1. General Information about the Language

Cambodian, also known as Khmer, is the official language of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Dialects are spoken by a few million people in north-eastern Thailand (Surin Khmer) and in the Mekong Delta region of Southern Vietnam (Khmer Kraom).

Cambodian has inevitably influenced the development of other languages in neighboring areas: western neighbour, Thai; eastern neighbour, Vietnamese. In the nineteenth century, Cambodia was colonized by France and most of the technical vocabulary used in science and medical practice today consists of transliterations of the French terms.

The majority of original Cambodian words consist of one or two syllables. Words with three or more syllables are almost certainly loanwords or newly coined ones using components borrowed from Sanskrit and Pali, two major ancient languages in India. Cambodian has borrowed much of its administrative, military, and literary vocabulary from Sanskrit, but with advent of Theravada Buddhism at the beginning of the fifteenth century, Pali became the major source of neologisms.

2. Regional Variants and Dialects

The modern Khmer language: “ភាសាសរសេរ” translates as ‘written Khmer’, a version of the language that tends to include a substantial number of words that are closer to Sanskrit and Pali forms than words in spoken Khmer. Secondly, “ភាសានិយាយ” refers to the language as ordinarily spoken; the standard spoken Khmer. It should be noticed that a few words principally used in written Khmer (rather than in spoken language) can, nevertheless, be found in conversation from time to time.

The spoken Khmer language is a confluence of three ‘languages’: standard or classroom version, slang, and rural dialect variations.

“Slang” (including rough or crude slang is referred to as ភាសាបាតសផ្សារ” or “bottom-of-the-market” talk) tends to add mainly new words (i.e. words not found in standard spoken Khmer) rather than changing the pronunciation of standard spoken words.

There are dialectical differences in the speech of Cambodian natives from Siem Reap, the north (Battambang), or other areas of Cambodia, as compared with the speakers in Phnom Penh. “Rural dialect” tends to add both new words and new pronunciations of standard spoken words, which vary from the generally standard pronunciation one would hear in Phnom Penh.

In Khmer, as indeed in most languages, words are subject to some variation in pronunciation from region to region and indeed, from individual to individual. While a Khmer word has a “standard pronunciation”, an additional pronunciation which is very widely used or commonly heard is considered an “alternate pronunciation” or AP.

The degree to which alternate pronunciation occurs is high and can present problems if a student of the language is unaware which sort of transformations he/she is hearing.

Alternate pronunciations aren’t new words, but non-standard pronunciations, which tend to change or drop beginning/ending consonants or syllables: Mook មក” (to come), for example, becomes Moo “ម”. Alternate pronunciation, spoken rapidly, tends to compress the sound of the syllable or the word, e.g. Khnhom​ “ខ្ញុំ” (the pronoun ‘I’) becomes Nhom “ញុម”.

 3. Guide to Khmer Transliteration, Pronunciation

There is no standardization or universally accepted system for Cambodian in Romanization or transliteration. Therefore, different transliterations are used for Khmer script. However, the transliteration used in this book is adapted from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and the transliteration might not be the same as other sources.

Cambodian has 44 consonants including 33 regular symbols and 11 others modified by diacritics. While many of the vowel sounds have no comparable sound in English, many consonants have a corresponding sound in English, so they can be transliterated into the equivalent English symbol. For example: ស=S, ន=N, ល=l and វ=V. Other consonants have aspirated and unaspirated forms.

For example:

/kh/ aspirated “k” as the word “kettle”

/k/   unaspirated “k” as the word “skull”

/ch/ aspirated “ch” as the word “chalk”

/c/   unaspirated “ch” as the word “peach”

/th/ aspirated “t” as the word “tell”

/t/   unaspirated “t” as the word “stall”

/ph/ aspirated “p” as the word “pull”

/p/ unaspirated “p” as the word “spill”

Consonants and phonetic transcriptions
1. Velars (kɔɔ)

(khɔɔ) (koo) (khoo) (ngoo)
2. Palatals (jɔɔ) (chɔɔ) (choo) (joo) (nhoo)
3. Retroflexes  ​​​​ (dɔɔ) (tɔɔ) (doo) ​​ (thoo) ណ (nɔɔ)
4. Dentals  (dtɔɔ) (tɔɔ) (dtoo) (thoo) (noo)
5. Labials (bɔɔ) (pɔɔ) (bpoo) (phoo) (moo)
6. Miscellaneous


















There are 24 dependent vowel symbols. Cambodian vowels can be short and long, and each vowel can have two sounds depending on the consonant used. When combined with the first series consonant, it takes the first series value (in bold), and when combined with a second series consonant, it takes the second series value. Each vowel is pronounced in two different ways. However, there are five vowel symbols (in italic) that are pronounced the same regardless of the series of the consonants.

Vowels and phonetic transcriptions
Vowels IPA Examples
1 o តុ (table)
u លុយ (money)
2 oo អូរ (stream)
uu គូ​ ​(to draw)
3 ua សួរ (to ask)
4 ee ភេ (otter)
5 ae កែ (to correct)
ee ភេ (otter)
6 ai ដៃ (hand)
ey រៃ​ (cicada)
7 aa កា (cup)
ia ទា​ (duck)
8 ាំ am ចាំ (to wait)
oam រាំ (to dance)
9 ao កោ (to shave)
oo អូរ (stream)
10 au ចៅ (grandson)
ouw ទៅ​ (to go)
11 ិ​​​​ e លិច (west)
i មិនា (March)
12 ey បី (three)
ii ពីរ (two)
13 əə ភឺ (to burp)
eu ឈឺ (sick)
14 ə ដឹក​ ​(to transport)
15 េះ eh បេះ (to pick up fruit)
ih នេះ (this)
16 ោះ ɔh កោះ (island)
uah គោះ (to knock)
17 ɔm ដំ (to pound)
əm ធំ (big)
18 ុំ om សុំ (to ask for something)
əm ទុំ (ripe)
19 ah សះ (to heal)
eah ទះ (to slap)
20 ុះ oh ដុះ (to grow)
uh ពុះ​ (to be boiling water)
21 ៀ​ ia បៀរ (beer)
22 oeur ជឿ (to believe)

បើ (if)
əə លើ (on)
24 ិះ ih ជិះ (to ride)

Long and short vowels and diphthongs can be distinguished using the International Phonetic Alphabet.

For examples:

a) Long vowels: /aa, ɔɔ, əə, uu, ee/

b) Long diphthongs: /ia, au, ua, oa, ae/

c) Short vowels: /ɔ, i, e, o, u, ə/

d) Short diphthongs: /ai, ey/


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Basic Khmer Copyright © 2022 by Vathanak Sok is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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