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.
Samrong Loeu Village, Cambodia
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.
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."