Khmer (Cambodian)


  • Khmer or Cambodian, is the language of the Khmer people and the official language of Cambodia. It is the second most widely spoken south Asian language (after Vietnamese), with speakers in the tens of millions. Due to geographic proximity, the Khmer language has affected, and also been affected by; Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Cham, of which most contain influences of Sanskrit and Pali. Khmer has its own script, an abugida or a writing system in which each symbol represents a consonant and a particular vowel. The vowel may changed by modifying the basic symbol. The abugida is known in Khmer as Aksar Khmer. Khmer differs from neighboring languages such as Thai, Lao and Vietnamese in that it is not a tonal language.


  • The history of the Khmer/Cambodian language is usually divided into four periods:
    • Pre-Angkorian: incompletely known from isolated words and phrases in otherwise Sanskrit texts.
    • Angkorian or Old Khmer: the language of the Angkorian inscriptions from the 9th-13th centuries.
    • Middle Khmer: the language following the fall of Angkor, 14th to 18th centuries.
    • Modern Khmer: 19th century to the present.
  • Khmer is classified as a member of the Eastern branch of the Mon-Khmer language family, itself a subdivision of the larger Austro-Asiatic 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.


The phonological system described here is the inventory of sounds of the spoken language, not how they are written in the Khmer alphabet.
Consonant and Vowel Inventory

  Labial Dental/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
Approximate 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. [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 Approximation (IPA)
/ɡ/ /k/
/ʃ/ /s/
/f/ /h/ or /pʰ/
/z/ /s/

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.


Khmer consists of a single language with several very closely related dialects. There are three varieties

  • Standard Khmer: spoken by relatively educated people in cities like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

  • Surin or Northern Khmer: spoken in eastern Thailand.

  • Cardamon or Western Khmer: spoken in southwestern Cambodia.

The Surin dialect separated from Standard Khmer sometime over the past few hundred years, while Cardamon Khmer appears to be an older offshoot. There are also a sizable number of Khmer speakers in the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam. Although their language is sometimes called Southern Khmer, it is an even more recent offshoot from the Phnom Penh dialect as the area only came under Vietnamese domination in relatively recent historical times. There are also a sizable number of Khmer speakers in the Mekong.


Most Cambodian dialects are not tonal and the Cambodian language is somewhat unusual among its neighboring countries' languages of Thai, Lao and Vietnamese in that it is not a tonal language. However, the colloquial Phnom Penh dialect has developed a marginal tonal contrast (a level vs. a peaking tone) to compensate for the elision of/r/.

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.

Syllable Structure

Khmer words are predominantly either monosyllabic or sesquisyllabic, with stress falling on the final syllable. Sesquisyllabic words are phonetically disyllabic, but the vowel of the first syllable is strictly epenthetic. 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- pɗ- pʰc pʰk- pʔ-   pʰn- pʰɲ- pʰŋ- pʰj- pʰl- pr- ps-    
t tʰp-       tʰk- tʔ- tʰm- tʰn-   tʰŋ- tʰj- tʰl- tr-     tʰʋ
c cʰp-       cʰk- cʔ- cʰm- cʰn-   cʰŋ-   cʰl- cr-     cʰʋ-
k kʰp- kʰt- kɗ- kʰc   kʔ- kʰm- kʰn- kʰɲ- kŋ- kʰj- kʰl- kr- ks-   kʰʋ-
s sp- st- sɗ-   sk- sʔ- sm- sn- sɲ- sŋ-   sl- sr-    
ʔ                                 ʔʋ-
m     mt- mɗ- mc   mʔ-   mʰn- mʰɲ-     ml- mr- ms- mh-  
l lp-       lk- lʔ- lm-     lŋ-         lh- lʋ-

The most common word structure in Khmer is a full syllable, 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. Lexical derivation by means of prefixes and infixes is common. Adjectives, demonstratives and numerals follow their noun: The noun has no grammatical gender or singular/plural distinction. Plurality can be marked by post nominal particles, numerals, or by doubling the adjective, which can also serve to intensify the adjective. As is typical of most East Asian languages, 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.

Written Language

Khmer or Cambodian is written with the Khmer script, an abugida developed from the Pallava script of India before the 7th century. 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. Khmer numerals, which were inherited from Indian numerals, are used more widely than Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Clinical Implications of the Khmer Language

  • The Speech Accent archive from George Mason University presents speech samples from a variety of language backgrounds. Native and non-native speakers of English read the same paragraph and are carefully transcribed. Listen to a number of Khmer speakers of English.

Original Contributors: Claire Connell and Janice Johnson 2008