|Pronunciation||IPA: [pʰiːəsaː kʰmaːe]|
|Native to||Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand|
|Ethnicity||Khmer, Northern Khmer|
|16 million (2007)
1 million L2 speakers (no date)
Khmer Krom (Southern Khmer)
Cardamom Khmer (Western Khmer)
|Khmer script (abugida)
Official language in
khm – Central Khmer
kxm – Northern Khmer
Khmer // or Cambodian (natively ភាសាខ្មែរ [pʰiːəsaː kʰmaːe], or more formally ខេមរភាសា [kʰeɛmaʔraʔ pʰiːəsaː]) is the language of the Khmer people and the official language of Cambodia. With approximately 16 million speakers, it is the second most widely spoken Austroasiatic language (after Vietnamese). 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. The Khmer language has influenced, and has been influenced by, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham, all of which, due to geographical proximity and long-term cultural contact, form a sprachbund in peninsular Southeast Asia.
Khmer is primarily an analytic, isolating language. There are no inflections, conjugations or case endings. Instead, particles and auxiliary words are used to indicate grammatical relationships. General word order is subject–verb–object, and modifiers follow the word they modify. Classifiers appear after numbers when used to count nouns, though not always so consistently as in languages like Chinese.
Khmer differs from neighboring languages such as Thai, Burmese, Lao and Vietnamese in that it is not a tonal language. Words are stressed on the final syllable, hence many words conform to the typical Mon–Khmer pattern of a stressed syllable preceded by a minor syllable. The Khmer script is an abugida descended from the Brahmi script via the southern Indian Pallava script; its features include subscripted versions of consonants used to write clusters, and a division of consonants into two series with different inherent vowels.
- 1 Classification
- 2 Geographic distribution and dialects
- 3 Historical periods
- 4 Phonology
- 5 Grammar
- 6 Social registers
- 7 Writing system
- 8 See also
- 9 References and notes
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
Khmer is a member of the Austroasiatic language family, the most archaic family in an area that stretches from the Malay Peninsula through Southeast Asia to East India. Austroasiatic, which also includes Mon, Vietnamese and Munda, has been studied since 1856 and was first proposed as a language family in 1907. Despite the amount of research, there is still doubt about the internal relationship of the languages of Austroasiatic. Most classifications place Khmer in the eastern branch of a Mon-Khmer sub-grouping. In these classification schemes Khmer's closest genetic relatives are the Bahnaric and Pearic languages. More recent classifications doubt the validity of the Mon-Khmer sub-grouping and place the Khmer language as its own branch of Austroasiatic equidistant from the other 12 branches of the family.
Geographic distribution and dialects
Khmer is spoken by some 13 million people in Cambodia, where it is the official language. It is also a second language for most of the minority groups and indigenous hill tribes there. Additionally there are a million speakers of Khmer native to southern Vietnam (1999) and 1.4 million in northeast Thailand (2006).
Khmer dialects, although mutually intelligible, are sometimes quite marked. Notable variations are found in speakers from Phnom Penh (Cambodia's capital city), the rural Battambang area, the areas of Northeast Thailand adjacent to Cambodia such as Surin province, the Cardamom Mountains, and southern Vietnam. 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.
- Middle Khmer
- Cardamom (Western) Khmer
- Central Khmer
- Surin (Northern) Khmer
- Standard Khmer and related dialects (including Khmer Krom)
Standard Khmer, or Central Khmer, the language as taught in Cambodian schools and used by the media, is based on the Battambang dialect spoken throughout the plains of the northwest and central provinces.
Northern Khmer (called Khmer Surin in Khmer) refers to the dialects spoken by many in several border provinces of present-day northeast Thailand. After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the early 15th century, the Dongrek Mountains served as a natural border leaving the Khmer north of the mountains under the sphere of influence of the Kingdom of Lan Xang. The conquests of Cambodia by Naresuan the Great for Ayutthaya furthered their political and economic isolation from Cambodia proper, leading to a dialect that developed relatively independently from the midpoint of the Middle Khmer period. This has resulted in a distinct accent influenced by the surrounding tonal languages Lao and Thai, lexical differences, and phonemic differences in both vowels and distribution of consonants. Syllable-final /r/, which has become silent in other dialects of Khmer, is still pronounced in Northern Khmer. Some linguists classify Northern Khmer as a separate but closely related language rather than a dialect.
Western Khmer, also called Cardamom Khmer or Chanthaburi Khmer, is spoken by a very small, isolated population in the Cardamom mountain range extending from western Cambodia into eastern Central 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.
Phnom Penh Khmer is spoken in the capital and surrounding areas. This dialect is characterized by merging or complete elision of syllables, considered by speakers from other regions to be 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"), which is pronounced /ʀiən/, with the uvular "r" and the same intonation described above.
Khmer Krom or Southern Khmer is spoken by the indigenous Khmer population of the Mekong Delta, formerly controlled by the Khmer Empire but part of Vietnam since 1698. Khmers are persecuted by the Vietnamese government for using their native language and, since the 1950s, have been forced to take Vietnamese names. Consequently very little research has been published regarding this dialect. It has been generally influenced by Vietnamese for three centuries and accordingly displays a pronounced accent, tendency toward monosyllablic words and lexical differences from Standard Khmer.
Linguistic study of the Khmer language divides its history into four periods one of which, the Old Khmer period, is subdivided into pre-Angkorian and Angkorian. 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.
The following table shows the conventionally accepted historical stages of Khmer.
|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 1700s|
Just as modern Khmer was emerging from the transitional period represented by Middle Khmer, Cambodia fell under the influence of French colonialism. In 1887 Cambodia was fully integrated into French Indochina which brought in a French-speaking aristocracy. This led to French becoming the language of higher education and the intellectual class. Many native scholars in the early 20th century, led by a monk named Chuon Nath, resisted the French influence on their language and championed Khmerization, using Khmer roots (and Pali and Sanskrit) to coin new words for modern ideas, instead of French. Nath cultivated modern Khmer-language identity and culture, overseeing the translation of the entire Pali Buddhist canon into Khmer and creating the modern Khmer language dictionary that is still in use today, thereby ensuring that Khmer would survive, and indeed flourish, during the French colonial period.
|Plosive||p (pʰ)||t (tʰ)||c (cʰ)||k (kʰ)||ʔ|
|Voiced plosive/Implosive||ɓ ~ b||ɗ ~ d|
|Approximant||ʋ ~ w||j|
The voiceless plosives /p/, /t/, /c/, /k/ may occur with or without aspiration (as [p] vs. [pʰ], etc.); this difference is contrastive before a vowel. However, the aspirated sounds in that position may be analyzed as sequences of two phonemes: /ph/, /th/, /ch/, /kh/. This analysis is supported by the fact that infixes can be inserted between the stop and the aspiration; for example [tʰom] "big" becomes [tumhum] "size" with a nominalizing infix. When one of these plosives occurs initially before another consonant, aspiration is no longer contrastive and can be regarded as mere phonetic detail: slight aspiration is expected when the following consonant is not one of /ʔ/, /b/, /d/, /r/, /s/, /h/ (or /ŋ/ if the initial plosive is /k/).
In syllable-final position, /h/ and /ʋ/ approach [ç] and [w] respectively. The stops /p/, /t/, /c/, /k/ are unaspirated and have no audible release when occurring as syllable finals. (As noted below, the phonemes /b/, /d/, /r/, /s/ do not occur as syllable finals in Standard Khmer.)
In addition, the consonants /ɡ/, /f/, /ʃ/ and /z/ occur occasionally in recent loan words in the speech of Cambodians familiar with French and other languages. Other speakers may approximate them with natively occurring phonemes, such as /k/ for /ɡ/, /h/ or /ph/ for /f/, and /s/ for /ʃ/ or /z/.
Various authors have proposed slightly different analyses of the Khmer vowel system. This may be in part because of the wide degree of variation in pronunciation between individual speakers, even within a dialectal region. The description below follows Huffman (1970). The number of vowel nuclei and their values vary between dialects; differences exist even between the Standard Khmer system and that of the Battambang dialect on which the standard is based.
The vowel /ɔː/ sometimes has a shorter pronunciation [ɔ] in weak initial syllables, but this is not considered distinctive. Most of the diphthongs are described as falling, except for /ŭə/ and /ŏə/, which are sometimes rising. The starting points of the short diphthongs are slightly more open than the corresponding monophthongs.
There are also some sequences with offglides (in some cases written with a single vowel symbol in the Khmer script) which are analyzed as vowel plus semivowel (/j/ or /ʋ/, where the latter tends to [w] in this position). These include: (with short monophthongs) /ɨʋ/, /əʋ/, /aj/, /aʋ/, /uj/; (with long monophthongs) /əːj/, /aːj/; (with long diphthongs) /iəj/, /iəʋ/, /ɨəj/, /aoj/, /uəj/.
A Khmer syllable begins with a single consonant, or else with a cluster of two, or rarely three, consonants. The only possible clusters of three consonants at the start of a syllable are /str/, /skr/, and (with aspirated consonants analyzed as two-consonant sequences) /sth/, /lkh/. There are 85 possible two-consonant clusters (including [pʰ] etc. analyzed as /ph/ etc.). All the clusters are shown in the following table, phonetically, i.e. with superscript ʰ marking either contrastive or non-contrastive aspiration (see above).
Slight vowel epenthesis occurs in the clusters consisting of a plosive followed by /ʔ/, /b/, /d/, in those beginning /ʔ/, /m/, /l/, and in the cluster /kŋ-/.
After the initial consonant or consonant cluster comes the syllabic nucleus, which is one of the vowels listed above. This vowel may end the syllable or may be followed by a coda, which is a single consonant. If the syllable is stressed and the vowel is short, there must be a final consonant. All consonants except /b/, /d/, /r/, /s/ can appear as the coda (although final /r/ is heard in some dialects; see Northern Khmer). For pronunciation differences in final position, see above under Consonants.
A minor syllable (unstressed syllable preceding the main syllable of a word) has a structure of CV-, CrV-, CVN- or CrVN- (where C is a consonant, V a vowel, and N a nasal consonant). For the pronunciation of such syllables, see the following section.
Most Khmer words consist of either one or two syllables. In most native disyllabic words, the first syllable is a minor (fully unstressed) syllable. Such words have been described as sesquisyllabic (i.e. as having one-and-a-half syllables). The vowels in such syllables are usually short; in conversation they may be reduced to [ə], although in careful or formal speech, including on television and radio, they are clearly articulated. An example of such a word is មនុស្ស "person", pronounced [mɔˈnuh], or more casually [məˈnuh].
There are also some disyllables in which the first syllable does not behave as a minor syllable, but takes secondary stress. Most such words are compounds, but some are single morphemes (generally loanwords). An example is ភាសា "language", pronounced [ˌpʰiəˈsaː].
Words with three or more syllables, if they are not compounds, are mostly loanwords, usually derived from Pali, Sanskrit, or more recently, French. They are nonetheless adapted to Khmer stress patterns. Primary stress falls on the final syllable, with secondary stress on every second syllable from the end. Thus in a three-syllable word, the first syllable has secondary stress; in a four-syllable word, the second syllable has secondary stress; in a five-syllable word, the first and third syllables have secondary stress, and so on. Long polysyllables are not often used in conversation.
Compounds, however, preserve the stress patterns of the constituent words. Thus សំបុកចាប, the name of a kind of cookie (literally "bird's nest"), is pronounced [sɑmˌbok ˈcaːp], with secondary stress on the second rather than the first syllable, because it is composed of the words [sɑmˈbok] "nest" and [caːp] "bird".
Phonation and tone
Khmer once had a phonation distinction in its vowels, but this now survives only in the most archaic dialect (Western Khmer). The distinction arose historically when vowels after Old Khmer voiced consonants became breathy voiced and diphthongized; for example *kaa, *ɡaa became *kaa, *ɡe̤a. When consonant voicing was lost, the distinction was maintained by the vowel (*kaa, *ke̤a); later the phonation disappeared as well ([kaː], [kiə]). These processes explain the origin of what are now called a-series and o-series consonants in the Khmer script.
Intonation often conveys semantic context in Khmer, as in distinguishing declarative statements, questions and exclamations. Khmer grammar often lacks means of doing this unambiguously; for example, the final "interrogative" particle ទេ /teː/ can also serve as an emphasizing (or in some cases negating) particle.
The intonation pattern of a typical Khmer declarative phrase is a steady rise throughout followed by an abrupt drop on the last syllable.
- ខ្ញុំមិនចង់បានទេ [↗kʰɲom mɨn caŋ baːn | ↘teː] "I don't want it."
Other intonation contours signify a different type of phrase such as the "full doubt" interrogative, similar to yes-no questions in English. Full doubt interrogatives remain fairly even in tone throughout, but rise sharply towards the end.
- អ្នកចង់ទៅលេងសៀមរាបទេ [↗nea? caŋ | ↗tɨw leːŋ siəm riəp | ꜛteː] "Do you want to go to Siem Reap?"
Exclamatory phrases follow the typical steadily rising pattern, but rise sharply on the last syllable instead of falling.
- សៀវភៅនេះថ្លៃណាស់ [↗siəw pʰɨw nih| ↗tʰlaj | ꜛnah] "This book is expensive!"
Khmer is primarily an analytic language, with no inflection. There is some derivation by means of prefixes and infixes, but this is not always productive in the modern language. Basic word order is subject–verb–object (SVO); prepositions are used rather than postpositions; and the language is generally head-initial (modifiers follow the words they modify).
Adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives, demonstratives and numerals follow the noun they modify. Adverbs likewise follow the verb. Morphologically, adjectives and adverbs are not distinguished, with many words often serving either function. Similar to other languages of the region, intensity can be expressed by reduplication.
- ស្រីស្អាតនោះ /srəj sʔaːt nuh/ (girl pretty that) = that pretty girl
- ស្រីស្អាតស្អាត /srəj sʔaːt sʔaːt/ (girl pretty pretty) = pretty girls
As Khmer sentences rarely use a copula, adjectives are also employed as verbs. Comparatives are expressed using the word ជាង /ciəŋ/: "A X /ciəŋ/ [B]" (A is more X [than B]). The most common way to express superlatives is with ជាងគេ /ciəŋ keː/: "A X /ciəŋ keː/" (A is X-est of all).
Nouns and pronouns
Khmer nouns have no grammatical gender or singular/plural inflections. There are no articles, but indefiniteness is often expressed by the word for "one" following the noun. Plurality can be marked by postnominal particles, numerals, or reduplication of a following adjective, which, although similar to intensification, is usually not ambiguous due to context.
- ឆ្កែពីរ /cʰkae piː/ (dog two) = two dogs
- ឆ្កែធំ /cʰkae tʰom/ (dog large) = large dog
- ឆ្កែធំធំ /cʰkae tʰom tʰom/ (dog large large) = large dogs (or a very large dog)
Pronouns are subject to a complicated system of social register, the choice of pronoun depending on the perceived relationships between speaker, audience and referent (see Social registers below). Kinship terms, nicknames and proper names are often used as pronouns (including for the first person) among intimates. Subject pronouns are frequently dropped in colloquial conversation.
As is typical of most East Asian languages, Khmer verbs do not inflect at all; tense and aspect can be expressed using particles (such as កំពុង /kəmpuŋ/, placed before a verb to express continuous aspect) and adverbs (such as "yesterday", "earlier", "tomorrow"), or may be understood from context. Serial verb construction is quite common.
Negation is achieved by putting មិន /mɨn/ before the verb and ទេ /teː/ at the end of the sentence or clause. In normal speech, verbs can also be negated without the need for a final particle, by placing ឥត /ʔɑt/~/ʔət/ before them.
- ខ្ញុំជឿ /kɲom cɨə/ I believe
- ខ្ញុំមិនជឿទេ /kɲom mɨn cɨə teː/ I don't believe
- ខ្ញុំឥតជឿ /kɲom ʔɑt cɨə/ I don't believe
Counting in Khmer is based on a biquinary system (the numbers from 6 to 9 have the form "five one", "five two", etc.) However, the words for multiples of ten from 30 to 90 are not related to the basic Khmer numbers, but are probably borrowed from Thai. The Khmer script has its own versions of the Arabic numerals.
The principal number words are listed in the following table, which gives Western and Khmer digits, Khmer spelling and IPA transcription.
|6||៦||ប្រាំមូយ||/pram muəj/||60||៦០||ហុកសិប||/hok səp/|
|7||៧||ប្រាំពីរ||/pram piː/, /pram pɨl/||70||៧០||ចិតសិប||/cət səp/|
|8||៨||ប្រាំបី||/pram ɓəːj/||80||៨០||ប៉ែតសិប||/paet səp/|
|9||៩||ប្រាំបួន||/pram ɓuən/||90||៩០||កៅសិប||/kaʋ səp/|
Intermediate numbers are formed by compounding the above elements. Powers of ten are denoted by រយ /rɔːj/ (100), ពាន់ /pŏən/ (1,000), ម៉ឺន /məɨn/ (10,000), សែន /saen/ (100,000), លាន /liən/ (1,000,000) and កោដិ /kaot/ (10,000,000).
Ordinal numbers are formed by placing the particle ទី /tiː/ before the corresponding cardinal number.
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. 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/. Another result is that the pronominal system is complex and full of honorific variations, just a few of which are shown in the table below.
|Situational usage||"I, me"||IPA||"you"||IPA||"he, she, it"||IPA|
|Intimate or addressing an inferior||អញ||/ʔaɲ/||ឯង||/ʔaɛ̯ŋ/||វា||/ʋiə̯/|
(or kinship term, title or rank)
|Layperson to/about Buddhist clergy||ខ្ញុំព្រះករុណា||/kʰɲom preə̯̆h kaʔruʔnaː/||ព្រះតេជព្រះគុណ||/preə̯̆h daɛ̯c preə̯̆h kun/||ព្រអង្គ||/preə̯̆h ɑŋ/|
|Buddhist clergy to layperson||អាត្មា or
|ញោមស្រី (to female)
ញោមប្រុស (to male)
|ឧបាសក (to male)
ឧបាសិកា (to female)
|when addressing royalty||ខ្ញុំព្រះបាទអម្ចាស់ or ទូលបង្គុំ (male), ខ្ញុំម្ចាស់ (female)||/kʰɲom preə̯̆h baːt aʔmcah/||ព្រះករុណា||/preə̯̆h kaʔruʔnaː/||ទ្រង់||/truə̯̆ŋ/|
Khmer is written with the Khmer script, an abugida developed from the Pallava script of India before the 7th century when the first known inscription appeared. Written left-to-right with vowel signs that can be placed after, before, above or below the consonant they follow, the Khmer script is similar in appearance and usage to Thai and Lao, both of which were based on the Khmer system. The Khmer script is also distantly related to the Mon script, the ancestor of the modern Burmese script. Khmer numerals, which were inherited from Indian numerals, are used more widely than Hindu-Arabic numerals. Within Cambodia, literacy in the Khmer alphabet is estimated at 77.6%.
Consonant symbols in Khmer are divided into two groups, or series. The first series carries the inherent vowel /ɑː/ while the second series carries the inherent vowel /ɔː/. The Khmer names of the series, /aʔkʰosaʔ/ ("voiceless") and /kʰosaʔ/ ("voiced"), respectively, indicate that the second series consonants were used to represent the voiced phonemes of Old Khmer. As the voicing of stops was lost, however, the contrast shifted to the phonation of the attached vowels which, in turn, evolved into a simple difference of vowel quality, often by diphthongization. This process has resulted in the Khmer alphabet having two symbols for most consonant phonemes and each vowel symbol having two possible readings, depending on the series of the initial consonant:
|ត + ា||= តា||/ta/||"grandfather"|
|ទ + ា||= ទា||/tiə/||"duck"|
References and notes
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- Oxford English Dictionary, "Khmer".
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- Enfield, N.J. (2005). Areal Linguistics and Mainland Southeast Asia
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|Khmer edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Khmer language.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Khmer phrasebook.|
- Kheng.info—An online audio dictionary for learning Khmer, with thousands of native speaker recordings and text segmentation software.
- Language Links Database - language links and resources for Khmer language
- SEAlang Project: Mon–Khmer languages. The Khmeric Branch
- Khmer Swadesh vocabulary list (from Wiktionary's Swadesh-list appendix)
- Dictionary and SpellChecker open sourced and collaborative project based on Chuon Nath Khmer Dictionary
- How to install Khmer script on a Windows 7 computer
- How to install Khmer script on a Windows XP computer
- Khmer at UCLA Language Materials project
- Online Khmer & English dictionary
- Khmer Online Dictionaries
- USA Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Cambodian basic course
- Khmer audio lessons at Wikiotics