Wednesday, December 7, 2016


In Cambodia, as in many parts of the world, people are addressed with "kinship titles." The Khmer language has the pronoun "you," but it is rarely used and considered a bit stand-offish. This means, for the most part, you call friends and complete strangers with the Khmer equivalent of "brother", "sister", "aunt", "uncle", etc. Instead of asking a friend, "Are you hungry?" you are more likely to ask, "Is brother/sister hungry?"

If the person you are addressing is roughly the same age as you or a little older, you can call them bong, which means older brother or sister. If they are younger, you call them ph-own. It goes on from there with distinctions for male or female, and younger, older or much older. It felt quite complicated at first, but then we realized bong has a rather generous range and can work for men or women. We usually stick to that unless the age difference is significant.

A few interesting things happen because of using these titles. First, you rarely use people's names. That makes it easy if you forget someone's name...but also hard to learn them! Second, one of the very first things Cambodians will ask strangers is how old they are. This seems a bit impertinent to Westerners, but the main reason they ask is to know which title to address you with. Finally, because a lot of English is spoken around Phnom Penh, it's not at all uncommon for us to be called "Sister" or "Brother" by strangers or friends around town. It's strange if we stop to think about it in English, but we are used to it now!