Cambodian Dialects: The Ultimate Guide

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Traveling to, and even living in, a different country is always hard. If say, you want to Move to Cambodia, adapting to a different culture, especially in a country that speaks a language other than your own, is difficult to say the least. Due to this, It’s good to know a few words from the local language and use them for simple daily conversations.

It is challenging to learn a new language so you should do it a little at a time. But what if the country has many other dialects than its national language, like Cambodia?

Khmer is Cambodia’s national language and it has an estimated 16 million speakers. Additionally, the Khmer language’s alphabet is also the most extensive one in the world with 33 consonants and 24 vowels. More over, there are several Cambodian dialects.

Khmer has several dialects which make learning the language even tougher. In fact, almost every region of Cambodia would have a different sound for the same words and there are even different Cambodian dialects in other countries in mainland Southeast Asia.

History of the Khmer language

Linguists who have been studying the Khmer language divided it into different eras. Pre-Angkorian, Angkorian, which together is Old Khmer, Middle Khmer and Modern Khmer. In doing this, it helps them track the evolution of the language and helps them see where the different dialects of Cambodia branch out from.

Old Khmer has two time periods making it up: Pre Angkorian Khmer and Angkorian Khmer.

  • Pre-Angkorian Khmer is the oldest form of the language dating back to 600 CE. However, This form of the language is relatively unknown other than some words and phrases only mentioned in Sanskrit texts.
  • Angkorian Khmer. The form of language that the Khmer Empire used during their rule over the South East Asian mainland. They used it between 800 to around Mid-1300s.

Angkorian Khmer

Angkorian Khmer went through a lot of changes after the gradual fall of the Khmer Empire. So it borrowed words from the languages of Thai, Laos, and Vietnamese from the mid-1300s to the 1700s.  Middle Khmer is the transitional period in the language. From it emerged Modern Khmer used from 1800 to the present.

As Modern Khmer was evolving from Middle Khmer, the French came and took over Cambodia. Resulting in, The Thai losing their power and influence on the language are lost.

Many native scholars resisted the French and Thai influences in their language. So they formed the government-sponsored Cultural Committee and defined and standardized the modern Khmer language. As a result, it became harder to understand the older linguistic periods. Even fluent Khmer speakers today have a hard time understanding the old versions.

Cambodian Dialects

Central Khmer or Standard Khmer 

Standard Khmer is the Khmer that modern-day Cambodians use. They use this form of the language in the government, in official papers and laws and teach this form in schools. It’s the official form of the language.

Different regions of the country have their own dialects. However, not all of these are official dialects and, in fact, there are only three official dialects in the country. 

Battambang Khmer

Central Khmer is based on the Battambang Khmer dialect. They speak the dialect in the northwest plains of the Battambang province and in other central provinces.

Here is a table comparing Standard Khmer to Battambang Khmer. They separated Khmer vowels 2 series as shown in the table. The table is part of research by Ratree Wayland. It’s called: “An acoustic study of Battambang Khmer vowels”. Wayland is a professor of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Florida.

The study found that most of the vowels of Battambang Khmer are like Standard Khmer. There are still some that are different though, making it a distinct dialect.

Phnom Penh Khmer

The capital, Phnom Penh, has its own dialect of the same name: Phnom Penh Khmer. Cambodians speak this dialect in the capital and surrounding areas. Linguists Jean-Michel Filippi and Hiep Chan Vicheth published a book about Khmer Language. It is called “Khmer Pronouncing Dictionary: Standard Khmer and Phnom Penh Dialect”.

Found on the UNESCO website, the study stresses that the Phnom Penh dialect is different from Standard Khmer.

“This dictionary is about both standard Khmer (formal style) and Phnom Penh dialect (casual style). It is interesting to consider the way the standard and non-standard dialects differ from each other.” 

Phonetically, the non-formal version is more complex because it uses varying pitches and has a degree of closure higher than that of Standard Khmer. There’s a breathy sound of the voice and diphthongization in this dialect.

The table presents the differences in pronouncing words in standard and non-standard Khmer.

Khmer Khe

The Khmer Khe or Khmer Khes is a dialect prevalent in Stung Treng Province. Natives of the Srae Sambor Commune, Preak Meas Commune, and Thma Keo Commune speak it.

In 2013, Jennifer Herington and Amy Ryan authored a study on the Khmer Khe dialect. It is called: “Sociolinguistic Survey of the Khmer Khe in Cambodia”. The researchers surveyed a village in each commune and compared the Khmer Khe that each community spoke with one another.

In this process, they studied Khmer Khe in Peam Khes, Srae Sambor, Khes Kroam, and Preak Meas. They compared it to the Standard Khmer spoken in Cambodia. They concluded that Khmer Khe is related to Central Khmer with 95%-96% of their word sets overlapping.

Cambodian dialects in other countries

There are Khmer speakers who live outside Cambodia. They used Angkorian Khmer in Southeast Asia from 802 CE to 1431 CE. This was the Khmer Empire era, when they took over mainland Southeast Asia, and when the Khmer Empire receded to Cambodia, some of these speakers stayed behind. This led to them developing a different dialect.

Northern Khmer or Khmer Surin

This dialect is native to the Thai provinces of Surin, Sisaket, Buriram and Roi Et. It has around 1.4 million speakers and is distinct from Central Khmer because of the varying vowel sounds. It also has a different distribution of consonants and grammar as well as the overlap and the pronunciation of syllable-final /r/ is different too.

Here is a table that shows the differences between Northern Khmer and Central Khmer. It is part of a study called: “The problem of aspirates in Central Khmer and Northern Khmer”. Prakorb Phon-Ngam published the study in 1993.

The study differentiates the pronunciation of words. It focused on the presence or absence of aspiration in Central and Northern Khmer. Thai leaders Lan Xang, Naresuan the Great, influenced the Khmer speakers of Dongrek Mountains. The Khmer Empire’s downfall led to further isolation of the speakers from mainland Cambodia. Consequently, it led to the development of a whole new dialect of Khmer.

Southern Khmer, Khmer Krom or Kiengiang Khmer

Also known as Vietnamese Khmer, Indigenous Khmer people living near the Mekong Delta speak this dialect.

Khmer in these parts adopts different pronunciations or variations of words. However, this was after a long process of interaction between various other linguistic groups. As a result, the Khmer Krom or Kiengiang Khmer dialects were developed.

Difference in pronunciation of Standard Khmer and Kiengiang Khmer
Difference in pronunciation of Standard Khmer and Kiengiang Khmer
Difference in pronunciation of Standard Khmer and Kiengiang Khmer

Ngoc Minh Thach differentiates Vietnamese Khmer and Standard Khmer in a study called:  “Monosyllabization in Kiengiang Khmer” showing how the dialect developed. It showcased the differences of Vietnamese Khmer to the Standard Khmer.

Cardmom Khmer, Western Khmer or Chanthaburi Khmer

People who speak this dialect are from the isolated parts of the Cardmom mountains. The mountain range stretches from Southwest Cambodia to the east of central Thailand.

Very few studies were done on this as compared to other Cambodian dialects. Despite this, it maintains a vocal register present in the older versions that it is not present in Modern Khmer.

Yet, Allard Jongman, a professor of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Kansas, and Ratree Wayland authored a study on the topic. The study is called “Chanthaburi Khmer vowels: Phonetic and phonemic analyses.”

The study did not explicitly compare how vowels are spoken in Standard and Western Khmer but it is good to note that there is a study done on the Western Khmer dialect.

Dealing with Cambodian dialects

If you want to learn Khmer, it is good to know that there are different dialects and they often vary from place to place. Most people only study Standard or Central Khmer but it’s good to know that there are several Cambodian dialects and it is useful to know this when traveling around especially if you are near the borders.

This article is a guide to some of the words you will hear in and around the country that may be different from standard Khmer that you may be used to. Not all the Khmer you hear when travelling through the country is standard Khmer, it may as well be one of these Cambodian dialects. You will recognize some Khmer words from the province but you will not fully understand it. Still, learn the language to pay homage to how far it has come. 

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