Cambodia Table of Contents

The majority of Cambodians, even those who are not ethnic Khmer, speak Khmer, the official language of the country. Ethnic Khmer living in Thailand, in Vietnam, and in Laos speak dialects of Khmer that are more or less intelligible to Khmer speakers from Cambodia. Minority languages include Vietnamese, Cham, several dialects of Chinese, and the languages of the various hill tribes.


Khmer belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of the Austroasiatic phylum of languages. American linguists David Thomas and Robert Headley have divided the Mon-Khmer family into nine branches: Pearic in western Cambodia and eastern Thailand; Khmer in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos; Bahnaric in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; Katuic in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; Khmuic in Laos, Thailand, and China; Monic in Burma and Thailand; Palaungic in Burma, China, and Thailand; Khasi in Assam (India); and Viet-Muong in Vietnam. Of the languages in the Mon-Khmer family, Vietnamese has the largest number of speakers (about 47 million); Khmer, has the next largest (about 8 million).

Khmer, in contrast to Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, and Chinese, is nontonal. Native Khmer words may be composed of one or two syllables. Khmer is uninflected, but it has a rich system of affixes, including infixes, for derivation. Generally speaking, Khmer has nouns (including pronouns as a special subcategory), verbs (including stative verbs or adjectives), adverbs, and various kinds of words called particles (including verbal auxiliaries, prepositions, conjunctions, final particles, and interjections). Many Khmer words change, chameleon-like, from one part of speech to another, depending on the context. The normal word order is subject-verb-object. Adjectival modifiers follow the nouns they modify.

Khmer, like its neighbors, Thai, Lao, and Burmese, has borrowed extensively from other languages, especially the Indic languages of Sanskrit and Pali. Khmer uses Sanskrit and Pali roots much as English and other West European languages use Latin and Greek roots to derive new, especially scientific, words. Khmer has also borrowed terms-- especially financial, commercial, and cooking terms--from Chinese. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Khmer borrowed from French as well. These latter borrowings have been in the realm of material culture, especially the names for items of modern Western technology, such as buuzii (spark plug) from the French bougie.

Khmer is written in a script derived from a south Indian alphabet. The language has symbols for thirty-three consonants, twenty-four dependent vowels, twelve independent vowels, and several diacritic. Most consonants have reduced or modified forms, called subscripts, when they occur as the second member of a consonant cluster. Vowels may be written before, after, over, or under a consonant symbol.

Some efforts to standardize Khmer spelling have been attempted, but inconsistencies persist, and many words have more than one accepted spelling. A two-volume dictionary prepared under the direction of the Venerable Chuon Nath of the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh is the standard work on Khmer lexicography.

Khmer is divided into three stages--Old Khmer (seventh to twelfth century A.D.), Middle Khmer (twelfth to seventeenth century A.D.), and Modern Khmer (seventeenth century to the present). It is likely that Old Khmer was the language of Chenla. What the language of Funan was, but it was is not at all certain, probably a Mon-Khmer language. The earliest inscription in Khmer, found at Angkor Borei in Takev Province south of Phnom Penh, dates from A.D. 611.


The Austronesian languages are spread over vast areas of Asia and the Pacific, from Madagascar to Easter Island and from Taiwan to Malaysia. Four Austronesian languages--Cham, Jarai, Rade, and Malay--are spoken in Cambodia. Cham is spoken by the largest number of people. Before 1975, there were about 100,000 speakers of Western Cham. Western Cham is the term used to distinguish (at least two mutually related dialects of) the Cham spoken in Cambodia and that used in adjacent inland Vietnam from Eastern Cham spoken in the coastal areas of central Vietnam. Western Cham is written in Arabic script, or, since the late 1960s and the early 1970s, in a romanized script devised by Protestant missionaries. The traditional Cham script, based on an Indian script, is still known and used by the Eastern Cham in Vietnam, but it has been lost by the Western Cham.

The Cham language is also nontonal. Words may contain one, two, or three syllables. Cham contains much linguistic borrowing from Arabic, Malay, and Khmer. The normal word order is subject-verb-object, and, as in Khmer, modifying adjectives follow the nouns that they modify. Most Cham in Cambodia are bilingual in Cham and in Khmer and many also know Arabic and Malay. Rade and Jarai, close relatives of Cham, are spoken by several thousand members of both ethnic groups in northeastern Cambodia. Both languages are written in romanized scripts based on the Vietnamese alphabet. Rade and Jarai have rich oral literatures, and the former has two epic tales that have been transcribed and published.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress