When Cambodia gained its independence from France, a concerted effort was made to replace French loan-words with ancient-sounding neologisms: new Cambodian words were coined through the combination of Pali parts.1 This reflects a tradition that can be traced back through several centuries of adapting the unfamiliar syllables of Pali and Sanskrit into more indigenous-sounding forms; it also reflects a unique era of optimism when European colonialism seemed to have come to its end—an optimism that proved to be painfully brief. In the past century, the ancient, dead language of Pali has had a rather lively role in mainland Southeast Asia: it has not only been used to expunge French words from Cambodian, but also to expunge Thai words from Lao, and Lao words from Thai. While Pali is an equally foreign language to all of the countries and cultures concerned, it has retained its status as a touchstone of cultural authenticity for all. This paper reflects on the basis of that sociolinguistic perception in more tangible relations of authority.
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