Introduction to Khmer Language

June 4th, 2014

Khmer is both easier and more difficult to learn than you might think, confounding expectations – and is certainly not a ‘minor’ language.

Introduction to Khmer Language  | One Hour Translation

I sometimes play a little party game where I ask people to name ‘minor’ languages. I usually pull this one out when someone have been bloviating about languages when they know very little about them – and clearly don’t realise they’re speaking with a language translation professional. While it’s satisfying to put blowhards in their place, I’ll admit, it’s also fun to educate people, to see that ‘a-ha!’ moment light up in their eyes when they realise they’ve been thinking of things the wrong way all this time.

This almost always works because people always assume languages they’ve never heard of would be classified as ‘minor’ in the sense of being little-spoken and culturally and politically unimportant (the fact that these folks are more or less blindly convinced of the power, influence, and inherent importance of their own language just makes it more fun) and they’re almost always wrong. One fellow recently thought he had a trump when he came up with the Khmer language, the official language of Cambodia – but he was very, very wrong. Khmer, for all its obscurity in the West, is not a minor language at all.

Khmer Basics

Khmer, in fact, is spoken by sixteen million people worldwide, which is not a small number. And Khmer is, in fact, the most widely-spoken language in its linguistic family, the Austroasiatic (which also includes Mon and Vietnamese, though to be fair there is a lot of controversy about defining this language family). Khmer is an old language that can be dated back in recognizable form to the 9th Century version of the language spoken during the Khmer Empire period.

Interestingly, modern Khmer, which emerged in the 18th Century, is so radically different in grammar that you can’t overlay the new rules on Old Khmer – they simply don’t make any sense. From a linguistic and translation services point of view, this make Khmer one of the more interesting languages to study. Additionally, when Cambodia came under French rule in the 19th Century it experienced a not-uncommon tension between French influence over the upper class vocabularies and a purist movement that sought to protect Khmer from outside influences.

Khmer Peculiarities

Khmer is an interesting language that seems easier to learn than most upon first blush because there are no inflections to worry about, verbs are not conjugated, and there are no case endings to worry about. However, this actually makes it more complicated to learn, because helper words like articles and other auxiliary words are employed widely to indicate grammar. In other words, the grammar is there – it’s just not ‘baked-in’ to the words the way it is in a language with conjugation et al.

Another complicating factor is the use of social registers in Khmer – you must be aware of the social status of both yourself and your audience when speaking, and choose vocabulary correctly. This can be a little maddening when you come from a more egalitarian language like English!

Image courtesy visit-angkor.org

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