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Definition: Khmer from Philip's Encyclopedia

Language of c.85% of the inhabitants of Cambodia. It belongs to a group of the Mon-Khmer languages. A Khmer empire existed from the 9th to the 15th centuries ad. Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic in 1970. When the Republic fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the country was renamed Kampuchea; the name Cambodia was restored in 1989.

Summary Article: KHMER
from Dictionary of Languages
8,000,000 SPEAKERS


Khmer belongs to the Mon-Khmer group of languages within the Austroasiatic family. Khmer and Vietnamese are the only two AUSTROASIATIC LANGUAGES that are national languages in a modern state.

The language name is Khmae in the standard language but is still Khmer in ‘Northern Khmer’, the dialect spoken in eastern Thailand.

Cambodia is the Latinised form, used internationally, of Sanskrit Kamboja. Other modern variants of the name are French Cambodge and Khmer Kampuchea. The medieval Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of south-east Asia often labelled themselves with classical names out of Sanskrit literature: this was one. Two thousand five hundred years ago Kamboja was the name of a minor kingdom somewhere in north-west India.

Khmer has a history traceable to the 7th century. It is the language of the great culture that built the sacred capital of Angkor, centre of a powerful kingdom between the 9th and 15th centuries. Its bilingual culture was a strong, continuing influence on Thailand. The monuments were abandoned to the jungle, but the language continued to be a vehicle of Buddhist and Hindu scripture and poetry. For ninety years from 1864 the weakening Cambodian kingdom was a French protectorate: it regained independence in 1954, but collapsed in anarchy in the early 1970s after American air attacks.

The oldest dated Khmer inscription goes back to AD 611. Hundreds of inscriptions from the following centuries allow the development of the language to be divided into periods: ‘pre-Angkorian Old Khmer’ to 802, ‘Angkorian Old Khmer’ from then till 1431, ‘Middle Khmer’ until the 18th century, then ‘Modern Khmer’. As the monumental civilisation of Angkor fell into senescence, Middle and Modern Khmer were recorded less in inscriptions than in palm leaf manuscripts – and eventually in printed books. The traditional literature of Khmer shows early Indian inspiration transformed by its southeast Asian context. The story of Rama, the Ramakirti or Reamker, is an enduring classic. Royal chronicles are an important historical source.

Khmer words have one or two syllables: if two, the first is unstressed and may be skipped in colloquial speech. But Pali and Sanskrit loanwords can have several syllables. These loanwords are found in large numbers, with other special vocabulary, in the ‘monks’ language' and the now obsolescent ‘royal language’, special speech registers used in polite address.

Linguists find many similarities between the structures of Khmer and of Thai, two unrelated languages which coexisted for many centuries, exchanging literary and cultural influences. In modern times Khmer has borrowed scientific and cultural terms from French and has continued to build neologisms on the basis of Sanskrit and Pali.

The first ten numerals in Khmer are: muəy, pii, bəy, buən, pram, prammuəy, prampii, prambəy, prambuən, dəp.

Register: clear and ‘breathy’ vowel quality

The concept of ‘register’, distinct from ‘tone’ and now considered central to the phonetic study of many south-east Asian languages, was first introduced and defined in an innovative study of Khmer.

‘The Cambodian ‘registers’ differ from tones in that pitch is not the primary relevant feature. The pitch ranges of the two registers may sometimes overlap, though what I shall call the Second Register tends to be accompanied by lower pitch than the First Register.

‘The characteristics of the first register are a ‘normal’ or ‘head’ voice quality, usually accompanied by a relatively high pitch.

‘The characteristics of the second register are a deep, rather breathy or ‘sepulchral’ voice, pronounced with lowering of the larynx, and frequently accompanied by a certain dilation of the nostrils. Pitch is usually lower than that of the first register in similar contexts…

‘In sentences the word registers are modified according to intonation and by emotional factors. Register may be used, as in many other languages, to express emotion, and when this happens the emotional register may overlie the lexical register, much as in many tone-languages intonation may overlie lexical tone.’

Eugénie J. A. Henderson, ‘The main features of Cambodian pronunciation’ in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies vol. 14 (1952) pp. 149–74 According to one recent phonemic analysis, the concept of register is valid for earlier forms of Khmer but not for the 20th-century language, in which, instead, there is a huge number of vowels – as many as thirty.

Mon and Khmer

Modern MON can be divided into three dialect groups: Pegu, Martaban and Moulmein, and Ye. Mon villages in central Thailand – resulting from settlements in the last three or four hundred years – speak dialects close to those of Martaban and Moulmein.

Khmer is the majority language of Cambodia.

In eastern Thailand there are 500,000 speakers of ‘Northern Khmer’

Khmer script

Khmer script, like others of south and south-east Asia, descends from the Brahmi of ancient India – in this case by way of the Pallava script which was used both in south India and in Indochina in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. It has continued to develop through the centuries.

From the beginning Khmer script was used both for the classical tongues – Sanskrit and Pali – and for the contemporary local language, Old Khmer. It provided the immediate inspiration for the invention of the THAI alphabet, which was specifically designed for the very different sound patterns of Thai. In the Thai kingdom (until a few decades ago) Khmer script continued to be used, in the traditional way, for writing and printing Pali.


Three language families remain in southern Africa as a reminder that its linguistic history is more complex than the story of the Bantu expansion of the first millennium AD.

For convenience these three are grouped together as Khoisan or Khoesan languages, after the Khoe names for themselves, Khoe (plural khoekhoe), and for their longstanding enemies, San. The word khoe-i ‘person’, origin of the language name, also survives as a loanword in Xhosa, ikwayi ‘commoner, deposed chief’. San, like Bushman (Dutch Bosjeman), is a derogatory term for a despised people.

Modern Namibia, covering part of what has been known for longer as Namaland, bears the name of the Nama people and their language, which is spoken by larger numbers than any other survivor of the Khoisan families.

Until their modern decline, Khoisan speakers were highly important transmitters of culture in southern Africa. The word for cattle in the Nguni languages (Zulu, Xhosa and others) is borrowed from a Khwe language: was the agricultural practice of cattle-keeping borrowed, along with the word, by Bantu speakers from Khwe speakers? Was the keeping of sheep – older here by some centuries than that of cattle – introduced to the southern edge of Africa by Khwe speakers, two thousand years ago, and from whom had they got the idea? Alongside these subsistence necessities, luxuries may also be traced to Khoe and its relatives. For ‘smoking of tobacco or cannabis’ southern Bantu languages use a verb-daka (Zulu), -dzaha (Tsonga) apparently borrowed from a Khwe language, which itself must have borrowed from Arabic dakkhana ‘to puff’.

Khoe and Nama, the two best-known members of the Khwe family, have a long history in what is now South Africa. It has been calculated that the Khoe dialect chain (of which practically nothing now remains) had been developing in situ for at least fifteen hundred years. Khoe and Nama arrived where they now are as the result of an expansion or migration through south-eastern Africa. Kwadi speech probably reached southern Angola by way of a westward movement to the Atlantic coast. These movements may have begun about 2,500 years ago somewhere near the Limpopo valley – and a further Khwe language, ‘Limpopo Khoi’, extinct and unrecorded, can be resurrected from loanwords in proto-South-eastern Bantu, linguistic ancestor of Sotho, Tsonga, Zulu and other modern languages.

Kwadi is recently extinct. The use of Nama seems to be in rapid decline. Khoe, a language of what is now Cape Province, was gradually replaced by Khoe Dutch, and eventually by AFRIKAANS: place names and plant and animal names survive as reminiscences of Cape Khoe.

Oblique strokes are usually used to write the click sounds that are typical of Khoisan languages. The first ten numerals in Nama are: / gúi, lgàm, /nòna, hàga, góro, /náni, hũ, /khéisa, //khòise, dìsi. If they have worked in the South African mines, !Kung speakers count with Fanagalo (see ZULU) numerals, ultimately from English: wán, thú, trí fórì fáifi, síkìsì, sébhènì, éitì, náinì, ténì. The traditional numeral systems of Khoe and !Kung are more complicated than this: ‘3’ literally ‘it’s a few', ‘4’ literally ‘it's many’ or ‘it's two and two’, ‘5’ literally ‘it finishes the hand’, ‘10’ literally ‘both hands dead and finished’.

The Khoisan language families on the map

The Khwe or Khoe or Hottentot or Central Khoisan languages are spoken by small groups in Angola and South Africa, and by as many as 150,000 speakers of Nama in Great Namaland, southern Namibia. Khoe, a language of what is now Cape Province, once had an equal number of speakers, and a chain of dialects stretching from the Cape itself to the Kei river and beyond. A great number of Khoe speakers died in smallpox epidemics in the 18th century. Kwadi and other Khoe languages have ceased to be spoken in the course of the 20th century.

The Southern Bushman or Southern San languages are now almost extinct; there are a few hundred speakers in Namibia and Botswana. The /Xam or ‘Cape Bushman’ language was wiped out between 1750 and 1900 by Khoekhoe and Europeans, who gradually enslaved and exterminated its remaining speakers.

The !Kung or Ju or Northern Bushman or Northern San languages have a few thousand speakers in northern Namibia and southern Angola.

Sandawe, with as many as 70,000 speakers in far-off Tanzania, may be a long-separated relative of the Khwe languages. Its neighbour Hadza may be a linguistic isolate. It has only 200 speakers, hunter-gatherers in inhospitable country near Lake Eyasi.

Dictionary of Languages © 1998 + 2004

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