Cambodian/Khmer: Chum reab suor!

Note: To view certain portions of this page, you will have to install the Khmer script on your computer. Click here to download it (Windows XP only).


That was what I wanted to write above instead of “Chum reab suor.” But if you guessed it meant “hello” then you still get points.

Anyway, we zoom on over to Southeast Asia to learn some things about the mother tongue of Cambodia, also known as Khmer. Actually, I wasn’t sure whether to call the language Cambodian or Khmer. Because either version seems to be accurate, I’ll just use Khmer as a reference.

REGIONAL HISTORY: Cambodia dates back to the first millennium, when it was known as the Funan kingdom. This kingdom drew a lot of influences from India and China, specifically Buddhism. Around the 800s, Prince Jayavarman II gained control, forming the historic Khmer kingdom, which would flourish and spread to other parts of Southeast Asia until the 1400s. At the time, the center of the kingdom was focused around Angkor.

Angkor was eventually captured by neighboring Thailand and much of the city became abandoned. For the next 400 years, Cambodia would be caught in a tug-of-war between Thailand and Vietnam until Cambodia became a protectorate of the French in the 1860s. “Protectorate” or not, the French really treated Cambodia as another part of its kingdom.

The next 100 years would be rough for Cambodia. The country gained independence from France in 1953, but would later be caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War a decade later. The ruling king, Sihanouk, was overthrown by a military coup by leader Lon Nol in 1970. Sihanouk sided with the Khmer Rouge, a hostile Communist political group, who eventually took power. The Khmer Rouge, led by dictator Pol Pot, would be responsible for the murder and imprisonment of millions of Cambodians during the 1970s-1980s. It would take intervention from Vietnam and the United Nations before the Khmer Rouge finally scaled back their power and cooperated on a ceasefire. The Khmer Rouge are pretty defunct now, as Cambodia’s government has been stable and its economy has grown rapidly.

WRITING SYSTEM: The Khmer alphabet is technically classified an abugida, or a writing system without obligatory written vowels (although this is questionable as you will see later). Khmer script first appeared in the 600s and is related to the ancient scripts of India. It is sort of similar to Devanagari script.

There are 33 consonants, but here’s the catch: each consonant has an inherent “a” vowel (think of the “oaw” sound from a Bostonian saying “Boston”) and “o” vowel form (which sounds like the “o” in “bog”). The “a” consonants are breathy and unvoiced, while the second series are voiced.

ក – ka
ខ – kha
ច – ca
ឆ – cha
ត – da
ឋ – tha
ណ – na
ត – ta
ថ – tha (duplicate)
ប – ba
ផ – pha
ស – sa
ហ – ha
ឡ – la
អ – qa (a glottal/throaty sound)

គ – ko
ឃ – kho
ង – ngo (an “ng” sound as in sing)
ជ – co
ឈ – cho
ញ – no (position tongue tip downward and body of tongue to touch palate, then pronounce like n)
ឌ – do
ឍ – tho
ទ – to
ធ – tho (duplicated)
ន – no
ព – po
ភ – pho
ម – mo
យ – yo
រ – ro
ល – lo
វ – wo

This video shows you how to pronounce them (I only know so much of the International Phonetic Alphabet):

When consonants are combined, subscripts are used. Think of subscripts as mini consonants placed under the original (big) consonants. Because those are incredibly difficult to replicate, please refer to Omniglot’s page on Khmer under “Subscript consonants.”

Now the vowels. I know I said Khmer is an abugida, but vowels are still used in some way. There are 24 vowels (one is obsolete) and 12 (or 14?) independent vowels. The regular vowels are attached to the consonants either above, below or on the side. The sound they make depends on the consonant series. Because they usually appear with consonants, I can’t replicate them alone, so please refer to the “Khmer vowels” chart on this page.

Here’s one video in a three part series on Khmer vowels, via YouTuber Kime0:

Part Two
Part Three

As for independent vowels, these are really consonants combined with vowels. They can stand alone in words:

ឣ – a as in spa
ឤ – an “uh” sound
ឥ – a as in hay
ឦ – an “uhyee” sound
ឧ – a glottal stop; the sound between uh and oh in “uh oh”
ឩ – oo as in moo
ឪ – take the e from “roses” sound and add a breath
ឫ – take the e from “roses” and combine with r to form “ri”
ឬ – a “roee” sound, like Roy
ឭ – take the e from “roses” and combine with l to form “li”
ឯ – an aee sound, like a surprised, “heyyy!”
ឰ – an an “uhyee” sound similar to ឦ
ឱ, ឲ – like an “uheo” sound,
ឳ – aw as in haw

But that’s not all! 12 diacritics are also used. You may notice them in the regular vowels. They do several things, such as convert consonants from o-a series, add nasalization, and shorten vowels. You can see a chart from Wikipedia’s page on Khmer script.

Including the vowels with diacritics, this brings the Khmer alphabet to a total of … 74 letters, making it the largest alphabet in the world. My math didn’t add up correctly though …

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: I take back what I wrote about Devanagari in the Hindi post. Khmer has the most difficult alphabet I have ever seen. Even as I write this, I’m wondering if there are any slight inaccuracies or whether or not I excluded anything. A lot of the features are due to Indic borrowing over centuries and preservation of words (which explains the a/o series). Also, some consonants have been added due to borrowings from Thai and French.

As for how it sounds, Khmer resembles Vietnamese very much. The main difference is that is isn’t tonal.

I have to be honest though; the alphabet is a huge turn-off for me. Will this discourage me before the upcoming post? I don’t know …


Ancient Scripts
Asian Info’s page on Cambodia’s History
Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University overview on The Khmer Language
Wikipedia (Cambodia, Khmer Language, Khmer Script)

6 thoughts on “Cambodian/Khmer: Chum reab suor!

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