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Khmer Language Guide

It's not really necessary to speak the local language to get by in Cambodia. Most people find that the staff in most Siem Reap hotels speak relatively good English. You will also find that an increasing number of people in the most popular areas also learn to speak French, Japanese, Korean, German, Spanish, Italian and some even a little Norwegian... If you venture off the beaten tracks and out into the countryside, however, it is a different story and you will undoubtedly have an easier and more enjoyable experience if you spend some time reading a bit up on the Cambodian language - Khmer.

Reading Khmer at the beach
In Cambodia you will find many beautiful locations you can brush up on your Khmer skills

Most Khmer people don't expect a foreigner to be able to speak any of their language and will surely appreciate if you make a little effort and can string a few sentences together in the local language Khmer.

Some basic Khmer words and phrases to get you started:

English

Khmer Transliteration

Khmer Script

Hello (informal)

Sues'day

 

Hello (formal)

Choum Reap Sue

 

How are you?

Ta neak soksabay teh?

 

I’m fine thanks

Khnyom soksabay awkuhn

 

Pleased to meet you

Reakreay dail ban choub knea

 

What is your name?

Ta neak chhmos ey?

 

My name is…[Tom]…..

Khnom chhmos…[Tom]……

 

Where are you from?

Tar neak mok pi protes na?

 

I’m from ...(Australia)...

Khnom mok pi prates...(Australii)...

 

Good bye

Lea hay

 

I don’t understand

Khnom men yol teh

 

Excuse me / Sorry

Som tos

 

Thank you

Awkuhn

 

Thank you very much

Awkuhn ch'roeun

 

How old are you?

Tar neak ayu bun man?

 

How many people in your family?

Tar mean sak ma chek pun man nov knong krou sa nak?

 

Do you work / go to school?

Ter nak tver ka  / nov rean?

 

Where is…..?

Nov er na?

 

What is that?

Ter nos keu chea vey?

 

No

Teh

 

Yes

Bat (for men)  Chaas (for women

 

See you soon

Choub knea chhab chhab

 

Notes about the Khmer Language

Khmer is a member of the Mon-Khmer group of Austroasiatic languages and is the official language of Cambodia where it is spoken by the majority of the population. Speakers also live in the bordering countries Viêt Nam and Thailand and smaller communities are found in the USA, Australia, France and Laos.

Although separate and distinct from its Thai, Lao, and Burmese neighbours, the Cambodian language, Khmer, shares with them the common roots of Sanskrit and Pali. As a result of centuries of linguistic and cultural interaction and their shared faith in Theravada Buddhism, the Cambodian language shares many features and some vocabulary with Thai. During French colonial hegemony, many French loanwords entered the language and the rapid growth of international trade and tourism over the last few years has lead to an increasing number of English words being used.

Unlike the languages of its bordering countries, Khmer is not a tonal language, which means that there are no special intonations of words in order to alter their meanings. The lack of tones is, however, compensated by numerous letters and the relative complexity of the Khmer pronounciation.

Khmer shares many common grammatical features with it's Southeast Asian neighbours. As in English, the word order follows a familiar SVO (subject + verb + object) pattern. Some notable features of the Khmer language are the lack of verb conjugations, gender inflections, different endings for single and plural and no different endings for masculine and feminine. With neither complicated verb tenses nor singular and plural forms to memorise,  Khmer grammar can be absorbed relatively painlessly.

The Khmer alphabet closely resembles the Thai and Lao alphabets, and descends from the Brahmi script of ancient India (which was originally developed to write Sanksrit) by way of the Pallava script, which was used in southern India and Southeast Asia during the 5th and 6th Centuries AD. Inscriptions can be found in some of the Angkor temples and the oldest dated inscription in Khmer dates from 611 AD.

There is no official way of transcribing Khmer letters and, thus, you will find that both words and placenames can be written differently in various books and other written sources - e.g. 'Hello' in Khmer can be written 'sues'day', 'sour s'day', 'sour s'dei' etc.

Cambodian Language Courses

Whilst we believe the best way to learn a new language is to speak with the locals, it might be useful to prepare a bit in advance and some language learning aids can also prove helpful. Therefore, we have compiled a list of selected Cambodian Language Courses, Dictionaries and Phrasebooks, Language Learning Software and other recommended books that might be useful for anyone interested in Cambodia and the Khmer language. 

Books and Language Courses


Colloquial CambodianColloquial Cambodian: A Complete Language Course (Colloquial Series)
by David Smyth
Routledge (1995)
David Smyth presents an easy-to-use Khmer course with no prior knowledge of the Cambodian language required. The book aims to provide a practical introduction to both speaking and reading Cambodian. Thus, Khmer scripts are introduced already in chapter 1. Accompanying CDs, which might be useful to get the pronounciations right, are also available.

Cambodian for BeginnersCambodian for Beginners
by Richard Gilbert
Paiboon Publishing,
Second Edition (2008)
Following the same structure as its popular Thai counterpart, Cambodian for Beginners is designed for either self-study or classroom use. If used in conjunction with the accompanying CDs, which we would recommend, you will train all four language skills - speaking, listening, reading and writing. The book offers clear step-by-step instructions, a range of words and useful phrases, as well as exercises for speaking and learning the Khmer script.

Modern Spoken Cambodian (Language Texts)
by Franklin E. Huffman
Southeast Asia Program Publications,
Reprint edition (1991)

Cambodian System of Writing and Beginning Reader (Language Texts)
by Franklin E. Huffman
Yale University Press (1992)


Intermediate Cambodian Reader (Language Texts)
by Franklin E. Huffman
Yale University Press
Reprint edition (1988)


Spoken Cambodian
by Franklin E. Huffman
Spoken Language Services (1970)

Introduction to Cambodian
by Judith M. Jacob
Oxford University Press,
Reprint edition (1990)

Dictionaries and Phrasebooks


Tuttle Practical Cambodian DictionaryTuttle Practical Cambodian Dictionary: English-Cambodian Cambodian-English
by David Smyth, Tran Kien
Charles E Tuttle Co (1995)

English-Khmer Dictionary
by Franklin E. Huffman and Im Proum
Yale University Press (1978)
  
The classic English-Khmer dictionary since 1978.

Cambodian-English Glossaryby Franklin E. Huffman and Im Proum
Yale University Press (1981)

Cambodian-English/English-Cambodian Dictionary
by Kem Kos, et al
Hippocrene Books (1989)

The Oxford Picture Dictionary
by Norma Shapiro, et al
Oxford University Press; 3rd edition (1999)

Language learning Software


Talk NowTalk Now! Khmer
EuroTalk Interactive (CD-ROM)
alt alt Mac OS, Windows

EuroTalk presents an excitingly different language learning series. Talk Now! uses games and quizzes as a basis for making the learning process fun and relaxing. Aimed at absolute beginners, there are no Khmer fonts to worry about. Whilst it is very basic, the fun element of this program means that you absorb words and phrases without even realising you are learning them.

Audio guides and iPhone apps


World Nomads Cambodian Language Guide
World Nomads provides free audio guides and apps for iPhone and iPod Touch.

Other Khmer language links:

  • Northern Illinois University - Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University has put together a very useful section on the Khmer language including Khmer vocabulary, grammar notes and various lessons for listening and speaking skills. Recommended.
  • I Learn Khmer - An interactive website with sounds and cool animations to assist you in learning the Khmer alphabets. Consists of three different levels. In first grade you will learn to read, write and pronounce Khmer consonants, vowels and numbers. Requires Flash 5 plug-in.
  • AK-Online - Online Khmer/English and Khmer/French digital phrase books.
  • Khmer Language - Provides links and services related to the Cambodian language, including online dictionaries.
  • Khmer Inscription and Language - Illustrated site devoted to early inscriptions in the Khmer language.
  • Omniglot - A guide to the Khmer writing system.
  • Khmer Fonts - Cambodian Information Centre provides Khmer Fonts and Keyboard layout.