Useful Information About the Khmer Language

Khmer is a Mon-Khmer language spoken mainly in Cambodia, and also in Vietnam and Thailand. In 2015 there were about 16 million Khmer speakers in Cambodia, and there were about 1.2 million speakers of the language in Vietnam in 2009. In Thailand a variety of Khmer known as Northern Khmer is spoken by 1.4 million people. This is considered a separate language by some people.

Khmer shares many features and much vocabulary with Thai as a result of centuries of two-way borrowing. There are also borrowings from Sanskrit, Pali, French and Chinese in Khmer.

Khmer is also known as Cambodian. The official name of Cambodia is the Kingdom of Cambodia (ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា [Preah Reachanachâk Kampuchea]). In the past it has been known as the Khmer Republic (1970-1975), Democratic Kapuchea (1975-1979), the People's Republic of Kampuchea (1979-1989) and the State of Cambodia (1989-1993). The name Kampuchea comes from the Sanskrit कम्बोजदेश [Kambujadeśa] - "land of Kambuja"). The name Cambodia is an English version of the French Cambodge, which is a version of Kampuchea.

Varieties of Khmer include:

  • Standard or Central Khmer, - spoken mainly in central Cambodia, and used as the language of instruction in schools

  • Northern Khmer (Khmer Surin / ខ្មែរសុរិន្) - spoken in northeast Thailand

  • Western Khmer - spoken in western Cambodia and eastern Thailand

  • Phnom Penh Khmer - spoken in Phnom Penh and nearby areas

  • Southern Khmer (Khmer Krom / ខ្មែរក្រោម) - spoken in southwest Vietnam

  • Khmer khe - spoken in Stung Treng Province in northern Cambodia

Khmer alphabet (អក្សរខ្មែរ)

The Khmer alphabet is descended from the Brahmi script of ancient India by way of the Pallava script, which was used in southern India and South East Asia during the 5th and 6th Centuries AD. The oldest dated inscription in Khmer, found at Angkor Borei in Takev Province south of Phnom Penh, dates from 611 AD.

The Khmer alphabet closely resembles the Thai and Lao alphabets, which developed from it.

Notable features

  • Type of writing system: syllabic alphabet in which each consonant has two forms, one with an inherent /ɑː/ (first series) and one with an inherent /ɔː/ (second series).

  • Direction of writing: left to right in horizontal lines.

  • Vowels are indicated using either separate letters or diacritics, which written above, below, in front of, after or around consonants. The pronunciation of the vowels depends on whether a consonant they are attached to is of the first or second series.

  • All consonants have a subscript form which is used to write the second consonant of a cluster.

  • In a Khmer text there are no spaces between words, instead spaces indicate the end of a clause or sentence.

  • Inspite of efforts to standardise written Khmer, many words have more than one accepted spelling.

There are a number of ways to Romanize Khmer. The transliteration used here is the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN) system, a group of experts that deals with the national and international standardization of geographical names.