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What is Khmer?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Khmer is a language spoken throughout southeast Asia, particularly in the nation of Cambodia. It is spoken by more than 20 million people, with the majority speaking it as a native language. Khmer is part of the Austro-Asiatic family of languages, and is related to languages such as Vietnamese and Mon.

The region that is present-day Cambodia was once the center of the Khmer empire, from which the language originates, and it is the country's official language. There are another estimated 5 million people who speak this language living in Vietnam and Thailand. Overseas, both France and the United States have large Cambodian immigrant populations who also speak Khmer, adding approximately 250,000 more speakers.

As the state religion of the Khmer Empire switched between Hinduism and Buddhism, the language also changed accordingly. During the Hindi periods, the language experienced a great deal of shift and vocabulary expansion from the Pali language used in the national religion, and during the Buddhist periods, it experienced similar growth through Sanskrit. Khmer has also been influenced by the Lao and Thai languages, as well as a number of smaller languages existing in the same dialect continuum. A number of words and sentence structures seem to be derived from Lao or Thai forms, and both Lao and Thai arealso heavily influenced by Khmer. One dialect of Khmer, known as Northern Khmer, is so different from the standard that it is classified by some as a distinct language; this is due in large part to the fact that it is the dialect spoken in Thailand, and so has been even more heavily influenced by Thai, resulting in some extreme variations.

The modern Khmer alphabet is a descendent of the ancient alphabet, which has been in use for more than 1,400 years, making it one of the oldest alphabets in southeast Asia. It consists of 33 consonants, 14 independent vowels, and 21 vowel diacritics. Each of the vowel diacritics may be used in one of two distinct series, effectively doubling the amount of vowel sounds they can make.

Khmer is considered much easier to learn for native English speakers than any of the major surrounding languages, such as Vietnamese, Lao, or Thai. While some of this is attributable to the grammar and vocabulary, it is mostly a feature of Khmer being a non-tonal language. Most Asian languages present a great deal of difficulty to English speakers because of the need to switch into a mindset in which the tone of a word affects its meaning; Khmer has no such tonal structure, allowing for much easier acquisition.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1006111 — On Jan 28, 2022

I need to offer a correction here. Sanskrit is actually the mother language of hinduism. Pali is the language of Buddhism. Hinduism came before buddhism. Sanskrit came before Pali. The author of the article got it backwards and stated that Buddhism brought in Sanskrit influences and Hinduism brought in Pali influences. It's the other way around. Hinduism brought in Sanskrit influences. Buddhism brought in Pali influences.

By anon1006110 — On Jan 28, 2022

While many of the languages in the region such as the Chinese languages, Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Tibetan, Lao, rely on pitch contours to distinguish meaning, Cambodian is not a tonal language. It relies on consonant clusters to distinguish meaning.

By discographer — On Jul 23, 2012

@MikeMason-- I understand Khmer about 90% and I speak fairly well too. But I can't read or write.

I learned Khmer mainly from my husband who is from Cambodia. He has taught me a lot and we spend a lot of time with his family members so I have many opportunities to practice.

I thought about taking classes but they are hard to find. Learning from books or DVDs is always an option but I was told that these teach formal Khmer which is not how the natives speak.

If you can find classes that teach colloquial Khmer or better yet, if you can go to Cambodia and take lessons from a tutor there, that will be the best way to learn. Khmer is not a very hard language, but like all languages, it requires time, patience and practice.

By stoneMason — On Jul 22, 2012

@donasmrs-- But I think there should be some commonality between Khmer and Vietnamese and Khmer and Thai right?

The article said that Khmer has borrowed from Thai and vice versa, so even if it doesn't sound the same, there must be common words. I think the same is true with Khmer and Vietnamese because these two belong to the same language group.

I'm very interested in learning Khmer but I'm not sure how to go about it or how difficult it will be for me. I wish I knew some Thai or Vietnamese. That would have probably made it easier. But the only "Asian" language I know is Hindi which is actually Southeast Asian.

It's good to know that Khmer has been influenced by Sanskrit. Sanskrit is also the basis of Hindi but unfortunately, modern day Hindi and Sanskrit are very different. So to learn Khmer, I basically have to start from zero.

Has anyone here studied Khmer?

Did you have an easy or hard time learning it?

Do you have any suggestions for people like me who want to learn Khmer?

By donasmrs — On Jul 21, 2012

I work with an organization that does development work in various countries. One of their upcoming programs is in Cambodia and I might have the opportunity to go as well.

I'm not an expert on Asian languages, but based on my experiences with different Asian students and immigrants in the US, the Khmer language sounds very different. I watched a couple of videos of Cambodian television shows and films online so that I could hear the language. I didn't find much resemblance to other Asian languages I've heard before.

I've met Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese in the past. And I can tell these languages apart for the most part. But Khmer sounds very different from all of them. I don't know how to explain it well, but the words don't seem to drag on as they do in Chinese or Korean. Khmer sounds more structured to me, if that makes sense.

Like the article said, this is probably good for me because I might be able to pick up some Khmer if I do end up going to Cambodia.

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