Transliteration technqiues for languages including Khmer

Transliteration is the process of changing the letter set a language is written in to another letter set. An example of this is taking Khmer writing using Khmer script and changing that writing into Roman/English alphabet. In doing this process there are a number of decisions that need to be made if the pronunciation is to preserved. The example given of going from Khmer to Roman alphabet is one of the most challenging transliterations that exist as Khmer language contains aspirated and unaspirated consonants along with many vowels and invariably two or more Roman letters may be needed to show a single vowel sound. Early transliterations of Khmer to Roman alphabet would have from been from a French language perspective so that has the potential to create a different result.The many transliteration systems that exist are successful or unsuccessful if they are easily understood by a reader. The English 26 letter alphabet is not a particularly scientific selection and in another world would be 28 letters, 29 or so on. For Khmer another transliteration technique is into International phonetic alphabet (IPA). If this is transcribed correctly it will be an unambiguous system for showing pronunciation but comes up against the fact that IPA is not widely understood.
Through a discussion set up by Jeff at Angkor Hub I discussed work that I do with Liam Hahne and he told me about work that he does. Liam has been working on transliteration techniques for a number of languages including Arabic, Russian and Khmer. These transliterations are into English alphabet and their success will depend on how accurate sound is preserved in going from one letter set to another and then how easily an audience can follow it. I am the inventor.developer of a fully phonetic alphabet generally called Single Sound Per Symbol (SSPS) alphabet which as the title describes allocates one sound to one letter which is the definition of phonetic writing The nature of SSPS writing is that it based around the spelling norms of English language so is easily perceived by an Anglo phonic audience and by extension the wider world. If one can think of transliterating any language into Roman/English alphabet a person can transliterate any language into SSPS. A fully phonetic alphabet uses one letter for one sound rather than two or more that may be needed with a 26 letter alphabet. SSPS uses a basic set of 36 letters and therefore 36 sounds.
With the addition of some extra shapes a perfectly accurate variation can be made for French, German, Arabic and other languages. Transliteration is an art and a science as you are generally trying to find the normal among the many speakers of a language and there will likely be many different opinions on what that normal is. The nature of Khmer language is that it is very difficult for native speakers of European languages to pick up with many barriers to learning what is actually a fairly linear and logical writing system. Lay Sovichea in Phnom Penh has developed his own transliteration into Roman alphabet which can be read about here Lay’s system like Liam’s matches letter to letter. Where an “s” is silent in Khmer it will still be represented in his transliteration. Liam Hahne’s transliteration work can be linked from his Facebook page and here Images of SSPS in action are updated here…

A good explanation of the translit process. I tend to adjust my mapping by trial and error a lot, so it’s a mix between the sound, and also and aid to learning the new script, for example recently for Russian I changed u–>y, because this is the letter for u in Russian, and it helps a lot to get used to y as a u for eventually reading Cyrillic, I see my mappings as training wheels or stepping stones to eventually learning the new script, as well as a tool for improved vocab memorisation.

Also the mappings teach correct spelling in the new script, which for Khmer is often very different for the sound with words of Sanskrit origin.

It’s also a great tool for those wanting to muck around with karaoke without having to learn a completely new alphabet.

Don’t know if you’ve seen this but it is a very rocket science approach to Khmer phonology…
After a lot of time looking into Khmer writing I am still unsure about pronouncing words of Sanskrit origin and exactly how the two consonant system and subscript works for vowels within one word. Khmer writing as it stands does no favors to Cambodia as a means of promoting it’s national language beyond it’s borders as a practical way of communication. With computer programming it is possible to have multiple orthographies of a language and switch between them. Spelling reform and these kind of things can be a non issue with ubiquitous use of transliteration programming on digital devices.

From the “Need a doctorate to speak to a farmer” files, here is an example of the noninclusive Khmer alphabet, in this case vowels in the Poster style of writing… Like Thai it presents the new learner as a puzzle to be solved requiring a lot of time and has the result of very low uptake of the language from non natives. From a logic point of view it is a round about way of presenting information that can be made much simpler. See here for updating notes for a phonetic representation of Khmer using SSPS writing. Converting between SSPS representation and Khmer letters that can be done with quite simple computer software that can be patched into any digital machine…

There is a tool to try to do transliteration of Khmer into Roman/Lain alphabets automatically. It may be useful. Please check it out