Monday, November 4, 2013

Language Profile: Khmer

This week we're taking a look at the second most spoken Austro-Asiatic language in the world, Khmer. It is also known as Cambodian, so it should come as no surprise that it is the official language of Cambodia. 

There are about 13 million native speakers of Khmer in the world, primarily in Cambodia but also in neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Over the years it has been influenced by many other regional languages, including Sanskrit, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, and Chinese.

French has also influenced the lexicon of Khmer. For a time, what is now Cambodia was a colony of French Indochina, until the country gained independence in 1953. However, there was later a movement to try to replace as many of these French loanwords as possible with new Khmer-derived terms.

The Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia.
The Khmer language has several dialects that pertain to distinct geographic areas. Standard Khmer, also known as Central Khmer, is the form of the language used by the media and taught in schools. Western Khmer is spoken in the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia and Thailand, while Southern Khmer is spoken by the indigenous Khmer population of Vietnam.

Northern Khmer, spoken in Thailand, has so many lexical and phonological differences from the other dialects that some linguists believe it should be considered a separate language. There is also a dialect used mainly in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, which is characterized by its relaxed pronunciation style that often merges syllables. 

Khmer also employs the use of registers depending on the situation or the social status of the person being spoken to. These registers have many lexical differences, to the point that one word in everyday speech may be completely different when speaking to a royal or a monk.

It is written using Khmer script, an abugida with 33 consonants. The script is similar in appearance to that of Thai and Lao, and also has its own numerals, which are based on the numerals of Hindi.