THE KHMER LANGUAGE
Intro

First, Khmer is not a tonal language. Second, its grammar and conjugaison are very basic compared to Latin languages. So, except for the alphabet, it is quite easy to learn the Khmer language orally. And there is  no space between words, except the one placed at the end of a clause or sentence.

Second, vowel signs in Khmer can be placed after, before, above or below the consonant they follow. To that, consonant symbols in Khmer are divided into two groups. The first group carries the inherent vowel /ɑː/ while the second group carries the inherent vowel /ɔː/. The Khmer names of the groups "voiceless" and "voiced", show that the second group consonants were used to represent the voiced phonemes of old Khmer. But as the voicing of stops was lost, the contrast shifted to the phonation of the attached vowels. In turn, they evolved into a simple difference of vowel quality, often by vowel fracture. This process has led the Khmer script to have two symbols for most consonant phonemes. And each vowel symbol has two possible readings, depending on the group of the initial consonant.

Third, a Khmer syllable begins with a single, or else with a cluster of two, or rarely three, consonants. The only possible clusters of three consonants are /str/,/skr/,/sth/, and /lkh/. In total, we count 85 possible double consonant clusters.

Zone

Of course, Khmer is a part of the South Asian language families. But more specifically, it is a part of the Austro Asiatic group, also known as Mon Khmer group. While the latter is not very spread, the Khmer language seems to be the major one. Also, of them, only Vietnamese, Mon and Khmer have a long recorded history. Plus, Khmer has official status as modern national language. As people speak it in Cambodia only, we count a bit more than 16 million Khmer speakers. But, it is a minor language in Thailand and Vietnam, two bordering countries. This, due to the ex great Khmer empire which covered a large part of these states at that time. Thus, the Khmer script looks similar to Thai and Lao, both of which were based on the Khmer system.

Roots

If you know some about it, you will note that Khmer derives from Sanskrit. This, for both Khmer in itself and its culture and religious mainly. Indeed, Khmer calligraphy looks a bit like Sanskrit. By the way, we can found many Sanskrit texts still carved in stone in some of the Angkor temples. Most of the time, they are obviously the oldest found in the country, dated about 1,500 years ago. However, it is only partially true. Indeed, most of them is old Khmer, not pure Sanskrit. Actually, old Khmer is a mix between modern Khmer and Sanskrit. Thus, the Khmer writing system has its roots from India. That is why these scripts contain letters similar to modern Khmer, while others are very different. Many locals can read old Khmer a bit, but not without any efforts. But the link between Khmer and Sanskrit is even deeper.

Elite Translation Article Learn About The Khmer Language Map of the Austro Asiatic Languages

EVOLUTION

Elite Translation Article Learn About The Khmer Language Map of the Khmer Empire Sastra Holy Book and Legend about the Origin of Funan

By Sanskrit

The Khmer language may have appeared 3,000 years ago, by people based in current Tonkin, North Vietnam. Prior to the arrival of the ancient scripts from India, it seems that the people did not write but only used a spoken language. Later, merchants came from south India to the area called "Funan", about 200 BCE. There, they sold their wares. With them, they brought the older form of written Sanskrit called Pallava Grantha (derived from Brahmi). They then settled there and the Khmer people began to learn writing and religion from the Indians. At the time, the main influence was Brahman. And so, with Shiva and Vishnu, Brahma is the third most common god found in the Khmer culture. That is why most of the Angkor temples worshipped these gods. Sanskrit then gave Khmer a religious, cultural and royal lexicon. For example, "Râja" has become "Reacha" (king).

By Pali

Pali then played a major role in the adoption of Buddhism as the state religion. The latter then replaced Hinduism. We can locate this from the 14th century, following a long period of confrontation between the two religions. Pali has since become the liturgical language of Cambodia. We now find it especially in the lexicon used by monks.

By Thai

The coming of the Thais, and then the French, led the Khmer language to evolve again. By the way, for its part and according to experts, Thai might have borrowed from Khmer about half of its lexicon.

By French

A couple of French words enriched Khmer under the colonial period. This is mainly the case in the building and mechanics sectors. Thus, we can often hear words such as "ciment" (cement), "labo" "sink", "bouzie" (plug) or "compteur" (meter). But not only. Indeed, that first also concerns units of measurements, as "mètre" (meter), "litre" (liter), or "kilo" (kg). Second, with authorities such as "gendarmerie" or "poli" (police). Third, in pastry, such as "croissant" or "biscuit". If some of these previous examples may look strange, it is because Khmer people often cut some words. For instance, "police" becomes "poli" and "lavabo" becomes "labo", and "kilomètre" becomes "kilo". As well as "massa" for "massage". And so on. To that, the vast majority of the country names are in French. But strangely, not "France". In order to get a list of French words used daily by Khmer people, please click this link.

By English

At present, English words are appearing in Khmer through the adoption of new technologies.

DIALECTS

Khmer dialects are quite marked. Thus, notable variations can be found. For instance, a Khmer Krom speaker from Vietnam may have great difficulty talking with a native of Sisaket Province in Thailand. Of course, ethnic groups also get their own dialect. This is the case with the Bunong which is the largest indigenous highland ethnic group in the country.

Standard Khmer or Central Khmer

Here is the most offical dialect, taught in Cambodian schools and used by the media.

Phnom Penh Khmer

As its name suggests, we find Phnom Penh Khmer in the capital area. First, a merge or complete elision of syllables marks this dialect. "Phnom Penh" may then becomes "m'Penh". Second, the /r/ often drops. As a result, people use a "dipping" tone for the vowels. For example, some people pronounce trey (fish) as /tey/.

Standard Khmer or Central Khmer

Here is the most offical dialect, taught in Cambodian schools and used by the media.

Khmer Khe

In the Northern regions, some ethnic groups speak Khmer Khe. We presume that the Khmer Khe living in Stung Treng's area come from Laos.

Elite Translation Article Learn About The Khmer Language Map of the main Khmer Dialects

Khmer Surin

It refers to the dialects spoken by many in of zones of Thailand close to the border. The other tonal dialects Lao and Thai influenced and gave it a distinct accent. Also, with lexical and phonemic differences in both vowels and distribution of consonants. The final syllable /r/, which has become silent in other Khmer dialects, is still pronounced in Khmer Surin. Some linguists rank it as a separate but closely related language rather than a dialect.

Khmer Loeu

A low number of people in the Cardamom mountain range speaks Khmer Loeu, also called Cardamom Khmer or Chanthaburi Khmer. While little studied, it is the most archaïc dialect, unique in that it maintains a definite system of vocal register that has all but died in other dialects of modern Khmer.

Khmer Krom

In order to listen to Khmer Krom, we have to meet native Khmer people of the Mekong Delta. If we do not know much about this dialect, Vietnamese mostly influenced it. It displays a pronounced accent, tendency toward monosyllablic words and lexical differences from Standard Khmer.

NOWADAYS

Elite Translation Article Learn About The Khmer Language Map of the Khmer Empire Sastra Holy Book and Legend about the Origin of Funan

Heritage

Depending on the source, still about 2/3 Sanskrit make modern Khmer. However, listening to modern spoken Khmer, though, there is no obvious cognates with Hindi. Or with Pali (from Sri Lanka) which most people now believe to be the first parent of Khmer. Rightly so, Khmer people are very proud of their culture and identity. If most of them are not aware about the Sanskrit roots of Khmer, they yet still use some Sanskrit words daily. For example, krawbei means water buffalo. As the words sea and ocean are the same in Sanskrit, modern Hindi and modern Khmer. But locals may take offense at the idea.

Access to education

Important to note that many Khmer people still do not write often. And when it is the case, it is on computer, most of the time. Indeed, almost all children now go to school and study Khmer. As the country is booming, they now access to high tech and are quite familiar with online tools. Even poor village in deep countryside are now able to provide informal classes. And for the poorest, they still have the possibility to go to the pagoda where the monks provide an education free of charge. However, some people remain illiterate but the literacy rate was 80.5% in 2019.

WHAT ABOUT THE KHMER LANGUAGE