the common vernacular; though admirable, thismeans that it is at times difficult to discern precisely which register iscurrently under investigation (although constructed examples may be identifiedby 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 andwell-organized table of contents. These shortcomings aside, on the balance thereis still much to recommend H's volume. If in some ways less accessible tonon-specialists for the reasons outlined above, in other aspects the volume isuniquely suited to those whose linguistic backgrounds may draw more heavily fromIndo-European languages. For instance, instead of simply cataloguing examples ofstative verbs or kinship terms, H takes the time to draw parallels to relatedphenomena in languages like French, English and Spanish, which will no doubt beilluminating to many readers.

While I am a bit dubious of H's assertion that “rigor has no place in Khmergrammar” (p. 354) it is certainly true that it is a complicated and mercurialcreature. It shares many features that will no doubt be familiar to students ofother languages of the region, in particular, the difficulty in statingdefinitively when a structural element is required, since such elements areusually polyfunctional and thus can appear without their function beingfulfilled. H's book makes a concerted effort to capture, or at least beinghonest about, the fact that Khmer in particular and Southeast Asian languages ingeneral frequently resist easy characterization in terms of traditional Westernnotions of grammatical categories and syntactic structures. For this alone it isa valuable addition to the canon. An impressive collection of data that willsurely interest specialists, “Cambodian” will also hopefully inspire a newgeneration 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.

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