The Politics of Scripts: Identity, Heritage, and the Choice of Orthography for Khmer Vernaculars in Thailand

Dr. Peter Vail   National University of Singapore
Mr. Panuwat Pantakod   Sripathum University, Chonburi Campus

This project argues that the debate over selecting a suitable Khmer vernacular orthography goes beyond issues of phonological efficiency; the choice of script makes far-reaching claims to the nature of Northern Khmer heritage and identity. Thai script, it is argued, subsumes vernacular Khmer in a national narrative of majority-minority relations likely to be counter-productive to meaningful cultural revitalization. The case of Khmer script is more complicated, because the difference in script styles – Mul or Crieng – evokes divergent understandings of heritage; where Mul script evokes local religious traditions, Crieng script is associated not with local dimensions of Khmer heritage at all, but, because of ts association with Cambodian modernization, with a broader pan-Khmer ethnolinguistic identity that may be only loosely or vaguely perceived as an issue of heritage. A further choice – no script – may best match Northern Khmer linguistic ideologies and attitudes towards their language, suggesting that technologies and media other than literacy may ultimately be more useful for purposes of Khmer cultural revitalization.

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