Khmer language

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Khmer (ភាសាខ្មែរ
Phéasa Khmér)
Spoken in: Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, USA, France, Australia
Total speakers: 13,276,639 [1]
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Austroasiatic

  Eastern Mon-Khmer

Official status
Official language of: Cambodia
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1 km
ISO 639-2 khm
See also: LanguageList of languages

Khmer is one of the main Austroasiatic languages. Sanskrit and Pali have had considerable influence on the language, through the vehicles of Buddhism and Hinduism. As result of their geographic proximity, the Khmer language has influenced Thai and Laotian and vice versa.

Khmer is somewhat unusual among its neighboring languages (Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese) in that it is not a tonal language.



Modern Standard Khmer has the following consonant and vowel phonemes. (Please note: The phonological system described here is the inventory of sounds of the spoken language, not how they are written in the Khmer alphabet.)


Labial Apical Palatal Velar Glottal
Plosive pʰ p ɓ tʰ t ɗ cʰ c kʰ k ʔ
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Liquid r l
Fricative s h
Approximant ʋ j

The consonants /f/, /ʃ/, /z/ and /g/ occur only in loanwords from French and other recent introductions.

Vowel nuclei

Short vowels i e ɨ ə a ɑ u o
Long vowels i ɛː ɨː əː ɑː ɔː
Long Diphthongs ei ae ɨə əɨ ɑo ou ɔə
Short Diphthongs eə̆ uə̆ oə̆

It must be noted that the precise number and the phonetic value of vowel nuclei vary from dialect to dialect.

Syllables and words

Khmer words are predominantly of one or two syllables. 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- - pʰc pʰk- - pʰn- pʰɲ- pʰŋ- pʰj- pʰl- pr- ps-
t tʰp- tʰk- - tʰm- tʰn- tʰŋ- tʰj- tʰl- tr- tʰʋ
c cʰp- cʰk- - cʰm- cʰn- cʰŋ- cʰl- cr- cʰʋ-
k kʰp- kʰt- - kʰc - kʰm- kʰn- kʰɲ- - kʰj- kʰl- kr- ks- kʰʋ-
s sp- st- - sk- - sm- sn- - - sl- sr-
ʔ ʔʋ-
m mt- - mc - mʰn- mʰɲ- ml- mr- ms- mh-
l lp- lk- - lm- - lh- -

Syllables begin with one of these consonants or consonant clusters, followed by one of the vowel nuclei. When the vowel nucleus is short, there has to be a final consonant. /p/ /t/ /c/ /k/ /ʔ/ /m/ /n/ /ɲ/ /ŋ/ /l/ /h/ /j/ and /ʋ/, can exist in a syllable coda. /h/ and /ʋ/ become [ç] and [w] respectively. The most common word structure in Khmer is a full syllable as described above, preceded by an unstressed, “minor” syllable that has a consonant-vowel (CV) structure CV-, CrV-, CVN- or CrVN- (N is any nasal in the Khmer inventory). The vowel in these “minor” syllables is usually reduced to [ə] in the spoken language.

Words can also be made up of two full syllables.

Words with three or more syllables are mostly loanwords from other languages, usually Pali, Sanskrit, or French.


Dialects are sometimes quite marked; notable variations are found in speakers from Phnom Penh (the capital city), Battambang in the countryside and the northern dialects of Thailand (such as in Surin province).

A notable characteristic of the Phnom Penh accent is a tendency towards what might be considered "relaxed" pronunciation, with some parts slurred together or dropped entirely. 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" in the second position of the first syllable (that is, where "r" is the second consonant, as in the English word "bread"). The "r" is not pronounced, and the first consonant is pronounced harder than usual, and the syllable is spoken with a dipping tone much like the "hỏi" tone in Vietnamese. For example, some people pronounce "dreey" (meaning "fish") as "te"; the "d" becomes a "t", and the vowel (similar to "long A" in English) begins low and rises in tone. Another example is the word for orange: it is pronounced kroich (the older form) by those in the countryside, but simply koich (without the r) by those in the city.


Word order in Khmer is generally Subject Verb Object. Khmer is primarily an isolating language, but lexical derivation by means of prefixes and infixes is common.

Writing system

Khmer is written with the Khmer alphabet. Khmer numerals, where were inherited from Indian numerals, are used more widely than Arabic numerals.


  • Ferlus, Michel. 1992. Essai de phonétique historique du khmer (Du milieu du premier millénaire de notre ère à l'époque actuelle)", Mon-Khmer Studies XXI: 57-89)
  • Headley, Robert et. al. 1977. Cambodian-English Dictionary. Washington, Catholic University Press.
  • Huffman, Franklin. 1967. An outline of Cambodian Grammar. PhD thesis, Cornell University.
  • Huffman, Franklin. 1970. Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300013140
  • Jacob, Judith. 1974. A Concise Cambodian-English Dictionary. London, Oxford University Press.

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