Monday, November 21, 2011

Adjustments Part Seven- The Weight of Words

I am figuring out quickly that some words in the English language that are not so "heavy" actually carry quite a bit of weight when translated into Khmer. Unfortunately for me, the way that I have learned about this important aspect of the language has not been so much from my language teacher, but from my own ignorant usage of these words in public. I will just say that I have had a couple of "Well, stink!" moments in the past couple of weeks because of offensive things I have said unintentionally.

At least as I understand it, the word "crazy" is not such a "heavy" word. "Are you crazy or something?" is something we might say to someone, but these are not generally considered "fighting words." When I was in middle school and high school- those years of my life when I was always finding myself in verbal battles with other kids at school- if I had said something like, "Oh yeah, well you are a crazy person!" to someone I was arguing with, it probably would not have had the desired effect I was looking for. But the word for crazy in Khmer is one of those words you don't just throw around flippantly.

I learned about the weight of the word "crazy" ("ch'koo-ut" in Khmer) a couple of days ago. I was driving the van, and had just dropped off one of our faithful girls at her street. Riding with me was a young man who was saved shortly before my family and I came to Cambodia. As I was driving back to the church to get ready for the evening service, I saw something that always gets my attention- a volleyball court. I stopped the van near the court, rolled down my window, and began asking some men who were watching the ongoing match if the guys who were playing would allow a white guy to play with them. As I was talking with these guys, a young man, probably 18 years old, obviously drunk, approached me. He began doing some bizarre dance right in front of me, then began laughing loudly and obnoxiously. He was obviously mocking me. I didn't know what to do or say, so I just asked, "Are you crazy or something?" As soon as those words left my lips, the young man who was riding with me looked at me and said, "Teacher, don't say that! You're going to get him mad!"

Thankfully, the drunk young man was so wasted that he just stared at me blankly and went about his way. But as I drove off, I was thinking, "I wasn't trying to say anything overly harsh....I was mainly just playing along with the guy. I hope Rothana (the young man riding with me) doesn't think I was trying to start a fight with that guy." I apologized to Rothana a couple of times, and tried to explain that I was just playing along with the guy's antics, but was not trying to escalate the situation by using aggressive language. Rothana just replied, "It's okay, Teacher- it's just that the word 'ch'koo-ut' is a heavy word."

I'm sure that won't be the last time I underestimate the weight of a word.

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