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About Cambodian (Khmer) Language

Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ), or Cambodian, is the language of the Khmer people and the official language of Cambodia. It is the second most widely spoken Austroasiatic language (after Vietnamese), with speakers in the tens of millions. Khmer has been considerably influenced by Sanskrit and Pali, especially in the royal and religious registers, through the vehicles of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is also the earliest recorded and earliest written language of the Mon-Khmer family, predating Mon and by a significant margin Vietnamese. As a result of geographic proximity, the Khmer language has affected, and also been affected by; Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Cham many of which all form a pseudo-sprachbund in peninsular Southeast Asia, since most contain high levels of Sanskrit and Pali influences.

Khmer has its own script, an abugida known in Khmer as Aksar Khmer. Khmer differs from neighboring languages such as Thai, Lao and Vietnamese in that it is not a tonal language.

The main dialects, all mutually intelligible, are:

  • Battambang, spoken in northern Cambodia.
  • Phnom Penh, the capital dialect and is also spoken in surrounding provinces.
  • Northern Khmer, also known as Khmer Surin, spoken by ethnic Khmer native to Northeast Thailand
  • Khmer Krom or Southern Khmer, spoken by the indigenous Khmer population of the Mekong Delta.
  • Cardamom Khmer, an archaic form spoken by a small population in the Cardamom Mountains of western Cambodia.


Linguistic study of the Khmer language divides its history into four periods. Pre-Angkorian Khmer, the language after its divergence from Proto-Mon-Khmer until the ninth century, is only known from words and phrases in Sanskrit texts of the era. Old Khmer (or Angkorian Khmer) is the language as it was spoken in the Khmer Empire from the 9th century until the weakening of the empire sometime in the 13th century. Old Khmer is attested by many primary sources and has been studied in depth by a few scholars, most notably Saveros Pou, Phillip Jenner and Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow. Following the end of the Khmer Empire the language lost the standardizing influence of being the language of government and accordingly underwent a turbulent period of change in morphology, phonology and lexicon. The language of this transition period, from about the 14th to 18th centuries, is referred to as Middle Khmer and saw borrowing from Thai, Lao and, to a lesser extent, Vietnamese. The changes during this period are so profound that the rules of Modern Khmer can not be applied to correctly understand the Old Khmer. The language became recognizable as the Modern Khmer spoken today in the 19th century.

Khmer is classified as a member of the Eastern branch of the Mon-Khmer language family, itself a subdivision of the larger Austro-Asiatic language group, which has representatives in a large swath of land from Northeast India down through Southeast Asia to the Malay Peninsula and its islands. As such, its closest relatives are the languages of the Pearic, Bahnaric, and Katuic families spoken by the hill tribes of the region.[5] The Vietic languages have also been classified as belonging to this family.


The phonological system described here is the inventory of sounds of the spoken language, not how they are written in the Khmer alphabet.

Tone and phonation

Most Cambodian dialects are not tonal. However, the colloquial Phnom Penh dialect has developed a marginal tonal contrast (a level vs. a peaking tone) to compensate for the elision of /r/.

Khmer once had a phonation distinction in its vowels, which was indicated in writing by choosing between two sets of letters for the preceding consonant according to the historical source of the phonation. However, phonation has been lost in all but the most obscure dialect of Cambodian (Western Khmer). For example, Old Khmer distinguished voiced and unvoiced pairs as in *kaa vs *ɡaa. The vowels after voiced consonants became breathy voiced and diphthongized: *kaa, *ɡe̤a. When consonant voicing was lost, the distinction was maintained by the vowel: *kaa, *ke̤a, and later the phonation disappeared as well: [kaː], [kiə].


Dialects are sometimes quite marked. Notable variations are found in speakers from Phnom Penh (which is the capital city), the rural Battambang area, the areas of Northeast Thailand adjacent to Cambodia such as Surin province, the Cardamom Mountains, and in southern Vietnam. The dialects form a continuum running roughly north to south. The speech of Phnom Penh, considered the standard, is mutually intelligible with the others but a Khmer Krom speaker from Vietnam, for instance, may have great difficulty communicating with a Khmer native to Sisaket Province in Thailand.

Northern Khmer, the dialect spoken in Thailand, is referred to in Khmer as Khmer Surin and, although it only began divergence from standard Khmer within the last 200 years, is considered by some linguists to be a separate language. This is due to its distinct accent influenced by the surrounding tonal language, Thai, lexical differences and its phonemic differences in both vowels and distribution of consonants. Final "r", which has become silent in other dialects of Khmer, is pronounced in Northern Khmer.

Western Khmer, also called Cardamom Khmer, spoken by a small, isolated population in the Cardamom mountain range extending from Cambodia into Thailand, although little studied, is unique in that it maintains a definite system of vocal register that has all but disappeared in other dialects of modern Khmer.

A notable characteristic of Phnom Penh casual speech is merging or complete elision of syllables, considered by speakers from other regions as a "relaxed" pronunciation. For instance, "Phnom Penh" will sometimes be shortened to "m'Penh". Another characteristic of Phnom Penh speech is observed in words with an "r" either as an initial consonant or as the second member of a consonant cluster (as in the English word "bread"). The "r", trilled or flapped in other dialects, is either pronounced as an uvular trill (similar to French) or not pronounced at all. This alters the quality of any preceding consonant causing a harder, more emphasized pronunciation. Another unique result is that the syllable is spoken with a low-rising or "dipping" tone much like the "hỏi" tone in Vietnamese. For example, some people pronounce /trəj/ (meaning "fish") as /təj/, the "r" is dropped and the vowel begins by dipping much lower in tone than standard speech and then rises, effectively doubling its length. Another example is the word /riən/ ("study, learn"). It is pronounced /ʀiən/, with the "uvular r" and the same intonation described above.

Social registers

Khmer employs a system of registers in which the speaker must always be conscious of the social status of the person spoken to. The different registers, which include those used for common speech, polite speech, speaking to or about royals and speaking to or about monks, employ alternate verbs, names of body parts and pronouns. This results in what appears to foreigners as separate languages and, in fact, isolated villagers often are unsure how to speak with royals and royals raised completely within the court do not feel comfortable speaking the common register. Another result is that the pronominal system is complex and full of honorific variations.

As an example, the word for "to eat" used between intimates or in reference to animals is /siː/. Used in polite reference to commoners, it's /ɲam/. When used of those of higher social status, it's /pisa/ or /tɔtuəl tiən/. For monks the word is /cʰan/ and for royals, /saoj/.

Writing system

Khmer is written with the Khmer script, an abugida developed from the Pallava script of India before the 7th century. The Khmer script is similar in appearance and usage to both Thai and Lao, which were based on the Khmer system, and is distantly related to the Burmese script. Khmer numerals, which were inherited from Indian numerals, are used more widely than Hindu-Arabic numerals. The Khmer script is also used within Cambodia to transcribe hill tribe languages that have no writing system.


The numbers are:

  • 0 ០ សូន្យ (son) /soːu̯n/
  • 1 ១ មួយ (muŏy) /muːə̯j/
  • 2 ២ ពីរ (pi) /piː/
  • 3 ៣ បី (bei) /ɓəːj/
  • 4 ៤ បួន (buŏn) /ɓuːə̯n/
  • 5 ៥ ប្រាំ (prăm) /pram/
  • 6 ៦ ប្រាំមូយ (prăm muŏy) /pram muːə̯j/
  • 7 ៧ ប្រាំពីរ (prăm pi) /pram piː/ (also /pram pɨl/)
  • 8 ៨ ប្រាំបី (prăm bei) /pram ɓəːj/
  • 9 ៩ ប្រាំបួន (prăm buŏn) /pram ɓuːə̯n/
  • 10 ១០ ដប់ (dâp) /ɗɑp/
  • 100 ១០០ មួយរយ (muŏy rôy) /muːə̯j rɔj/
  • 1,000 ១០០០ មួយពាន់ (muŏy péan) /muːə̯j pɔə̯n/
  • 10,000 ១០០០០ មួយម៉ឺន (muŏy mein) /muːə̯j məɨn/
  • 100,000 ១០០០០០ មួយសែន (muŏy sên) /muːə̯j saːe̯n/
  • 1,000,000 ១០០០០០០ មួយលាន (muŏy léan) /muːə̯j liːə̯n/


Khmer is generally a Subject Verb Object (SVO) language with prepositions. Although primarily an isolating language, lexical derivation by means of prefixes and infixes is common. Adjectives, demonstratives and numerals follow their noun.


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