Khmer Language

The Khmer Script

The Khmer language is complex to say the least. The written Khmer script is a descendent of the ancient Indian Brāhmī script, along with Tibetan. Khmer script is alphasyllabic, meaning each character represents a syllable rather than a sound. The alphabet consists of 33 consonants, and each can be used in normal and subscript form with the exception of one consonant, and there are two systems of vowels – 16 dependent vowels which modify in inherent vowels of the consonants (the aw vowel sound in kaw); and 16 independent, complete vowels (ai, for example).

The earliest recorded example of the Khmer script can be found at Angkor Borei in Takeo Province south of Phnom Penh, and dates from 611CE.

Experts now believe that zero was first used by the Khmer.  At least it is currently the first recorded use of zero.

The Thai and Lao scripts look similar to Khmer, with good reason – they are both based on the Khmer script. Many words look and sound similar in all three languages.

Today, Khmer language uses loan words from Sanskrit, Pali, French, Chinese, and English.

As many of the sounds are not found in English, there are several systems of transliteration, including IPA.[separator /]

Learning Khmer

If you are interested in learning Khmer, there are many useful resources online, and numerous books to help you.

Here’s a basic guide to Khmer consonants and numbers: Khmer Language Reference Sheet

Modern Spoken Cambodian

The Yale University Center for Language Study archive features the audio drills from Franklin Huffman’s “Modern Spoken Cambodian”. Despite being published in 1970, Huffman’s work is comprehensive and one of the few publications to feature IPA transliteration of the Khmer.

Modern Spoken Khmer audio drill archive

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Khmer Grammar

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IT Resources

Khmer is arguably the hardest script to type on a computer. This is because of the many different positions of each character: normal consonants; subscript consonants forms; ligatures of dependent vowels; and vowels that may sit left, right or above consonants; independent vowels with a subscript form; and various diacritic marks that also sit above.

Confused? Take a look at this table of unicode forms of the Khmer script by Richard Ishida:

KhmerOS – Khmer Software Initiative provides valuable information about displaying and using Khmer unicode on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

The Society for Better Books In Cambodia also provides resources for using Khmer script:

Install Khmer Unicode on Windows 7

Install Khmer Unicode on Windows XP[separator /]


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