The History of Khmer Language

Written by iHeartKhmer, October 8, 2022

The first signs of the Khmer language were found as inscriptions in stones carved back in 612 A.D.  The inscriptions were mostly religious, discussing rituals and poetic verses. These inscriptions left of no evidence of how the people lived their daily lives, but it has helped us grasp the political and cultural structure.  The Khmer language resembles the Sanskrit language, the Indian sacred language used in the region before Khmer. Among the same stones the Khmer language was discovered, Sanskrit was discovered too, but the Sanskrit inscriptions dated as far back as the 5th or 6th century.

Many early Angkor temples were found with the Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions.  The Sanskrit language was used when talking directly towards the gods in forms of rituals or prayers.  The Khmer language was used to list the assets such as patty fields, cattle, furniture, and slaves. There was also some poetic verses written on the temples in the Khmer language.   It is also said that the Khmer people knew how to write on latina leaves and animal skin with chalk, but these items have unfortunately decayed over the past centuries.

Periods of the Khmer language

  • Old Khmer (7th to 8th century)- Dominated during the Khmer Empire, influenced by Sanskrit
  • Angkor period (9th to 15th century)- This period had a severe influence on the surrounding’s countries languages.
  • Middle Khmer (16th to 18th century)- Changes made were influenced by Thai and Lao
  • Modern Khmer (19th to present)- The changes made to the Khmer today are so different from the original Khmer language, that the same rules cannot be followed.  

Modern Use of Khmer language

As of the 21st century over 16 million people speak Khmer, with the majority of them living in Cambodia.  People who speak Khmer also live in Vietnam, Thailand, China, USA, France, and Australia. The Khmer language is the second most popular language among the Austroasiatic languages spoken.

There are many different dialects of the Khmer language, with the most “laziest” dialect in the capital, Phnom Penh.  Here the Khmer people tend to slur words together lazily, for example ‘Phnom Penh’ is ‘m Penh’. There are many other dialects of the Khmer language spoken all around Cambodia.

Understanding the basics of Khmer language

Within the Khmer language, indicators and describers are limited.  The Khmer language does not directly use numbers, instead they use words equivalent to ‘some’ and ‘all.’  Gender is not directed specifically as well. They do not have the word ‘girl,’ but they would use the word equivalent to ‘daughter’ or ‘female.’  In addition, the Khmer language does not mark a tense on their verbs. This type of language is called an isolating language.

The Khmer language does have a vast phonological system.  Their language consists of about 25 short and long phonemes and 17 constant phonemes.  All Khmer words are primarily made up of one or two syllables. Also, prefixes and infixes are extremely common and widely used among the Khmer language.

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