Handy Information About the Khmer Language

  • 16 million native speakers
  • Spoken by 0.24% of the world population
  • Mainly spoken in Cambodia

Khmer is one of the main Austroasiatic languages, and has had considerable influence from Sanskrit and Pali. These influences come from the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism on Khmer culture; while other influences from Thai and Laotian are the result of linguistic contact and geographic proximity.

The Cambodian language is somewhat unusual among its neighboring countries' languages of Thai, Lao and Vietnamese in that it is not a tonal language.

Dialects are sometimes quite marked; notable variations are found in speakers from Phnom Penh (the capital city) and Battambang (Pronounced by Khmers as Battambong) which is the countryside. A example is when pronuncing Orange, it is pronounced Kroich (the correct form) by those in the countryside but simply pronounced to as Koich (with the r) by those in the city. The later is the a somewhat lazier version then the previous.

A notable characteristic of the Phnom Penh accent is a tendency toward slang and laziness in pronunciation, much like American urban slang. For instance, "Phnom Penh" will sometimes be shortened to "m'Penh". Another characteristic of the Phnom Penh accent is observed in words with an "r" subconsonant in the first syllable (that is, where r is the second consonant, as in the English word "bread"). The r is not pronounced, the first consonant is pronounced harder than usual, and the syllable is spoken with a dipping tone much like the "hoi" tone in the Vietnamese language. For example, some people pronounce "dreey" (meaning "fish") as "te"; the "d" becomes a "t", and the vowel (long A) begins low and rises in tone.

Written Cambodian is alphabetic like English (and unlike Chinese). Khmer alphabet consists of two separate categories — consonants and vowels. Pronunciation is given here in the traditional form (you will need a computer with Khmer fonts to see the letters below). It is also notable that the Cambodian script has fewer vowel symbols than the language has vowel phonemes. Instead, each consonant belongs to one of two series and the vowel produced depends on which series the consonant belongs to (incidentally making Khmer script an abugida rather than a true alphabet). Therefore, most vowels have two different possible pronunciations, depending on which series the consonant belongs to. When no vowel is present, usually the inherent vowel of the consonant is used. Vowels can be divided into two groups: dependent vowels, which depend on a consonant, and independent vowels, which can stand alone. Dependent vowels are used more frequently than independent vowels and all independent vowels can be phonetically rendered with a dependent vowel. Khmer also has a number of diacritics, which can change the series of the consonant or change the pronunciation of the vowel.

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