Khmer language

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Khmer ( ភាសាខ្មែរ )

Spoken in

CambodiaCambodia Cambodia , Vietnam , Thailand , Laos
speaker 14 million native speakers, 2 million second speakers
Official status
Official language in CambodiaCambodia Cambodia
Recognized minority /
regional language in
VietnamVietnam Vietnam
Language codes
ISO 639 -1


ISO 639 -2


ISO 639-3


The Khmer language ( ភាសាខ្មែរ Phéasa Khmér , pronunciation: [ pʰiːəsaː kʰmaːe ]; also: Cambodian or simply Khmer ) is the official language of Cambodia . It is the mother tongue of the Khmer , the largest population group in the country, and belongs to the Austro-Asian language family . It is shaped by the culture of the Southeast Asian peninsula, i. H. from the neighboring languages ​​Thai and Lao, from the languages ​​of Buddhism - Sanskrit and Pali . In contrast to the neighboring languages Thai , Lao and the distantly related Vietnamese , Khmer is not a tonal language . The Khmer script used is a script derived from the Indian scripts , whose earliest written documents date from the 6th to 7th centuries AD.


Modern high-level language has the following consonant and vowel phonemes:


p t c k ʔ
ɓ ɗ
(f) s H
m n ɲ ŋ
w j H

The consonant f only occurs in a few loan words. The consonants ʃ, z and g only appear in loan words from French and other European languages.

Vowels and diphthongs

i e ɨ ə a ɑ u O
ɛː ɨː əː ɑː O ɔː
iːə egg aːe ɨːə əːɨ aːə ɑːo uːə oːu ɔːə

There are different opinions about the exact number and exact pronunciation of these vowels and diphthongs.

Structure of syllables and words

Most words are monosyllabic or two-syllable. The following table lists the possible consonantic syllable sounds (with phonetic changes).

pʰt- pʰc- pʰk- pʰʔ- pɗ- pʰn- pʰɲ- pʰŋ- pʰj- pʰl- pɽ- ps ph-
tʰp- tʰk- tʰʔ- tɓ- tʰm- tʰn- tʰŋ- tw- tj- tl- tɽ- th-
cʰp- cʰk- cʰʔ- cɓ- cɗ- cm- cʰn- cʰŋ- cʰw- cʰl- cɽ- ch-
kʰp- kʰt- kʰc- kʰʔ- kɓ- kɗ- kʰm- can- kʰɲ- kŋ- kʰw- kʰj- kʰl- kʰɽ- ks- kh-
sp- st- sk- sʔ- sɓ- sɗ- sm- sn- sɲ- sŋ- sw- sl- sɽ- sth-
ʔ ə w-
m ə t- m ə c- m ə ʔ- m ə ɗ- m ə n- m ə ɲ- m ə l- m ə ɽ- m ə s- m ə h-
l ə p- l ə k- l ə ʔ- l ə ɓ- l ə m- l ə ŋ- l ə w- l ə h- l ə kh-

These possible syllable sounds are followed by one of the vowels or diphthongs. The following consonants can appear at the end of the syllable: -p, -t, -c, -k, -ʔ, -m, -n, -ɲ, -ŋ, -w, -j, -l and -h (-ç).

The most common word structure is a prefix followed by a “full” syllable as described above. Prefixes are unstressed and have the structure CV-, CɽV-, CVN- or CɽVN- (C stands for a consonant, V for a vowel, N for m, n, ɲ or ŋ). The vowel of these prefixes is usually reduced to ə in the spoken language.

Words can also consist of two “full” syllables. Words with more than two syllables are mostly written expressions, loan words from Pali, Sanskrit, French or other languages. Even with loan words there is a tendency to adapt the pronunciation to the prefix-full syllable pattern.

Spread and dialects

Spread of Khmer: as an official language (blue), minority language (orange), diaspora (yellow)
Khmer dialects

It is assumed that there are around 14 million native speakers, 12.5 million of them in Cambodia, 1.5 million in Thailand and Vietnam (Ethnologue 2009). Outside of Cambodia, Khmer is also spoken by minorities in southern Vietnam , eastern Thailand and southern Laos . The earliest written documents date from the 6th to 7th centuries AD.

Khmer is differentiated into different dialects. The dialect of Phnom Penh is not identical to the high-level language, but is mainly characterized by the fact that ɽ is often dropped and voiced consonants are spoken unvoiced.

The northern Khmer (or Surin-Khmer; No. 6 in the map on the right), which is spoken by around 1.4 million speakers in the northeastern Thai provinces of Surin , Buri Ram and Si Sa Ket , is particularly pronounced and different from standard Khmer . and the southern Khmer of Khmer Krom (no. 4) to Vietnam belonging Mekong Delta with about one million speakers. The dialects within large parts of Cambodia, on the other hand, show only relatively minor differences and are mutually understandable without difficulty. However, there are more significant differences in areas that are more difficult to access, such as the Cardamom Mountains (No. 5).


The basic sentence order is subject-verb-object. Khmer is essentially an isolating language , but prefixes and infixes are used to form words. Important for sentence structure: Actions are expressed in verb chains, that is, several verbs are usually required to describe an action.


The language is written in its own Khmer script ( អក្សរខ្មែរ Âksâr Khmêr; also Cambodian script ), which is derived from the Indian scripts . The script uses 33 consonants, 24 vowels and 14 initial vowels.


  • Ruth Sacher, Nguon Phan: Textbook of Khmer . VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie, Leipzig 1985, ISBN 3-324-00286-9 .
  • Rüdiger Gaudes: Khmer-German Dictionary . 2 volumes. VEB Verlag Enzyklopädie, Leipzig 1989, ISBN 3-324-00291-5 .
  • Michel Ferlus: Essai de phonétique historique du khmer ("You milieu du premier millénaire de notre ère à l'époque actuelle"). In: Mon-Khmer Studies , XXI, 1992, pp. 57-89,
  • Robert Headley et al .: Cambodian-English Dictionary . Catholic University Press, Washington 1977, ISBN 0-8132-0509-3 .
  • Franklin Huffman: An outline of Cambodian Grammar . PhD thesis. Cornell University, 1967.
  • Franklin Huffman: Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader . Yale University Press, 1970, ISBN 0-300-01314-0 .
  • Judith Jacob: A Concise Cambodian-English Dictionary . Oxford University Press / Routledge, London 2001, ISBN 0-19-713574-9 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. See list of IPA symbols
  2. M. Minegishi: Khmer. In: Concise Encyclopedia of Languages ​​of the World. Elsevier, Oxford 2009, p. 597.
  3. Gérard Diffloth: Khmer. In: William J. Frawley: International Encyclopedia of Linguistics . Volume 1. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford / New York 2003, pp. 355–356.