Linguist races to save a dying language spoken in Cambodia

With no more than 10 speakers remaining of S'aoch, a language spoken on Cambodia's sea shore, French linguist Jean-Michel Filippi is in a race against time to preserve a disappearing culture.

By , Correspondent

In halting, creaky tones, the elderly chief of this tiny community spoke in his indigenous language, S'aoch, an ancient tongue linguists predict will be extinct within a generation.

Noi, who goes by a single name, is one of 10 still fluent in S'aoch, and this village of 110 people is the last vestige of a disappearing culture.

S'aoch is one of about 3,000 languages endangered worldwide, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: One of them disappears about every two weeks. In Cambodia alone, 19 languages face extinction this century.

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In this impoverished country where one-third of the population lives on less than $1 a day, saving a dying language is a low priority. One of the S'aoch's few allies is Jean-Michel Filippi, a French linguist who has learned their language and transcribed about 4,000 of its words over the past nine years.

"Once a language disappears, a vision of the world disappears," says Mr. Filippi, explaining his commitment to preserving S'aoch.

His task is made harder by the fact that the S'aoch do not share his fascination. They associate their language with poverty and exclusion from Cambodian society, which is ethnically and linguistically Khmer.

"We don't use our language, because we S'aoch are taowk," said Tuen, the chief's son, using the Khmer word meaning "without value."

Khmer Rouge dealt fatal blow

Perhaps the fatal blow to the S'aoch was the Khmer Rouge, whose policies caused the deaths of up to 2 million people between 1975 and 1979. The communist regime uprooted Cambodians from their homes and forced them into labor camps. The S'aoch were pushed from their land and prohibited from using their native tongue. "They said we couldn't speak our language or we would be killed," says Noi, drawing his finger across his neck, during an interview in his wooden house perched on stilts about five feet above the ground.

The S'aoch who survived settled here, near the coast, where some of them had been taken by the regime.

The loss of their land signaled the death of their culture because the S'aoch were no longer self-sufficient and instead survived by selling their labor, which plunged them into poverty. Since their animist beliefs were intrinsically linked to the land, Filippi says the S'aoch also lost the core of their cultural identity.

Two nongovernmental organizations, International Cooperation Cambodia and Care, are working to preserve minority culture by incorporating four minority languages into 25 schools in rural, indigenous communities. The Education Ministry cooperates with those programs, though they do not include S'aoch.

Filippi says there are at least five indigenous groups in Cambodia with 500 members or fewer. With only minimal support for preserving their languages, they are likely to follow the S'aoch into obscurity, their "unique view" of the world forever cast into the void of undocumented history.

"The fact is [the S'aoch] lost everything," Filippi says. "And the language is going to be lost in a few years as well. They might just remain a mystery forever."

READ: The world's 18 most endangered languages

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