You know that thing they say about how everyone has one teacher they always connected to.
Well I have that.
His name was Roger and between 1994 and 1996 he was my GCSE English teacher.
Roger was a character.
He had a big bushy white beard and wore hand woven Italian ties. His classroom had a record player, a three-piece suit and coffee tables over in one corner of it.
Roger used to say that if you weren’t in the mood to work then you could go and sit on the sofa and read or talk quietly to other nonworking people.
Like I say, Roger was a character.
I remember one time when I was 15 and a group of us students took some LSD at lunchtime and went to Roger’s lesson, hard tripping.
Roger had lived through the 60’s and 70’s so was no stranger to the telltale signs of lysergic influence. He saw what was in us and we knew it. But at the time it felt like it was ok for him to know. As we entered the room, Roger directed students to their seats, filtering out those with diamonds in their eyes and seating us on the sofas. He set the straight-laced/responsible students on-task before heading over to the sofa area, (an area often referred to after that day as “the zoo”).
We numbered maybe 6 or 7 and as Roger approached, he crouched down besides the arm of one of the sofas and we were all inexplicably drawn to crouch at his eyelevel. Over hushed breath Roger fed us a single sentence that introduced something to my mind that will always stay with me.
“Imagine if you could go back in time and kill your granddad before your parents had been conceived.”
The zoo fell silent and stayed that way for the majority of the lesson.
You may recognise this as the grandfather paradox but at the time and with no previous experience of paradoxes, it was the single most mind-blowing thing I’d ever heard. Not to mention that my young mind was well within the grip of the most powerful hallucinogens it had ever danced with.
For me, that day stands out as one of the most important experiences of my young education and sparked a lifelong fascination with both time travel and language.
That must have been 17 years ago.
6 months ago I returned to England after 2 years living in Cambodia.
Now before emigrating I knew very little about Cambodia. I had a vague recollection of something called the Khmer Rouge and some geezer called Pol Pot.
But at that point other than the fact that I was pretty sure Pol Pot was a baddy I’d have struggled to tell you anything else.
That’s certainly not the case now.
I won’t get too into it here, but in a nutshell Pol Pot’s ideals were based around Marxist communism and between 1975 and 1979 as the leader of the Khmer Rouge, he was pretty much responsible for wiping out 25% of his country’s population. (Crazy isn’t it, why aren’t we taught more about this in school?)
This mass genocide wasn’t just random. It was very targeted.
It started with the occupation of Phnom Penh, the one time “pearl of Asia”, a city that in the 1960’s and 70’s had been the artistic centre of the entire South-East Asian subcontinent.
Pol Pot’s idea was that everyone should abandon the cities and return to farming the land. Those who disagreed were the first to die. This was closely followed by anyone who was educated or creative. The line of thinking being that these people might be able to influence others.
Basically Doctors, Linguists, Musicians, Artists, Poets and Freethinkers all dead.
It gets deeper than that but like I say I’m not going to go into it too much here.
I want to talk about the language.
You see, while I was out there I took the time to start learning Khmer, (the Cambodian language).
My own personal marker was that I wanted to become fluent enough to be able to explain concepts like time travel and introduce some young minds to the idea of the grandfather paradox, in their native tongue.
Khmer is a strangely beautiful language. The language is only actually spoken in Cambodia itself. Added to this the spoken language is very different from the written version. The most obvious difference being that the spoken language has no past or future tense. Something that would no doubt make an explanation of any concept involving traveling between past and future states a bit tricky to say the least. Khmer is not like any other language I’ve experienced. It’s full of sounds my tongue struggled to pronounce and idiosyncrasies my ears failed to differentiate between.
For example the Romanisation of their word for delicious would be spelt “ch’ngng” not to be confused with “ch’nang” (cooking pot) or “ch’ngaing” (far away).
Of course I started with the basics and pretty early on I found something that bugged me.
Good and Bad. The word for good was “L’or” and the word for bad was “Ot l’or” (Ot meaning Not).
Apparently there was no actual word for “bad” only “not good”.
The more vocab I learned the more this kind of thing came up.
Happy was “Sobai” Sad was “Ot sobai”.
Now I know for a stone cold fact that “not happy” and “sad” are not directly interchangeable. Nor are “not good” and “bad” but regardless of how many people I asked it seemed that that was how it worked.
I found it very confusing (“J’rawlom”).
The breakthrough in my realisation came about one day whilst sat in a guesthouse talking to a girl called Dina. She was from somewhere in the Home Counties and we got talking after she’d mentioned to someone else that she had recently booked Scroobious Pip for a gig. (Small world eh).
Anyway, Dina had a tattoo on her arm written in Khmer Script. When questioned about its translation she’d said “it’s the Khmer word for Perspective”. Keen to add such a word to my slowly developing vocabulary I’d followed up by asking for the pronunciation. She couldn’t answer.
Luckily my new Cambodian friend Ano was close by and he came over to offer his assistance.
“Ah” said Ano, “This word can’t be spoken. It has 2 letters from the old alphabet”
Pushed for an explanation Ano produced 2 different dictionaries from behind the guesthouse bar. One of which contained all the words in the Khmer language and the other contained all the pronounceable words.
It would seem that during the times of the Rouge, Pol Pot had hit upon the idea of removing letters from the alphabet and in doing so had made it impossible for anyone to say words like “perspective” or “concept” or “empathy” or “bad”.
Anyone who has read 1984, (I’m assuming all if not most of you) might be seeing similarities.
To truly limit the formation of new ideas you only need to take away a person’s ability to express them through language.
I remember reading 1984 when I was a lot younger and thinking that George Orwell was a genius for having an idea as amazing as the idea of Newspeak.
I’m sure Pol Pot had thought the same.
A year and a half later I was sat in the staffroom at the university for whom I worked talking to a fellow lecturer, Rob.
Rob was a Mormon and had been married to a Cambodian woman for the past 5 years. His Khmer was completely fluent and in the 14 months that I’d been working at the university Rob had been helping me to further my own skills and linguistic understanding. On this particular day Rob, being pleased with my progress had asked exactly what my ultimate goal was in terms of speaking Khmer.
I told him about wanting to reach a point of explaining the concept of time travel to someone with no English language skills and he simply shook his head. “That’s impossible,” he said.
Rob’s explanation was twofold. Firstly there was the obvious paradox of trying to explain an abstract concept to someone who themselves had neither words for “abstract” nor “concept”. But the biggest problem he thought I would face was with the Khmer definition of the word “if”.
This had never occurred to me but the Khmer word for if can only be used in conjunction with things that are unequivocally true. For example “If I have no umbrella what will I do in the rain?” is fine but “If there were no umbrellas what would we do in the rain?” doesn’t work. Because we all know there are umbrellas.
This might go someway to explaining why Cambodia has no inventors or philosophers or copyright law.
Rob said he’d tried and failed to do exactly what I was talking about.
For him it was whilst watching “Back to the Future” with his wife. She couldn’t seem to understand why there were 2 Marty McFlys by the clock tower. Rob had apparently spent 5 days going over the explanation, but alas his wife could never quite get her head around it.
My argument to Rob was that maybe as a poet given the right level of understanding I might be able to twist the language in a way that made explanation possible. Rob said that might be the case but first I’d have to introduce the concept of poetry (something else for which there is no word).
He suggested that in fact what I’d have to do was spend most of the rest of my life studying theoretical physics, invent time travel and travel back in time to kill Pol Pot before he occupied Phnom Penh.
I pointed out that by doing that I would either negate my need to go back (grandfather paradox), or my going back would in fact be the catalyst for the events that put Pol Pot into power (Novikov’s self-consistency principle).
This is where I had to admit defeat.
Theoretical Physics is just to wide a field and I simply didn’t have the time.
About The Author:
John Berkavitch likes to it when they pay him to talk but will also do it for free.