Known as the Kingdom of Cambodia or Khmer Empire, the country of Cambodia is a nation found in Southeast Asia. You will find Laos in its northeast, Thailand in the northwest, the Gulf of Thailand in the southwest and Vietnam in the east.
With a population of more than 14.8 million people, Cambodia has made it to the top 70 most populous countries in the world. As much as 95 per cent of the locals practice Theravada Buddhism.
If you look at Cambodia, you will find several cultures, traditions and languages intermingling together. Some minority groups in the country are Chinese, Vietnamese, Chams and more than 30 tribes.
Because of this, there are different languages spoken in the country. In this post, we are going to take a look at each one of them.
Here are the languages are spoken in Cambodia.
Locals in Cambodia mostly speak the official Cambodian language – Khmer. Outside of the country, you will find ethnic Khmers living in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos speak different Khmer dialects. These can either be intelligible or not to the Khmer speakers of Cambodia. The minority dialects found in Cambodia are Cham, Vietnamese, several Austronesian languages and hill tribe languages.
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Cambodian Language – The Khmer Language
Belonging to the Mon-Khmer family of the Austroasiatic phylum of language, the Khmer language is the most popular language in Cambodia which is why it is mostly referred to as the Cambodian language. Linguists Robert Headley and David Thomas have divided the Mon-Khmer family into nine branches. These are:
- Pearic in Western Cambodia and Eastern Thailand
- Khmer in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand
- Bahnaric in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia
- Katuic in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia
- Khmuic in Thailand, Laos and China
- Monic in Thailand and Burma
- Palaungic in Burma, Thailand and China
- Khasi in Assam (India)
- Viet-Muong in Vietnam
Taking a look at all of the Mon-Khmer family of languages, Vietnamese has more speakers than Khmer with around 47 million.
The Khmer language also called the Cambodian language has around 16 million speakers around the world. It is only second to the Vietnamese language. Throughout the years, the language has been greatly influenced by Pali and Sanskrit through Buddhism and Hinduism.
Out of all the languages in the Mon-Khmer family, Khmer has the earliest written and recorded language. Because of its location and proximity to several Southeast Asian countries, the Cambodian language has both influenced and been influenced by different languages including Chinese, Vietnamese, Lao, Thai and Cham.
Contrary to the Chinese, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese languages, Khmer is a non-tonal language. Khmer words only have one or two syllables. Despite not having any inflection, the language’s vocabulary has a rich system of infixes and affixes.
The Cambodian language also has nouns, pronouns, adverbs, verbs, adjectives, and particles. Depending on the context, a lot of Khmer words change from one specific part of speech to another. A sentence in Khmer has a normal order of subject-verb-object. Nouns are followed by adjectival modifiers.
As far back as 1856, Mon, Munda and Vietnamese have been studied. It was not until 1907 that a language family was proposed. With all the researches done, it is positive that the languages within the Austroasiatic family have a relationship with one another. In most classifications, you will find that Khmer is put in the eastern branch of the Mon-Khmer sub-grouping. In here, Khmer is closest to Pearic and Bahnaric languages. However, other classifications put the Cambodian language in a separate Austroasiatic branch different from the other 12 family branches.
The script of the Cambodian language comes from the south Indian alphabet. It has thirty-three consonants, twelve independent vowels, twenty-four dependent vowels and several diacritics. The consonants are usually reduced or in modified forms. Vowels can be used before, over, under or after a consonant symbol.
Some people have tried standardising the spelling of Khmer, but there are still inconsistencies today. A lot of words have more than one spelling. When it comes to the standard work on Khmer lexicography, the Venerable Chuon Nath of the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh has a two-volume dictionary.
The Cambodian language is divided into several stages:
- Modern Khmer – seventeenth century to the present
- Middle Khmer – twelfth to seventeenth century A.D.
- Old Khmer – seventh to twelfth century A.D.
The earliest inscriptions in Khmer can be found in the Takev Province specifically in Angkor Borei which date back to the A.D. 611.
Since Vietnam and Cambodia are near each other, a lot of Cambodian residents can speak the Vietnamese language as their native or second language.
In Vietnam, the Vietnamese language is considered as the official and national language. It is also a native language for more than 3 million people outside Vietnam. The language has borrowed several words from Chinese. The influence of the Chinese language is so deep that the Vietnamese even has a modified Chinese characters set. It also has around 30 to 60 per cent of naturalised word borrowings from Chinese.
Today, however, the Vietnamese alphabet is mainly based on the Latin alphabet. It also includes certain letters and additional diacritics.
Just like the Cambodian language, Vietnamese is also a part of the Mon-Khmer language branch.
Other Languages Spoken in Cambodia
Aside from Vietnamese and the Cambodian language (Khmer), there’s also Cham, Rade, Malay and Jari which are part of the Austronesian languages.
Cham is mostly spoken by the Cham people. It is a member of the Malayo- Polynesian language branch with over 220,000 speakers in Cambodia and 100,000 in Vietnam.
Cham language is non-tonal just like Khmer. It only has about one to three syllables. Its vocabulary has borrowings from Malay, Arabic and Khmer.
Jarai is spoken by the Jarai people found in Cambodia and Vietnam with over 335,000 speakers. It belongs to the Chamic subgroup of the Malayo- Polynesian branch.
Rade is also a Malayo-Polynesian language that’s mostly spoken in southern Vietnam and Cambodia. The language has a very rich oral tradition. You can expect to find a lot of epic tales which were transcribed and published.
Lastly, Malay is spoken by several thousand in Cambodia. This language is the national language of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore with over 215 million speakers around the world.
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