Khmer alphabet

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Languages Khmer
Time period
c. 611–present[1]
Parent systems
Child systems
Sister systems
Old Kawi
ISO 15924 Khmr, 355
Direction Left-to-right
Unicode alias

The Khmer script (Khmer: អក្សរខ្មែរ; IPA: [ʔaʔsɑː kʰmaːe]) [2] is an abugida (alphasyllabary) script used to write the Khmer language (the official language of Cambodia). It is also used to write Pali among the Buddhist liturgy of Cambodia and Thailand.

It was adapted from the Pallava script, a variant of Grantha alphabet descended from the Brahmi script of India, which was used in southern India and South East Asia during the 5th and 6th Centuries AD.[3] The oldest dated inscription in Khmer was found at Angkor Borei District in Takéo Province south of Phnom Penh and dates from 611.[4] The modern Khmer script differs somewhat from precedent forms seen on the inscriptions of the ruins of Angkor.

Ancient Khmer script engraved on stone.


Khmer is written from left to right. Consonant clusters are "stacked", with the second consonant being written in reduced form under the main consonant. Originally there were 35 consonant characters, but modern Khmer uses only 33. Each such character in fact represents a consonant sound together with an inherent vowel – either â or ô.

There are some independent vowel characters, but vowel sounds are more commonly represented as dependent vowels – additional marks accompanying a consonant character, and indicating what vowel sound is to be pronounced after that consonant (or consonant cluster). Most dependent vowels have two different pronunciations, depending on the inherent vowel of the consonant to which they are added (or in the case of a cluster, the dominant consonant – see below). A consonant written without a dependent vowel is assumed to be followed by the sound of its inherent vowel, or by no vowel sound if it comes at the end of a word.

A number of diacritics are also used to indicate certain modifications in the pronunciation of words.


Several styles of Khmer writing are used for varying purposes. The two main styles are âksâr chriĕng (lit., slanted script) and âksâr mul (lit., round script).

Âksâr khâm (អក្សរខម, Aksar Khom), an antique style of the Khmer script as written in Uttaradit, Thailand. In this picture, although it was written with Khmer script, all texts in this manuscript are in Thai languages.
  • Âksâr chriĕng (អក្សរជ្រៀង) refers to oblique letters. Entire bodies of text such as novels and other publications may be produced in âksâr chriĕng. Unlike in written English, oblique lettering does not represent any grammatical differences such as emphasis or quotation. Handwritten Khmer is often written in the oblique style.
  • Âksâr chhôr (អក្សរឈរ) or Âksâr tráng (អក្សរត្រង់) refers to upright or 'standing' letters, as opposed to oblique letters. Most modern Khmer typefaces are designed in this manner instead of being oblique, as text can be italicized by way of word processor commands and other computer applications to repsent the oblique manner of âksâr chriĕng.
  • Âksâr khâm (អក្សរខម) is a style used in Pali palm-leaf manuscripts. It is characterized by sharper serifs and angles and retainment of some antique characteristics; notably in the consonant kâ (). This style is also for yantra tattoos and yantras on cloth, paper, or engravings on brass plates in Cambodia as well as in Thailand.
  • Âksâr mul (អក្សរមូល) is calligraphical style similar to âksâr khâm as it also retains some characters reminiscent of antique Khmer script. Its name in Khmer, lit. 'round script', refers to the bold and thick lettering style. It is used for titles and headings in Cambodian documents, books, or currency, on shop signs or banners. It is sometimes used to emphasize royal names or other important nouns with the surrounding text in a different style.


There are 35 Khmer consonant symbols, although modern Khmer only uses 33, two having become obsolete. Each consonant has an inherent vowel: â /ɑ/ or ô /ɔ/. These inherent vowel sounds affect the pronunciation of the dependent (diacritical) vowels. When no dependent vowel is added, the consonant is pronounced together with its inherent vowel, or with no vowel at all if it comes at the end of a word or syllable. (In this position some of the consonants have reduced pronunciations; for example, រ is silent, and ស is often pronounced h.)

The consonants have subscript forms that are used to write consonant clusters. Also sometimes referred to as "sub-consonants", subscript consonants mostly resemble the corresponding consonant symbol but in a minuscule form. In Khmer, they are known as cheung âksâr (ជើងអក្សរ), meaning the foot of a letter. Most subscript consonants are written directly below other consonants, although subscript r is written before, while a few others have ascending elements which appear after. In determining the inherent vowel of a consonant cluster (i.e. how a following dependent vowel will be pronounced), stops and fricatives are dominant over sonorants. For any consonant cluster including a combination of these sounds, a following dependent vowel is pronounced according to the dominant consonant, regardless of its position in the cluster. When both members of a cluster are dominant, the subscript consonant determines the pronunciation of a following dependent vowel. Subscript consonants were previously used to write final consonants; this method of writing is not used in modern written Khmer, but is retained in the word aôy ឲ្យ /aːoj/ ("give").

Consonants Subscript form UN romanization IPA
្ខ khâ kʰɑ
្ឃ khô kʰɔ
្ង ngô ŋɔ
្ច châ
្ឆ chhâ cʰɑ
្ជ chô
្ឈ chhô cʰɔ
្ញ nhô ɲɔ
្ដ ɗɑ
្ឋ thâ tʰɑ
្ឌ ɗɔ
្ឍ thô tʰɔ
្ថ thâ tʰɑ
្ធ thô tʰɔ
្ប ɓɑ
្ផ phâ pʰɑ
្ភ phô pʰɔ
្វ ʋɔ
្ឝ shâ -
្ឞ ssô -
្អ ʔɑ

* The consonant has no subscript form in Khmer orthography, but some Khmer fonts do provide a subscript form for this letter.

For some phonemes that occur in loanwords, particularly from French and Thai, the Khmer writing system includes supplementary consonants. Most of these are created by stacking a subscript under the character for /hɑ/, with an additional diacritic if required to change the inherent vowel to ô. The character for /pɑ/, however, is formed by placing the diacritical sign called musĕkâtônd ("mouse teeth") over the consonant for /bɑ/.

Digraph consonants UN romanization IPA
ហ្គ ɡɑ
ហ្គ៊ ɡɔ
ហ្វ fâ, wâ ,
ហ្វ៊ fô, wô ,
ហ្ស žâ, zâ ʒɑ,
ហ្ស៊ žô, zô ʒɔ,

Dependent vowels[edit]

The Khmer script uses dependent vowels, or diacritical vowels, to modify the inherent vowels of consonants. Dependent vowels are known in Khmer as srăk nissăy (ស្រៈនិស្ស័យ) or srăk phsâm (ស្រៈផ្សំ). They are always written in combination with a consonant. For most of the vowel symbols, there are two possible sounds (registers). The sound of the vowel depends on the series (the inherent vowel) of the consonant to which it is added (or in the case of a cluster, the dominant consonant – see above). The vowel is pronounced after the consonant (or cluster), even though some of them have graphical elements which appear to the left of the consonant character.

In the following table, the dependent vowels are shown paired with the letter (qâ). (This is for technical reasons, as not all browsers will display the vowels by themselves correctly; it also means that in the cases illustrated the vowels would in fact have the a-series pronunciation.)

UN romanization IPA[2]
a-series o-series a-series o-series
អា a éa iːə
អិ ĕ ĭ e i
អី ei i əj
អឹ œ̆ ə ɨ
អឺ œ əːɨ ɨː
អុ ŏ ŭ o u
អូ o u oːu
អួ uːə
អើ aeu eu aːə əː
អឿ eua ɨːə
អៀ iːə
អេ é eːi
អែ ê aːe ɛː
អៃ ai ey aj ɨj
អោ aːo
អៅ au ŏu aw ɨw
អុំ om ŭm om um
អំ âm om ɑm om
អាំ ăm ŏâm am oəm
អះ ăh eăh eəʰ
អុះ ŏh uh
អេះ éh eiʰ
អោះ aŏh uŏh ɑʰ ʊəʰ

Independent vowels[edit]

Independent vowels are non-diacritical characters that stand alone (i.e. without being attached to a consonant symbol), and represent vowel sounds occurring at the beginning of syllables. In Khmer they are called ស្រៈពេញតួ (/sraʔ peɲtuə/) which means "complete vowels". The independent vowels are used in a small number of words, mostly of Indic origin, and consequently there is some inconsistency in their use and pronunciations.[2] However, a few words in which they occur are used quite frequently: ឥឡូវ (/ʔəjləw/ "now"), ឪពុក (/ʔəwpuk/ "father"), (/ʔrɨː/ ~ /rɨː/ "or"), ឲ្យ (/ʔaoj/ "to give, to let"), (/lɨː/ "hear").

UN romanization IPA
ĕ ʔe
ei ʔəj
ŏ ʔ
ŭ ʔu
ŏu ʔɨw
rœ̆ ʔrɨ
lœ̆ ʔlɨ
é ʔae; ʔɛː,ʔeː
ai ʔaj
, aô, aôy ʔaːo
âu ʔaw


Diacritics Name Notes
nĭkkôhĕt (និគ្គហិត) niggahita; nasalizes the inherent vowels and some of the dependent vowels, see anusvara, sometimes used to represent [aɲ] in Sanskrit loanwords
reăhmŭkh (រះមុខ) "shining face"; adds final aspiration to dependent or inherent vowels, usually omitted, corresponds to the visarga diacritic, it maybe included as dependent vowel symbol
yŭkôleăkpĭntŭ (យុគលពិន្ទុ) yugalabindu ("pair of dots"); adds final glottalness to dependent or inherent vowels, usually omitted
musĕkâtônd (មូសិកទន្ត) mūsikadanta ("mouse teeth"); used to convert some o-series consonants (ង ញ ម យ រ វ) to the a-series
treisâpt (ត្រីសព្ទ) trīsabda; used to convert some a-series consonants (ស ហ ប អ) to the o-series
kbiĕh kraôm (ក្បៀសក្រោម) also known as bŏkcheung (បុកជើង); used in place of the diacritics treisâpt and musĕkâtônd when they would be impeded by superscript vowels
bântăk (បន្តក់) used to shorten some vowels (and change their quality in some cases); the diacritic is placed on the last consonant of the syllable
rôbat (របាទ)
répheăk (រេផៈ)
rapāda, repha; behave similarly to the tôndâkhéat, corresponds to the Devanagari diacritic repha, however it lost its original function which was to represent a vocalic r
 ៍ tôndâkhéat (ទណ្ឌឃាដ) daṇḍaghāta; used to render some letters as unpronounced
kakâbat (កាកបាទ) kākapāda ("crow's foot"); more a punctuation mark than a diacritic; used in writing to indicate the rising intonation of an exclamation or interjection; often placed on particles such as /na/, /nɑː/, /nɛː/, /vəːj/, and the feminine response /cah/
âsda (អស្តា) denotes stressed intonation in some single-consonant words[5]
sanhyoŭk sannha (សំយោគសញ្ញា) represents a short inherent vowel in Sanskrit and Pali words; usually omitted
vĭréam (វិរាម) a mostly obsolete diacritic, corresponds to the virāma
cheung (ជើង) a.w. coeng; a sign developed for Unicode to input subscript consonants, appearance of this sign varies among fonts

Punctuation marks[edit]

The Khmer script uses several unique punctuation marks, as well as some borrowed from the Latin script, such as the question mark, and guillemets for quotation marks.

The Khmer period is (it resembles an eighth rest in music writing). However, in large numbers, groups of three digits are delimited with Western-style periods.

The sign ៘ means "et cetera" ("etc.").

The reduplication sign ៗ indicates that the preceding word or phrase is to be repeated.


Most consonants, including a few of the subscripts, form ligatures with all dependent vowels that contain the symbol used for the vowel a (). A lot of these ligatures are easily recognizable, however a few may not be. One of the more unrecognizable is the ligature for the and a, បា, which was created to differentiate it from the consonant symbol (ហ) and from the ligature for châ and a (ចា). It is not always necessary to connect consonants with the dependent vowel a.

Examples of ligatured symbols:

Khmer lea.png 
léa (/liːə/) An example of the vowel a () forming a connection with the serif of a consonant.
Khmer chba.png 
chba (/cɓaː/) Subscript consonants with ascending strokes above the baseline also form ligatures with the dependent vowel a ().
Khmer msau.png 
msau (/msaw/) Another example of a subscript consonant forming a ligature. In this case, it is with the digraph dependent vowel au. The digraph dependent vowel au includes the cane-like stroke of the vowel a.
Khmer bau.png 
bau (/ɓaw/) The combination of the consonant () and any vowels or digraph vowels based on the vowel a () is written with a stroke in the center of the ligature to give a distinction between the consonant ().
Khmer tra.png 
tra (/traː/) The subscript for () is written precedent to the consonant it is pronounced after.


Main article: Khmer numerals

The numerals of the Khmer script, similar to that used by other civilizations in Southeast Asia, are also derived from the southern Indian script. Arabic numerals are also used, but to a lesser extent.

Khmer numerals
Arabic numerals 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Khmer was added to the Unicode Standard in September 1999 with the release of version 3.0. Additional Khmer symbols were added to the Unicode Standard in April, 2003 with the release of version 4.0.

The Unicode block for basic Khmer characters is U+1780–U+17FF:

Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+17Bx  KIV 
1.^ As of Unicode version 7.0
2.^ Grey areas indicate non-assigned code points
3.^ U+17A3 and U+17A4 are deprecated as of Unicode versions 4.0 and 5.2 respectively

The Unicode block for additional Khmer symbols is U+19E0–U+19FF:

Khmer Symbols[1]
Official Unicode Consortium code chart (PDF)
  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A B C D E F
U+19Fx ᧿
1.^ As of Unicode version 7.0

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Herbert, Patricia; Anthony Crothers Milner (1989). South-East Asia: languages and literatures : a select guide. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 51–52. ISBN 0-8248-1267-0. 
  2. ^ a b c Huffman, Franklin. 1970. Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-01314-0
  3. ^ Punnee Soonthornpoct: From Freedom to Hell: A History of Foreign Interventions in Cambodian Politics And Wars. page 29, Vantage Press, Inc
  4. ^ Russell R. Ross: Cambodia: A Country Study, page 112, Library of Congress. Federal Research Division, 1990
  5. ^ Unicode Character 'KHMER SIGN AHSDA' (U+17CF)


  • Dictionnaire Cambodgien, Vol I & II, 1967, L'institut Bouddhique (Khmer Language)
  • Jacob, Judith. 1974. A Concise Cambodian-English Dictionary. London, Oxford University Press.

External links[edit]