Khmer language

Khmer language
Pronunciation IPA: [pʰiːəsaː kʰmaːe]
Spoken in Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, USA, France, Australia
Ethnicity Khmer
Native speakers 15 million  (2006)
1 million L2 speakers
Language family
  • Nuclear Mon–Khmer
    • Khmero-Vietic?
      • Khmero-Bahnaric?
        • Khmer
Writing system Khmer script (abugida)
Official status
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-1 km
ISO 639-2 khm
ISO 639-3 either:
khm – Central Khmer
kxm – Northern Khmer

Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ, IPA: [pʰiːəsaː kʰmaːe]; or more formally, ខេមរភាសា, IPA: [kʰeɛmaʔraʔ pʰiːəsaː]), 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.[1] The Khmer language has influenced, and also been influenced by, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Cham, all of which, due to geographical proximity and long-term cultural contact, form a sprachbund in peninsular Southeast Asia.[2]

The Khmer language is written with an abugida known in Khmer as âksâr khmêr. 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 and eastern Central Thailand[3][4]



Linguistic study of the Khmer language divides its history into four periods.[5] 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 Old Khmer. The language became recognizable as Modern Khmer, spoken from the 19th century till today.[5]

The following table shows the conventionally accepted historical stages of Khmer (Sidwell 2009:107).[6]

Historical Stages of Khmer
Historical stage Date
Pre- or Proto-Khmer Before 600 CE
Pre-Angkorian Old Khmer 600–800 CE
Angkorian Old Khmer 800 to mid-1300s
Middle Khmer Mid-1300s to 1700's
Modern Khmer 1800–present

Khmer is classified as a member of the Eastern branch of the Mon–Khmer language family, itself a subdivision of the larger Austroasiatic 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.[7] 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.[8]

Tone and phonation

Most Cambodian dialects are not tonal. However, the colloquial Phnom Penh dialect has developed a marginal tonal contrast (a level versus a peaking tone) to compensate for the elision of /r/.[9]

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 archaic dialect of Khmer (Western Khmer).[10] 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].[9]


Labial Dental[11]/Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive p (pʰ) t (tʰ) c (cʰ) k (kʰ) ʔ
Implosive ɓ ~ b ɗ ~ d
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Liquid r l
Fricative s h
Approximant ʋ j

Khmer is frequently described as having aspirated stops. However, these may be analyzed as consonant clusters, /ph, th, ch, kh/, as infixes can occur between the stop and the aspiration (phem, p<an>hem), or as non-distinctive phonetic detail in other consonant clusters, such as the khm in Khmer.[9][12] [b] and [d] are occasional allophones of the implosives.

In addition, the consonants /f/, /ʃ/, /z/ and /ɡ/ may occasionally occur in recent loan words in the speech of Cambodians familiar with French and other languages. These non-native sounds are not represented in the Khmer script, although combinations of letters otherwise unpronounceable are used to represent them when necessary. In the speech of those who are not bilingual, these sounds are approximated with natively occurring phonemes:

Foreign Sound (IPA) Khmer Representation Khmer Approximation (IPA)
/ɡ/ ហ្គ /k/
/ʃ/ ហ្ស /s/
/f/ ហ្វ /h/ or /pʰ/
/z/ ហ្ស /s/

Vowel nuclei

There is little agreement as to the vowels of Khmer. This may be in part because political centralization has not yet been achieved, so standard Khmer does not prevail throughout Cambodia. As such, many speakers of even the same community may have different phonological inventories.[13] Two proposals follow:

Khmer vowels I[14]
Long vowels ɛː ɨː əː ɔː
Short vowels i e ɨ ə ɐ a u o
Long diphthongs iə̯ ei̯ ɐe̯ ɨə̯ əɨ̯ ɐə̯ ao̯ uə̯ ou̯ ɔə̯
Short diphthongs eə̯̆ uə̯̆ oə̯̆
Khmer vowels II[9]
Long vowels e̝ː ɛː ɯː ə̝ː əː o̝ː ɔː
Short vowels i e ɛ ɯ ə a u o ɔ
Long diphthongs iə̯ aɛ̯ aə̯ o̞u̯ ao̯
Short diphthongs ɛə̯ ʷɔ

The precise number and the phonetic value of vowel nuclei vary from dialect to dialect. Short and long vowels of equal quality are distinguished solely by duration.

Syllable structure

Khmer words are predominantly either monosyllabic or sesquisyllabic, with stress falling on the final syllable.[15] There are 85 possible clusters of two consonants at the beginning of syllables and two three-consonant clusters with phonetic alterations as shown below:

p ɓ t ɗ c k ʔ m n ɲ ŋ j l r s h ʋ
p pʰt- - pʰc- pʰk- - pʰn- pʰɲ- pʰŋ- pʰj- pʰl- pr- ps- -
t tʰp- - tʰk- - tʰm- tʰn- tʰŋ- tʰj- tʰl- tr- - tʰʋ-
c cʰp- - cʰk- - cʰm- cʰn- cʰŋ- cʰl- cr- - cʰʋ-
k kʰp- - kʰt- - kʰc- - kʰm- kʰn- kʰɲ- - kʰj- kʰl- kr- ks- - kʰʋ-
s sp- - st- - sk- - sm- sn- - - sl- sr- - stʰ-
ʔ ʔʋ-
m mt- - mc- - mn- - ml- mr- ms- mh-
l lp- - lk- - lm- - lh- - lkʰ-

Syllables begin with one of these consonants or consonant clusters, followed by one of the vowel nuclei. The aspiration in some clusters is allophonic.[12] When the vowel nucleus is short, there has to be a final consonant. /p, t, c, k, ʔ, m, n, ɲ, ŋ, l, h, j, ʋ/ can exist in a syllable coda, while /h/ and /ʋ/ become [ç] and [w] respectively. The stops /p, t, c, k/ are unreleased when occurring as syllable finals.

The most common word structure in Khmer is a full syllable as described above, which may be preceded by an unstressed, “minor” syllable that has a consonant-vowel structure of CV-, CrV-, CVN- or CrVN- (N is any nasal in the Khmer inventory). The vowel in these preceding syllables is usually reduced in conversation to [ə], however in careful or formal speech and in TV and radio, they are always clearly articulated.

Words with three or more syllables exist, particularly those pertaining to science, the arts, and religion. However, these words are loanwords, usually derived from Pali, Sanskrit, or more recently, French.


Khmer is generally a subject–verb–object (SVO) language with prepositions.[16] Although primarily an isolating language, lexical derivation by means of prefixes and infixes is common.[17] Adjectives, demonstratives and numerals follow their noun:

ស្រីស្អាតនោះ /srəj sʔaːt nuh/ (girl pretty that) = that pretty girl

The noun has no grammatical gender or singular/plural distinction. Plurality can be marked by postnominal particles, numerals, or by doubling the adjective, which can also serve to intensify the adjective:

ឆ្កែធំ /cʰkae tʰom/ (dog large) = large dog

ឆ្កែធំធំ /cʰkae tʰom tʰom/ (dog large large) = a very large dog or large dogs

ឆ្កែធំណាស់ /cʰkae tʰom nah/ (dog large very) = very large dog

ឆ្កែពីរ /cʰkae piː/ (dog two) = two dogs

Classifying particles for use between numerals and nouns exist although are not always obligatory as in, for example, Thai. As is typical of most East Asian languages,[18] the verb does not inflect at all; tense and aspect can be shown by particles and adverbs or understood by context. Verbs are negated by putting /min/ before them and /teː/ at the end of the sentence or clause. In normal speech verbs can also be negated without the need for an ending particle by putting /ʔɐt/ before them.

ខ្ញុំជឿ /kʰɲom cɨə/ – I believe

ខ្ញុំមិនជឿទេ /kʰɲom min cɨə teː/ – I don't believe

ខ្ញុំ​ឥត​ជឿ /kʰɲom ʔɐt cɨə/ – I don't believe


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.[19] The dialects form a continuum running roughly north to south. Standard Cambodian Khmer 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.

The following classification of Khmer dialects is from Ferlus (1992),[20] as cited in Sidwell (2009).[6]

  • Middle Khmer
    • Cardamom (Western) Khmer
    • Central Khmer
      • Surin (Northern) Khmer
      • Standard Khmer and related dialects

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.[21] 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.[10]

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 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.[22]

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/.[1]

Writing system

Khmer language wiki search tip

Khmer is written with the Khmer script, an abugida developed from the Pallava script of India before the 7th century.[23] 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.[23] 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.[8]


The numbers[17] are:

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

See also

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Portal icon Languages portal
  • Literature of Cambodia

References and notes

  1. ^ a b David A. Smyth, Judith Margaret Jacob (1993). Cambodian Linguistics, Literature and History: Collected Articles. Routledge (UK). ISBN 0728602180147852369*. 
  2. ^ Enfield, N.J. (2005). Areal Linguistics and Mainland Southeast Asia
  3. ^ Nancy Joan Smith-Hefner (1999). Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community. University of California. ISBN 0520213491. 
  4. ^ Journal of Phonetics 31 (2003). pp 181-201
  5. ^ a b Sak-Humphry, Channy. The Syntax of Nouns and Noun Phrases in Dated Pre-Angkorian Inscriptions. Mon Khmer Studies 22: 1-26.
  6. ^ a b Sidwell, Paul (2009). Classifying the Austroasiatic languages: history and state of the art. LINCOM studies in Asian linguistics, 76. Munich: Lincom Europa.
  7. ^ Shorto, Harry L. edited by Sidwell, Paul, Cooper, Doug and Bauer, Christian (2006). A Mon–Khmer comparative dictionary. Canberra: Australian National University. Pacific Linguistics. ISBN 0-85883-570-3
  8. ^ a b Huffman, Franklin. 1970. Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-01314-0
  9. ^ a b c d Minegishi, M (2006). "Khmer". In Keith Brown. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2 ed.). Elsevier. pp. 4981–4984. 
  10. ^ a b Diffloth, Gerard & Zide, Norman. Austro-Asiatic Languages.
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b Jacob, JM (2002). "The Structure of the Word in Old Khmer". In VI Braginskiĭ. Classical Civilizations of South-East Asia: Key Papers from SOAS. Routledge. 
  13. ^ Minegishi, Makoto (1986). "On Takeo Dialects of Khmer: Phonology and World List". Retrieved 2008-12-04. 
  14. ^ Wayland, Ratree. "An Acoustic Study of Battambang Khmer Vowels." The Mon-Khmer Studies Journal. 28. (1998): 43-62.
  15. ^ Schiller, Eric (1994). "Khmer Nominalizing and Causitivizing Infixes". University of Chicago. Retrieved 2008-12-04. 
  16. ^ Huffman, Franklin. 1967. An outline of Cambodian Grammar. PhD thesis, Cornell University.
  17. ^ a b David Smyth (1995). Colloquial Cambodian: A Complete Language Course. Routledge (UK). ISBN 0415100062. 
  18. ^ East and Southeast Asian Languages: A First Look at Oxford University Press Online
  19. ^ Khmer/Cambodian Paul Sidwell. Australian National University. Accessed February 23, 2007.
  20. ^ Ferlus, Michel. 1992. Essai de phonétique historique du khmer (Du milieau du primier millénaire de notre ère à l'époque actuelle). Mon–Khmer Studies 2 (6):7-28.
  21. ^ Phonetic variation of final trill and final palatals in Khmer dialects of Thailand Suwilai, Premsrirat; Mahidol University; Mon-Khmer Studies 24:1-26; pg 1
  22. ^ William Allen A. Smalley (1994). Linguistic Diversity and National Unity: Language Ecology in Thailand. University of Chicago. ISBN 0226762882. 
  23. ^ a b Khmer Alphabet at

Further reading

  • Ferlus, Michel. 1992. Essai de phonétique historique du khmer (Du milieu du premier millénaire de notre ère à l'époque actuelle)", Mon–Khmer Studies XXI: 57-89)
  • Headley, Robert and others. 1977. Cambodian-English Dictionary. Washington, Catholic University Press. ISBN 0813205093
  • Huffman, F. E., Promchan, C., & Lambert, C.-R. T. (1970). Modern spoken Cambodian. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300013159
  • Huffman, F. E., Lambert, C.-R. T., & Im Proum. (1970). Cambodian system of writing and beginning reader with drills and glossary. Yale linguistic series. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300011997
  • Jacob, Judith. 1974. A Concise Cambodian-English Dictionary. London, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0197135749
  • Jacob, J. M. (1996). The traditional literature of Cambodia: a preliminary guide. London oriental series, v. 40. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0197136125
  • Jacob, J. M., & Smyth, D. (1993). Cambodian linguistics, literature and history: collected articles. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. ISBN 0728602180
  • Keesee, A. P. K. (1996). An English-spoken Khmer dictionary: with romanized writing system, usage, and indioms, and notes on Khmer speech and grammar. London: Kegan Paul International. ISBN 0710305141
  • Meechan, M. (1992). Register in Khmer the laryngeal specification of pharyngeal expansion. Ottawa: National Library of Canada = Bibliothèque nationale du Canada. ISBN 0315750162
  • Sak-Humphry, C. (2002). Communicating in Khmer: an interactive intermediate level Khmer course. Manoa, Hawai'i: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa. OCLC: 56840636
  • Smyth, D. (1995). Colloquial Cambodian: a complete language course. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415100062
  • Stewart, F., & May, S. (2004). In the shadow of Angkor: contemporary writing from Cambodia. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824828496
  • Tonkin, D. (1991). The Cambodian alphabet: how to write the Khmer language. Bangkok: Trasvin Publications. ISBN 9748867021

External links

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