Khmer – Language of Wonder

Khmer. The language of the kingdom of wonder – CAMBODIA. Khmer sometimes does make me wonder. But let’s begin with the facts about this rather interesting language: The Khmer language is mostly spoken in Cambodia and a tiny minority in south Vietnam as well as in Thailand at the border to Cambodia speak Khmer, too. That’s about 16 Mio. people all in all. Just as in Switzerland or other countries, they have lots of different dialects. And it’s not said, that everybody understands everybody. Finally, they use one official language with normal grammar rules for writing. There is no other language like Khmer – neither written nor spoken. At the same time, it has influenced and been influenced by Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Chinese. All of these languages (and some more) are still being used in Cambodia by minor foreign groups. Since Cambodia was occupied by France, it also has some words in French.


An official transliteration system for the Latin alphabet doesn’t exist. No surprise, that everybody creates his own system. Khmers and foreigners alike are writing with the latin letters how ever they feel like. So don’t blame me when you learn following words with my description and then when you say them, nobody understands you 😉

Listen to it:


What I appreciate a lot is that Khmer is not a tonal language. That doesn’t mean, it’s easy to pronounce, but it is quite relieving. The pronunciation is extremely difficult since it has a lot more sounds – vowels and consonants – than German, English and Co.. For me, it sounds “same same” and many times they’d repeat two different words and I’d just stare at them and ask, where on earth is the difference?! Cambodia. Kingdom of wonder.


Many words end with a silent sound (ex. “b”, “c”, “tch”). That means, you kind of swallow and don’t really hear them.


There is words which seem impossible to pronounce correctly.


Looks easy, right?! Let me tell you: It’s not! I remember too well, how people would tease me with these words while waiting for food or eating. Hahaha. Keep trying and smile.

Oh, and let’s not forget those words which are designed to twist my tongue. There is no proper way to write them down. They are just weird. An example could be “to borrow” – something like ktjol. Or Ktsholl. Or Xshol. Or so.


The Cambodian language has 100 different symbols: 33 consonant symbols, 32 lower-case sub-consonant symbols, 24 vowel symbols, 11 independent vowel symbols. And then, there is some punctuation markers. Needless to say, it’s no piece of cake learning them. As an additional challenge, whoever has created the letters, made them extremely similar. Don’t ask me how I can differ them from each other since handwriting from locals looks much worse. Cambodia. Kingdom of wonder.


Most of the consonants are double – there is those with a “AH”-sound and those with a “OH”-sound. Whenever you use them with the vowels they will sound differently. Example: KAH with vowel aa = KAA KOH with vowel aa = KIA As mentioned before, there is way more consonants and vowels than in the English alphabet. B – P – PB // D – T – DT // NIO – NGO …….. and also the vowels are rather interesting: AOM // UM // UA // AU // OH // EH // AA // AH // EA // EI // AI …….. Just a few examples out of seemingly hundreds!

Writing and reading are happening in circles: You first find out which consonant it is and which sound it has. Next, you look around it – literally 360° – which vowels/subconsonants belong to it. They can be underneath, above, left or right. And since that’s not difficult enough, they don’t put spaces inbetween words. Ijuststartedlearninghowtowriteandread. Don’taskmehowI’msupposedtolearnthatbeforeIdie. Smile. Cambodia. Kingdom of wonder.


There are no articles (a, an, the), no verb conjugations, no singular or plural, no declensions (nominative, etc.). Although there are official ways to classify tenses, they are not as much used in practice as in English – and there is not so many different kinds. Tenses are mostly understood from the context or from other identifying words that indicate time. Adjectives and numbers are often (but not always!) after its noun, we say “dog big one” (instead of “one big dog”). Plus there is no “to be” for adjectives. So we say: “He tall.” (instead of “He IS tall.”). Apart from that, the sentence structure is usually Subject + Verb + Object.


I find Khmer language not easy to learn but quite entertaining. It had always been a wish of mine to learn a new script and that’s why I had started with that a few weeks ago. I don’t know, if I ever will be able to read and write well, however, at the moment, it’s just fun to stuff these symbols it into my brain. The locals appreciate it quite a lot when foreigners speak Khmer. Sometimes the locals ask me how long I’ve been here and when they hear the answer they are positively surprised that it hadn’t been long yet. I often challenge myself not to use English. Normal, daily conversations I can have in Khmer without many troubles. Furthermore, I understand a lot more than I can speak. And of course, I have quite a specific vocabulary which contains a lot of words from the construction side since out there, nobody speaks English.